Thursday, July 29, 2004

Nearing Fifty

I walked into the house the other evening and found the kids watching television while their mother prepared dinner. I plopped down on the bean bag chair next to them and asked what they were watching. They hesitated before answering, knowing that my query was almost certainly a rhetorical question, and there was a good chance I was going to attempt a change of channel. My children and I disagree completely on what to watch, and are always fighting over the remote. If they are going to waste their time watching television, I want them to take in an educational program. They, of course, want to watch something with no cerebral stimulation whatsoever.

They have started ganging up on me lately, and standing up for what they feel are their vested rights. I have informed them that our house is ruled the old fashioned way; as a benevolent dictatorship, and they had no inherent rights. The little smart alecks went straight to their mother and petitioned for protection under her constitutional monarchy. So much for his majesty's power base; while I was out administering my kingdom, I was over thrown! I guess the kids have been learning something after all. Oh well, I have decided I do not care for television anyway, too darn many commercials.

Speaking of commercials . . ., while the kids and I were scuffling and bickering, an advertisement for Bow Flex exercise equipment flashed onto the screen. The commercial featured a fifty year old grandmother who had no particular resemblance to anyone I have ever met with that many years behind her. I commented to the kids that this lovely lady looked a little too firm, proud and muscular to be fifty years old.

Pardon my skepticism, but due to my advanced age and personal experience with the effects of gravity, I viewed this advertising claim as highly unlikely. I told the kids I was sure Doctors Nip and Tuck were standing behind the camera, proudly admiring their handiwork. I wondered whether it was my aged eyes, or was the commercial actually out of focus. The slightly blurry photography seemed a great way to hide wrinkles. If this woman was real, she was a walking, talking miracle, living on rice cakes and carrot sticks, and spending every spare minute on that exercise machine.

Raising myself up from the bean bag, I hitched up my britches and headed into the kitchen to give a real, natural woman a hard time. I guess the commercial effected me the way it did because I find myself nearing 50, and feeling the effects of time. My outlook on life is rapidly evolving, and I often think more like an adult than an adolescent (scary stuff)! Lately my kids can't tell if I am serious or joking. How can they be expected to, I can't even tell myself. This situation has motivated me to read and study more; in an effort to keep my brain from disintegrating. I also spend a great deal of time talking with people. The trading post provides me the opportunity to visit and philosophize with a wide and varied group of individuals. I am constantly testing Steve's depth of knowledge on all manner of tough subjects. His new catch phrase is "Stop it, your freaking me out"!

Speaking with my friend the psychiatrist about my uncommonly strong reaction to this silly commercial provided me the insight I required, or not. She said I was simply jealous that this woman had the dedication and drive to accomplish her goals; that by finding fault with this woman, I was providing myself an excuse for not having the same commitment. She said it was time I did something about it too; that she was definitely ready for a new and improved husband, and that if I didn't quit coming up with elaborate excuses to check out the ladies she would slap a knot on my noodle. I never should have consulted her. All I need now is a Bow Flex, or at least a regular exercise program. That and a foggy lens, and I will look and feel great.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Leather Satchel

Yesterday afternoon I was straightening the trading post when Ray Lovato walked in with his leather satchel under his arm and a young man at his side. Ray is in his late fifties, and the boy looked to be about sixteen, so I mistakenly assumed Ray's companion was his grandson. No, he assured me, the boy was in fact his youngest son. Ray went on to say he fully intended to have more children after this one arrived, but had begun to "misfire." After a few off-color jokes about the local ladies, I was treated to a speech about growing old, and a much too detailed explanation why this was the last of the Lovato offspring.

Santo Domingo Silversmith Ray Lovato and his son Andrew at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Santo Domingo Silversmith Ray Lovato and his son Andrew

For me, Ray and his satchel are a metaphor for Native American art. I am not sure how long I have known him, but it must be almost 30 years. When Ray began bringing his traditionally made turquoise and shell beads to us, I was just a teenager, more interested in finding a way out of work than looking at necklaces. As I matured, his work and his humor became more interesting to me. That may have been because I began to better understand his jokes and what it takes to make those beads.

Ray's satchel is a leather bag about twelve or fourteen inches long and eight to ten inches tall. Depending on how full it is, it can be six inches wide. The closure is tarnished brass, and the leather supple, tan and splotchy. From the wear it shows, I guess it must be approximately 25 years old, so Ray may have acquired it shortly after we became acquainted. The pouch's color is a wonderful contrast to the vivid blue and green beads extracted from its bowels.

Ray and I first met, and I believe I first noticed his pouch in the 1970s, when Indian art flowed like water. Everywhere you looked, there were loads of turquoise and silver jewelry, and almost every Native American in the Southwest had a workshop in his or her home. The stones were large, and deep blue or emerald green. The silver was heavy and elaborately worked. It seemed that every woman in the United States wanted, needed, had to have a squash blossom necklace and a concho belt.

