Thursday, April 29, 2004

In Defense of Indian Traders

Last week I telephoned our friend Carol, who works with the Utah Arts Council, to discuss a few things about the trading post. Carol and her staff have been helpful over the past several years, and Barry and I frequently call her to discuss a variety of issues. During this particular conversation, Carol mentioned a Navajo basket presentation Barry and I had done at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art with Lorraine Black, Peggy Black and Joann Johnson. Carol went on to ask, “Do you remember what was said to Barry by a member of the museum staff?” I had to confess that I did not.

Carol went on to tell me that the individual in question had asked, “So, are you Indian traders still taking advantage of the Natives?” Over the many years we have been in the trading post business, Barry and I have encountered that same issue in a variety of situations, so Barry may not have actually mentioned it to me. The title “Indian Trader” seems to incite passion in many people, and the passion is not always positive.

When we built Twin Rocks, the family had many discussions about what to call it. Some family members wanted it to be “Navajo Twins Trading Post,” others suggested “Bluff City Trading Post.” Several alternative names were also mentioned. The funny thing was that no matter what the proffered name, it always included the term trading post; calling it a gallery never seemed appropriate. We are, after all, southern San Juan County born and bred, stained by the red dirt, and calling the business a gallery seemed a little pretentious for people with red necks and farmers’ tans. If only because of the name we chose, we became known as Indian traders, even though the store only vaguely resembles the old time posts.

Had we the foresight to call Twin Rocks a gallery, we may have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. As everybody understands, gallery owners are not known for taking advantage of the disadvantaged. Of course, one look at Barry and me, and people would have known there was something wrong with our choice of terminology.

Carol’s question started me thinking about our relationship with members of the Southwest tribes, and about several of the early traders. Certainly there was a historical basis for the negative comment about our chosen profession. As my mind worked through the issues, I noticed a copy of the recently published photo essay entitled The Weavers Way lying on the counter.

The book has numerous photographs of contemporary Navajo rug weavers, and pictures of and commentary by five modern day Indian traders. The comments of Bruce Burnham, from Sanders, Arizona, struck me as the best illustration of how the traders we know feel about their Native American friends. While discussing how he learned the Navajo language, Bruce said, “I had also learned so much more - the culture of these beautiful people. The truest friends I have are Navajo and with that comes the moral responsibility for their welfare.”

Barry and I also believe we have a “moral responsibility” to be fair with our Native American artists. The responsibility we feel is not paternal, but is instead based upon the belief that we must treat our Indian partners with respect, honesty and dignity; and must demand the same in return. It is not only a moral imperative, it is a business necessity. We understand that our continued viability in this business is tied directly to maintaining the honest and open relationships we have with our artists and customers.

In The Weaver’s Way, Bruce, who seems to have his finger on the pulse of the contemporary Indian trader, summed things up by describing the stages of trader development, decade by decade. These are his words,

1st decade, the trader is primarily concerned with making and retaining a profit;

2nd decade, the trader lightens up, is easier to deal with, and has developed a strong sense of belonging to the community;

3rd decade, the trader becomes more involved in service and compassion for the community and thinks less of profit; and

4th decade, the trader realizes that he isn’t going to be wealthy and begins to give more back to the community;

5th decade, the trader is broke, but happy. He has valued customers from 2 to 40 years old who call him “shi chei” (Grandfather).

Depending on how we calculate our experience, Barry and I are in our third or fourth decade of trading, and have begun to realize the truth of Bruce’s words. We have long since realized the beauty of these people, the obligations we have to them and the economic realities of this business. So, the answer to the staffer’s question is an emphatic “No!”

To avoid future problems, however, Barry and I will now refer to ourselves as “Art Consultants,” and Twin Rocks Trading Post will be known as “Twin Rocks Trading Post, Art Gallery, Souvenir Shop, Store, Loan Office, Internet Connection, News Room, Historical Repository, Museum, Listening Post, Parking Lot, Psychotherapy Office, Truck Stop, Soul Therapy, Candy Store, Financial Advisory, Chat Room, Law Clinic, Church and Post Office.” If that doesn’t solve our image problem, nothing will. Barry and I are currently soliciting bids for enlarged signage.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 22, 2004


While traveling home from the valley of Salt Lake recently, I found that I was becoming quite bored with the drive. My wife, children and I had departed before 9:00 a.m., passed through a minor snow storm over Soldier's Summit and emerged into brilliantly bright blue skies full of puffy white clouds outside of Price. Laurie had been generously helpful with advice concerning driving strategies as we traversed the snow swept mountains, but as we entered the sparseness of the desert she decided I could handle things just fine by myself. After fluffing a pillow and reclining the passenger seat, she promptly passed into slumber land. I attempted conversation with the kids in the back of the van without success; they were either reading, playing with the Gameboy or simply ignoring me.

