Monday, December 1, 2003

Peggy, and Yeis

As you may have gathered from our previous messages, there are many difficult lessons to be learned in the trading post business, and standard principals simply do not apply. As you may have also guessed, after all these years, Steve and I are still working on the fundamentals. We have read the books about what they don't teach you in business school, how to run small businesses and all the rest, and are still adrift when it comes to this particular entity. You may think that we are simply slow learners, and you may be right. We hope there is more to it than that

Navajo Basket Artist Peggy Black at Twin Rocks Trading Post Navajo Basket by Peggy Black from Twin Rocks Trading Post
Peggy Black and her basket at Twin Rocks Trading Post

One thing we have learned is that the local artists are an impassioned group. We have developed a variety of unsuccessful procedures to deal with this passion, which generally manifests itself when an artist brings in his or her art and the negotiation process begins. Attempting to work out a reasonable settlement for the creation can be a truly exhilarating experience. This bit of wisdom has resulted from a number of head on collisions with emotional artists. Translating that emotion into financial principles is seldom easy. There are, however, certain bright spots, and some room for encouragement. Peggy Rock Black is one of those bright spots. She is an artist who has the patience to bring us along. She does not become frustrated when we start the negotiations in deep left field. She knows that she will eventually get us to understand her position.

There are those artists who come in with their work and are already so geared up that we are afraid to begin the negotiation process. Everyone scatters when one particular basket weaver comes in, because she has usually built up an emotional high before she arrives. It is an adrenaline filled experience for everyone involved. I know you will forgive me for not mentioning her name. In contrast, however, when Peggy strolls in the door we know that we are in for an interesting time. This skilled communicator comes prepared with the patience and knowledge to convince us that her position is correct.

Many of the workable standards we have in place for evaluating baskets were developed after discussions with Peggy. We now keep photograph albums showing the weavers and their baskets. Each photograph shows the price paid for the basket. There are also notations relating to the quality of weave, size and overall technique. All this is intended to help us maintain a consistent pricing policy. It sounds easy, but remember, we are dealing with extremely sensitive individuals, and that is saying nothing about the artists.

Just when we think we have our pricing structure in order, the artists throw us a curve. By way of example, we have carefully documented Peggy's creations and the prices we have paid for several years. She then brings in a basket featuring Yei figures, and we have to completely rework the system. That's right, those baskets with Yei-be-chei figures are going to cost us more money!

One day Peggy brought in a gorgeous basket with a profusion of Yei figures. We were pleased with its creativity and visual appeal. So, I cracked open the volumes of past knowledge and began comparing its size, weave and creative appeal. Thereafter I proudly proclaimed a price I felt was compatible with her previous works. Peggy simply looked at me with her sad eyes, shaking her head as if showing complete disillusionment with one of her "slower" pupils.

Wincing under "that look", I asked, "Where I have gone wrong? I have done my home work, studied hard and learned my lessons well. I even have a degree in Trading Postology!" Peggy looked at me as if enduring unbearable hardship and began to explain, "When I weave the Yei-be-chei, I am portraying an extremely sacred and powerful being; one that demands respect. If I convey this respect in the proper manner, these Holy People will bless me and my family. If I show disrespect, these same beings can, and will, cause me much trouble. One way I show that respect, and protect myself from harm, is by having a Beauty Way ceremony done each year. I save part of the price from each basket to pay for the ceremony. Since you are involved, you too must help keep me safe and healthy."

As I stood there letting her explanation sink in, Peggy simply smiled and quoted a new price. I looked around for support but found none. Steve shrugged and said, "It makes sense to me." Peggy was aware that we knew what she was talking about. She also knew that we had spoken of such ceremonial practice and belief to our customers. There was nowhere to turn, nothing to do but add another notation in the book of advanced learning and close it before another costly lesson arose.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, November 3, 2003

Mr. Bluehouse, and Living in Beauty

As I drove from Blanding to Bluff last Monday morning, I greatly enjoyed the hint of fall in the air. I noticed that there was a puffy layer of fog over the San Juan river. That is a common sight in winter, but it seemed a little early in the year for such cover. There was a layer of clouds blanketing the great vault of sky. The sun was rising and it was resting just above the horizon and just under the slightly darkened cloud layer. The light was magnificent; the cliffs glowed a bright orange with dark highlights. The puffy white layer of fog against this spectacle exaggerated the overall effect. It had recently rained, at long last, so the sparse vegetation seemed much greener, and the red earth much warmer in tone. I pulled off the road and shut off the engine of my much used pick-up truck, rolled down the window and breathed in the beautiful sights and fresh smells. I must have been sitting there for a good five minutes, soaking up the radiant sight, when I remembered that I was late for work and noticed that a truck was bearing down on me from behind. The roar of the truck made realize that I was not quite far enough off the highway.

Quickly rolling up the window to avoid being pelted by small rocks and sprayed by the residual moisture, I let the truck pass and continued down Cow Canyon into the teeming megalopolis of Bluff, Utah (population 300, give or take a few, depending on recent births or deaths). Feeling revitalized by the vision I had just witnessed, and the effect of moisture after a long dry spell, I remembered the words of a Navajo man I had met the previous week. It was the morning of the Utah Navajo Fair in Bluff and people were gathering in our parking lot, preparing for the parade that would wind its way through town to the fairgrounds on the west side.

I was perched high on the porch, enjoying the commotion and the display of gaily dressed royalty; dancers; and bright eyed children, when a distinguished Navajo gentleman made his way through the crowd of cars, trucks and people. Up the steps he came. He firmly shook my hand and introduced himself as Milton Bluehouse. He said he was running for Navajo tribal chairman, and had come to Bluff to be in the parade and campaign for office. He had decided to forgo the entry fee and try to advance his grass roots support through one-on-one interaction. We sat there savoring the frenzied activity as people made final preparations for the parade. Mr. Bluehouse and I made small talk until the review made its way out of sight, whereupon this kindly gentleman asked permission to go inside and look through the trading post.

Wandering through the store, Mr. Bluehouse continually expressed his amazement at the diversity of the inventory. He said that he had never before seen such a varied selection. He seemed most impressed with the creativity of the local artists. It is always interesting to know what the Navajo people think of this trading post and the happenings that surround it. Watching Mr. Bluehouse react to the art, and the meaning related to each piece, I felt he truly was moved. He most enjoyed those pieces relating to Navajo legends. It was as if he was testing my knowledge and sincerity with his many and varied questions. He paid particular attention to how I related the stories, explanations of the art and information about the artist to the customers who came in while he was present. About that time our father (who art in Blanding) came into the store. I introduced him to Mr. Bluehouse, and they fell into lively conversation while I attended to other duties. They made their way back to the shade of the porch, seated themselves and continued their discussions for a good two hours longer.

As I went about my cleaning duties, I noticed that my father and Mr. Bluehouse seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their conversations. I caught brief snatches of their dialog as I passed from time to time. It seemed that they were spending a great deal of time talking about the area, the art and our association with the artists. Finally Mr. Bluehouse stood up, shook hands with my father and said, "Good Bye." Before he left he came back into the trading post and said that he had better get on with his campaign or give up completely. As we shook hands he looked me in the eye, made an expansive wave with his arm, and said, "You are very lucky to live with such beauty." Knowing how important it is for Navajo people to "Walk in Beauty," I greatly appreciated his statement. I thanked him for his enjoyable visit and wished him luck in the election.

As I drove up to the trading post after witnessing that glorious morning, I went in the back door and belatedly "opened up." Switching on the lights, I took in the art displayed throughout the store, and scanning the different pieces I was reminded of the stories and interaction associated with several of them. I went to the front doors and removed the heavy bar, swung them open and stepped out onto the porch. I took in the remnants of that memorable morning and, breathing deeply, I remembered the words of Mr. Bluehouse. As I turned to go into the trading post, I realized that I fully agreed with Mr. Bluehouse's evaluation. We are indeed very lucky to live with such beauty.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Saturday, November 1, 2003

Perfect Sunday

Last Sunday was one of those fall days that makes me believe Bluff may be the perfect place to live and work. Almost every week I see articles about professionals dissatisfied with their careers, about mothers trying to balance professional and family responsibilities, and about the demands the current economy has placed on us all. When I start worrying, I look around the trading post and at the beauty just outside these doors and I think, “This certainly is a great place.”

