Thursday, May 12, 2005


The San Juan River Swinging Bridge in Bluff, Utah.

Recently Indian traders and their role in the development of the American Southwest have been on my mind. I find their lives, and their recollections, extremely interesting. History is most meaningful to me if I can connect with it on a personal basis, and Indian trading is very close to my heart. I have gained a new perspective on historical accuracy since Steve and I began writing our weekly stories, and cringe at the idea of future historians placing much stock in our musings. Our thoughts are rarely based in historical fact, dutiful research or deep cognitive considerations. They are instead based on our personal experiences, and we do not let facts get in the way of a good story.

While contemplating the subject of Indians, traders, trading posts, mercantile stores, co-ops and pioneer businessmen in general, I keep coming up with . . . Bridges! Not the type of modern day miracles that stretch across the Florida Keys, the San Francisco Bay or even the San Juan River, what I had in mind is more human.

The swinging bridge near Bluff is an excellent metaphor for what I mean. Hand-built, and fashioned from whatever materials were available at the time, this bridge reminds me of many trading posts I have known. This wonderful, historic bridge is a classic example of frontier ingenuity. The bridge stands as a symbol of how people with serious differences can come together to span a cultural gap. "A bridge over troubled water," as it were.

The individuals, families and partners who established early businesses on Southwest Indian Reservations often spent their lives sharing experiences, discovering cultural parallels and realizing common ground; essentially developing relationships that go far beyond economics. There is an excellent book written in the 1960s by T. D. Allen, entitled Navajos Have Five Fingers. The book emphasizes the importance of relationships and respect for cultural differences. It is an expression of the realization that human beings are really one, in spite of their differences. It seems that familiarity often disperses hostility and creates bonds of understanding and friendship.

Trading post operators were often on the front lines of this movement towards comprehension, compassion and compromise. The bridges the old-timers built were not always constructed of the stoutest materials or on the most solid ground, and there were failures. Manifest Destiny, jealousy, greed and miscommunication sometimes caused serious undermining of many well intentioned foundations. At times no bridge was developed, the riverbed seemed dry; devoid of the life giving waters of tolerance and commerce.

Floods and drought are not uncommon in our part of the world, but because business motivations were generally based on fair and equitable trade, a few of these bridges survived the ravages of time and destructive forces directed at them. The relationships established in those early businesses provided a basis for understanding, friendship and future development. Trading posts like Hubbell's, Keams Canyon, Shonto, Cameron, Inscription House and The Gap have stood the test of time. These trading posts, and the people who manned them, were instrumental in joining diverse cultures and projecting them into the future.

Communication, education and understanding were essential in constructing these relationships. Anyone associated with business in Indian Country understands that it is not the place to be if you are motivated solely by financial matters. There are many more important reasons for staying on. A perfect example of this is the big, old maple tree in my front yard. The poor thing is struggling to stay alive after more than 40 years of life. My dear wife stands right in there and fights the battle with it. She fertilizes, sprays for pests, (early in the year to protect nesting birds) and takes it personally when the tree loses a limb during a storm.

Laurie is emotionally connected to that tree. It was planted by her grandparents, who were descendents of some of San Juan County's first white settlers, and the roots run deep. As the tree grew, so did her family, a good and solid root system was formed, and the trunk became firm and supportive. The family prospered at an acceptable rate; growing and expanding. We are, after all, talking about a Mormon family. That tree is a guardian figure to be sure, and a true and honorable representation of why we are still here as a family.

Barry's house in Blanding, Utah

There is a story we share with visitors who are looking for the swinging bridge. A few years ago, a young German couple searched out the bridge to experience its wonder. Upon arrival, the young man gathered his camera gear and made his way to the center of the bridge in order to capture images of his sweetheart traversing the expanse. His wife busied herself extracting a hat from the trunk of the car and applying sunscreen.

Upon mounting the bridge, the young woman was captivated by the dramatic scenery, and her eyes drawn to the landscape. The soft rose-colored cliff faces of desert sandstone, the brush strokes of tamarisk in the gentle breeze and the music of the river trickling over cobblestone and sandbars distracted her. She was enthralled by the undulating motion of the bridge as she made her way towards her loving motion-picture man.

As she neared the center of the bridge, and experienced a particularly exaggerated rise in movement, our heroine stepped into space. That's right! As her husband watched through the viewfinder, his wife disappeared into the muddy brown depths of the San Juan River. The fraulein had not witnessed her husband's earlier crossing, and was unaware there were a few planks missing. Luckily the river was not very deep, and the woman was uninjured and swam to safety. The only losses were a hat, a bit of dignity and a slight blemish on an otherwise perfect relationship.

Bridges must be properly built and maintained; they require regular repair and consistent improvement. Our skill in building can help us weather the floods of misfortune and bring together the opposite shores of opinion through understanding. Build a bridge.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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