Thursday, July 28, 2005

It's A Dying Art

For many decades, there has been widespread speculation that Native American culture and traditional art forms are dying. At the trading post, we often see indications that a change is in the air; a basket weaver decides it makes more sense to pursue a nursing career; another "retires" because the cash flow is inadequate to pay the mounting bills; and the younger generation does not want to learn a craft because it takes so long to master the necessary techniques.

It is hard to argue that education is somehow less important than keeping a tradition alive, or that the artists should persevere in spite of low pay. It is also difficult to convince the young people to learn a craft that takes years to develop and, in the beginning, pays less per hour than an entry level position at the local convenience store.

Although I have often contemplated the loss of traditional crafts, until recently, I had never given much thought to the potential extinction of Indian traders. Yes, I have noticed that trading has evolved, but our trading post is evidence that the profession is alive and well. Or is it?

On a recent summer afternoon, as the temperature in Bluff soared to well over 100 degrees, I stood behind the trading post counter trying to keep my perspiration in check, and talking to a customer about the history of trading in the Southwest. As the conversation wound down, my companion commented, "Yes, trading is a dying art." It took me a moment to realize what he had said, and several days to sort through the implications of his statement.

Since, in many ways, I came to the "art" of trading through the back door, and because my trading credentials do not hold up well under close scrutiny, I have always been fascinated by the legendary Indian traders. I have studied the books on Hubbell; visited the Hubbell home and trading post at Ganado, Arizona many times; and learned what I could about the other successful trading posts, hoping to uncover the secrets to their success. Quite often, what I discovered led me to the conclusion that the early traders were successful because they loved the culture, art and people; the profit motive was secondary. It also became apparent that those traders embraced change, and readily incorporated it into their businesses.

The University of Utah Press recently published a book on the Farmington, New Mexico trader Will Evans. The surprisingly well written text is entitled, Along Navajo Trails; Recollections of a Trader. When the marketing copy arrived, I took a look. The book confirmed what I have begun to believe; that, while the Navajo people and the trading post system have changed dramatically over the past century, the founding principles of the people and the business are unchanged.

In the introduction to the book, focusing on the winter of 1917, when Evans was just starting his trading career, the editor states,"[Evans] realize[d] . . . that the Navajo culture is dynamic and is moving increasingly into the white man¹s world. Even the trading post, which allows Navajos to remain on the reservation to ship and sell their wares, is an institution of change. . . A trader and his post are the center and heart of the Navajo community. He is their creditor, advisor, and at times, their midwife and undertaker."

Although Navajo culture and art are changing, they may not be dying. Instead, the Navajo people may be continuing the evolutionary process they have engaged in for centuries; moving into new realms, and leaving behind those aspects that are not relevant to contemporary society. The primary characteristic that has allowed Navajo people to thrive in this harsh physical, social, economic and political environment is their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. That was the case when the first posts were established, and the trend continues to this day. The Navajo people are agents of change, and trading posts have had to change with them; the evolution is inevitable.

Those of us observing Native Americans from the outside are often inclined to freeze them in the amber of the past, rather than recognize and celebrate the changes they are experiencing. Their ability to innovate and adapt has brought some extremely interesting developments to Native American art. Although it is certain that some aspects of the culture and art will be lost, there are surely new and exciting developments ahead.

Trading posts are experiencing the same evolutionary migration. No longer do we sell flour, beans, peaches and coffee. In fact, the trading posts of today look nothing like posts of the Hubbell, Moore and Cotton era. I was recently reminded, however, that we still play the same role the early posts played. When I picked up the telephone last Saturday afternoon, I heard the voice on the other end say, "Hey Steve, we're hungry! Can I borrow a hundred dollars until my basket is done?" "Come on in," I replied. "We can't have hungry children." Out here on the Navajo Trail, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a pioneer trek with my wife, Laurie; two children, Spenser and Alyssa; and nearly 300 other hardy and resilient souls, many of them descendants of the pioneers who settled Bluff. Sadly, McKale was too young to make the trip, so she stayed home with Grandma and Grandpa Washburn. Our trek involved a trip to Martin's Cove, Natrona County, Wyoming. In 1856, Mormon pioneers emigrating westward were forced to seek shelter from an unexpected fall blizzard in the cove. Many died as a result of the freak storm, making the site an important part of the church's history. This desolate, but remarkably scenic landscape has recently become a pilgrimage site for church members, Mormon pioneer progeny and historians.

