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