Thursday, January 26, 2006

At the Intersection of Tradition and Progress

Recently, I attended a conference on Indian land issues, in, of all places, Las Vegas, Nevada. In the midst of one of the most surreal locations on the planet, for three days, our small band of interested parties discussed the status of Native American tribes in contemporary society and management of their land and natural resources. As I walked along Las Vegas Boulevard before and after the daily sessions, images of Native American reservations and their inhabitants kept flashing through my mind. The contrast between what I was experiencing internally and what I was seeing on the street was striking, and it made my head throb like the pulsating casino lights.

Navajo Folk Art

As anyone who has been involved with Native Americans on any level knows, Indian issues are extraordinarily complicated. The conference made it abundantly clear that, the federal government, being the federal government, has succeeded in making reservation land ownership and land use unbelievably complex.

At one point in our discussions, the instructor displayed a photograph that was apparently taken in the 1940s or 1950s. The image was of a marquee located at the entrance of a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, which proudly proclaimed, "Tradition is the Enemy of Progress."

Several years ago, I developed the theory that there is, with a few notable exceptions, an inverse relationship between economic development on Native American reservations and traditional values; as economic prospects improve, the old ways almost always recede. Upon seeing the Bureau's policy of that era displayed in such bold terms, I thought of my hypothesis and could not help wondering whether the reverse was actually more accurate; that "Progress is the Enemy of Tradition." Grammatically, the difference between the two phrases is slight; philosophically, however, the theories are worlds apart.

Since attending the program in Las Vegas, I have had a great deal of time to contemplate the Bureau's sign. Having lived in Southeastern Utah, adjacent to the Navajo Nation, the majority of my life, I have been witness to countless collisions at the intersection of Tradition and Progress. Broken and bloodied bodies are strewn about the scene of these accidents, lives are shattered and the damage often seems too large to contemplate, let alone repair. Tradition and progress do not easily coexist.

For example, when the Southern Ute tribe, that has a small reserve just north of Bluff, established a casino near Cortez, Colorado, the production of traditional artwork rapidly declined. This White Mesa portion of the tribe was at one time extremely productive. At this point, the White Mesa Utes produce precious few baskets, only a small amount of beadwork and a nominal number or cradle boards. Their economic status has improved dramatically, and it can be argued that their lives are better now than they were before the casino became operational. I, however, miss the ongoing interaction we had with the Ute artists and regret the lost art.

Once in a while I have stumbled onto an exception to my inverse relationship theory. Several years ago a young Navajo man who was studying medicine at the University of Kansas would regularly stop in to say hello and discuss the issues of the day. We had several extremely interesting conversations about the conflicts between western medicine and traditional values. I often mentioned to his wife that I wanted to frame him for hanging on the trading post wall. My thought was that I could use him to illustrate to other Native Americans who visited the store that there is indeed a safe bridge between the old and the new. This bridge is in essence a bypass over the dangerous intersection of Tradition and Progress, which allows a person to avoid the carnage typically associated with that geography. A lot of faith is necessary, but one can maintain his or her traditional beliefs and still exist in the modern world.

Trading posts are, I believe, another example of how the old and new can coexist. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lorenzo Hubbell had Elbridge Burbank, Bertha Little and several other artists create drawings and paintings that were shown to Navajo weavers. These images inspired them to replicate old weaving motifs and invent new patterns. Contemporary traders such as Bruce Burnham of Sanders, Arizona have had similar success. This infusion of new ideas into a traditional art form has been responsible for keeping Navajo weaving alive, and for investing it with previously unknown energy and excitement.

Although it can be a dangerous route to take, successfully integrating progress and tradition can result in keeping traditions alive, while giving the old ways the freedom to evolve. Traditions are born, grow, migrate, die and are resurrected in a constant cycle. Nothing is ever static. As we say around the trading post, "If you ain't progressin', you're regressin'."

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post