When Craig, Barry and I were young, our family operated a small filling station on the south side of Blanding, Utah. This was our first venture into family business, and we have been working together, off and on, ever since. Duke began leasing the small Plateau service station when we were 11, 10 and 9 respectively. During summer vacations we maintained a rotating schedule consisting of a morning shift the first day, an afternoon shift the second day and play the third day. Since these were the days before self service, we pumped gas, repaired tires, checked oil levels, sold snacks, and did all the other things associated with small filling stations.
Rena Juan carving from Twin Rocks Trading Post
Duke was always very good about showing us techniques to make the business better. Since we were fairly young, we were not interested in much more than drinking soda pop, eating potato chips and getting through our shift. Duke liked to run a tight ship, so he was always after us to walk out in the parking lot and pick up the trash that had been deposited there the night before. Earlier today, as I walked back to the trading post with my lunch in my hands, I noticed a potato chip package in the parking lot. Since my hands were full, I couldn’t get out to pick it up. It started me thinking about how we have gotten so busy around here that we don’t always get to things as soon as we should.
For the past several months there has been a candy wrapper in my personal parking lot that I have been meaning to pick up. Picking it up requires writing this article. This bit of unfinished business originated when I was asked to write a short essay for a book friends of ours are writing. Carter and Dodie Allen contacted me two years ago about a Navajo rug weaver book they wanted to write. Carter is an accomplished photographer who previously published a very beautiful book about the cowboys of Santa Cruz County, Arizona. The book was extremely well done and was also well received, so Carter and Dodie decided that a Navajo weaver book should be their next project. They also decided to include photographs of a few Indian traders along with the weaver photographs. Since Barry was out of town the day Carter and Dodie arrived, I was the subject of the Twin Rocks section, and became responsible for writing the essay associated with the photograph. In doing so, I mentioned several traders I felt had made significant contributions to contemporary Navajo weaving.
Our friend Jacque read the draft and called to inquire what criteria I had used to determine the traders mentioned. Jacque obviously believed I had a given a lot more thought to the issue than I had. Her point really was, “how do you define an Indian trader?” As usual Jacque had put her finger on a very difficult issue. In the past, an “Indian trader” was one who operated a trading post on a Reservation, who traded with “Indians” and who held a federal Indian trader’s license. Using that definition, Barry and I certainly are not classic traders. Jacque’s idea of an Indian trader actually focused more on the relationship between the traders and the tradees, and discounted the day to day operations of the trading post. She felt very strongly that it was the relationship between the people that determined whether you were or were not a trader.
During our discussions, it became apparent that the trader connection Jacque felt was so important frequently manifested itself in the form of bad business decisions, which were actually good personal decisions. Barry’s article on Hosteen Billy is a very good example. Such decisions are typically the type that make you question your sanity when you make them, and which make you feel very good about yourself when they actually turn out okay. Typically we justify them even when they don’t turn out, by saying, “Oh well, we just had to do that.” Giving Bernie Todacheeny my credit card number was one of those “Oh well” things.
My wife, Jana, frequently reminds me that we are never going to get rich making so many of those “oh well” decisions. Maybe we all have realized that we are never going to get rich anyway, and that the “oh wells” are what keep us smiling.
One "oh well" incident that I frequently laugh, and cringe, about involves carver Rena Juan. Several years ago Rena and her now former husband, Harrison, came into the store with several carvings. It was almost Christmas and Rena was looking for a present for him. She had her eye on a peyote rattle carved by none other than Bernie Todacheeny. The piece
was very nicely done, and had won a blue ribbon at the Gallup Ceremonials. Since I was feeling flush at the moment (I am particularly dangerous when business has been good), and since Rena and Harrison had been very good to me, I told her I would just give her the rattle. She objected and offered to carve a small portrait of me in return. The carving was certain to be yet another unsaleable object, and we already had plenty of those. After telling her that I certainly did not want a carving of me, and listening to her insist, I finally gave in.
Every few months Rena would stop by the trading post and insist that I allow her to photograph me for the carving. Over several months she photographed me from virtually every angle. I often stated that I didn’t want a carving of me, but she continued to insist. About 20 photographs later, I began to press her to just get the project done; I couldn’t bear up to the photo sessions forever. Finally she stopped in with a giant carving of, you guessed it, Steve. I had to admit that it was a very funny piece, but I was expecting a small carving and this was about 4 feet tall. Since I was still a little naive in the ways of the trading business, I was thinking that she had really gone out of her way to compensate me for Harrison’s gift. No, that was not the point at all; she wanted $800.00 for the carving. I informed her that I wouldn’t pay that for it, that it was supposed to be free and that she would have to take it to one of the other traders. Certainly they would pay handsomely for a carving of me! Rena, realizing that I had her over a barrel, decided a serious discount was in order. At that point I said, “Oh well,” and wrote the check. It certainly made Barry, Jana and everybody else around here question my ability to successfully operate the trading post. I was almost retired on the spot.
Rena Juan carving from Twin Rocks Trading Post
I put the carving back in a dark corner of the post, thinking that nobody would see it. The corner is not dark enough, however, because from time to time I hear a “what is that?” and I know somebody has found me. The carving sets back by the rug racks, which is one of my daughter Kira’s favorite hiding places, and it has always unnerved her a little.
One day I came to work to find a cardboard box over the carving’s head. I pouted a little over the insult and put the box back under the counter, pending the inquisition into who had done this dirty deed. Nobody would admit to the cover up. A few days later I caught Kira sneaking around the corner with the box. She climbed up and placed it over my head once again. Apparently she didn’t like me watching what she was doing behind the rugs! Now the carving wears a headdress, so boxes will never again disgrace me.
With that, my parking lot is clean again!
Steve Simpson with carving by Rena Juan
Carving by Rena Juan from Twin Rocks Trading Post