View of  Twin Rocks Trading Post from cemetery hill
View of the Trading Post from cemetery hill

The culture is deep, and the landscape unmatched in this small town along the San Juan River. Over the centuries, this little river valley has attracted the Paleo-Indians hunting mammoth; the Ancestral Puebloens (also known as the “Anasazi”) building their cliff dwellings and pecking their petroglyphs in the rocks; the pastoral Navajo; the warring and raiding Ute, the proselytizing Mormon pioneers; and the contemporary culture, objective still unknown. Our father, Duke, has always maintained that Bluff is a place where outlaws come to hide. He has frequently regaled us with stories of Bluff in its former days; when people like Bob Wise, a genuine outlaw and gunslinger, lived in Bluff. There are certainly some modern day outlaws in Bluff, however, they certainly don’t measure up to Bob Wise. The current fugitives shall remain nameless, and their crimes unmentioned.

Sunday I was up early for my morning run, and bumped into Mark, our restaurant manager. Having arrived in Bluff by way of East Tennessee, Mark is also a big fan of Bluff. Mark was standing on the porch enjoying the fresh, clear air, and watching the emerging light play on the rocks. He walked out to meet me, and we stood in the parking lot discussing how it would be to have the experience of our current years (which you may realize by now is vast and deep - well, all right, maybe not that vast or that deep -) and the physical health we had 20 years ago. We both would like to scramble around this rugged country with a little more stamina. Mark, who does a great deal of rock climbing and rappeling, and I were both in that forty something frame of mind. In any case, as we stood there watching the sun do its magic, the cliffs radiated a soft, warm, pinkish glow, and the valley became bathed in crystal light. We ultimately concluded that it would be best to be born 50 years old and work our way back.

With Mark urging me to get started, I ran east towards St. Christopher’s mission, and noticed a large patch of red splashed horizontally across the sky. It made me wonder what had happened last evening between dawn and dusk. Whatever it was, dawn’s passionate red lipstick was spread across the horizon as a reminder. As I turned around to make my return trip, the gentle breeze seemed to push me back east, into the arms of the mistress of the morning and the emerging day.

During these morning runs, I generally jog along Highway 163, with the sheer cliffs on the north, and a beautiful swatch of green farmland on the south. Along the course there are petroglyphs etched into the large boulders lying on the tallus slope and small ruins tucked into high alcoves; remnants of the ancient Anasazi civilization. The ruins are generally granaries, where the ancestors stored their harvests. Not long ago, one of the large rocks slipped, exposing the body of a small Anasazi child who had been cautiously buried beneath the stone centuries ago. The child had been laid to rest with a turkey feather blanket and a small pot. The archaeologists quickly did their work, and the child was reinstated in Mother Earth. From time to time examples of the area’s history are exposed in similar fashion, giving us a glimpse into Bluff’s very rich past.

There are also a variety of shapes in the cliffs that, with a little imagination, begin to look like animal or people figures. There are the owl eyes, Davie Crockett in his coonskin cap, the parrot, Mr. Magoo sleeping, and - my personal favorite - the parent and child. The parent and child is composed of the cliffs by the restaurant and the southern tower of the Navajo Twins. From a very narrow section of the highway, in the right light, it looks like a parent holding a small child in preparation of giving her a kiss.

After a breakfast of wuffins (Grange’s word for waffles, which derives from a combination of the terms waffle and muffin) Grange and Kira wanted to go for a hike. Since we subscribe to the “it takes a village to raise a child” philosophy, we called to see if Tarrik wanted to go as well. Tarrik is my five year old nephew. Cindy and Amer, Tarrik’s parents, and Jana and I have an agreement to take all the kids out as much as possible. Today we drove to the west side of Bluff, picked up Tarrik and started walking north up a small arroyo. The day was crisp, 45-50 degrees, with just a slight breeze. As I watched the kids scramble along the wash, I couldn’t help thinking about the Anasazi children who may have also played along this drainage. I am sure those early children had as much fun as Kira, Grange and Tarrik were having. However, it was a little hard to conceive, since my companions were squealing with delight.

At first we made fairly good forward progress, but soon the kids wanted to stop every hundred yards to play in the sandy wash bottom. As the kids made volcanoes and slid down the sandy slopes. I scanned the landscape for an arrowhead that would make Frances-The-Incredible-Arrowhead-Finder jealous, and sat on small cut bank and watched the kids. The sun made Kira and Grange’s red hair glow like polished copper, and Tarrik’s jet-black hair stood in stark contrast. At one point, Kira said, “We should have brought some paper to put up signs in our little park.” I was reminded of that old song from the 1970’s that went something like “Signs, signs, everywhere signs, blocking out my scenery, breaking my mind”. I quickly advised Kira that our little park needed no signs, and was much better than any developed park I had ever visited. I think she agreed, although it was hard to tell.

After two hours of stops and starts, we reached the small boulder field that had been my original objective. Several months ago a large section of the cliffs had pealed off and made a spectacular splash. Since the trading post and cafe are located close to the cliffs, I am always interested in seeing the effects of such slides. Luckily they are very rare. After a quick look - the kids were not particularly interested in the rock slide - we started our return journey. The kids ran in short spurts, shouting “I won,” and arguing about who had really won the race and who was cheating.

Although it seemed that we were in a very isolated place, we were only about a half mile from town. Looking up at the cliffs ringing Bluff, I was reminded how timeless this place really is. That is one of the really wonderful things about Bluff; you can walk out your door and immediately be in the backcountry, and immediately be in an area that is virtually unchanged from what it was hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Having fallen into such a great position, in such a beautiful location, I don’t think I will be worrying about a career change soon. I sometimes worry that if all those disaffected professionals learned our secret, we would be flooded with new arrivals. For now, our sleepy little town of 300 remains unchanged. Wait a minute! I think I was one of those disaffected individuals when I arrived.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Tied to the Post

Barry and I have often mentioned in our weekly mailings what a very interesting and enjoyable childhood we had growing up in Bluff. The other day we were discussing, maybe debating is a better term, how certain things occurred. As you may guess, we do not always remember certain occurrences exactly the same. For example, on a more recent note, when it comes to the Bernie Todacheeny credit card story, although Barry was embarrassingly accurate in almost every detail, he forgot to mention the real reason I agreed to buy wood for Bernie. That reason was that Bernie was hoeing weeds in Kayenta for $3.00 an hour, and selling snow cones to the tourists at Four Corners Monument for a 25 cent per cone commission. I decided that poor Bernie was never going to become the world class wood carver he aspires to be unless he broke out of that cycle. His girlfriends were also threatening to jump ship, so what was I to do?

Once I had removed that Bernie sliver from my craw, we got back to the debate over childhood memories. This particular debate centered around our long-time friends, Perry and Ray Johnson. Perry and Ray also grew up in Bluff and despite our many childhood scrapes, have remained friendly. During our youth, Rose, our mother, typically referred to us as "hellions," because we were always in trouble. Our offenses, however, were only of the misdemeanor variety. We ran around Bluff climbing the cliffs and roaming freely, generally without shirts or shoes. Since we never wore shoes, after a time our feet developed substantial callouses that were impervious to the gravel streets and the goathead stickers that were everywhere in town. We were also as dark as most of the Navajo children, partly because of our tans and partly because of our Portuguese heritage. We were frequently labeled Navajo, which pleased us greatly.

On the particular occasion in question, we were engaged in a running battle with Perry and Ray. Although they are older and had better throwing arms, the dirt clods were flying and we were holding our own. Since none of us had any future in the Major League, there were not many direct hits and no serious injuries. When Perry and Ray had had quite enough, they simply grabbed us, tied us to a fence post and walked away. A while later Rose wandered by and, after an obviously difficult internal struggle over the advisability of setting us free, released us back onto the streets. This discussion about Perry and Ray led us to conclude that we have once again been tied to a "post", this time voluntarily. We also decided that "Tied To The Post " was also a good name for our weekly mailer and so it has become.

