Thursday, June 24, 2004

Roots and Wings

It was late afternoon and Barry had gone to watch his daughter Alyssa play baseball, Jana had gone to a Chapter meeting to find funding for her annual Bluff Kids' Kamp and Kira and Grange were spending time with their Aunt Kathy and Uncle Craig. So I was alone in the trading post when I noticed Ruby Coggeshell's pickup crunching through the gravel parking lot of the trading post. If she has one of her expensive rugs, Ruby calls before she comes by, so I was pretty sure she didn't have anything that would break our already strained bank.

Ruby and her mother, Bessie, weave a beautiful style of rug known as the Red Mesa Outline. The pattern is very dynamic, and reminds me of a segment of the Disney movie Fantasia, where music is represented by pulsating lines. The Navajo people believe the pattern refers to "female energy," the only monster the Hero Twins, Monster Slayer and Born for Water, were unable to conquer. Barry and I relate to that particular style of weaving, because we have never been able to manage, let alone conquer, the female energy around here.

Ruby, Bessie and Bessie's sister, Mae Yazzie, are some of our favorite rug weavers. Aside from weaving beautiful rugs, they are easy to talk with and always nicely turned out. Their clothing is universally immaculate, and we often have nice conversations about what's happening with their family. On this particular day, our discussion turned to Ruby's only child, Kevin, who recently graduated high school.

Ruby mentioned that her son was soon entering the Navy, and I found myself wondering when the military amended its policies to allow children into its ranks. In our photograph album, there is a picture dated 1996, which shows Kevin as a ten year old boy holding a rug we had just purchased from Bessie. To me it seems that Kevin should still be ten.

As we talked, Ruby said , "I believe there are two things you need to give your children, roots and wings; Kevin already has roots, now he is getting his wings." I had never heard that particular phrase before, and it struck me as terribly appropriate. As a single mother, Ruby has done an excellent job raising Kevin to know who he is and where he came from. Now, difficult though it may be, she was ready to release him into the world.

My conversations with Ruby made me think of my children, and all the nieces and nephews who have grown up around the trading post. A few of those nieces and nephews are beginning the emancipation process, and their excitement and nervousness is sometimes palpable. Soon they will be out of the house and off to college. One of the most interesting aspects of this process is how my siblings and in-laws are reacting; they often seem more nervous about the separation than their children. They fret and stew about being empty nesters, worry about not doing enough with the children before they leave home and wonder what to do when the kids are gone.

It may be a while before Dacia, Kira and Grange fully unfurl their wings, but already they are threatening. Raising the children at the trading post has given them a certain maturity and comfort with other people that most children don't develop until much later. It has also given them a sense of business practice and personal relationships. Lately Barry and I have been amazed as Kira creates joke after joke, bringing them to us in return for her three dollar payment. She seems so self-assured and confident as she puts the jokes on the counter, watches as we read them, monitors our response and demands payment. The trading post seems to have grounded Kira and given her the opportunity to begin developing her wings at the same time. It will be interesting to see how she soars.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Pollen Path

The evening was a dream. I was lying in the hammock my wife had given me for my birthday, watching twilight set in. Looking up from my woven perch into the slowly darkening sky was making me drowsy, and soothing my senses I was captivated by the varying shades of blue presenting themselves to the small patch of heaven I could see above me. Shades of turquoise, then medium blue satin, then dark blue velveteen rolled in like lazy ocean waves. Each time I closed my eyes, they reopened to darker tones and a richer color saturation.

I was situated on a small strip of grass facing the sharply peaked roof of our house. A brace of towering blue spruce trees shaded my back. To my left, a magnificent old cherry tree spread its over sized branches in a protective embrace. To my right the garage roof blocked the lights of the nearby convenience store. I could just see the full bodied locust tree peering around the edge of the house.

