Thursday, April 28, 2005

Caution Curve Ahead

On one of my recent jogs, I noticed a "Caution Curves Ahead" sign just west of St. Christopher's Mission. For almost 30 years I have run along that road, and guess I have seen the sign so often it no longer registered in my consciousness. The sign took me back to a different lifetime, before Barry called me from a dangerous place on the north side of the Abajo Mountains. It was the afternoon of September 7, 2004, and the trading post had been relatively slow that day, so I was rattling around the store trying to decide how to spend the rest of my afternoon.

Sign Post in Bluff, Utah.

The tone of Barry's voice let me know we had hit a dangerous curve and had not navigated it well. Like many signs, this one had been ambiguous; the curve had come quickly and with inadequate notice. Spenser had been gravely injured, and his fate was uncertain. As I wandered around the trading post, waiting for additional signs, my heart realized a new kind of fear, and my head spun trying to find a way to ensure a favorable result. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to be completely and absolutely helpless. Happily, the worst case scenario was not our lot, although it would take many long days and far too many close calls to be sure.

I thought of that cautionary sign again last week when Spenser returned to work at the trading post for the first time in what seems like an eternity. Since it was Spring Break, Barry brought Spenser to Bluff. Although he is still struggling with some residual effects of the accident, each time I see Spenser I feel an overwhelming emotion of gratitude. Gratitude for whomever and whatever allotted him additional time to spend with us, gratitude that he is so very much the young man we knew before the accident, gratitude that his hard work has allowed him to return to a normal life and gratitude for all those who stood by us as he struggled to survive.

To be sure, there are some changes, but as I watched Spenser move around the trading post, straightening the inventory and vacuuming the floor, I could not help notice the similarities between the old and the new. He is still the bright, thoughtful kid who chased lizards on the porch prior to September 7th. Although his personality has changed somewhat, I wonder whether the shift in attitude is, to a large extent. associated with his movement into the teen years. His newfound sassiness is in many ways refreshing, and may serve him well later in life. I found myself chuckling at the ongoing verbal jousting between Barry and Spenser, and wondering what will be my lot when Kira and Grange become teenagers.

Although he does not move as quickly as he used to, which for now translates into more security for the porch reptiles, that may change. The progress he has made is nothing short of a miracle. Being a member of his high school tennis team seems to have helped regenerate the mobility of his left side, and given him a great deal of confidence. I was amazed how well he maneuvered the vacuum, and thought of offering him a permanent spot on the trading post cleaning team, jersey and all. I am afraid, however, any such offer will be rejected, and Priscilla, Barry, Jana and I will have to continue cleaning the carpet and rearranging display cases.

It appears Spenser may emerge from his incident better and stronger in many important ways. The curves we fail to navigate as anticipated have a way of changing our lives in unexpected ways; ways that can take years to fully understand . I know my life is different; hopefully it is a positive and permanent change. For me, those "Caution Curve Ahead" signs have acquired new meaning.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Mental Imprints

There are circumstances in my life that for one reason or another have clearly imprinted themselves on my mind; they reappear like a Polaroid photograph in reverse. At times, I receive a flash from the past as clear as a picture print. Unlike many memories which slowly fade, eventually dissipating like a wisp of smoke, something about these circumstances forbid me to forget them. Certain smells, actions, sights or sounds bring back those memories with the impact of a punch in the gut.

One of the clearest instances of this occurrence is the time I snatched a box of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda from the unattended back door of Bob Howell's mini mercantile. This happened in Bluff a long time ago, when I was too young to know better and too foolish to understand the ramifications of my misdeed. I had absolutely no use for the product, but the opportunity presented itself and I seized it. When I arrived home with a brand new, unopened box of this handy dandy product, my parents became immediately suspicious and soon unraveled the mystery of its appearance.

Not only was I appropriately punished for my indiscretion, I was also forced to return the booty to Mr. Howell and give him a full explanation of how it had come into my possession. From that day forward, the trademark I perceived to be "Thor's buff bicep and thunder thumper," has symbolized truth and honesty to me. Arm and Hammer also works well for indigestion, which reminds me of pain and suffering, which reminds me of deceit and humiliation, which reminds me of trust and virtue. A complicated chain of emotion to be sure, but an effective metaphor.