The things that keep us tied to this location are many and varied; the people are great, the geology is starkly beautiful, the history is extremely interesting, and the business is, well, the business is good. But, the thing that stands out in my mind is the light. The sunlight on the cliffs does magical things to this little river valley, especially at this time of the year. After several years back in Bluff, I have decided that fall is my favorite season. In September and October the light is so pure that it make things absolutely shimmer. The leaves on the trees sparkle in the breeze and you can just feel the movement. Later in the year the trees lose their leaves and, when the sun goes down, the trees begin to look like those paintings we all did in primary school; the ones where you put a blob of ink on a page and then blow it with a straw to make the ink run. In October the trees have that beautiful barren look and, when the sun has just gone down, they are backlit by the residual light. It is truly a strangely beautiful sight; very Halloweenish. In the early mornings and evenings the cliffs glow as though someone has built a fire under them. The pink and red hues of the sandstone beam. I often think Bluff must now be as Santa Fe was in the early days.

During my early years at the trading post when my wife and daughter, Dacia, were out of town, I used to close the store in the evenings and sit on the porch to watch the sun set. Frequently people would wander by and stop to talk. On many occasions the conversation would halt after a while and I would notice the visitors looking around as though they were searching for something. They would then ask, "What is it?" At first the question baffled me, but after a while I decided that they were actually feeling what someone later described as the "magic" of Bluff. It's hard to put your finger on it, but I have finally decided that the magic is a combination of the very smart and creative people who live in and around Bluff, the beautiful scenery, the quiet, the dry climate, the clear starry nights and the light. At times it is also the history of the place, which is often almost tangible.

That is what keeps us tied to this post.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 16, 2003

The White Goose

One Sunday I was a little late getting out for my morning jog. Jana and I had been discussing the kids, relationships, goals and a myriad of other things, so it was 9:00 a.m. before I was out on the road. The morning was bright and crisp, and I once again had the feeling of being in a great outdoor cathedral. For some reason, Sunday morning runs make me feel very spiritual, and very close to the land. I have heard several people described as, or describe themselves as, spiritual but not religious. I guess that's how I'd like to be viewed. Whether that accurately describes me I really don't know, but I like to think it does. In any case, being outside on Sunday mornings always makes me feel close to the creator, whomever that may be. In this part of the country she is often referred to as Mother Earth.

The Jones Farm just east of Twin Rocks Trading Post The Jones Farm just east of Twin Rocks Trading Post The Jones Farm just east of Twin Rocks Trading Post
The Jones Farm just east of Twin Rocks Trading Post

This particular morning, Mother Earth was sparkling, and this little valley with its red rock walls jutting sharply upwards and pristine skies overhead looked like a crystal chapel. As I ran toward the hay farm, I could hear the Canada geese honking, and noticed that they were in the center of the field, which is about a quarter mile from where I start. As I got closer to the flock I noticed a white spot among them. It was an all white goose. I wasn't close enough to tell whether it was an albino, a snow goose or a domestic goose that had infiltrated the ranks. In any case, the white bird was fully integrated into the pack. The other geese, all bearing traditional color and markings did not seem the least bit concerned that there was something different about their white member.

The white goose made me think of a story idea we have been discussing with our friend Win. The idea is related to the death of Homer Warren, the local folk carver. After Homer's death, Win mentioned that he and Meredith had greatly appreciated the story describing our relationship with Homer. Win said that he had sent a copy of the story to a friend, as an illustration of how the Anglo and Navajo people relate to one another in this small border town. Win feels very strongly that the relationship is unique to this reservation border town, in that there is no real animosity between the two tribes. Having lived in a few border towns, Win has often seen how Red-White relations often turn blue in a very unpatriotic and inhumane fashion. His feeling is that, in Bluff, people value each other based upon individual characteristics, not on the color of one's skin.

Win and I discussed this relationship issue a little later, and Win began working on a story to help illustrate the point. Win is a successful professional writer, with several well received books under his belt, so his story is still developing. Since Barry and I have no illusions about our reputations as writers, we can get the story out a little faster. It's a little like meat ball surgery on our part, compared to brain surgery by Win. Last summer I was working at the restaurant late one night when two older couples came in together. One of the ladies looked at me and said, "Oh, you look like one of those movie stars." I was hoping for Mel Gibson, Tom Selleck or somebody like that. Instead, she said, "Oh yes, I know, Alan Alda." So, with that is mind, maybe we are a little more like M.A.S.H. than Braveheart; not quite ready for the big screen.

In any case, Win's perspective is that, for the most part, the people of Bluff do not care about the color of a person's skin. In essence, Win sees the people here as color, but not character blind. I have to agree. We feel there is no reason to worry about color, because the people we see at the trading post are so interesting that color is the least relevant factor.

Win and I have had some very nice discussions during the evolution of his story, and I have learned a lot about relationships in Bluff. Since Barry and I grew up among the Navajo, I guess we have never really given much thought to the antagonism that seems rife in other border towns. Win has mentioned that he has lived in several towns situated close to Indian reservations, and that Bluff is truly unique in his eyes. My perspective is that generally the residents of Bluff find the Navajo culture very intriguing and enjoy the diversity, while the Navajo people don't seem to mind the eccentricities of the white residents. That is not to say that everything is milk and honey here in this small town, just that skin color is not very important.

Win and I agree that people in Bluff do not simply overlook character flaws because of this color blindness. In fact, people may be a little more demanding as a result of it. For example, Win mentioned that he would freely open his refrigerator to allow allow almost anyone a cold beer on one of those hot summer days we endure in this desert oasis. There are certainly a few people he will never offer a beer to, however, because they don't hold their alcohol well. Win also said that there were certain people he will always open his wallet for to help with a short term loan. Again, there are others who will not get any consideration because they are not responsible. Color is not a consideration. The other side of the coin is that the residents of Bluff become extremely angry when they are accused of bigotry.

On another occasion, I was again working late at the restaurant last summer when a Navajo man came in and ordered a salad. By the time it arrived, he had changed his mind. Instead of salad, he now wanted ribs. Since the waitress did not know what to do with the surplus salad, she came to get me. I informed the gentleman that I would indeed get him ribs, but that he needed to pay for the salad as well. He proceeded to inform me that he believed he would have been treated differently if our skin had been the same color.

I am sure my face became bright red as I pulled up a chair to explain how much I disliked his accusation. He explained how he was an award winning businessman in Kayenta, Arizona, was a very important member of several Navajo Nation boards, had been involved in the negotiation of several large transactions on the Reservation and that he knew first hand how Navajos were treated in border towns. I explained to him how we had been in business in Reservation border towns for as long as I can remember, that I had not just fallen off the pumpkin wagon and that I had seen his brand of reverse bigotry before. I went on to inform him that this place was different, and that he was free to talk with any of the people on the premises to decide for himself.

At the end of the conversation, I got up and walked over to talk with Crystal, our cashier. Crystal, a young Navajo woman, could see that I was more than a little steamed, and asked what had happened. I told her that the man had called me a bigot, and she became very upset. When he got to the register to pay his bill, Crystal let him know how angry his comments made her. I was very proud, since she is generally very shy, and happy that she confirmed my feelings. I could hear the man muttering to himself as he walked towards the door.

I think Win will agree that the white goose and his companions have nothing on the people of Bluff.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 9, 2003

Art Prices, and Rez Values

As I stood there cleaning the glass showcases, I heard a car drive up in the gravel parking lot outside the trading post. It was still fairly early, 8:15 a.m., and I was in a reflective mood. When the wheels of the car stopped turning and the gravel stopped crunching, I heard the car door creak open. The car was not that old for a Reservation vehicle, ten years or so, but the sound of the door opening told me that it had spent a lot of time on the dusty back roads of southern San Juan County. The sound reminded me of a conversation I had had with a Spanish gentleman last week.

The very nice man and his wife came into the trading post and began to look at the items on display. The wood carvings by Bernie Todacheeny and the pottery of Nancy Chilly and Jackson Yazzie seemed to have caught his attention. After considering the work for a while, he very pleasantly asked, "Why are these things so expensive?" He went on to explain that he had seen how the Navajo people live, and had noticed that they do not have a very high standard of living, generally. Therefore, he could not understand why their work was not much less. He undoubtedly noticed the pained look on my face and elaborated further by saying that he had traveled around the world and seen what he considered work of similar quality at significantly lower prices. The scrunching of my face was not because the comments startled me; I have heard the question and the explanation countless times. No matter how many times the question is asked, I still cannot find a good answer to this extremely complicated issue. "Supply and demand," is usually followed by a very quick exit, and, of course, is neither a satisfactory nor congenial answer .

