Thursday, November 24, 2005

Saved by the Bell

One hot summer afternoon, I sat on the porch of Blue Mountain Trading Post, swatting flies, telling lies and swigging Snapple Iced Tea with Ezra Begay, an activity that had become one of my favorite past times. Ezra lived a mile or so down the narrow, two lane highway that led south to Bluff; at the Fred and Audrey Halliday place. He, and his sweetheart Sarah, inhabited a small blue house on the Halliday farm, and were responsible for ensuring that the farm's equipment and outbuildings remained free of undesirable varmints and critters. The Hallidays lived in town and had previously employed Ezra as a laborer. Ezra, however, was past the heavy lifting phase, and was enjoying the life of an easygoing agricultural caretaker.

Ezra and I first met in 1976, when my family opened Blue Mountain Trading Post, which was located about halfway between the Halliday farm and Blanding. Earlier in the year I had begun noticing this thin, slightly bent and stately Navajo man hoofing it up and down the highway on a regular basis. Sarah would trail along behind her man in typical Navajo fashion. As Sarah's bones and joints began to stiffen, I noticed them walking together less and less. Ezra, on the other hand, never slowed down. After I had gotten to know Ezra, he often told me that he was used to walking and enjoyed it a great deal. One hot, dry day Ezra stopped into the trading post and asked for a glass of water to moisten his parched throat and check out the new business. That was the beginning of our friendship.

Rather than just give him water, I did him one better and gave him a bottle of the Snapple Iced Tea we kept in a small refrigerator behind the counter. I liked Ezra instantly; his voice was slightly cracked and he spoke in the manner Navajo people often reserve for Anglos. I later discovered that Ezra had been a Navajo Code Talker in World War II, and spoke rather fluent English when he wished. He seemed to get a kick out of replacing his P's with B's, and using a heavy nasal twang when he spoke to "pink folks". As we became more familiar, we would speak broken English to one another and laugh out loud.

Historical time frames have always given me trouble, and the one thing I do remember is that I don't remember dates very well. I believe Ezra and I were perched on that porch sometime in the early 1980's, maybe July or August. This would have been just before Ezra became ill, moved back to his family in Kayenta and died. Anyway, there we sat visiting about his overseas adventures and the conflicts he found between military culture and his own traditional beliefs. About then, a large, dented Chevy conversion van pulled up, and a small, grizzled old gentleman popped out and scooted up on the concrete next to us.

It was apparent Ezra was not impressed with this bandy rooster, because he downed the remainder of his iced tea and excused himself, informing me that Sarah was waiting at home for him. As Ezra exited the porch, he shot me a look of distrust and headed down the highway. I thought about that look as I focused on the man standing with his face to the glass, hands shading his eyes, studying the interior of the store through the large picture window. The old boy removed himself from the pane of glass, sat down and focused his gaze on me. He began asking questions about who I was, how long I had been there, whether I owned the place and the source of water for the building. His last question threw me a little bit, so I asked what water had to do with anything.

The little troll-like character shot a stream of tobacco juice out onto the graveled parking lot, narrowed his eyes and squinted in my direction. "I'm a witcher," he stated with a cocky air of satisfaction. The statement struck me as extremely funny. Not being able to help myself, I snorted with laughter and asked him if he was a warlock; like the ones on "Bewitched." He was not amused! "I have witched more sweet water wells in this country than any man alive," he said with disdain. "I learned the art from my granddaddy in Oklahoma, and if there is water down there I can find it."

I explained to the man that we were on a well, and that it was tainted with iron. We used the well for everything but drinking water, because it was nasty and intolerable to the human palate. The man smirked and said there was good water below us, he could sense it. My opinion of him, and his senses, thus far was that they were both running contrary to the natural order. "Mister Twister" must have noticed my look of disbelief, because he jumped out of his seat and said, "I will prove it to you boy!"

Jogging to the back of his van, the ornery old cuss threw open the doors and began talking to himself and rummaging around for something. The side windows of the van were tinted, so I could not see what was going on back there. It did not take long before the man re-emerged from the hidden interior of the van with the tools of his trade. He was carrying a white plastic hardhat and what can only be described as a "witcher". It was a metal bar approximately 3/8" in diameter. It had once been about five feet in length but, was now bent in half, with both ends flared out at 45 degree angles. It looked very much like a metal Y.

When the man displayed his headgear, I asked him why he needed a hardhat. He said that, for some unknown reason, the witchin' rod worked in reverse for him. Instead of being drawn down to point out water, the end of his tool would be thrown violently upward and to the rear, causing it to make extreme contact with the top of his head. I looked incredulously at the little magician, thinking he must have taken one too many blows to the noodle before he figured out he needed protection.

