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