The car door squeaking open flooded my mind with images of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations and the people I have met and gotten to know over the last thirteen years of running the trading post. In particular, it reminded me how economically difficult things can be. I have spent time at my Hopi friend Stewart Tewa's family home and seen his grandmother living in what, as an outsider, seemed to be abject poverty. The old pueblo home had no running water, the bathroom was outside and the furnishings were sparse indeed. After spending several hours at the house, however, I noticed little things like watermelon and squash under the bed and the happiness of the grandmother and her doting family and realized that the real wealth was there in abundance.

In spite of my knowledge that there are things more important than monetary wealth, I realize how difficult it can be for many of the artists bringing their work to the trading post. We are constantly walking the line between trying to give the artists the best price for their work and meeting the customer's pricing needs; not to mention making a reasonable living for ourselves. Frequently we fall off the line on one side or the other. There is a general perception, as expressed by the Spanish gentleman, that the work taken to produce the traditional crafts should not be valued as highly as other services. It is sometimes difficult for me to understand why a Chicago or New York lawyer is worth $500.00 an hour, when the Navajo weaver or the Amish quilter is worth only $5.00 an hour.

As the local lawyer/trader, I get to see both sides every day. Logically I know that the Chicago lawyer who charges you $500.00 an hour may generate a much larger value in return for the fee. Why, I often ask, do some people not recognize similar value in the art. The happiness it brings us every hour of every day is valuable indeed, much like those watermelon and squash peaking out from under grandmother Tewa's bed or the happiness reflected in the faces of her children and grandchildren.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Our Ute Friend, Susan Whyte

In the trading post business you have the privilege of meeting a wide variety of characters. One of the most charismatic and contrary individuals I have ever met just happened to be one of the finest basket weavers to ever pick up a branch of sumac. Her name was Susan Whyte, and she was a Ute weaver with a special talent for weaving baskets and outsmarting traders.

Susan Whyte was born in 1934 to Mary Dutchie White and Okuma White, in Allen Canyon, a remote homeland fortress in southeastern Utah. The Weeminuche band of Ute Indians were her people. She was descended from Mancos Jim, a respected leader, and Posey, a renegade who became famous for leading a revolt against the Mormon people in 1923. Susan had the heritage of both mediator and fighter. She also had a talent for basket weaving, which was passed down from her mother. One of the first signs of her contrary nature appeared when she adopted a different spelling for her last name. She thought the differentiated spelling suited her well, so from that point forward she became Susan Whyte.

We first met Susan in the mid 1970s. We learned very early in the relationship that she was someone to reckon with. Her sharp mind and keen eye missed nothing when it came to selling one of her "very special" baskets. Susan would stop by our trading post and ask if we were interested in buying a basket. She knew very well that we were. She was also aware that "to tantalize" made the bargaining easier. The old carrot and stick routine worked well for her. Her next question was always, "Do you want it rough or tight?" "Make it tight Susan, we like those the best!" we would say. She would laugh, and say "If I can find the time." Then off she would go, a mischievous smile spread across her face.

Every time Susan came in with a basket, the negotiating process would begin anew. Even though we both knew the eventual outcome ahead of time. It was a game to her - an essential part of the process. It was also necessary to express her feelings and emotions, and Susan had plenty of these to share. She always had plenty of advice on how to run a business or one's personal life. The bottom line was that Susan made incredible baskets. They were, bar none, the best ceremonial baskets we have ever seen.

One day Susan came strolling through the door, placed one of her baskets on the counter, and without blinking an eye asked two and a half times more for it than we had previously paid for a comparable piece. Taken aback, I offered her an equally unbalanced sum. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Not this time, I am serious." Sensing a change of character, I asked, "Why so much?" Susan explained that to be able to weave her baskets, one must have three essential assets: good eyes, good teeth and strong hands. The reason one needs good eye sight and strong hands are obvious. Strong teeth are also essential to bite the sumac while stripping the bark with your hands. A weaver's teeth become a third hand of sorts.

The more we discussed the issue, the more I realized that Susan was indeed serious. Her final comment was, "No glasses, no more baskets." Knowing that I had been out-maneuvered, and definitely wanting more of her work, I paid the price. She smiled, said "Good choice," and walked out the door. Sure enough Susan showed up later with a new set of glasses, and more baskets. All was well again. At least until a few years later when in walked Susan with a large, finely woven basket. She sat it on the counter and asked an extraordinary price for it.
"What now ?" I asked.
"Dentist says I need dentures."

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, September 26, 2003

Robin and the Snake

The world of Navajo ritual belief is complicated and has many twists and turns. As in all world cultures, that which is right for one may be wrong for another. There are general guidelines however that help one navigate the landscape. It is with great caution that an individual crosses the line between common sense and indiscretion. Those who tempt fate are looked upon with a skeptical eye by their peers. The portrayal of snakes in Navajo art can be either positive or negative, depending upon how the snakes are depicted, and many Navajo people fear those who will portray this powerful image in a permanent form. Navajo common sense says leave snakes alone. If you agitate their spirits, for any reason, they may cause you great harm.

Navajo Folk Artist Robin Willeto at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Robin Willeto and his carvings at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Since they are associated with thunder, lightning and an undying spirit, snakes have plenty of power to adversely affect your well-being. In spite of all this, some artists still take chances by creating images of serpents in their art. These individuals may feel they have protected themselves through ceremonies. Some believe they are promoting the positive, protective, side of the creature, and believe its guardian nature is being advanced, while others feel that they have already faced all the bad things the world has to offer and that there is nothing left to lose. Some also believe that by turning the tables on snakes, refusing to acknowledge its negative power, their situation may improve.

A few years back Robin Willeto was wandering the banks of the San Juan river near Farmington, New Mexico. He stumbled upon a very long, slightly twisted branch from a cottonwood tree. What his artist's eye saw in that crooked piece of wood would have made most traditional Navajos walk away. They would have left mumbling prayers and sprinkling corn pollen, trying to get thoughts of snakes and their dangerous powers out of their head. Robin Willeto, however, is not your typical Navajo; not in any way, shape or form. Being the son of famed Navajo carver, Charlie Willeto, and an accomplished carver in his own right, he grabbed the branch and hauled it home. What he had seen in that piece of wood was a great yellow snake, and he was intent upon releasing it. There was no stopping this creative force. Due to the form of the wood it did not take long to finish the project.

I remember the incident quite well. Steve answered the telephone that day, listened a moment, looked up thoughtfully, and said, "Just a minute, Robin." Covering the receiver, Steve said to me, "Robin Willeto has a snake carving he wants to show us." All the Navajo myth and legend I had read about and experienced flashed through my mind, as I am sure it had Steve's. I stammered and stuttered for a moment, and finally said, "Well he has gotten my curiosity, let's see it." Steve talked with Robin a little longer, hung up the phone, and said, "He's on his way."

About four hours later Robin wheeled up in front of the trading post. Steve and I just happened to be standing behind the counter looking out the open doors down onto the parking lot. What we saw was an amazing sight. Although Robin generally visited us in a beat up Chevy van, this time he was driving a subcompact car. Strapped to the top of his very small vehicle was the largest, bright yellow, snake that we had ever seen. Nine feet in length, (about a foot longer than the car, and growing with each telling of this story), eight inches at its widest point, mouth agape with huge fangs, and forked tongue sticking out.
Every Navajo within sight had stopped what they were doing and stood staring at the sight, as was everyone else. Both doors flew open and out of the car pushed five large Navajo men. They were all dressed in leather coats, Levi's and wore bandannas around their heads. This was typical of Robin. He rarely traveled without his entourage of very thirsty buddies. And it was hot out there, at least ninety degrees. I don't think the car had an air conditioner. By the way those guys exited that car, I was sure of it.