A more pleasant mental imprint emerges when I experience vertigo. My initial memory of this feeling was formed when I first spotted my future wife as I spun around an indoor roller rink. I was so impressed that I fell in behind her to get a better look at her . . . technique. I became a bit dizzy spiraling around the hardwood floor and keeping my eye on the prize. Flashes of light from the disco ball, high volume reverberations of 70's rock and roll and her Levi's 501 jeans caused me to experience a fatal attraction. After speaking with her, the deal was sealed; beauty and brains in the same package were too much to resist, and I was hooked. Whenever I see that woman, I become weak in the knees, light-headed and altogether messed up.

Our three kids also cause these flashbacks. When I see a young woman expecting a child, I relive my children's emergence into this world; the depth of love and emotion I have for them washes over me. When I smell baby lotion, see children laughing and playing or hear a Disney tune, I envision precious moments of their young lives.

The color pink, a sharp wit, body casts and volleyballs make me think of Alyssa. With McKale, it is homemade gift cards, wild flowers, sage green eyes and quirky smiles. The sound a basketball makes on hardwood floors, a bat connecting with a baseball, blue eyes, mud baths and, unfortunately, blood on my hands conjure up images of Spenser. The mental imprints are clearly visible, powerful and emotionally charged.

In the trading post I am privileged to work with family, friends and a menagerie of uniquely creative artists that effectively alter my memory patterns. The smells of sumac, sheep wool and juniper cause past interactions to leap into my thoughts. The feel of mohair, the texture of baskets or a sliver from a juniper sculpture conjure up specific mental pictures from my past. The taste of such things as mutton stew, salted fry bread, pinion gum and even Bluff's red dirt cause me instant replays of memorable moments of long ago.

I am not exactly sure why and how these mental imprints are possible, but they are very real for me. I am often surprised by the clarity of the visual recall I experience and the intensity of smell, taste and emotion that revisits my senses. These moments mean a great deal to me. I am hopeful my mental capacity does not fail and coat these occurrences with layers of mind-boggling dust, impeding my recall with concentrations of sticky, aggravating cobwebs. If I can keep my virtual reality system up and running, I hope to add more of these precious moments to my somewhat overloaded hard drive.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 14, 2005


When the time came for Kira to attend fourth grade, Jana suggested we send her to Blanding. After much discussion, I became convinced Jana was right, and the decision was made. So, for the past year we have been carpooling to and from school with another Bluff family. Usually Jana or I drive the kids in the morning, and the other folks bring them home that afternoon. In spite of my earlier reservations, I have found the morning deliveries extremely enjoyable. The kids frequently read or do their homework on the journey up, and the return trip gives me time to collect my thoughts and admire the landscape before tackling the daily routine of the trading post.

The drive home from Blanding, Utah

On a recent return trip to Bluff, I noticed a large, distant land mass I had never seen. The soft morning light shifted quickly as rays of light intermittently broke through the cloud cover, highlighting the sandstone butte in stark relief against a black, moisture laden backdrop. Other monuments, uplifts and valleys were also illuminated in a kaleidoscopic spectacle, as light danced over the fragmented, multicolored geography in a rapidly changing ballet. The scene was electric, poetic and oddly enough seemed choreographed for the music playing on the radio.

Since I have been watching this land for many years, it amazed me that I had never noticed such a large formation. This geologic revelation reminded me just how complicated this stark, uneasy paradise can be, and made me realize I will never fully comprehend its complexities.

Later that same day, Ray Lovato stopped by the trading post with a small supply of turquoise beads. Unfortunately Ray seems to be slowing down, and his supply of handmade beads is decreasing. I am sure the time will come when his well will run dry. As a result, I buy from him whenever possible.

It seems we have been buying jewelry from Ray since I was barely at my mother's knee, so I thought I knew him pretty well. On this day, however, a different type of light was illuminating facets of Ray's life I had never before seen. Ray talked about how his father taught him to make beads in the traditional way and how he was now trying to pass the knowledge down to his own children.

Ray mentioned how most artists in his village were no longer making their own beads. Instead, they were simply buying materials from the Far East and stringing necklaces. He shook his head at the loss of creativity and tradition, and talked about the Ancient Ones who made beads using techniques similar to his own. I could see the shadows creeping in on yet another traditional way of life, and understood that the old ways are truly passing.