I have found that any chance of meaningful exchange with my children these days occurs only when they want to talk. This usually happens when they are in the grips of teenage hormone fluctuations, hungry, or in need of money. I should have considered myself lucky that they were quiet, but I was getting sleepy and needed mental stimulation. After several attempts at initiating a verbal brewhawhaw, and receiving no satisfaction whatsoever, I gave up. As I refocused on driving down the road in an acceptable manner, I noticed that the highway department had recently impressed those funny little grooves into the centerline of the roadway. These bumps are meant to let one know when he or she has strayed too near oncoming traffic, by causing the tires to roar when they encounter the grooves. My right eyebrow raised itself up in a high arch as an idea sprang into my head.

I closely inspected my peacefully sleeping spouse and wondered, "Was it right for her to be dozing and leave me to the tedious driving duties?" She had spent most of the night visiting with her sisters, talking until the wee hours of the morning before going to bed. She just assumed that the driving responsibilities were mine. I gave the steering wheel a slight nudge to the left; bbbrrrruuummmppph! Laurie sat straight up in her seat, grasped desperately for any available handhold and looked around, anticipating the impending accident. Quickly realizing that there was no immediate danger, she focused on me. I gave her the most innocent facial expression I could muster, and said, "Oops! Sorry, babe." She gave me a suspicious look, grunted, then relaxed back into her seat and regained her sleep mode.

Humph! My plan to wake her and encourage a discussion had failed. A look of consternation must have crossed my brow. I glanced into the rearview mirror and noticed the equally distrustful faces of the kids gazing back at me. I gave them a snotty look, much as they often give me and went back to driving that long, straight, relentless stretch of highway. The further I drove, the sleepier I got. Now everyone in the car was passed out and my frustration was building. It was at this point that I noticed the shoulder of the road had been marked with those dastardly depressions as well. In this case there were twenty foot sections of indentation a ten foot flat space then twenty more feet of impressions. I wondered at my safety, but was in dire need of conversation to stay awake.

I edged the van to the right; bbbrrrruuummmppph, bbbrrrruuummmppph complained the tires. Laurie barely moved this time, but she was definitely awake. "What are you trying to do?" she asked with a profound hint of irritation to her voice. "Testing my boundaries," I said brightly. "Without a doubt, you have reached your limit, please don't explore them further," she said with a hint of warning in her voice. Laurie then turned to the window and returned to the land of nod. My offspring added a few comments of their own, which I ignored, as they do mine. I decided that it would be prudent to refrain from further agitating actions and returned my attention to the road ahead and keeping the van squarely between the lines.

Recognizing the fact that I was not able to stimulate a conversation with Laurie, my mind began to focus on boundaries. It seems that Steve and I are constantly attempting to expand our borders here at the trading post. We push our bounds in the internet marketing arena in an effort to share our love of Native American art and the people who create it. We are constantly bouncing off the walls of traditional and cultural implications of the Navajo people in our attempts at understanding their way of thought. Steve seems to be searching for a new and unusual character front to portray at the store. He has often discussed this notion and assumes that I am in dire need of a remodel as well. Whatever the situation, we are exploring it fully and testing our limits.
Be convinced that we will continue to "test our boundaries" here at the trading post, and unfortunately in our personal lives as well. It is lucky for us that our wives are so understanding and don't take us too seriously. Steve is much worse than I, I assure you. It is in our nature, probably brought on from being raised in Bluff, living in such a remote and unregulated area and dealing with artists of a like mind and attitude. We will attempt to "keep it positive", well mostly anyway!

Below are two artists who test boundaries as well (the bear and coyote are not usually portrayed in Navajo art).