Throughout most of the 1980s, I was out of the business, and lost track of Ray and many other artists I had grown up with. When I reemerged in late 1989, Ray was still doing his work, but it had become more refined. This seemed consistent with the rest of the Indian art world. People like Preston Monogye and Charles Loloma had moved Native American art in completely new directions, and overall the work was more sophisticated, as were the artists. I chuckle every time I hear a story about Charles attempting to seduce one of his customers or about him flying around in his Jaguar or a Learjet. That was when Southwest art seemed to come of age.

Many of these old masters are gone, or, like Ray, have slowed dramatically. The next generation seems much like Ray's son, who confirmed that he was not crazy about continuing his father's traditions. "It's too hard" the boy explained. If these kids are lucky, they will get good educations and probably leave the village. If they are not, they may end up working at the casino or the local convenience store. Either way, the traditional arts are unlikely to be part of their lives. Barry and I see this with the Navajo basket weavers, and wonder whether their basketry will survive beyond this generation.

Ray Lovato and family at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Ray Lovato and family at Twin Rocks

Although I have for the last decade joked with Ray about selling me his satchel, I think he would feel naked and lost without it. Generally, he comes into the trading post laughing and carrying plastic bags full of blue corn cookies or Santo Domingo bread. On rare and special occasions, he brings tamales and we have a feast.

Once the bread, cookie or tamale exchange has been made, it is time for Ray to extract beads from the leather bag. There have been so many masterpieces pulled from the satchel over the years that I have begun to think it must be magic. Ray had only two pieces in the leather sack this time, a natural Sleeping Beauty turquoise tab necklace and a three strand set of Castle Dome beads with jocla. In the past, the bag would have been overflowing with treasures. Today the wares were fine, but few.

As he always does after telling me the prices, he leaned over the counter and made me swear I wouldn't tell his other buyers what a good deal he offered. I always agree, knowing full well that he extracts the same pledge from everyone.

Because I have begun to wonder how long I will be able to buy his beads, I took both necklaces. As Ray and his son walked to the door, I couldn't help wonder how Native American art will evolve over the next few decades, what will be required to ensure the trading post continues into the next generation and what will happen when all those satchels stop producing.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Mirage World

As we sped down the Reservation highway, I looked over at Spenser in the early morning light and realized he was sound asleep. Reclining in the passenger seat next to me, my son had pulled a blanket over his head and was breathing noisily. He has been busy lately; scout camp has been his home for the last three weeks. Early mornings and late nights had been the norm, and he was exhausted. I had selfishly asked Spenser to accompany me on this trip in order to spend some quality time with him. I had also hoped it would allow him the opportunity to share his recent experiences with me. Up to this point there had been only snoring, no sharing.

Glancing up the highway, I noticed a layer of haze floating above the Reservation landscape. The pre-dawn sun lit the film in a peculiar manner, causing it to shimmer, and the gentle breeze swirled it into easy spirals. The haze glowed with red, orange, yellow and purple highlights. The overall effect was beautiful and eerie. This scene made me think of the mirage-world the Navajo people frequently mention; a mystical place somewhere between the real and spirit worlds which is rarely accessible to humans.

I rolled down the window and gulped in a cool breath of smoky air. The haze must have drifted north from the fire near Payson, Arizona Looking out over the uneven landscape gave me a surreal sense of being out of step with the real world. I put my arm out the window and imagined my hand touching the landscape, skipping over it as the truck sped on. The wind rushing under my palm and fingers made be think I could actually feel the earth as it rushed by. Mesa tops rolled into canyon depths under my outstretched hand. I imagined the texture of the juniper trees, and tapped my fingertips down rocky slopes. Hard to reach clefts and high points suddenly became easily accessible to my floating hand. I felt I could reach into the edge of the mirage-world and test its mythical presence.

Spenser groaned in his sleep and rolled over, turning his back to me and the cool breeze that rushed through the window. His utterance of discomfort interrupted my fantasy and brought me back to reality. The scene spreading out before me slowly transformed itself back into a hazy, albeit spectacular, Reservation morning. The magic was gone, but the memory had fixed itself in my mind. I contemplated how we interpret our surroundings in this modern day and age. With the aid of science, we are provided with rational reasons why things are the way they are. I can easily see how an early society might witness similar events and try to explain them in a manner they could understand.

An occurrence such this could well have been interpreted by these ancient people as evidence of another dimension. The vision was unique, impressive and a wonder to behold. My emotions became entangled with my senses, and for a brief moment I saw proof positive of an alternate realm; or at least I began to understand how a natural phenomenon can be interpreted as such. As human beings we are constantly looking for proof that there is more to life than what we experience in our daily existence. Why not bear witness to this idea through a unique, early morning display of light and color?