When he talked about his experiences in Vietnam, and what it was like coming home to Santo Domingo Pueblo after the war, I began having flashbacks. Not relating to the horrors of war, because I was too young to participate, but of older college friends who were actually there and experienced first hand the conflict and the complications of coming back to a country that did not fully support their sacrifice.

Santo Domingo Pueblo Jewelry Artist Ray Lovato

For me, the conversation was like discovering that large chunk of land I should have known was there, but kept overlooking. Vietnam has faded into the background for most of us, but its remnants creep back into our lives decades later in very unexpected ways. The light Ray allowed into that corner of his life spotlighted both the personal hardships he experienced and the difficulties this country struggled with after the war.

At the trading post, we often explain to our clientele that we sell contemporary art because we enjoy learning about the artists and what is influencing their work. It is usually a great joy to talk with them about what they are doing and why. There are times, however, when it is extremely painful to learn what has happened to them and watch their personal struggles. As I stood by the counter listening to Ray's stories, I could see the clouds begin to move and shift. The formations of his life were alternatively bathed in light or blanketed by shadows; the picture was fascinating, and painful.

Thursday, April 7, 2005

The Trader Gene

"Tied to the Post" needs to be temporarily titled "Hitched to the Post". This week, a Simpson woman weighs in. Steve's wife, Georgiana Kennedy Simpson lends her perspective on life as a trader.

My friends and I have been out of college over twenty years, and many of us have developed interesting careers. One friend served as a vice president for a large telecom company until forced out when she refused to doctor the numbers for the upper echelon. She now teaches business ethics to the next generation of Horatio Algers. As a state appellate court judge, another friend makes rulings on other's judgments, or lack thereof. Todd experienced the upside down world of Hollywood before moving his family to a more normal lifestyle in Texas. One of my oldest friends works for Intel in the Pacific Northwest. I do not know exactly what she does; if she tells me, she will have to kill me.

While the circumstances of my current career do not require a security clearance, most of my friends remain in the dark when it comes to my career. In social situations where they are required to introduce me, my mischievous streak prevents me from helping them when explaining what it is I do for a living. Indian Trader is not a selection offered on bank forms and other business applications, so I must settle for checking the Sales box. The fact that I sell art increases my friends' consternation. For Pete's sake, who in their right mind can make a living selling art? And worse, Indian Trader? Do I trade Indians? With political correctness flying around these days like the evening bats out of Carlsbad Caverns, perhaps the more appropriate term is Native American Trader or American Indian Trader. Perhaps I should be more specific. When I sell a particular piece of jewelry, I am a Zuni Bracelet Trader, but selling a carving labels me as a Navajo Folk Art Trader, or should I say, Diné Folk Art Trader. At one time, my business was called Nighthorse Traders, a catchy name I thought, until one particular client kept writing checks out to me as Nighthorse Traitors. I thought she was kidding, but after the third or fourth time, I realized a new business name was in order.

Which brings me to the worst dilemma of all, the whispering-behind-the-back kind of problem which goes as follows, "She's not a real Indian Trader. She doesn't have a real trading post. She doesn't trade pots and pans; ropes and cans; sheep and Spam (although I have traded a truck for a stucco job, jewelry for engine repair, and Pendleton blankets for day labor). She's a woman, no less! Women definitely cannot be traders!"

The definition of Twenty-First Century Indian Trader has changed considerably from Twentieth Century Indian Trader. One hundred and one years ago, my Grandfather Kennedy left a Missouri farm to answer the call of the West. Like many other young traders, he started working for a large mercantile company out of Gallup, New Mexico. He managed stores in remote outposts, gaining an understanding of his customers and merchandise. Four years later, the wholesale house staked him for building a trading post on the Navajo Reservation. He travelled west of Chinle to Salina Springs, a site nestled against Black Mountain and the white sandstone Seven Sisters. A water source was close by, as were a number of potential Navajo customers.

Immediate success would be a great story, but not a true one. A local leader, Left Hand Manygoats, resented his intrusion and sent a message to the young trader which I paraphrase as, "Leave or perish". Fortunately, Granddad was not easily intimidated. His return message in effect said, "Today is a good day to die!" Our trading story may have ended in its fourth year. Instead, Granddad and Left Hand found a way to move forward together.