They unlashed the snake, and with Robin holding its head, up the stairs they came. Five hoodlums packing a great yellow snake. The excitement the scene caused was interesting to say the least. People were gawking, pointing and shaking their heads in amazement. We bought the piece as quickly as possible; just to break up the crowd and quiet things down. We asked Robin what response he had seen traveling across the Reservation with the snake on his roof. He said that because of the hot, crowded conditions in the car he hadn't noticed and seemed totally unconcerned about the whole thing. We could just imagine the emotions he had conjured up, rolling across the Rez in his snake mobile. Robin is not much of a talker, and when the deal was done he shook hands with us, pocketed the cash and headed out. They all piled back into the car and spun out of the driveway on their journey home. We stood there for quite some time chuckling about the incident. Finally shaking free of the moment we went back about our business. We have never forgotten that most unusual event and have often thought, "Just what was he thinking?"

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 29, 2003

Alicia, and the Red-Head Kid

Living, and working in the shadow of the Black family of Navajo basket weavers is intimidating for young Alicia Nelson, daughter in law of the matriarch of Navajo basketry, Mary Holiday Black. The Blacks have seemingly won every basket weaving award imaginable. Mary Holiday Black is primarily responsible for reviving and revolutionizing the art. In doing so, she has been compared to the legendary Maria Martinez, has won an endowment from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been awarded the Utah Governor's Folk Art Award. Her name is so well known, in fact, that she has even been featured in People magazine.

Navajo Basket Weaver Alicia Nelson
Navajo Basket Weaver Alicia Nelson

Sally Black has been mentioned in numerous publications, has won the Gallup Ceremonials and has also won blue ribbons at the prestigious Santa Fe and Heard Museum markets numerous times. Lorraine Black and Peggy Rock Black are equally well known, and have been invited to demonstrate at venues all over the United States, at the 2002 Winter Olympics and even in a few foreign countries. The Black family name is synonymous with Navajo basketry, so what does a young daughter in law have to do to get noticed?

The other morning we were busily cleaning the trading post; trying to rid the glass of tiny finger and face prints. Seems that on these hot days the glass is just too cool and inviting for our young guests to pass up. The temptation to put one's nose, tongue and sticky hands on the cool glass overpowers the cautionary comments of their parents. Many of the prints can be, I am sure, traced back to master Grange, Steve's young, red headed son, and resident "Wild Man." Cleaning the glass show cases, and vacuuming the many stones Grange imports into the trading post in an attempt vandalize our vacuum cleaner, make up our morning routine. Forgive me for the digression, but I will get to the point soon.

Grange Simpson at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Grange inside Twin Rocks Trading Post

As we were pursuing our morning routine, Alicia come breezing into the store with something in a black plastic bag that looked suspiciously like a basket. We must have missed her arrival due to the horrible racket caused by the exploding vacuum. "Someone search that kid's pockets before he gets past the front doors," I suggested. As I reached to open Alicia's treasure bag to expose the basket, Alicia gently brushed my hand aside and said, " I worked very hard on this basket." "Okay" I said, reaching again. Laying her hand on mine, and looking me directly in the eye she said, " It took me six weeks, and a great amount of effort. It is very fine, and as you are always stressing, symmetric to a fault."

"Grange, is that gum in your mouth," I asked the miniature terrorist. I once again reached for the basket, only to be stopped. "Pay attention," Alicia said. " I am trying to tell you that this basket is one of my best works ever." Alicia finally had my attention. Grange had left the building and I was wondering what he had in his hot little hand as he exited. I know that Alicia has been wanting to express her creativity and show the world that her weaving talents are equal to those of her in-laws. The last few baskets she has woven have been fantastic, so I knew that she had the talent. Mary taught her to weave, so her training was excellent. Through past conversations Alicia had expressed her frustration at not getting recognition for her efforts, and wanted to know what she could do. Quickly I opened the bag and brought her basket to light before she could react (I had been in training with my nephew, so I was fast). " Wow, Alicia, this really is a great weaving," I said.

This frustrated artist had produced one of the finest, well woven baskets I had seen in a very long time. It was truly impressive. The weaving is twenty-one inches in diameter, forty-two rounds, and each round is slightly less than one quarter inch. The choice of color is excellent and the theme is extremely interesting. The basket depicts rain and Lightning Yeis, with stars and rain clouds. This was an exquisite weaving. "Alicia you have certainly impressed me." I said. "Now let's see if we can let everyone else know about you." I feel that due to her talent, determination and desire, Alicia Nelson has the ability to be one of the next in line for greatness in the world of Navajo basketry. As Alicia exited the store beaming with pride and satisfaction, in walked Grange the Monster Boy! "Hey where did you get that bracelet ?" I asked. The severity of his crimes continues to escalate.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 22, 2003

Carvin' Marvin, and Meeting Grace

Every once in a while at the trading post we see an artistic movement begin to take shape that we feel may result in a new and important movement in a traditional art form. We have recently begun to wonder whether the work of Navajo wood carver Marvin Jim signals one of those shifts.

Navajo Folk Artists Marvin Jim and Grace Begay
Marvin Jim and Grace Begay at Twin Rocks Trading Post

By way of background, Blue Mountain Trading Post was founded in 1976, and Twin Rocks Trading Post came along about thirteen years later. Prior to the establishment of Blue Mountain, Rose and Duke Simpson (Mom and Dad) and their five children (us) had established themselves as small dealers of Native American art. The forum was a Plateau filling station on the south side of Blanding, Utah. Duke and Rose were young and had a very large brood of children to keep busy, so the service station filled the bill. As the business developed, many of the local Navajo people began to bring in their crafts for sale or to trade for a little gas to get them down the road. So, at an early age, we were exposed to a wide variety of local crafts.

One thing we noticed over the next 25 years was that our youth had slipped away - Whoops, sorry, wrong story. We noticed that many of the Navajo wood carvers were carving themes that were, for one reason or another, inspired by another culture. Navajo themes rarely seemed to be considered. There were the ever present representations of Hopi katsina dolls; which in those days we referred to as Kachina dolls, and which were often referred to by the tourists as "kachinka" dolls. These Navajo representations created a great deal of controversy, because the Hopi people did not appreciate the Navajos carving Hopi cultural icons. As you may guess, there were both religious and economic reasons for the controversy. The Navajo people, however, were not inclined to give up such a good thing.

We often asked the Navajo carvers why they did not, and would not, carve representations of the Talking God, Changing Woman and other Navajo deities. The common answer was that their medicine man had instructed them not to do so. They had been told that an improper representation of such deities may result in the carver becoming inflicted with a
twisted limb, a blind eye or some other severe disability, so they left those images alone.

There were, however, a few carvers who were willing to take a chance. Charlie Willeto, in the 1960's, carved very powerful depictions of Navajo men and women in semi spiritual representations. Charlie also carved representations of owls and half animal beings, which were strictly taboo in the Navajo culture.

In the 1990's Lawrence Jaquaz caught many of us by surprise when he began carving representations of skin walkers; possibly one of the most taboo themes in Navajo culture. Lawrence had lost his family to a drunk driver and felt that he had nothing left to lose. So he carved his skin walkers, daring the evil spirits to take action and tempting fate.

Not so long ago Marvin Jim was carving representation of Hopi katsina dolls. The problem was that Marvin had real talent, and carved very nice katsinas. By the time Marvin began to visit the trading post, however, we had decided that we would no longer buy Navajo representations of Hopi katsinas. So, Marvin's marketing plan was ineffective when it came to us.

In spite of our explanations and protestations, about eight months ago Marvin came into the trading post with a nicely carved representation of a Hopi Long Hair katsina. I was a bit exasperated, since I had told him time and again that we could not buy carvings of that nature. Marvin, who is very good natured and extremely persistent, said, "Okay, thanks anyway," and headed out the door. I watched him walk to his little white car and start to get in. I noticed him hesitate as he spoke with the woman in the vehicle. Half in and half out of the driver's side, he stopped. He was balanced in a peculiar way, with his carving in hand. It was apparent that he was uncertain what to do. I watched rather amused at his predicament, curious what his dilemma was. I would soon find out.

Out of the passenger side of the car came a rather determined looking Navajo woman; and she was heading my way. Marvin was still undecided what his participation in this undertaking would be, and a quick hand motion from his companion decided his fate. Regaining his balance, he came out of the car and followed the woman back up the steps.

