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.