I sometimes get carried away with cultural symbolism. Studying this culture on a daily basis gives it the opportunity to get into the recesses of my brain, causing it to leak out at the most inopportune moments. I find it entertaining and exciting to block out the modern world and view my environment as the people of the past may have viewed theirs. The mythology of the Navajo has served me as an introduction to a variety of other cultures. I am constantly amazed at the parallels in different belief systems. They often speak as a voice to those looking for proper direction and hope. These tales of trials and tribulations can leave us trembling, but if properly managed, there is hope, personal growth and an eventual outcome revolving around balance and harmony.

I looked again at my son, and wondered what history our family would create. I hope our history will be built on a healthy respect for others and what they believe and hold dear. I am also hopeful that we can dispense with the nastiness in our world, including the greed, jealousy, hate and misunderstanding. In a perfect world we might begin to realize the enlightened ideals so common in myth and legend.

Becoming frustrated with Spenser and his lack of conversation, I decided it was time for drastic measures. Jamming on the brakes and leaning on the horn brought the young Jedi quickly upright and out of his aggravating slumber. "Darn jackrabbits," I shouted. Shaking off his initial shock, Spenser stared at me and said, "There was no jackrabbit, your reputation for stunts like this is well known . . . What do you want?" "Just to talk, little dude, just to talk." I responded. After all, you cannot build a memorable tradition without a little trickery now can you?

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Passion or Preservation

Barry and I are always working on a new "initiative," to get more people into the trading post or internet site. One of our more recent schemes is, "Traders on the Edge," a term we use to describe ourselves. The thought is that we are working on the edge of many things, including the Navajo Reservation, innovative Native American art, sanity and financial catastrophe.

As many people have explained to me over the years, and as the trading post has taught me first hand, the edge can be a very exciting place to work. Being this close to the edge might distress most people, but Barry and I have found a way to keep the wolf from our door; we simply invited him to become our partner.

Navajo Rug Weaver Carmelita Sagg at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Navajo Rug Weaver Carmelita Sagg, at Twin Rocks Trading Post

A week ago last Friday evening, I was sitting with my nose in the computer, getting ready to pick up my cap and go home, when Carmelita Sagg brought a rug into the trading post. When I saw her truck roll up, I sat back down and waited for the bargaining to begin. Her latest creation was an asymmetrical Ganado pattern weaving. As I was to quickly learn, Carmelita was extremely fond of that rug, so the negotiations went round and round. I had fallen in love with the weaving, so there was no letting her get out the door with it.

Since the Navajo people strive for balance in their lives, a concept they refer to a "Hozho," any unbalanced artwork is unusual and therefore desirable. Barry is unbalanced and unusual, but not very desirable. That may be because he is not Navajo and, although he is a piece of work, he is certainly not artwork.

I remember a time several years ago that Evelyn Cly brought in a completely abstract black and white basket. Barry and I were shocked to see it; partly because Evelyn is a tightly controlled, mostly traditional weaver, and partly because we had never had anything quite like it come into the trading post. We naturally purchased it, and I believe the basket ultimately became part of the Wheelwright Museum collection.

After my negotiations with Carmelita were complete and the transaction properly documented, Carmelita mentioned that her mother was in the truck. Her mom, Eleanor, always collaborates with Carmelita, and together they make a great team. Since we have developed a fondness for Eleanor, I had to go out and say hello. When I tapped on the window, I noticed Eleanor making beaded necklaces. She put down her work, and we said our greetings; she in broken English, and I in hopeless Navajo.

Seeing Eleanor bead the necklaces made me question whether she and the other Navajo artists with whom we work create their art as a means of preservation, or because they have a passion for the art. The answer must be that both factors enter into the equation.

Like most traditional crafts, the price of a Navajo rug often does not appropriately reflect the time spent creating it. I have often found myself talking to someone who undoubtedly earns a lot of money, trying to explain why a certain rug or basket merits the stated price. Although I am sure it varies significantly from weaver to weaver, it seems that the rate of return in most cases does not exceeds a few dollars an hour.When you are speaking with professionals who may earn hundreds of dollars an hour, the conversations can seem a little surreal. Earlier today, Ed, my ranger friend from Ganado Trading Post, and I were discussing this subject and not finding any good solutions. I guess that's not extraordinary, since the issue has confounded much better minds than ours.

So, it would seem that finances are not the primary factor that keeps Navajo rug weaving alive. San Juan County, Utah, and the Navajo Reservation are, however, two of the most economically backward regions in the United States, so the people here are extremely resourceful. While most weavers cannot survive on their weaving income alone, it can provide a nice supplement to the now meager social programs available to tribal members. So, the weavers continue to weave, make necklaces and do almost any other thing necessary to pay the bills.