At this point I became the nervous one. I have had dealings with determined Navajo women before, and could see a difficult situation fast approaching. This was to be my first meeting with Grace Begay, and, as it turned out, a quite pleasant one at that. Grace simply wanted to know why I wasn't interested in Marvin's work. As Marvin stood quietly by, a nervous smile on his face, I explained the problem to Grace.

As I became acquainted with Grace my anxiety disappeared. I learned that she was very pleasant, and also learned that she was most interested in knowing why Marvin's talent was not appreciated. I asked her if Marvin had mentioned why we were not buying his work. Marvin's nervous grin deepened, and Grace said that she had been told that we were just not interested. Marvin gave a nervous laugh and said, "Well you weren't. "I told them that I thought Marvin was a very talented carver, and that he should explore his own culture for inspiration. As we talked Marvin and Grace began to understand the problem. We talked about the rich and varied culture of the Navajo, and the possibilities to be explored within it. As we talked a light began to appear in his eyes; an idea had emerged. They said, "We'll be back," and hurried off.

About five days later, Marvin and Grace brought in a very unusual carving. It was a carving of a bear, wrapped in a Navajo blanket and standing upright in a dignified manner. The sculpture was roughly made and quickly sculpted, but the idea was truly exciting. Grace told the story of how the Navajo believed that men and animals had once worked together to bring about a better world. This was shortly after their emergence from the lower worlds. Much good had come from this cooperation; a situation of peace and harmony was accomplished, and man and animal prospered. The cooperation did not last, however. Bickering, jealousy, misunderstanding and miscommunication ensued. The earth surface people caused the animals to throw off their garments, go down on all fours and forever go their own way. What Marvin and Grace had depicted was a representation of this prior time; a symbol of relationships destroyed and opportunities lost. The possibilities flowing from this carving were inspiring.

Craig, Steve and I were excited about the possibilities of such a creative idea, so we had many discussions with Marvin and Grace about the theme, and how to best present it. Marvin was truly inspired by this new work, and continued to improve his animal creations.

All the while Grace stood quietly by, supporting Marvin. Then one day as we were talking about how nice the painting on the carvings was, we learned that Grace was doing the finish work. Marvin proudly proclaimed that Grace was an artist in her own right. Not only was she providing support for Marvin, she was also helping with the creative process. A team effort was even better, their work was, and is now beautifully created. We believe these two artists have come up with a new and exciting idea based on traditional Navajo culture. It took the persistence and determination of Grace to break down the barriers between a hard headed trader and an artist in a rut. Marvin now has a much more relaxed smile on his face.

Other Navajo carvers have noticed and commented on Marvin and Grace's innovative work. It will be interesting to see how their work influences Navajo carving, and what new creations it inspires. Marvin and Grace may ultimately be viewed as break through artists; responsible for a very important new movement in Navajo wood carving.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 15, 2003

Priscilla, and the Apple

Earlier today I was talking with Priscilla Sagg about something that had happened this week. The incident was very funny, and will not be directly related in this story because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Since she has been at the trading post with me since we opened the doors in the fall of 1989, Priscilla is my number one employee and number one buddy. We go all the way back to when she and I would open the doors in the morning, clean the showcases, vacuum the floor and wait the rest of the day for customers who never arrived. Anyway, as a result of the story I told her, she reciprocated with a very interesting tale of her own. She said she had been visiting with some tourists who very nicely gave her an apple. After she finished eating it they asked whether she had ever had one before. Once we all stopped laughing, I began to realize just how complicated the question really was.

Pricilla Sagg at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Priscilla Sagg at Twin Rocks Trading Post

The apple givers obviously assumed a certain lack of availability, and a certain lack of development, this far out of the main stream. That really was not such a bad assumption. I have often thought that Bluff is located at a cultural cross road and a cultural divide. I have also often thought that it lags approximately 50 years behind the rest of the world. The town is situated just two miles north of the northern boundary of the Navajo Reservation. Although it is a very small town of three hundred people, it has most of the modern conveniences, such as running water, telephones and electricity. Just across the river, however, many Navajo people live without these necessities. They have to haul their water in tanks carried in their pick up trucks or on trailers. They do not have access to electrical lines, so power is obtained by portable generators or batteries. Only recently cell phones have compensated for the lack of telephone lines. I have often seen a pick up truck parked very close to the window of a home, with a cord running into the television set. The MTV culture was being piped directly into the inhabitants through means of a truck battery.

For several years Damian Jim worked at the trading post. Damian is a very talented artist, graphic designer and computer technician. After working at the trading post all day maintaining our web site (which he initially created), keeping our computers alive and a variety of other highly technical activities that Barry and I can't even begin to comprehend, he would go home to his one room house which did not have water, electricity or telephones. I often marveled at him carrying his lap top computer out the door, since it was completely incompatible with where he was going; or so I thought. I ultimately came to realize that Damian had been successful in neatly fitting his two worlds together. It is amazing what can be accomplished with a fully charged battery and a gas light. The culture that referred to computers as "the talking metal" was being revolutionized by Damian's generation.

It is these dichotomies that make being at the trading post so interesting. We get to see the remains of a very rapidly changing Native American culture, on an every day basis. We also see how that change is impacting the people and how the outside world views this change. Questions as simple as, "Do Navajo people sing?" and "Where do we find real Indians?" often show deep interest and compassion for the people, along with a certain lack of understanding. The trading post is frequently the interface between the people who want to understand the Navajo and the Navajos themselves.

In the early days, trading posts developed as commercial and social centers. The Navajo patrons came in to hear the news of the day, to meet friends and to engage in a variety of other social and economic activities. Modern trading posts still function in much the same way. The artists come in to see what is happening in the larger world, and the patrons come in to see what is happening in the Navajo culture. In a sense we are a broker of information, or a learning institution. Information passes both ways through the post and we are able to experience both sides of the equation. We have a window on the changes that are quickly coming to the Navajo people, and it is a very interesting and enjoyable position from which to view the evolution. We also get to hear Natalie sing and Priscilla eat an apple from time to time.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 8, 2003

A Real Trading Post

The other day I was standing behind the counter when a woman walked up, looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Is this a real trading post?” Although I was a bit surprised by her direct approach, it was neither the first time I had heard the question, nor the first time I had been anxious about answering it.

From a historical point of view, the answer to the woman’s question is very complicated and is probably no. From a contemporary perspective, the response is less complex, however, a careless reply can lead to a real mess. That’s because a “yes” will almost always be followed by, “Well, if it is, I have something to trade.” That usually means the individual has an item he or she doesn’t want, and feels their less than treasured belonging should be in the trading post collection of unsaleable items. At this point the collection is substantial, so Barry and I are cautious when it comes to enlarging it.

Over the years we have acquired a number of beautiful parking lot stones from children just beginning to hone their trading skills. There have also been a few completely unidentifiable acquisitions from the local Navajo people who, “only need a few bucks for gas”. One of those acquisitions has become very useful as a door stop.

I am also always a little afraid the something will turn out to be a disgruntled spouse or an out of control child, and under those circumstances I prefer to keep my rugs, jewelry and baskets. Although I like spouses (I have had a couple myself) and children, I currently have just enough to satisfy my needs, and am confident Barry feels the same. This is, however, Utah and an extra spouse and lots of unruly children wouldn’t be extraordinary.

Since I generally want to avoid the second question until I have a feel for what type of person I am dealing with, and whether it really is a spouse or child they want to unload, I often launch into a discussion about early trading posts. That allows me time to properly evaluate the situation, gather information and craft an appropriate response when the trade question arises. From time to time it also greatly irritates the customer.

Since I was in my information gathering phase, I began explaining to the woman how the earliest Indian traders were itinerant, and that they would load their wagons in towns like Gallup and Farmington, New Mexico, hitch up their teams and set out on their journeys into Navajo and Hopi lands. I described how these individuals traded pots, pans, coffee, flour, canned goods, saddles, lumber and other items for livestock, weavings, pottery and other hand crafted goods that were then brought back and sold to the Anglo market.

Since there was little money to be had, the transactions between the Indian people and the traders were generally exchanges of one item for another; seldom did cash change hands. I told my companion that about the only thing we traded at Twin Rocks was money for arts and crafts, and concluded that part of the discussion by saying that I felt that fact alone indicated this was not a real trading post.