Navajo Basket Weaver Peggy Black at Twin Rocks Trading Post Navajo Rug Weaver Helena Begay at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Navajo Basket Weaver Peggy Black and Navajo Rug Weaver Helena Begay

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Mired in the 70's

Don McLean, American Pie; Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle; Jackson Browne, Running on Empty; Elton John, Greatest Hits; The Band, Greatest Hits; Neil Young, Harvest; and Three Dog Night, Greatest Hits. As I flipped through my CD case looking for a disk to slip into the car stereo, I realized there was a significant risk that I had become mired in the past. Although there were, in fact, a few contemporary artists featured in the selection, most of the albums were recorded in the 1970s, when I was still in high school and college. I have always thought of myself as progressive, but my music collection indicated otherwise.

As I made my selection, and began listening to the vintage songs, I began to consider how my musical backwardness related to my work at the trading post. Barry and I have always encouraged our artists to create new and innovative works, and thought this placed us on the cutting edge of Southwest art dealers. The local Navajo basket weavers began selling us their work in the mid-1970s, when the contemporary weaving movement was in its infancy. At first, the baskets were really just variations on the traditional wedding/ceremonial motif. We have some very small versions and some that are as big as a wash tub.

In 1977, I left for college and, except for one year, was away from southern Utah for the next thirteen years. In that time Barry and Duke had been encouraging the local Navajo and Ute weavers to improve their weaving skills. It all seemed to start very simply; Duke began asking some of the Ute weavers to recreate baskets he had seen as a young man. That expanded to requesting the Ute and Navajo weavers to try other innovative designs. By the time I returned in 1989 to open Twin Rocks Trading Post, most of the Ute weavers had either passed away or were not producing many baskets. Navajo basketry, on the other hand, had moved into an explosively inventive phase.

Navajo Basket Weave Elsie Holiday at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Navajo Basket Weaver Elsie Holiday

Within a year or two of opening Twin Rocks in the fall of 1989, I met Elsie Holiday, whom I felt was an extremely creative basket weaver. This was a time in the development of contemporary Navajo basket weaving Barry and I refer to as the “cross cultural” period; meaning that the Navajo weavers were generally experimenting with designs and variations of designs from a variety of other Southwest tribes. We would often see designs from the Papago (now referred to as the “Tohono O’odham”), Pima, Apache, Paiute, Hopi and other tribes represented on Navajo baskets. At times the motifs were literal copies of those designs. Frequently, however, there was a blending of the designs from the other tribes.

The first monumental work Elsie did for the trading post, that I recall anyway, was a series of Pima squash blossom patterns. The largest basket was approximately 30 inches in diameter and had twelve petals. There were two ten petal baskets that were approximately 26 inches in diameter and two more eight petal baskets of approximately 24 inches completed the set. When it was complete we put it in the trading post with a $10,000.00 price tag, which gave Duke, Barry and everyone else in the business heart palpitations. The set eventually sold, and I now wish I had never let it go.

The next show stopper was an orange and gray vessel based on a pottery piece by Richard Zane Smith. Barry and I entered it in the Museum of Northern Arizona Navajo Show, thinking it would win best of show, since it was one of the best pieces we had ever seen. We were crestfallen when it didn’t even win a ribbon; not even an honorable mention. As we began to investigate the reasons why, we were told that the judge had said, “If I give this basket a ribbon, next year there will be gobs and gobs of orange baskets. I can’t live with that.” I guess he had a strong color bias. In order to redeem ourselves, Barry and I shipped the basket off to the Gallup Ceremonials, where it won a first place ribbon. We felt vindicated.

Over the years Elsie has brought baskets into the trading post that are so beautiful and so creative, they just about stop your heart. To look at the photograph album we keep of all the baskets we have purchased over the last eight or ten years, you would think Elsie must be 80 years old, but no, she is not even 40. The body of her work is so large and so diverse it is startling.

When I returned from my trip, I was still worrying about being stuck in the past. When I got to the trading post the next morning, the photograph album was on the counter and open to Elsie’s section. Looking at those baskets gave me hope that there really was a progressive side to my personality, otherwise, I don’t think I would be able to appreciate the beauty of Elsie’s creations.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 8, 2004

Free Ranging Bull

A good friend of mine - we'll call him Don, because that's his name - tells a fishing story about catching only cow tracks. Even so, he maintains that it was one of the most memorable outdoor adventures he ever experienced. It seems that one day Don received a telephone call from a buddy who wanted to catch "some of those monster channel catfish that the San Juan river is famous for". Don tried explaining that there are very few "monster cats" in the San Juan River, and that the few smaller fish he had reeled in thus far had the distinct taste of mud.

