Thursday, August 26, 2004

They Stand Alone

In a precarious arroyo bottom, a barren sun drenched cleft of bleached sandstone or a hidden, boulder-strewn canyon floor, they stand alone. Silent sentinels bearing witness to a tenacious and enduring Mother Nature, they stand alone. Holding onto intimate secrets they have learned in their long and lonely existence, they stand alone; their foothold uncertain.

Moved about on the undulating breeze; an unnoticed hitchhiker, or possibly placed by one with a twisted, emotionless sense of humor, they stand alone. Moisture and nourishment are their first and most enduring concern. From the moment they grasp the earth and hold their position, they are assured a trying existence and tenuous survival. They stand alone.

Back country near Twin Rocks

Near Twin Rocks Trading Post

It seems I have an affinity for trees that stand alone; the solitary, out- of-place ones attract me and inspire my imagination. Maybe it is the Native Americans I see on a daily basis that make me feel this way. Their ancient association with the earth has inspired and instilled in me an unusual personal perspective on my surroundings. Whenever I discover one of those trees, I have to become personally acquainted with it. Whether it is a cottonwood, juniper, cedar or even a lowly Russian olive, I have to know it; the species does not matter. What does matter is that each of these "individualists" has a story to tell. They share the unique quality of being alone, while also being an essential part of the whole.

The character of these curious beings reminds me of families and the way they develop. They speak to me of the past, present and future. When the roots begin to force their way into the resistant earth, it is like uncovering the mystery of creation. This process helps me understand and appreciate my ancestors, the courses they charted through life, their hardships, pain and sorrow. It is an awakening experience, one which brings me closer to the good times, happiness and love they shared. Those who have gone before anchor us to who and what we are through the experiences they survived and the trials they overcame. A solid root system, based in historical tradition, provides much needed stability.

In Navajo culture the trunk of the tree, like the trunk of the individual, indicates personal growth, an upward moving way. With luck those trunks become strong and stout, with just enough give to withstand the storms life invariably sends our way. Through the years layers of knowledge, understanding, compassion and love are added. If we are open, honest and willing to learn from our mistakes; if we pay attention to those who care and look out for us; and if we respond to the messages whispered from the past, we grow and progress. Through these processes our tree can become majestic. The wonderfully textured bark, crisscrossed and woven about the trunk, indicates the unique character each of us develops through our lives.

As the tree extends it branches, it reaches upward, scratching at the sky in an effort to receive both physical and emotional nourishment. There is also an outward growth; an attempt to cover and protect that which the tree holds dear, an overwhelming desire to promote and provide for what dwells within its shadow. Thick, well formed branches weave their way in and among each other in a pleasingly aesthetic mat of personal experience and perspective.

Navajo Basket by Elsie Holiday at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Navajo Basket by Elsie Holiday

At some point the tree produces seeds, perfectly formed and eager to venture out and find a niche of their own. These seeds are the guarantee that life will continue as it has from the beginning of time; the process repeating itself again and again. One of those tiny kernels finds its wandering way to an unlikely patch of seemingly infertile ground. Tendrils push obtrusively into the sparse soil and await life giving moisture. Another tree raises itself and provides an object lesson for those of us willing to see. They stand alone. To me, however, they represent an exclamation point for what is right, true and important in life and love, standing alone in the larger pool of life.

Thursday, August 19, 2004


As I jogged east toward the morning sun, I began thinking about the trading post and found myself laughing out loud. Realizing how ridiculous I must look, I quickly checked the road to ensure nobody had seen my fit of laughter; I was worried that anyone witnessing the episode would assume I had run myself insane.

Navajo Basket by Lorraine Black at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Navajo Basket by Lorraine Black

The chain of events leading to my crackup began when Lorraine Black slumped into the trading post earlier that week with a basket featuring Coyote surrounded by a circle of people holding hands. I complimented her on the weaving and began measuring the size and counting the coils as a prelude to the negotiation process. She immediately halted my evaluation and informed me the basket was incomplete; it needed a horned toad fetish sown onto Coyote's belly to finish it.

In the past, Lorraine and her sister-in-law, Peggy, have used the Coyote motif in conjunction with horned toad fetishes to illustrate how Coyote attempted to relieve Horned Toad of his clean hogan and well kept farm. In the children's story relating to the incident, despite Coyote's persistence, Horned toad refused to voluntarily surrender the farm. After becoming wildly frustrated with Horned Toad, Coyote devoured the toad and went inside the hogan to inspect his newly acquired property. Having been swallowed whole, Horned Toad began to pull the trickster's vital organs until he killed the thief and reclaimed his land.