She looked disappointed, so I went on to explain that, when the Navajo people were allowed to return to their homeland after their internment at Fort Sumner, the federal government began licensing Indian traders. These traders were allowed to establish permanent trading posts on Indian lands. I mentioned that the posts generally carried all the same merchandise the itinerants had, and the Navajos and Hopis also provided the same goods they had in the past. This meant that, except for the presence of a permanent location on the Reservations, the trading business remained very much the same. I once again pointed out to my visitor that we probably don’t qualify as a real trading post because we didn’t trade pots and pans or canned goods for the items we carry.

By this time the woman was growing a little impatient. She obviously did not want a longwinded answer, she just wanted to know if I was interested in trading. She began drumming her fingers on the counter, and a look of frustration appeared on her face. It was obvious that she was wondering why anybody would allow me to operate this store, under any circumstances.

At this point the inquisitor with inferior trade goods will often blurt out something like, “In the 1970s my husband bought me this gigantic squash blossom necklace which I can’t wear because it’s too heavy and I want something else!” Then I know where I stand and can make a sensible decision. If that necklace is too large for its present owner, it is probably too large for anyone else too, so no trade accommodation will be made. That also lets me know that there will be no additional family members to feed and clothe.

Now the woman had really had it with me and said, “Look, I inherited a few things from my grandmother and can’t really use them. Do you want to see.” I sheepishly nodded my head yes. She went to the car and retrieved a little bag with a few small, but very nice pieces of jewelry. We agreed to trade and she settled on a contemporary bracelet. The deal was done. We were both satisfied, and as she began to walk away she turned and said, “Thanks for the history lesson, but all I really needed to know is whether you wanted to trade. And, by the way, this really is a trading post isn’t it?” “At times,” I answered, thinking that I had gotten off easy since I hadn’t acquired any gravel, door stops, unwanted spouses or unruly children.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Grandma Mae, and Gallon Jars

I stepped out into the pre dawn for my morning jog, and noticed the stars shining in the inky sky like Elvis on stage. As I began my journey, Grover, the yellow lab at Cow Canyon Trading Post, began to bark. Grover and I have maintained a long term, clandestine relationship. As I run by the Cow Canyon he barks and ambles out to the road. He has to amble because he has had far too many leftovers. I have also had a few too many leftovers, so we are two of a kind. When he reaches the road, I scratch him behind the ears and he stumbles back to the porch, apparently fully satisfied. Grover and I have to keep our relationship under wraps because his owner and I don't always see eye to eye.

My runs typically take me past the Jones farm to the old Episcopal mission and back. The route is not long, so I typically arrive back home about sun up. On this particular morning, Mother Nature was calling as I rounded the curve to the Twin Rocks. I ducked into the cafe to let her know I was listening, and noticed a one gallon jar perched on the counter by the cash register. I hurried back out of the cafe and up to the house to help get the kids out of bed and off to school.

When I walked into the trading post after taking Kira to school, Natalie said, "Grandma Mae died this weekend." That explained the one gallon jar. Jars such as this appear from time to time at various locations around town. They are generally of the institutional mayonnaise variety (glass with a screw on lid), and arrive after one of the older Navajo people has died. In the not too distant past, when a Navajo individual died he was wrapped in a blanket with some of his prized possessions and placed in a cleft in the cliffs or behind a large rock that would shelter the body. Contemporary standards will not allow the deceased to be placed in the arms of Mother Earth in the same fashion. The expense of a modern day burial is more than many families can bear, so the extended family and the community is encouraged to contribute - thus, the gallon jars with one long slit in the lid for financial contributions. Although subconsciously I knew the meaning of that jar, I just wasn't focusing on it at the time and didn't want to know who had died.

When I went back to the cafe later that morning to look at the jar, there was Mae looking out from the picture that had been pasted on its side. She looked just as she had a few months earlier when I stopped by to say hello. She was sitting in a booth at the cafe, which is next to the trading post, engaged in eating her hamburger and french fries; as pleasant as usual. Barry and I first met Mae during the summer of 1976 or 1977. We were just out of high school and running a small trading post around the corner from the current Twin Rocks. Duke decided that it was a good idea to have a Navajo rug weaver sit on the porch and weave. The thought was that the weaver would attract more people to the trading post. Mae fit the bill, so she brought her loom and began weaving. She received $5.00 dollars an hour, $1.00 per photograph and whatever her rug brought when it was finished. We generally had a right of first refusal when the rug was done, so if Barry, Mae and I couldn't make a deal, or if a visitor offered a better price, Mae was free to sell the rug elsewhere. Barry and I never purchased one of her rugs; the tourists always got to her first.

Mae didn't speak English, and our Navajo has never progressed past the trading post variety. So, our conversations were not long or detailed. She was always gentle, friendly and happy and we always enjoyed her. For us, Mae's death is just one more example of the passing of an era, and the changes that are quickly coming to the Navajo Reservation. Over the years we have seen Sam Benally, Espee Jones, John Joe Begay, Wooey Boy's Son, Bessy Blue Eyes and many more of the old ones pass on. John Joe Begay, who died last year at the age of 107, was thought to be the oldest living human. Since John was born at home in an age when documentation was not important, his age could not be substantiated and we never knew for sure.

Bluff, which is just two miles north of the northern boarder of the Navajo Reservation is in essence a cultural cross roads. In Bluff, the traditional Navajo culture meshes with the contemporary Navajo and anglo cultures. A large percentage of the older people still maintain the traditional lifestyle. These old ones continue to herd sheep, visit medicine men when they are ill, maintain hogans, speak only Navajo and wear the style of dress brought to the Reservation by the early traders. These people represent a time when the Navajos wore their wealth on their person. The women and men were bathed in beautiful turquoise and silver, and shone like those early morning stars. Much of the jewelry is gone, but the beauty of the people is still readily apparent. Mae will be missed, as will her traditional culture when it is gone.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, June 26, 2003


So there I was, sitting in the parking lot of the Chinle, Arizona fast food joint, waiting for Jana to get her bagful of guaranteed heartburn and trying to entertain Kira, who was sitting in the back seat. The Reservation dogs were circling, and I was staring in amazement at how well fed they seemed to be. I have seen countless Reservation dogs, and none ever looked as perky and portly as this group. They trotted around the parking lot with their tails sticking straight in the air as though they were masters of this red earth universe; no skinny, slinking dogs on this day. After about ten minutes of watching these cocky canines, I noticed yet another pair coming my way. As they came abreast of the car I noticed that the larger dog had a great wad of chewing gum stuck to his left buttock. Completely oblivious to the sticky mess on his backside, he proceed to sniff the grassy area near the highway for choice morsels while his buddy did the same.

I began thinking that there may be a children's story in this situation, so I took up my legal pad and started scratching notes. "Don Coyote, son of _____, from Red Pop Ranch, Arizona, and _______, from just over the hill at the Funny Farm. It was a union of convenience that produced this wily Reservation pup." "Half coyote, half ______, he had taken the title of "Don," indicating a nobleman of Spanish descent, to ensure his acquaintances knew how he should be treated." "Nacho Sanchez, the trusty sidekick, an undocumented alien from the________ region of Mexico." "Rebecca Rabbitat, environmental engineer, Don's sweetheart from Ganado." You get the picture.

Kira finally noticed that I was feverishly writing on the pad, (probably because my pen had run out of ink and I had confiscated her sketch pencil in an effort to continue the creative process), and asked, "What are you doing?" I replied that I was jotting down ideas for a children's book, and asked, "Do you want to hear them?" "No," she said. At that moment, my creativity flagged, and I was left to contemplate the dusty Reservation town outside my windshield. It began to dawn on me exactly how much the people of this red land had become incorporated into my being. The thought took me back to a time when I was very young.

After a few years of living in northern California, Duke and Rose decided it was time to bring us back to the land of our roots. When we returned to Utah, we lived in a tidy white house next to Blanding Elementary School. Located on the same parcel of land was a new mobile home (trailer) owned by my paternal grandfather, Woodrow Wilson Simpson, and my step grandmother, Fern Powell Black Simpson. "Woody," as he was known, had a name of familiar origin. Although he was not very presidential, he always had a drawer full of toys for us to play with when we visited, and had a mind full of funny songs which he related while he bumped us up and down on his knee. Songs like, "Then comes Noah stumblin' in the dark, tryin' ta find a hammer just to build himself an ark. Then come the animals two by two, the hippopotamus, the kick kangaroo. Then comes the lion, then comes the bar, then comes the elephant without any har."