Although Don was not interested in catching "mud cats," his friend could not be persuaded to give up the idea. It seems that his buddy had just purchased a brand new, four wheel drive, Ford pick-up truck and was itching to try it out. He told Don that he would pick him up early the next morning.

Sure enough, the guy arrived at Don's door bright and early, ready to fish. Don says that he was a bit timid about climbing into that shiny new vehicle with his worn jeans and dusty boots. His friend assured him that the truck was intended for hunting and fishing, and asked, "Which way to the most inaccessible spot on the river?" Don directed him west of town to a sandy, wide spot in the river, just over the ridge from the airport. As they turned off the highway onto the dirt road leading to the river, they had to cross a rusty, beat up, home made cattle guard meant to keep in a small, rough looking, undernourished band of cattle that ranged freely over this portion of desert scrub land.

The problem was that a gaunt, hard looking bull was partially blocking the road, and looked as if he had no intention of moving. Don was familiar with this contrary fellow, and directed his friend to simply pull the front end of the truck up within a few feet of the critter and stop. If the bull was obliging, he would move aside and let them pass; it was, after all, his territory. Don told his friend not to honk the horn, because the beast had been blasted far too many times and reacted badly to it. Don's friend wondered at the directions, but did as he was told. The bull decided that it would be okay to let the truck pass. The old fellow moved slightly to the driver's side of the truck in order to give them room. What irked Don's buddy most was a close up, full on view of the bull's manure encrusted back side as he drove past. It was almost as if the feisty creature had presented this picture as a gesture of what he thought of the situation.

As predicted, the fishing produced nothing but sunburn and cockle burrs for the two outdoorsmen. Don's buddy seemed upset about the bull's nasty attitude, and mentioned to Don that he thought the creature was a despicable excuse for a bull. Don shrugged his shoulders and said that the critter was a "free range bull," and better left alone. The two men decided it was time to give up trying to catch fish and headed in to the Twin Rocks Cafe for breakfast. As they made their way back to the highway, they noticed the bull had retaken the center of the road, right in front of the cattle guard. Don's friend let out an oath, and nudged the truck right up to the old devil before stopping. The beastly bovine turned his head slightly in order to eyeball the truck's driver, gave his heavily horned head a shake and slowly shuffled to the passenger side of the vehicle.

Don's fishing buddy was becoming miffed by the bull's nonchalant, kingly attitude, and was losing patience. As he pulled the truck even with the brute, Don was presented with the same posterior view his friend had so recently complained of. Don's window was rolled down, and he became rather uncomfortable with the close proximity of the bull's powerful backside and its distinct odor. Without realizing it, Don slid to the center of the seat and was sitting next to his buddy. The guy snorted with laughter, and asked Don if they were now engaged. Don was more uncomfortable next to the bull than embarrassed by sitting so close to this wiseguy. He told his pal to pull forward and leave the beast alone.

The bull moved in a direction directly away from the door of the vehicle to a distance of about three feet and stopped. Don's rankled friend could no longer take the insinuated abuse of such a lowly creature. He laid down on the truck's horn hard and long. The blaring noise reverberated across the landscape in an ominous way. Just as the would-be joker touched his hooter, that seemingly lethargic beast sprang into action. Quicker than the blink of an eye, that old bull hunched forward, raised his nasty back side and lashed out with his hind feet.

The impact of the bull's hooves on the passenger door sent shock waves through the new Ford, and through the minds of its passengers. The now outraged, wild eyed creature sprang around to face the truck, blowing snot from his flared nostrils and shaking his horned head in a menacing fashion. Don instantly recognized the threat of adding insult to injury, and admonished his friend to drive on. His buddy wasted no time crossing that cattle guard to safety, out of reach of the highly agitated beast.