Lorraine and I unsuccessfully searched the fetish case for a suitable horned toad. After a while, she said, Hey wait, what's that? I told her it was a badger fetish and that it wouldn't work for what she wanted. As she turned the carving over and over in her hand, I could see the wheels start to grind; she was about to give birth to a new tradition.

Navajo culture tends to be somewhat fluid, and this was going to be one of those times when adaptation carried the day. So, as Lorraine began sewing the fetish onto the basket she also began to fabricate a story to convince me the badger was an appropriate fetish for the design. In the end, we had a good laugh and the tradition of Coyote eating Horned Toad became the story of Badger and the trickster.

A few days later I was engaged in cleaning up a mess in the trading post while Barry talked to a couple about Navajo baskets. I noticed him reach for the Badger basket and begin telling the story about Horned Toad's clean hogan and nice farm. Apparently he had not realized how the tradition had migrated or how Horned Toad had become Badger. Not wanting to embarrass him in the middle of his sales pitch, I waited until later to note the change.

As I ran down the road thinking about the basket, Barry's sales pitch and the fluid nature of Navajo culture, I was reminded of an experience I once had with mercury. I was probably 16 years old and had acquired a small amount of this fascinating liquid metal. I was enchanted by it, and after a day of sloshing it around in my hand, watching it move in beautifully fluid motion, seeing it separate into small balls and rejoin into one large pool, I wound up at the silversmith bench at Bluff City Trading. I struck me that I needed to know what happened if I put the mercury under the flame. Since it was already liquid, I wondered what would happen when it was heated. Had I not slept through physics, I would have already known the answer to this mystery.

Barry distracted me before I was able to fire up the torch and I never completed my experiment. Sometime later I mentioned my project to one of our silversmiths who said I had been very fortunate not to have finished the job. He informed me the mercury would have vaporized and probably found its way into my lungs, killing me almost instantly. That memory caused me to consider the Navajo culture, and how it moves like the mercury in shimmering, constant motion. The beauty of the liquid metal is the beauty of the Navajo culture; forever moving, changing and evolving to fit the circumstances.

Navajo Basket at Twin Rocks Trading Post

As I crested a small hill on the sunrise side of St. Christopher's Mission, I noticed the sun break over the horizon and illuminate the earth and sky in a golden glow. A basket woven several years ago by Kee Bitsinnie and a story from Navajo Religion, by Gladys Reichard came to mind.

The weaving and the story, featuring Coyote and Badger as opposing forces, are based on a Navajo legend about the fourth world. The story is of a time when the Navajo people had not been in on the surface long when the they saw the sky bend down and the earth rise up until they touched. At that moment Coyote and Badger sprang forth from the point of contact. After their creation, Coyote went to live with the earth surface people and Badger descended into the lower world.

At that moment, I realized Lorraine had not been fabricating her story at all, she was simply putting her own spin on a traditional legend. I began to understand the flow of the culture, which, like the flow of the liquid metal, was perpetually dancing, changing, evolving, growing, moving forward and receding, ever changing, shining, shimmering and enchanting the observer.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Sands of Time

Bob and I stood there contemplating our situation. We were standing on the hot desert sandscape, scratching our perspiring heads and looking at my Toyota truck. The once shiny vehicle was mired, axle deep, in the soft, flowing blow sand of Comb Wash. As the motor idled in temporary inaction, lazy tendrils of dust threaded across the vibrating hood. It wasn't the truck's fault we found ourselves here; there was no mechanical failure or lack of horse power and torque. I could have blamed Bob, or maybe even his brother Paul for asking us to help gather GPS coordinates, but the truth is the blame was mine, and mine alone. I had been talking incessantly and not paying attention. As a result, I had driven us right into a sand trap on the thirteenth fairway.

It had all started on a perfectly magnificent evening last week. Returning to Blanding from the high summer temperatures and scouring winds of Bluff, I had slumped into a plastic lounge chair in my backyard; relaxing in the cool, lush oasis my wife has created. I was enjoying myself immensely, and hoping someone would turn on the sprinklers to help lower my core temperature. A rain shower would have been nice, even if it was artificial.