There was a slight, cooling wind causing the tree branches to sway in slow rhythmic motions. The leaves danced on the breeze, making a barely discernible, soothing rustle in the night air. The multitude of small birds that inhabit our desert oasis were whirring about overhead, causing a ruckus and looking to settle in for the night. I could hear my wife digging in the flower bed near the south wall. I was certain Laurie regretted providing me a reason to loaf on summer evenings while she immersed herself in yard work.

My much used excuse of being highly allergic to any form of plant matter is wearing thin. I am pretty sure I gave myself up the other day when I shared my appreciation of a book I have been reading (The Pollen Path, a collection of Navajo myths retold by Margaret Kent ) and the philosophy of life it represents. I had a feeling she might misconstrue my message and somehow use it against me.

I shared a quote with her that I found inspirational, "Remember always to walk in the pollen path of peace and of blessing. Be still within yourself, and know that the trail is beautiful. Whenever you are in danger walk carefully and quietly. Your feet will be blessed with pollen and your hands will be blessed with pollen. Let your mind and your voice go forward on the pollen path." I told Laurie that Steve and I had decided to attempt to walk the pollen path.

Since we live and work with people who appreciate attempts to understand their culture, it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Thus far I have found the path easy to navigate. Since I am a reasonable and easy going fellow, it has not been much of a challenge. Steve, on the other hand, has had to overcome many obstacles in his attempt. He keeps straying from one side of the path to the other, and often falls into the bar ditch, muddying himself in the process.

My dream scene came to an abrupt end as I looked up into the frustrated face of my hard working wife. "Oh! Hi honey, I was just thinking about that pollen path book I have been reading". Laurie looked at me carefully, as if contemplating a thoughtful answer. She said, "Maybe you could follow the path to the garden. It needs watering, and I am sure you will find pollen there." I frowned at her, knowing full well that I had personally given her the ammunition she needed to torpedo my relaxing moment.

Shaking my head in wonder at her well constructed reply and complete lack of sympathy for my relationship with nature, I carefully removed myself from the hammock and moved onto the garden path. I cleared my mind and refrained from voicing an alternate opinion. My pollen path was turning into a rocky, uphill climb.

Laurie followed me into the garden and began weeding as I watered the tomatoes, corn and pumpkins. We started talking about the day's events, and fell into an easy, jocular discussion about who was being bossy and working too hard and who was just plain lazy. Our three children wandered up the path and joined in the conversation. I was soon outnumbered and gave up my defense. Let it known that children will side with their mother whenever they think Dad is picking on her.

As I stood there watching, listening and learning, reality set in and the evening took on a warm, embracing glow. The beauty around me was of a richer, more vibrant nature. There was compassion, caring, understanding, support and above all else, a deep abiding love. All of that, along with the wonders of the natural world, provided me a feeling of belonging, and a sense of being that I could not have imagined earlier.

It seems that whether you are seeking the pollen path or stumble onto the garden path, family plays an important role in making the journey a success; dreams and reality seem to merge when you walk these trails.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Oral History

It was 7:00 a.m., and I could see R.G. peddling his old bicycle east along Navajo Twins Drive, towards the cafe. R.G. is our 75 year old friend who, when he is back from Mexico, comes in for coffee almost every morning. If you have time, he is always good for a wink or two and a story about inventions, religion or road construction.

Navajo Ceremonial Basket Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space by Georgiana Kennedy Simpson

Navajo Ceremonial Baskets Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space
book by Georgiana Kennedy Simpson

On this particular morning, R.G.’s slow, constant peddling was propelling him steadily up the road, and reminding me of a conversation Jana and I recently had with some new friends. We had gotten to know the couple at a book signing Jana was doing in Cortez, Colorado, for her new book, Navajo Ceremonial Baskets; Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space.

For several years, Barry and I had talked about finding someone to write a book about contemporary Navajo baskets, but had been unsuccessful in putting the project together. Thinking she would tackle just one segment of the overall undertaking, four years ago Jana decided to write about ceremonial baskets. After countless all-nighters and numerous internal struggles, the text is finally in print and the book signings have begun in earnest.