Shortly after we moved into the white house, Woody's mobile home caught fire. After the insurance adjuster was finished making his evaluation, we purchased the trailer, renovated it and moved it to the east side of town. It was placed behind the Plateau service station, and we began our lives in this new location. Since it had only two bedrooms, Craig, Barry and I slept in sleeping bags on the living room floor until a second trailer was secured as our exclusive sleeping accommodations. I often thought of these arrangements during the Paula Jones/Bill Clinton affair. I identified with Paula Jones, since we both had originated in trailers. I often, to my wife's chagrin, proclaimed that Paula Jones and I were both "trailer trash." For me it was a badge of honor. While I sat watching animals meander around Chinle, thinking about my childhood and how the Navajo people had fully incorporated themselves into my life, I thought of an old oak display cabinet that we had during our trailer tenure. When Blue Mountain Trading Post was built, that display case was incorporated into the built-in cabinets and has remained there ever since. It made me think how the people from the trading post had become as indispensable to me as that display is to the trading post; take it out and all that you have left is a very large void. These people are as important to me as my arms and legs.

By the time I started my journey home, it was twilight. Kira, Jana and Grange had proceeded south to Tucson and I was alone with my thoughts. As I sped along the narrow Reservation road, the shadows played on the barren land and I was once again struck with its stark beauty. Sloped mesas and jagged spires jutted into the sky. As the sun went down, the lights of the Reservation glowed like the mica stars placed into the sky by First Man and Coyote. I was once again reminded of a prior time. The first time I flew into Los Angeles at night I was startled at the symmetry and number of lights on the ground. The Reservation has none of that symmetry or numerosity. The lights are few and scattered; a small camp here, a cluster of buildings there. Most Reservation towns contain far fewer people than one Los Angeles block, and the buildings are scattered helter skelter about the landscape. Maybe it is that confusion that attracts me.

Jana and I often wonder what we would be doing if we were not in Bluff. I am afraid that I have been incorporated into this land and its people, just as they have been incorporated into me.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Old Joe

I first met Joe Beletso in the late 1970s. He was long, lean and stately. He always wore a tall black felt hat with a rounded crown, and looked as if he had just stepped out of a sepia tone post card. He was of an earlier era, probably born around the turn of the century. When asked his birth date, he would simply reply "hola," ( I don't know! ). Joe liked to dress in layers. Below his classic "Indian hat" and whispy gray whiskers, you might see a white tee shirt, a red flannel button down, three or four shirts, a leather vest and, finally, a Levi's jacket. Two pairs of Levi's would be hung from his bony hips, protecting his long, thin legs. Big black hob nail boots completed Joe's wardrobe, and he wore the same outfit whether it was below zero or 100 degrees above. I never saw him sweat or look the least bit chilled, he seemed to have the whole clothing issue worked out.

On the day of our first meeting, I was working at Blue Mountain Trading Post when into the parking lot wheeled a big, brown Ford pick-up truck with dual tires on the back axle. Out of that big rig climbed Joe, followed by a small entourage of family members. The group had a big impact on the small store. The old man walked right up to me and looked me over with a twinkle of humor in his eyes. He bobbed his head a bit and asked if we pawned silver jewelry. I curiously looked back and him, then peered over his shoulder at his group, and wondered what was developing. I said "Yah ah teeh Hosteen," trying to impress him with my perfect Navajo interpretation of "hello sir." Well that started an embarrassing chain of events. Joe launched into eloquent Navajo, and left me totally confused. Noticing my lack of understanding, he patiently began again. "Me wanna pawn this bracelet. It be okay? One Hundred Dollars be good!" I had the sneaking suspicion that I was being toyed with. At that moment, I would have bet plenty that this grand gentleman had a genuine mastery of the English language.

Joe peeled back his shirt sleeve and produced a beautiful traditional bracelet, which was set with a cluster of soft blue/green turquoise. I looked it over and quickly determined that its value easily merited a One Hundred Dollar loan. I said, "Be good by me." Joe laughed at the vain attempt to recover my composure. We filled out the forms and I handed over a crisp new One Hundred Dollar bill. I placed his bracelet in a paper bag for storage and filing, said thank you and shook his hand. Hosteen Beletso offered the traditional Navajo "soft" handshake and took the payment. He reached into his inner shirt pocket and retrieved a wallet as thick as a club sandwich. It was encircled by a wide rubber band, which was meant to hold its bulging contents in place. Joe ceremoniously removed the rubber band and opened his billfold. Inside was a stack of One Hundred Dollar bills two inches thick. Placing the new bill next to its companions, Joe smiled broadly, replaced the strap and buried the wallet under all those layers of clothing. I have been told that Joe also carried a second wallet for small bills, but I never personally saw that one exposed. He then said, "Pretty good all right." As if on cue, the entire group turned and exited the building, piled into the truck and off they went. I stood there watching their departure, trying to make some sense of what had just happened. Hosteen Beletso certainly did not need the money. I wondered if I had just experienced that notoriously dry Navajo sense of humor. I just sat there for a few minutes, frustrated by this new mystery. At that point I determined to unravel the puzzle as quickly as possible. I didn't realize it would take me years to do so.

I began to investigate Joe, and found some interesting bits of information, much of it only recently discovered. Earlier this week Clyde B., my Navajo mentor, introduced me to the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act). Clyde said that in the 1870s and 1880s, there was increasing frustration with federal Indian policy. At that time there were basically two schools of thought with regard to the issue. Those who subscribed to the first believed that federal Indian policy had been a complete failure, and that dramatic changes were needed. Those who followed the second looked at the large tracts of Indian land as unrealized opportunities to make vast sums of money.

The Dawes Act was inspired by those who favored the Indians. These people believed that if individual Indians were given plots of land to farm, they would become self sufficient, and eventually become part of mainstream America. Basically, the goal was complete assimilation. The act authorized the government to grant 160 acre portions of reservation land to individual Indians. Title to the property was held by the government in trust in behalf the individuals for a period of 25 years, after which it was transferred free of encumbrances. The holding period was intended to give the individuals time to learn accepted farming techniques, and to shelter the land from state taxation until the people had a chance to get on their feet. Unfortunately, the Dawes Act was also a failure, and large tracts of reservation land were lost, victims of tax sales, or sold for insignificant sums. So, in 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act ended the practice of allotment. The Indian Reorganization Act, contrary to the Dawes Act, was based upon the premise that tribes would continue to exist indefinitely. The government's policy of assimilation had failed to accomplish its desired goal.

Joe had been granted land on nearby McCraken Mesa during the allotment period. Since it was a rugged, rocky, mostly vertical, piece of real estate located in the southeastern corner of Utah, Joe's land didn't seem to have much value. In 1956, however, oil and gas were discovered beneath the surface of this forsaken land and a small rag tag group of Navajos, who had been scratching out a living on this mesa for many years, were about to get a lesson in energy development. They banded together in what is termed a "unitization" and jointly began to receive the benefits of the discovery and to live the good life.

This explains how Joe came to possess so many Ben Franklins, but it doesn't explain why he was so intent on adding one more bill. Again I relied on Clyde for enlightenment. It seems that Joe may have been trying to build a credit line. By borrowing small sums of money from local lenders, and establishing a positive credit history, he may have had his eye on bigger prospects. This could have easily been the case, because after years of doing business with Joe I would have helped him with any financial endeavor. Old Joe's credit was impeccable. It is my understanding that every banker in our local area felt the same. Another scenario may have been that Joe simply used us as a safe haven for his extensive jewelry collection. It was not unusual for us to have a dozen pieces of Joe's prized possessions at any given time. Navajo homes are seldom locked, even in this day and age, and when Joe left home he simply wired his front door closed. He may have found it wise to store his jewelry in our safe.

I haven't seen or heard from Joe in many years. We withdrew from the pawn business about ten years ago, and have lost track of many of the friends we made while in it. Clyde mentioned that he believes Joe to be alive and well, living in an extended care center somewhere in the Four Corners area.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post