I heard the telephone ring inside the house and turned away from the noise, thinking someone else would answer it and hoping the call wasn't for me. Having teenagers has proven to be a blessing, because I seldom have to answer a phone at home. The only problem is that I must always remember to move out of the flight path when the darn thing starts ringing. I have nearly been trampled a number of times because I inattentively found myself between a telephone and three kids rampaging to take the call.

My daughter Alyssa poked her head out the back door, notifying me that the call was mine. I asked her to, "please bring me the phone." Instead, my sweet, innocent, reckless child tossed the phone in my direction and disappeared back into the house with a mischievous smile. Having to jump up and snag the phone before it smashed into the retaining wall put me in a less than amiable mood. "Hello!" I said, putting the phone to my ear. Luckily I found a more hospitable tone before I said anything else. It seems young Paul was working on his Boy Scout Eagle project, and needed some help gathering Global Position Satellite readings for historical sites around San Juan County.

I guess he figured I was antiquated enough to know where to locate Bluff's historical landmarks. Since Paul's brother, Bob, was helping keep Twin Rocks presentable this summer, Paul was hoping we could get together and reconnoiter the territory. I readily agreed to help the lad, because I wanted to support his Scouting efforts and because it would give me an excuse to get out and reconnect with Mother Earth and a few of her special places. Little did I know the contact would be so intimate.

Bob ambled into the store late Thursday afternoon, after completing his projects, and asked if we were ever going to get those readings. I looked over at Steve with the question in my eyes, " You think you can handle the trading post?" He gave me an insulted look and waved his hand in a flippant, "get out of here" manner. It works every time, question Steve's competency and he will take on any challenge. So, off we went. Our first stop was San Juan Hill, then Barton's cabin and River House Ruin.

Not long after leaving the pavement, Bob and I found ourselves in the sand trap. I was rather embarrassed to say the least. Being a native of this land of rim rock and dry washes should allow me to evade situations like this. I have been "four wheeling" since I was old enough to drive, but the shifting red sands are unforgiving to those who don't show the proper respect. The Navajo people believe they came from the earth; thus their red skin color. I had a sneaking suspicion Bob and I would soon be faux Indians, owing to red dust circulating around us.

As we fell to our bare knees, dug our sandaled toes into the fiery granules and began scooping the fine, fluid like sand away from the tires with our hands, I contemplated the meaning of the Navajo emergence. Was it an expression of birth, a rude, hard fought expulsion into consciousness or maybe a lesson in personal relationships, emphasizing the pain and frustration necessary to make the sharp, ragged point stick in your memory The Navajo people are experts in weaving common threads of human emotion and experience into an exquisitely woven textile of thoughtful understanding.

The talc-like dust enveloped us as we placed tangles of sage brush and hands full of river rock under the tires, which were grasping for traction. I could hear vehicles roar by on the highway only a half mile away I knew I could easily walk to the highway and flag down one of my many Native American friends to retrieve us from our difficulty. After all, almost everyone out here owns a four wheel drive truck. Pride, and the fear of a constant barrage of dry Navajo humor, restrained me from acting on that impulse. The cost of some favors are far too high.

It really didn't take us long to dig out . . . the first time anyway. It would have been better if I had not gunned the truck when we popped loose, because that caused us to back right up onto a sandy bank. Before you could say "fool's paradise," we were straddling a petrified sand dune, high-centered as pretty as you please. At this point I could tell my young friend was losing interest in our mission, and losing faith in me. "No worries mate," I said, "stack and jack will have us out of here in no time." I handed Bob the jack and directed him to dig out, jack up and stack rocks to relieve the stress on our vehicle. I reminded him that the Mormon pioneers had laboriously made their way across this same stretch of wash more than 100 years earlier, and had lived to tell about it; so would we. An hour later we were free.

Looking over and smiling at my less than enthusiastic young friend, I asked if he was ready to give our quest another go. He grimaced and considered the question at length before deciding we had run out of time. It seems he had an appointment to keep with the local missionaries and didn't want to keep the proselytizing pair waiting. We wheeled back into the trading post parking lot covered in red dust. Steve, Priscilla, Natalie and Jason all got a big kick out of our misfortune. We would not have told them about our ordeal, but it was rather obvious we had gotten ourselves into a mess, even to these quick studies.