After the short safety lesson, the man donned his bumper guard, grasped the "witchin rod" with his palms upward and elbows bent inward, almost touching, and positioned himself on the north side of the trading post. He stood briefly in that position, concentrating, and then, as if in a trance, began a counterclockwise rotation. Just as the man's inner compass found the northwest corner of our property, facing downhill and away from the trading post, the "witchin rod" jumped up and smacked our hero squarely on the head. Another snort escaped my nasal passages, and tears of amusement began trickling down my cheeks.

My family will be the first to tell you that I am a born skeptic; I do not believe in anything I cannot see, touch or taste. Taking anything on faith is extremely hard for me. I was thoroughly amused and intrigued by the antics of my new acquaintance, and began to follow him away from the front of the trading post. Every so often, the metal rod would reach out and touch the crown of his plastic encased head and redirect him towards our goal of "sweet water". It was very funny. We were nearly a hundred yards down slope when the comic character and I heard sleigh bells tinkle.

Spinning on my heels, I sprinted back towards the trading post, cussing at myself for not heeding Ezra's warning look and my own skeptic nature. Luckily for me I had attached a set of sleigh bells inside the store's screen door. Dad brought the bells home from an auction he had attended, and I thought they would make an excellent early warning device to let me know when someone entered the store. I was much younger then, and could move fairly quickly. I rounded the corner of the porch and came face to face with a female duplicate of the "Pied Piper" I had so recently been following.

The little troll-like woman was frozen in time, with the door that had given her away held slightly ajar and a look of alarm on her face. By this time I was angry; angry at being led down the garden path and angry that these two con artists had almost accomplished their goal. I could hear the man coming up behind me and turned on him with a glare and an oath. He looked past me and gave his woman a look of resignation. She dropped the door, turned back to the van and they both loaded up and drove away.

Breathing hard and still upset, I realized there was nothing I could do because no crime had been committed; just a near miss and an exaggerated feeling of stupidity. The next day Ezra stopped by on his way to town and asked about the man he had left me with on the porch. I told him the story, which he thought was extremely comical. From that point on, whenever Ezra would see me he would smile broadly, rub the top of his head in a circular motion, moistly press his tongue to the roof of his mouth, click it and exhale. That is one of the ways a Navajo might express pain and suffering.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Wal-Mart and Indian Art

Last Sunday Jana decided we should go to Durango for a visit to the new knitting store. She has recently rediscovered the craft and is vigorously working to perfect her technique. So, with kids firmly buckled into the back seat, we pointed the pickup east along Highway 162. After a stop in Aneth to satisfy Kira, Grange and Tarrik's desire for Gatorade and fill the gas tank with $3.00 a gallon gas, we were ready to travel.

Navajo Basket

When we arrived in Durango, Jana directed me to the shop, which was a genuine delight. The store was beautifully designed; the skeins of wool, sweaters, shawls and felted items were cheerfully displayed; and the staff, made up of knitting enthusiasts, was both attractive and friendly. I advised Tarrik and Grange that they should consider taking up the craft, since it appeared a good way to "meet chicks." Their sideways glances told me they were wondering why I was directing them toward a career in agriculture; baby chickens did not interest them. Ah, the innocence of youth. Actually, I was relieved that females are still of no interest to the boys.

After a stint in the Durango Recreation Center swimming pool, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the local Subway sandwich shop and started back to Bluff. It was about that time Jana informed me that the tab for all the knitting material she had hauled in was approximately $500.00. The Navajo weavers have recently been telling me that rug prices needed to increase because gas and wool costs have gone up dramatically. Eleanor Yazzie even tried to add on a $50.00 fuel surcharge when she brought in her most recent storm pattern weaving. I was beginning to understand her logic.

As we drove into Cortez, with Jana's needles knickering out yards of material, I noticed the local Super Wal-Mart. Emblazoned on the facade was the slogan, "Always Low Prices." Now, I know many people have developed strong opinions about the Wal-Mart philosophy; how the company treats its suppliers and employees; and a variety of other things. I have no strong emotions about those particular issues, because I see them as merely symptomatic of what the consumers demand; the lowest prices possible. Apparently many people do not realize that we pay the price one way or the other. It seems naive to expect Wal-Mart to provide extremely low pricing without some corresponding offset.

For the most part, my interest in the Wal-Mart phenomenon is directly related to our local artists and the pricing of their creations. Complaints about how expensive their work is are as inevitable as stray dogs at a reservation convenience store. At the trading post, we work hard to give the artists a fair price, which can lead to retail prices that are a little higher than some people expect. We feel, however, that it also results in enhanced creativity and the perpetuation of traditional crafts that are quickly becoming extinct.