Hand Cart

We departed Blanding at 3:30 a.m., dressed as pioneers. The women wore dresses and bonnets relevant to the period, while the men wore white shirts, khaki trousers and straw hats. I was happy to see a few other "cross-grainers" wearing Levi's jeans, making me stick out less than I expected. I figured I had conformed significantly by getting the white shirt and straw hat right; that would have to do! I tried to talk Laurie into taking our van and following the buses on this journey, but she would have nothing to do with it. She insisted that learning to deal with out-spoken, belligerent and obstinate people was an important aspect of this trip. The pioneers learned to get along and depend on all sorts of strange, disruptive personalities. Laurie believed that without my presence on the bus, the other participants would miss that part of the experience.

I hesitated while boarding the bus, knowing that Laurie knew me all too well, and realized I might be the first person voted off the bus in this mini reality series. I exerted my best effort, and endeavored to thoroughly consider every subject before voicing an opinion. As a result, I found I had little to criticize, and managed to hold my seat. I also outwitted my lovely wife and avoided the object lesson she attempted to provide the rest of the group. I won . . . I think!

Upon arriving at Martin's Cove, I realized we were in for a hot, dry, dusty, labor intensive lesson in the struggles endured by the pioneers. The experience provided a key hole view into the world of a group of individuals who sought religious freedom and the ability to freely express themselves. Since there was nothing else to do at the cove but engage pioneer history, if you weren't there for that experience, you would have been sadly disappointed. Each "family" of 10 to 12 was given a hand cart, into which they loaded their pre-packed five gallon buckets of belongings and set out into the afternoon sun for a three mile trek to the campground. I was sent ahead by transport to help set up camp and prepare the evening meal, separated from my psychologically devious spouse.

As one of the cook shack personnel, I was asked to boil noodles, fry bacon and eggs and cook beans for a hoard of hungry teenagers and their handlers. I was quickly reminded that growing kids have huge, insatiable appetites. I believe there were some young people in the group who could have devoured a small beef at a single sitting. I actually began to wonder if the local semi-tame deer and antelope might fall prey to roving bands of ravenous adolescents. The hand cart pioneers endured extreme suffering, sickness, hunger and death. Our troop, on the other hand, suffered only minor inconveniences such as a little grit in our groceries, slight to moderate fatigue from trekking through the heat and a grungy three day build up of offensive odor.

We pitched our tents under the brilliant, star filled, sky and felt the soft, cool evening breeze dissipate the heat of day. As I lay there listening to Laurie breathe in soft slumber and the laughter, joking and singing of young people, I sent a prayer of thanks skyward. A couple of Mormon converts from Denmark had been part of the disastrous hand cart adventure we were recreating. Without them, and their courageous efforts to traverse the difficulties of the Oregon trail, I would not have the family I now treasure. Extended family, friends, acquaintances, descendants of those whose foot steps we now followed surrounded me. A belief in spiritual improvement and a hope for a better life drove them forward. Their suffering, sacrifice and faith have produced the sweetest of fruit.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Heading East

On our recent vacation, I found myself parked in a Texas motel with my wife and three children. Bodies, luggage, clothing, swimsuits, hairbrushes and a variety of other personal items were strewn about the room, giving it that homey, war zone feel. We had just returned from a stint in the pool, and, over my objections, Jana and the kids unanimously decided to watch SpongeBob SquarePants on the television.

Jana's Book

As SpongeBob babbled endlessly about Mr. Krabs, Patrick, and Krabby Paddies, I felt my sanity flagging. I have never been a fan of SpongeBob, and that particular episode reminded me why. So, as the rest of the family fell into a cartoon coma, I reached for Jana's book on Navajo ceremonial baskets to ground myself.

Although Jana had asked me to help edit certain sections of the book while she was writing it, I had yet to read the finished product. Navajo baskets and the culture associated with them have been a significant part of my life since we opened the trading post. So, as we prepared for our trip, I put a copy of the book into my bag and made a personal commitment to read it during our travels.