As I showered that evening, the red dirt ran like a river down the drain. I even discovered a large deposit in my navel. The afternoon's adventure reminded me that southern San Juan County can be an unforgiving place. If you embrace this land, however, and rub it into your pores, it becomes part of you, literally. Understanding the hidden treasures of this land is an adventure of the body and soul.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, August 5, 2004

An All Too Common Tale

The monsoon season came early to the desert, and rain was falling slowly, softly, consistently. Extended rain storms are rare in Bluff, where we are accustomed to fast moving storms with violent crashes of thunder and fast, short downpours. The average annual rainfall in this small town is seven inches, and lately it has been less, much less. This particular afternoon, however, the blessed rain was falling, and I was feeling refreshed and renewed. I had even walked outside, captured some of the droplets on my hands and smeared them on my face and neck, enchanted by the cooling effect of the rain.

When she walked into the trading post I was engaged in wrapping up a small transaction, so I acknowledged her by saying hello and went about completing the sale. She is one of our best Navajo weavers, and is always in the trading post. Even though Barry and I never live by the principle, I often tell our artists that we have to make money before we spend it, so she stood patiently by, waiting for me to collect the payment and finish with the customer.

The moment she stepped into the store I felt the clouds converge. There was something wrong, very wrong, but I didn't immediately know what. It may have been the way she moved, or the way the shadows played on her face. In any case, I subconsciously knew something was amiss and that I really didn't want to know what had gone awry. Unconsciously I delayed our meeting for a few moments, trying to decide what was troubling me.

As a result of my concerns, I didn't look closely at her until the customer turned to leave. As she stepped toward me, it only took a moment to know what had happened. I need $200.00, she said as a tear began to form in her eye. Not again, I said. There was no response for what seemed like an eternity, then she responded, I just wanted to take the kids on a nice trip, and he was out of town for a while. He was not happy we went without him. Just moments earlier I had felt relaxed and refreshed, now I felt the rain, her comments and those bruises dampen my heart and fog my mind.

The week before I had given her $700.00 against a weaving she is making so she and the kids could go on a vacation before the summer ended and school started. She has been working so hard, and I thought she deserved it, so I gave her the money. She and the kids couldn't have been happier as they left to prepare for their adventure.

So, as she stood on the opposite side of the counter, I felt my heart breaking at the sight of her. Her hands, which have created so many beautiful weavings were swollen and purple; probably from trying to cover her face. It hadn't worked, her eyes and cheeks were equally discolored and puffy. To top it off, her stomach was distended; the beating had been thorough. So thorough in fact that she didn't even try to hide it with dark glasses or make up, which would have been useless in any case.

Why did you let this happen, . . . again, I asked, knowing full well it was a ridiculous question. What can I do? she replied. I wanted to say, Beat him back, maim him, dismember him, kick him, roll him out the back of the pickup, anything, just don't let this happen to you, but I knew it wouldn't help.

The week before, I had been talking with a friend who works with the Montana and Wyoming tribes. During our conversation, he told me about arriving at the scene of an automobile accident where one of the occupants of the now upside-down pickup was lying on the pavement; dead. The deceased and his friends had been drinking, and now the party was over; permanently. My friend asked the investigating officer, Was there alcohol involved? It was a rhetorical question. Just as I knew the answer to my question, my friend knew alcohol had killed once again.

Having spent a large part of my adult life at the trading post, I have learned many things about the people of Southern San Juan County, one of them is that I have to be supportive, not judgmental at times like these. That, however, is not my nature, and I have often made the mistake of thinking I can change people with my high-minded rhetoric. So, when she reappeared a few days later, looking for another hundred dollar bill, I had to restrain myself from proposing something retaliatory. Instead, I told her she didn't deserve to be treated so badly; that she is a good, conscientious mother to her children; that she is an extraordinary artist; and that she should try hard to ensure this does not happen to her again.

I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her everything will be okay, but I knew that was naive and absolutely untrue; things were not going to be all right. She told me he had promised not to do it again, and despite trying to keep the comment to myself, I said, Yes, until the next time. One of these days he is going to kill you. I have seen this situation far too many times to think anything will change, so I gave her the money and sent her on her way. As she walked away, I prayed I wouldn't be reading her obituary in the local paper; because she continued to believe he was sorry and that this really was the last time.

The Reservation can be a heartbreaking, gut wrenching place.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post