We have noticed over the years that when we feel the pinch of a slow economy or a tight money supply and start tightening up ourselves, the artist are less inclined to create fresh, new items. As we slow the outflow of money, the inflow of unusual art slows correspondingly. We find that the artists resort to repetition and poor quality to compensate for the lower income. To me that seems as natural as spring following winter.

Navajo Rug

Recently we sold a wonderful Edith Tsabetsaye Zuni squash blossom necklace, ring and earring set. The set was on the back counter to be packaged for shipping when an officious woman walked into the trading post. As she poked about the store, it became apparent that she had no sense of the quality of art she was inspecting, and was not pleased with the prices she was seeing. All at once she spotted the necklace and asked, "What is that?" I explained to her that it was an extraordinarily well crafted necklace by the premier Zuni cluster artist. "How much is it," she demanded. I informed her that it was already sold, but she persisted. When I told her the selling price, to avoid lecturing her about common courtesy, she blurted out, "Well, that's ridiculously expensive," and headed for the door. I bit my lip to avoid saying something I would regret.

I have lived my life amidst Southwestern art, and in spite of that, much of what I see strikes me as fresh, new and exciting. A beautiful basket, bracelet or blanket can still astonish me. There is a native beauty in much of the local art that captivates me, and makes me advocate for fair prices. Unfortunately hand-crafted items in general do not bring what they should. Many of us hew to the Wal-Mart philosophy of "Always Low Prices" without realizing the offsetting reality. When there is no economic incentive to create those baskets, bracelets and blankets, they will cease to exist.

Recently Elsie Holiday brought in a basket that fuses Mother Earth with Johonaa'ei, the bearer of the Sun. The history of the Navajo people and their hero twins radiates from the weaving. I was happy to pay Elsie's price, because I knew it would perpetuate her creativity and help keep Navajo basket weaving alive for at least a while longer; to me that is worth the the Sun, the Moon and the Earth.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fall Reflections

Bluff, Utah Sunset

Fall is a reflective time for me. During this portion of the year, I often find myself contemplating the past; remembering people, places or things that have moved through the rough and unsettled portions of my life. Looking back, I believe I am now more capable of recognizing the facts without getting caught up in the emotions that so often disrupted my logical decision making processes. Like the Star Trek character Spock, because of my human nature, I have absolutely no chance of completely conquering my emotional failings. I have, however, taken the half human, half Vulcan's lead in forever working toward that lofty goal. I am certain that when I have exercised logical action and considered reaction, the road of life I have so casually traveled has proven less rocky.

People often ask what I do with the time I spend driving to and from work each day. I have generally used this spare hour to study creative writing techniques, theology, personal improvement, diverse cultures, science; anything and everything to stimulate my mind and improve my understanding. Some say it has been ineffective. I disagree. During the drives, I have enjoyed good music, cranked up, so I can feel it reverberate through my bones. In my opinion, music is more emotionally enjoyable when it is felt as well as heard. My family has chastised me on a regular basis after they turn the key, only to be blasted by speakers tuned to full throttle. Of course, after so many years of commuting to loud music, I cannot hear their complaints.

In the autumn of the year I refocus. The audio books are shelved and my DVDs go back into the case.' Tis the season for meditation. I learned this habit from the Dalai Lama, and a number of other well informed individuals. I have found that my thought processes are better organized when I take time to reflect. Imagine that! This time of the year is more conducive to contemplation and consideration. It must be the incredible light and vibrant color the season has to offer. It could also be that it is darker for longer periods, and my pace slows both physically and emotionally. I always think better in the dark; fewer visual distractions I guess.

Navajo Baskets

Getting out onto the land itself also aids in improving my mental state. The Navajo people believe Mother Earth is a cognitive being who continually provides for her human inhabitants, and asks nothing in return. Her considered responsibility is love and compassion for all living beings. There is no negativity in Mother Earth, she actually absorbs all dissension, opposition and disagreement; turns it around and reflects only positive energy. Now there is a high ideal to strive for.

I once read an article about a scientist studying the plant and animal life of Madagascar. He commented on how exciting it was to discover so many new species on almost a daily basis. That relatively untouched land was constantly giving up new information. The naturalist vowed to spend his life on the island, because there was no other place on earth so pristine. It makes me wonder how much we have lost due to our ignorance of the natural world, and the human desire to alter it. Mother Nature has much to offer, we need only take the time to hear her voice, having the patience to learn her lessons.

It seems there is so much to discover, and it is all too easy to become apathetic. The lessons the earth, the world and her people have to offer can be truly inspiring. Maybe it takes maturity and seasoning to begin to understand the important questions in life. Like my butcher always says, "Everything is better with age, and a little seasoning." Maybe that is why I have established such a fondness for fall.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post