As I read through chapters on the origin of Navajo ceremonies and ceremonial baskets, I began to realize just how many of the local traditions have crept into my life. Because of the Spiderwoman stories, for example, I am more cautious when handling spiders; because of Stormy Reddoor, when it rains I often go outside and stand in the downpour; and because my kids often introduce significant doses of chaos into my life, I fully appreciate the coyote stories.

At one point, Jana's book mentions that a traditional Navajo people will rise early and run toward the morning light, gathering the strength, blessings and health the sunrise provides. For years, I have done exactly that, and have found my life blessed in many ways. Not that I have ever had any such expectations as I rolled out of bed and tied on my running shoes. In fact, my morning runs have sent me east mostly because I am a creature of habit. Once I establish a pattern, right or wrong, it is almost impossible to get me to change.

The road between St. Christopher's Episcopal Mission and the trading post is relatively flat and mostly traffic free early in the morning. As a result, I have worn a rut into the pavement of Highway 162 over the years, and God help anyone who tries to alter my path. Cars, trucks, busses, cows, sheep, horses and a variety of other natural and mechanical creations have tried and failed.

The primary benefit of running east that early in the morning, or so I thought until reading the passage in Jana's book, was that I get to see the sun break over the horizon as the day begins; I see the shadows recede and the sun spread its golden glow across the land; and therefore witness the start of each new day. During these runs, I am often reminded of a conversation a friend of mine had with a Bluff resident. When the friend asked the resident if he attended the local parish, the resident responded, "He_ _ no, I only worship nature." The natural beauty I see on those mornings has certainly caused me to shout out in praise more than once.

Grange & Avery @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

Recently, Jana, Kira, Grange and I rose early and headed north for a day of activities and celebration. Every Fourth of July, Blanding sponsors a 5K run which I greatly enjoy. This year Jana was determined to have the kids participate in the one mile fun run associated with the race. Since Kira and Grange have shown little interest in what their daddy does before he wakes them in the morning, I wondered how things might turn out. Jana, being Jana, had faith that everything would be fine. As for me, I worried the kids would not get up on time, causing us to miss the race altogether.

As is our family habit, we arrived just as the other kids were queuing up to start; late, but not late enough to cause a crisis. We hastily registered Kira and Grange, and off they sped in a cloud of dust and a herd of kids. As I stood at the finish line, thinking of that passage from Jana's book and watching our kids completing the race with their determined looks and flushed, smiling faces, I became convinced that the Navajo beliefs about rising early and running towards the sunrise were based in sound logic. The blessings were certainly captured that morning.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Sweating It Out

Recently, I found myself researching the Navajo healing ceremony known as the Mountain Chant. Wally and Anita had purchased a basket woven by Alicia Nelson, which was based upon that particular rite, and I wanted to help them understand the importance of the weaving. As I sat at my desk reading information about the chant, I began to notice it was becoming a real cooker inside the trading post. The swamp cooler was fighting a loosing battle against the triple digit thermometer reading, I was nursing a cranberry iced tea and re-reading Gladys Reichard's two volume set on Navajo religion for the umpteenth time.

All of the sudden, a drop of sweat rolled down my nose and fell onto the page. While focusing on the salty, wet spot now gracing the book, I read, "The Sun and fire are a sign of annihilation among the Navajo, it is said to burn evil. Sweating removes evil." In light of Ms. Reichard's statement, I began to wonder if that bead of sweat had any significance. Could this be a sign? Admittedly, I am a hard head at times, have a bad attitude and am endowed with a smart mouth. Additionally, my son believes I stretch the truth far too much when I write these missives. I do not, however, believe there is any evil in me.

Ms. Reichard continued, "Evils entering the body may be in the stomach, or they may be in the form of arrows or witch weapons imbedded in the flesh. Both types may be exorcised at once by sweat-emetic rites. Changing-bear-maiden treated herself by walking around a hot fire and taking the emetic to get rid of the many arrows shot into her by the Swallow and Spider People. Son-in-law of One-who-customarily-sees-the-fish took the same treatment to force out witch objects injected by Ants, Bear, and Snake People."

Ahh, that explained it. It was all too simple! Last night I ate out and had a really bad green chili burrito for dinner. I was now suffering a great deal for that indiscretion. Here was a clue to how I might best cleanse and reactivate my dysfunctional system. Living and working among the Navajo people truly has its advantages, and I was once again reaping those benefits. Studying the Navajo legends and asking the right questions of the most educated sources often reveals the necessary answers. Amazing!