On the other hand, when you ask the weavers why they weave in spite of the meager returns, they will tell you stories about how their grandmothers put spider webs on their hands when they were young, to ensure they become accomplished weavers; about how they sat next to their grandmothers and watched as beautiful tapestries were created; and about how they wove their first rug at an early age and sold it at the trading post. The way their eyes sparkle and their mouths curve up as they tell these stories reassures me that there is passion in the weavings; passion passed from generation to generation through patience, practice and persistence.

In an area where any income is welcome and pride runs generations deep, rug weaving has continued because the weavers love creating the art, and because it helps support their families. How long these factors will be able to sustain the tradition is an open question. Almost everyone in this region is living on the edge, and that makes it an exciting place to be.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Ceremonial Buckskin

One of my favorite memories is of going deer hunting with my father and brothers. Dad would roust us from bed early on crisp October mornings and advise us to quickly get ready. It didn't take us long to get out of the house when we were excited about going somewhere. This can often be a good thing, except that young boys seldom comb their hair, brush their teeth or dress properly in their rush to escape into the wild outdoors. I have noticed the same behavior from my young son. My wife even sometimes claims that I still have not outgrown this troubling behavior.

Since we were not preparing for entry into the world of humans, Mom would allow us out "As Is." Dad would take us to the juniper groves and yellow grass of Bally Flats. Upon arrival we would pile out of the old truck and line up behind him in order of age. In my mind's eye, I can still see us trooping along behind our father, each stepping exactly in his foot prints, one after the other.

Dad would occasionally stop short upon hearing the definitive sound of a, "buck snort." "Hear that?" he would ask. "They're close boys, so close I can smell 'em. . . Quiet now!" The time period would have been the mid-sixties. We were quite young, and thrilled at the thought of being out with our father. Dad was usually fairly reserved in public, but getting out into the hills seemed to loosen him up and ease the stress of supporting a growing family. It was a golden time; one I will always hold near to my heart.

One of my first introductions to Navajo culture came when I was a teenager; after a successful hunt. Our parents had moved us to Blanding, and we were managing the Plateau filling station on the south end of town. It was a full service operation, which brought us into close contact with both Navajo and Ute people on a regular basis. Opening day of the hunt had provided me with a heavy bodied three point buck. I was home by 9:00 a.m., and had the animal hanging by a ladder near the station.

I was looking forward to Mom's famous hunting season breakfast of fresh, thinly sliced venison; homemade biscuits; and white gravy, but first I had to skin the deer as quickly as possible to get the tenderloin. As I stood there scratching my head, and looking for the best way to approach the situation, a beat up old pickup truck packed to the gunwales with a Navajo family nosed right up next to me and my game.

I was surprised by the intrusion and quickly turned to face the raiding party, armed only with a sharp knife and a bad attitude. An old, bent, white haired Navajo man scrambled out of the passenger side of the vehicle and walked right up to me speaking rapidly in his native tongue. Ignoring my aggressive stance, he plucked the knife from my hand, nudged me out of the way and went to work skinning my deer. As the old timer worked, one of his entourage filled me in on what he was saying.

All I really remember was being chastised for almost wrecking a perfectly good ceremonial buckskin, and that he was a medicine man who was going to put it to good use. In approximately fifteen minutes, the old man skinned the animal from the tip of its nose to the end of it's tail, right on down to its four black hooves. He handed back my knife, rolled up the buckskin, placed it in the back of his truck and drove away with his clan.

I stood there somewhat stunned and amazed at what had just taken place. Looking again at the deer, I realized my work was done. The tenderloin was exposed and only minutes away from Mom's magic kitchen. It was some of the most educational, memorable and tasty venison I have ever eaten.

I have since learned that the Navajo people believe ceremonial buckskin and corn were used to create the first people, who were made in the image of the Yei-be-chei. Buckskin is an important element in ceremonies such as the Beauty Way chant, and represent the honor and the respect game animals are given in Navajo traditions. A properly prepared buckskin is valuable, both economically and ceremonially. That elderly Navajo gentleman was one of the first to introduce me to the ways of the Navajo, and to him I am grateful.

The love of the fall hunt was definitely instilled in me by my father, who taught me many lessons about life and death, and a also gave me a healthy respect for nature during our outings. I have also taken advantage of this initiation ceremony to build a closer relationship with my own son. We have spent many a frosty morning huddled close on a canyon rim or tree covered knoll, waiting for that monster buck to show himself. We have often failed to put venison in the freezer, but have been very successful at bonding, sharing and gaining a better understanding of each other and the ways of the world

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post