Three boys arrived in the ensuing years. My father, John, is the middle son. Sickly as a child, he struggled to keep up with his more robust brothers, George and Fred. Grandma Kennedy, an orphan girl from Arkansas, worked hard to raise three rambunctious boys in a difficult environment. The educational needs of the boys precipitated moves into Chinle, Gallup and finally ten miles north of Gallup to a trading post known as Rock Springs. Growing up in the various posts allowed Dad to learn the trading business from the inside out. When travelers arrived, the boys gave up their beds and slept on store counters. Rock Springs was the last dipping station before sheep were loaded on trains in Gallup. It was not unusual to have 20,000 sheep grazing on the surrounding land awaiting their final drive and transport to distant lands. The boys learned to hunt and trap, selling the pelts to the mercantile company. One of my dad's best story beginnings starts out, "Bear attacked me over there." It begs for elaboration.

Jana's Dad

Heartbreak and tragedy are as interwoven in trading as wool, bullpens and saltines. During the flu epidemic of the late nineteen-teens, Granddad buried many Navajo people in Arbuckle coffee boxes. Five thousand dollars was the insurmountable difference between keeping or losing Rock Springs and the 50 surrounding sections of land during the Great Depression. With no money left for their home or business, and funds depleted from trapping earnings, Dad's college experience ended in 1930. That summer, he delivered blocks of ice, which had the dual advantage of bulking up his skinny frame and providing an opening for employment within the mercantile company. During those difficult years, he learned to mold himself into an asset for the company while gaining the skills which led to his career in Indian Trading.

Elephant Hill is the steepest hill in Gallup, yet somehow my father happened to "just be passing by" a beautiful, English/Italian brunette's house every day. Marriage, a burgeoning family and Dad's humble beginnings fostered dreams for bigger things. Realizing a business of his own provided the path to a better future, Dad started his trading career in the village of Zuni. After ten more years and various partnerships, he formed the Gallup Indian Trading Company. By the 1950's, Indian Trading had begun to take on a different face. Posts like my grandfather's were still prevalent throughout the reservation while town stores were gaining sophistication in marketing Indian art. Catering to the burgeoning tourist business, stores competed in offering the best in local weavings, carvings and smithing. Dad innovated the road salesmen; typically husband and wife teams who crossed the nation offering fine Indian handmade items to retail outlets, national park gift stores and museum shops. Millions of dollars worth of Indian artwork were flowing into Gallup and back out around the world.

Steve and I live above the store and our children have been in the trading post almost every day of their young lives. My time in the business started much like my own children's. Saturdays were the best days to sit next to the store's Navajo weaving demonstrator and watch her pluck and move the warp threads of the loom like a virtuoso harpist. I would then venture into the silversmith area to await the flash of torches and listen to the grinding of buffers and clanking of die stamps against silver. My brother, Robert, and I enjoyed Dad's reservation trips to gather rugs and baskets. To this day, two of my favorite smells are lanolin and sumac.

In the 1970's, Dad owned Winnebagos. The roads used to have a lot more dips. Pre-buckle-up-it's-the-law days, we loved to climb on top of the rug piles in the back of the RV and break into fits of giggles when bounced off at the nadir of the rut. When I went off to college and later into a career with Procter and Gamble, upon returning home, I always gave Dad a look and said, "Let's hit the Rez!" which he was always willing to oblige. While apoplectic when 15 years ago I announced I was leaving my cushy career for the romanticism of Indian Trading, deep down my father understood my pull to the Four Corners.

My grandfather died when I was a year old, and I often think, "What would Granddad think about a granddaughter involved in the trading business so many years later." Today the face of trading looks very different, yet the underlying principles remain the same. Honesty. Empathy. Consistency. Hard Work. Today, computers and the Internet drive our businesses, while personal relationships maintain the soul of trading. At 92 years old, Dad is still going strong, letting others drive him to the Reservation for a few days of trading while he spins the yarns which ensnared me so many years ago. Am I an Indian Trader? You bet! It is in my genes.

With Warm Regards,
Georgiana Kennedy Simpson