Jana says writing the book was like a four year pregnancy. As the long suffering spouse, I can attest that she is correct in every sense of the analogy. When Kira, our daughter, was born, I remember being more exhausted than Jana after the arrival. When Jana’s book was finally complete, I was equally spent; even though I was once again a mere onlooker, who contributed virtually nothing to the overall success of the project.

After the book signing, Jana and I were invited to inspect the construction of a new house our friends are building on the outskirts of town. As we drove to the site, Jana mentioned that one of the challenges associated with writing the book was retelling the traditional stories, since they sometimes varied significantly from individual to individual. Because the Navajo legends have traditionally been passed from generation to generation orally, the stories can meander, migrate, and be somewhat fluid in nature. Each storyteller interprets the tale according to his or her own experience, so getting a handle on any particular part of the Navajo culture can be extremely challenging. R.G.’s consistent cadence stood in stark contrast to the irregularity of the traditional stories we had been discussing the previous night.

As we rode out to the new home, Jana reminded me that, since I tend to be somewhat linear, this variation in the Navajo legends frustrated me greatly in the early stages of my trading post career. During that phase of my life, I needed more stability, less uncertainty. As I have gotten older, however, I have become more comfortable with the idea that history is often based upon one’s personal perceptions, not actual facts. At this stage in my development, the thing I enjoy most about the trading post is seeing the artists grow, both artistically and personally. It is fascinating to watch them evolve, to meander and migrate like the stories. Sometimes the artists find their natural channel, and sometimes they don’t.

We have for several years maintained a photo album of the basket weavers, so I can look back at Mary Black and her daughters ten or twelve years ago. As I recently thumbed through the album, I was reminded of a basket Lorraine Black brought in several years ago. The basket design was completely chaotic; so much so that it made my head hurt. When I asked Lorraine about it, she said, “I have been having a difficult time lately.” The basket, although beautiful, certainly reflected the chaos in her life. I often think of that basket when my life has become too hectic and I can’t find my proper channel.

The album also has photographs of Kayla Black when she was only four or five, and just starting her basket weaving career. At that time, Kayla was only capable of helping Mary prepare the sumac. Now, at age thirteen, under Mary’s gentle hand, Kayla has developed into an accomplished weaver. Under Lorraine's tutelage, Kayla has also become a skilled negotiator.

A few weeks ago, Kayla and Lorraine brought in two weavings. After we had agreed upon a price for Lorraine’s basket, Barry and I turned our attention to Kayla. Generally, when we are trying to determine a price for a new basket, we pull out the photograph album and compare the new creation to recent purchases. On this occasion, however, we simply offered Kayla a price without looking at our photographic history.

Although Kayla objected to our proposal, Mary recommended that she accept the offer. Kayla persisted, and demanded that we get out the album. We then commenced measuring, counting coils, comparing the photographic record and calculating the price based upon historical events. As it turned out, Kayla was correct and received most of what she initially requested. Barry and I were impressed with her determination, and dismayed with the additional cost. It was, however, worth the price increase to see Kayla take control of her destiny.

The history and the people are always evolving at the trading post. As we write our weekly stories, Barry and I have noticed exactly how uncertain the process of recording historical events can be, and how our perceptions color certain events. In spite of my adjustment to a more meandering life, I sometimes long for the predictability of R.G.’s cycling cadence.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, June 3, 2004


As I drove my rental car across the gently rolling hills of southeastern Montana, I decided it was a good time to check my voice mail. I was away from Bluff pursuing the legal part of my schizophrenic trading post lawyer life and needed to check in. The message from my sister Cindy informed me that late the previous evening my brother Craig had rolled his pickup truck three and one-half times. The cause: reaching for his cell phone while he was driving. Cindy's message went on to say that Craig was okay, but that it might be a good idea to call and talk with him.