Pulling the truck a good hundred yards away from the offending creature, Don and his friend sprang from the truck to inspect the damage. There, imprinted into the side of that brand new truck, was a perfectly matched pair of hoof prints. Don's friend let out a string of expletives that wilted the cactus flowers within the sound of his voice. He jumped to the truck, pulled the seat forward and retrieved the high powered rifle resting there. It took Don quite some time to wrestle the weapon from the man's hands, and persuade him to spare the life of that bull. The winning argument had something to do with the fact that the disrespectful creature's owner considered the bull to be a prize specimen; the animal would surely be worth a great deal of money. The fishing buddy and the free range bull gave each other one last disgusted look and parted company.

As Don's friend dropped him off and drove away in his "marked" vehicle, Don noticed a tear of frustration and sadness trickle down his buddy's cheek. The funny thing is that the guy never had his truck repaired. It seems that he received so much recognition from and conversation about those hoof prints that he left them where they were. Of course his story was exaggerated and embellished with time but the ultimate lesson is obvious. Listen closely to the advice of locals and don't mess with a free range bull; he just might kick truck!

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Is This Our Home?

Recently Jana asked me to take Kira, Grange and Tarrik to a storytelling festival in Blanding. There was a meeting she needed to attend, so she promised to catch up with us shortly after the program started. Since the kids are so young, and since their combined attention spans do not exceed six seconds, I had to be convinced. Trying to monitor three children by myself in an auditorium full of people didn’t seem like much fun to me. But Jana can be persuasive, so there we were, sitting on the floor in front of the hall, listening to Navajo comedian Vincent Craig telling jokes about going to the trading post with his grandmother.

Ceremonial Basket case in Twin Rocks Trading Post

Aside from being extremely funny, Vincent is interesting because he pokes fun at his people by speaking in the pigeon English that we white folks enjoy so much, but are afraid to use lest we appear bigoted. I think we worry more about that issue than our Navajo friends. Many of our artists tease Barry and me in Navajo-English whenever they bring in their art, seemingly unaware of the swirling controversy.

To Vincent, and many other Navajo people, the trading post experience seems almost mystical. I have often heard older Navajo men and women talk about going to the local post with their parents or grandparents, standing on the wood floors of the “bull pin”and looking longingly at the many desirable items displayed on the shelves or in the counters. They remember the old days, when travel was difficult, and trading posts stocked all the necessities like flour, lard, canned peaches, coffee, saddles, tack and, most importantly, candy.

Sometimes I think there may even be a little of that old fashioned trading post magic associated with Twin Rocks, since we often have Navajo families come in and browse for long periods of time. During their visits, the Navajo people almost always stop to admire the ceremonial baskets; the ones still used for healing or wedding ceremonies. The adults inspect each weaving, bending them just a little to make sure they are stiff and well woven, smelling their pungent aroma, pointing out certain stitches and discussing the makers. There seems to be a certain protocol, since the inspection procedure is almost universal.

Once in a while the visitors will reach into their pocketbooks and pull out a crisp bill or two to purchase a basket. This exchange requires slow and deliberate movements, as though it is part of a sacred ceremony. First, the wallet is carefully removed from the pocket or purse. Next the billfold is unfolded or unbuttoned, and the owner peers inside the open compartment; apparently not finding the desired item. What they are looking for is often hidden away in a secret location; set aside for just such an occasion. (From time to time the item is secreted in an place other than a wallet that makes Barry and me blush and turn away.) When located, the neatly folded bills are cautiously extracted, revealing creases that indicate the money may have been hidden a long time. Then the notes are carefully unfolded, scanned to ensure the correct denominations and gingerly handed over to complete the transaction.

Last weekend, a Navajo couple and their two young daughters wandered into the trading post. Since it was Saturday morning, and since they were obviously in no hurry to get anywhere, I mentally adjusted for a long visit. After a time, the parents discovered the ceremonial baskets and the ritual inspection process began. The girls decided reading was more interesting than baskets, and parked themselves in front of the book display. As they thumbed through various publications, I heard the younger child ask the older girl, “Is that our home?”

When I looked over the counter to see what they were reading, I was surprised by what I saw; it was a book with a picture of the Grand Canyon on the cover, and the photograph was a shot looking down into the canyon from the top. There was not a house, mobile home or hogan to be found anywhere in the picture. The little girl obviously had a broad and unique concept of where she lived; she was a child of the land, not bounded by four walls.

The Navajo perspective never ceases to amaze and confound me. It has led me to the conclusion that if there is indeed magic at this trading post, it is the magic of these Navajo people and this red land in which we live, not the structure or its contents

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post