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

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Lessons Learned

Many years ago, when I was extremely naive about Navajo culture, among other things, I did something terrible. . . I twirled Navajo baskets. That's right, and, after years of trading post therapy, I am free to admit the indiscretion. I am ready to confess in the hope of cleansing my conscience and putting this matter behind me. I need to unchain my psyche and allow myself to progress. Now I know many of you are thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything?" Some may even ask, "Is he crazy, what's wrong with spinning baskets?". Then there are those of you who may be so surprised and saddened by my confession that you will choose to turn away. Many may be truly disturbed by what I have done. I assure you, however, that at the time, I was ignorant of the distress I was causing; distress to those who had woven the baskets; and distress to those who knew that there was so much emotion and meaning stitched into those inanimate objects. As hard as it may be to believe, I viewed these beautiful baskets as common, decorative "things." Some of my earliest memories are of my parents using Navajo baskets to decorate our home. For years, to me they were simply "baskets"! It wasn't until I accepted the mantle of "Indian Trader" that I learned the truth about Navajo baskets and their proper care.

1970's Navajo Ceremonial Basket

Here's the scenario. I am stationed in the trading post, sitting behind the counter, maintaining an important air. I have the cash; he who has the cash is king. Thus I am all-powerful. In walks an unsuspecting weaver who, with great ceremony, unveils and presents her latest accomplishment. Laying the basket on the counter for my viewing pleasure, the artist begins to explain the meaning behind the piece. My young mind is not focused on what she, or he, is trying to communicate. It is instead focused on trying to get the thing for the lowest possible price, and wondering if I could possibly get a date with that fiery Washburn girl I had just met. As I ponder these questions, I place my index finger upon the center coils of the basket and begin to spin it. I begin negotiations, unaware that the focus of the artist has shifted from what I am saying to the motion of her creation. Her head begins to move in the same circular fashion; she becomes dizzy with the movement, and her stress level rises significantly. Finally she can take the sacrilege no longer, she reaches out and grasps the basket with both hands, stopping its unnatural rotation. I simply continue with my objective of relieving her of the work and adding it to our inventory. I honestly didn't realize that I had been the cause of so much chaos.

As time went on, my "spinning" continued until it became an obsession. For me it was simply a habit, not an addiction. A certain girl from up the road was consuming a great deal of my time, interest and imagination. I needed something to help me focus on the task at hand. I am sure there was a bit of psychology involved, but even so I can't explain it.. I was becoming aware that the basket weavers reacted strangely to my habit. I began to test their reactions. When they would reach out and stop the basket, I would hesitate for a moment then begin spinning again. I noticed this would result in a higher level of agitation, which pleased me greatly. Not only is it in my nature to pester others, I figured that by spinning the baskets I would cause the weavers to lose focus, thus allowing a break in their concentration and a better value for my money. I am not sure how long this went on, but I am sure that the Navajo weaving community was losing patience with me. They must have been ready to bury me in the nearest ant hill. It all came to a head one day when I was dealing with a young weaver, spinning her basket, and causing great frustration. There just happened to be another Navajo woman in the store who was paying a great deal of attention to what was happening. The woman's name was Mary Grisham. I knew her well; she had a really bad attitude and was vocal about things that ticked her off; a true radical. As I wrapped up the basket purchase, Mary angrily approached me and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Remember, now, that I was very young. At that point I had not learned to deal with angry, aggressive women. I stammered, "What do you mean?" Mary proceeded to inform me that a Navajo basket represents the world; by spinning it the way I did, I caused serious problems. Mary and the weaver stormed out of the trading post, loudly proclaiming my ignorance. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea. I began to ask questions, and found books that better explained the meaning behind the baskets. I found that the traditional basket was a sacred object, used by medicine men to practice healing ceremonies. The interpretation of the weaving is deep and meaningful; much reverence goes into its creation. This was to say nothing of the pictorial baskets that I had carelessly spun; they were depictions of Chant Ways, morality tales, and legendary heroes. My basket spinning had caused such a disturbance because it showed disrespect. In effect, it had caused a chaotic reaction in a spiritual sense. Not good, I assure you. I was then, and am still, embarrassed by my lack of compassion and understanding. It was a hard lesson, but one I have learned well. I have also gained a great deal of humility, and now work hard to recognize what the weavers are trying to say through their art.

I have gained a great deal more common sense. I also work hard to understand others, standard business principles, and am more focused on respect for other people. I married the girl who had distracted me from my calling. It took me seven long years to break her will and talk her into giving up her freedom, but it has been worth the effort. As for other lessons learned, my wife, Laurie, has taught me much indeed. I must say that I am wiser in the ways of women since hooking up with her. I still don't understand them, but I am wiser to their ways. My habit of purposefully aggravating others has often gotten me into trouble over the years. As a matter of fact I have been blessed with a beautiful daughter who has elevated some of my bad habits to new heights. I guess what they say is true, "What goes around comes around." I am now paying dearly for my indiscretions. Needless to say I no longer spin baskets, and I rarely antagonize others just for fun.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post