It seemed that Ms. Reichard's treatise may have also revealed the reasons why Indians used to stake white men out on the desert. The procedure was not done out of anger, frustration or meanness, as generally thought; the Native Americans were simply helping their new friends exorcise their internal demons. The ant hills and wet rawhide are a little more difficult to explain, but may have been the result of a highly developed, extremely dry sense of humor.

My study of Navajo ceremonialism has taught me that healing of the mind and body can be accomplished with the aid of a therapeutic sweat. After studying the issue of ritualistic cleansing, it appears to me that Bluff and her resident population seems to be in need of a sweat. It gets warm here in the summer; actually, it gets hot enough to toast a bagel. Maybe the Navajo deities are attempting to bring us together by sweating the poison right out of our collective system. Whether any of the measures believed to be curative have actual therapeutic value may be subject to debate, but it can't hurt. Those who are helped most seem to have been provided a psychological rather than a physiological reprieve. This makes sense, because human motivations are mostly based on whim, emotion, pride and prejudice, so psychological aid is a much more effective tool. Bluff seems primed for a psychological overhaul.

Many mishaps may point to the need for a ritualistic cleansing. Metaphorical arrows shot into a victim, for example, are clearly bad juju. These arrows represent the implement that enters a person's body and harms him or her, leaving nasty complications even after the victim has gotten rid of the resulting disease. The residue and the remaining shaft may however be removed by sweat and emetic. The fire into which the arrows are allowed to fall during the ceremony irrevocably destroys them. Fire jumping is often part of the purification rite. In the sweat-emetic process, fire jumping symbolizes the purging of artificially introduced negativity; arrows, witch objects, nuclear burritos and the like. In the Evil Chants, participants must get as close to the fire as they can, since exorcism is emphasized and fire is one of its chief agents. The essential purpose of this activity is purification; ridding the body of bad things which may have intruded.

Breathing is also considered a ritualistic act; the patient faces the power, usually the Sun, stretches out his or her hands, palms up, pulls or draws the power into their lungs by cupping their hands and inhaling; the motion is repeated four times. The act is often compared to a kiss, signifying acceptance of all that has been done for the patient and a willingness to carry out all ceremonial requirements. The Sun is a universal symbol of the struggle between fire and water. Water is the antidote to fire; it soothes and calms, counteracts the fear inspired by fire and represents escape. Add a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda, and voila!

Studying Navajo legends has provided me insight into Bluff's small town culture. When dealing with Bluffoons, being shot by an "arrow" may seem an endurable circumstance in the beginning, but give it time. Chances are there will be indigestion, nausea, purging, fits and seizures. Jumping into the fire may seem the most sensible form of purification. Night sweats, chanting and looking for ways to cure the ills associate with small town life are common.

When contemplating exposure to danger; hunting, war, greasy spoon restaurants, neighbors or contact with the supernatural as layman, learner or chanter; a Navajo purifies him or herself by sweating. In fact, many Navajo family settlements have a mini hogan where a sweat bath may be taken. Any time an individual or small group of people sees fit; a sweat bath renews vigor, makes one feel fresh and confident, relieves the mind of doubt and rids the body of accumulated red dirt.

In some acts or rites, power is concentrated in the chanter, assistants and the patient. In others, however, everyone present must participate in the sweat-emetic. The participation my include ash blowing, saying a pollen prayer, holding sacred objects or applying yucca suds. Proper audience participation helps the patient and the entire tribe; merely attending the ceremony is a part of the sustaining effort. The act of erasing sand painting guards or sweat-emetic fire paintings with the bull-roarer indicates the evils are gone and the guardians no longer needed.

I look forward to the time when all Bluffoons, heck the entire world, unite in harmonious ceremony. The day we all stand, kneel or prostate ourselves, facing east and embracing the morning Sun, cleansed by understanding, compassion and a sudsy yucca bath is an occasion I eagerly await. Yah man! Shake out the bull roarer, grab it by the tail and let 'er rip. Dismiss the guards, we are no longer imprisoned by ignorance. Wouldn't it be great to enjoy a mean green chili burrito dinner as a community, without causing a stink or undo side effects!

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post