Since I was in Montana working on a tragic wrongful death case, I was well aware how thin the line between life and death can be. Although I have never seen the movie, I have always been fascinated by the film title, Six Degrees of Separation. I have often thought of that movie and how the title can easily be restructured to address the line between life and death, which is frequently a matter of only a few moments of separation. If you are lucky, as Craig was, you live; if you are unlucky, as the mother of my clients had been, you don't.

Since I had been retained as attorney for the family, I had been greatly disturbed by the randomness of the accident which took this woman's life. I quickly realized that circumstances that are far removed from your day to day existence can set in motion a chain of events that robs you of your life, your health or your loved ones. Craig had been fortunate; he was wearing his seat belt and had escaped with only a bruised ego, a dent in his pocket book and a few minor cuts and scrapes. When I reached him by telephone he was back at work and in good spirits.

Mortality seemed to be the theme of the day, however, since I was on my way to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Although I have been in Montana several times over the last two years as a result of this case, I had never taken the time to visit what I had always known as "Custer's Last Stand." Since this was to be one of my last trips to the area before the case was resolved, I decided it was time to satisfy my curiosity.

As I entered the Crow Agency, which is were the monument is located, I was reminded of many experiences I have had with the Navajo people who come to the trading post. On the surface at least, the parallels between the Crow Agency and the Navajo Reservation seemed striking. As I approached the monument entrance, the ambivalence of the place was almost palpable. I remember thinking that the social, racial and political issues associated with this land were still unsettled.

Over 125 years ago, many United States soldiers and Indian warriors had lost their lives on this land in two tragic days of fighting. Was it a victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors whose people were subsequently sent to reservations in spite of the 7th Cavalry's dramatic and stunning defeat, or was it just one more tragedy in the ongoing cultural struggle between Native Americans and Anglos? I wasn't sure, and no one else seemed to know either. I couldn't decide whether Chief Sitting Bull, who lived to see his people suffer the indignity of losing their traditional way of life, was more or less fortunate than Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, whose suffering ended in the dust and blood of the battlefield under that bright mid-June sun.

The Park Service brochure advised me, "The Battle of the Little Bighorn continues to fascinate people around the world. For most, it has come to illustrate a part of what Americans know as their western heritage. Heroism and suffering, brashness and humiliation, victory and defeat, triumph and tragedy - these are the things people come to ponder." I found myself desperately confused while trying to decide where to apply those terms.

The Park Service brochure gave me a certain measure of comfort that I was not the only one baffled by this place, and by the differences between the two cultures. It also made me aware that all these same emotions have come to me while working at the trading post. I frequently don't know whether I am the winner or the loser, whether I have been sensitive or insensitive to the needs of my Navajo friends and whether I will ever understand the relationship between the Anglo and Native American cultures. I worry about those and many, many other issues that arise at the trading post on a daily basis.

As I gazed out over the winter brown grass blanketing the rolling hills of the Little Bighorn and the graves of fallen soldiers (the warriors were all removed from the battlefield by their comrades and given traditional burials, leaving only the soldiers), I was struck by the beauty and sadness of the valley. It seemed that the lives of the warriors and soldiers had been needlessly shortened. I was convinced that all the participants had firmly believed they were doing the right thing, but were they? Had all this fighting really made things better? I didn't think so.

My mind kept skipping back and forth between the setting sun and the people of the trading post. Barry and I try to understand and bridge the cultural divide between the Native American and Anglo cultures, but it seems that we frequently stumble over the subtleties, and wind up sprawling face down in the mess.

After a recent article about St. Christopher's mission, we received a message from one of our Navajo friends which concerned me a great deal. I wrote back to inquire whether we had once again taken a misstep. Our friend assured me that we hadn't, but I still wondered. I find myself loving the art and the people, but being more than a little uncomfortable about how to approach certain relationships.

Barry and I have banned all guns and knives from the trading post and designated it a nuclear free zone in an effort to keep things calm. We believe this will help keep the mortality rate low.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post