Thursday, July 27, 2006


There once was a Raven from Bluff
who was made of some pretty tuff stuff.
A leg he had lost, what a terrible cost,
to a trappers steel jaws unforgiving.
This diligent bird went forth undeterred,
determined to just keep on living.

Navajo Folk Art Carving

I often think of my old friend "Stumpy" when I find myself feeling emotionally pummeled by life's heavy weight champion of the psychological arena. I became familiar with this dark bird sometime during the late 1970s, and well remember how we met. A friend had loaned me his Thompson Center Contender, a single shot pistol with interchangeable barrels, which provided a wide variety of shooting experiences. Don had purchased a .30-06 caliber compensated barrel for this new toy and mounted it with a 2.5 x 7 power Magnum scope. Being proud of his new acquisition, Don invited me to give it a go. I fancied myself a pretty fair shot, and anticipated the opportunity to show off my well-practiced shooting skills while unleashing the impressive firepower of this marvelous mechanism.

Drawing on my extensive knowledge of local attractions, I drove to the east side of Bluff; just past Saint Christopher's Mission. I knew of a repository some of our less environmentally minded neighbors used when the dump proved inconvenient. A two mile trek to the other side of town can be daunting to individuals with a lackadaisical mind set, so this dump site often seemed attractive. At any rate, from time to time the location supplied me with an abundance of cans and bottles to target. The cliffs also provided a impregnable backstop for stray or ricocheting artillery rounds.

This particular site is where I first learned of the joy of carbonated targets. On one of my more notable visits, some wasteful soul had inadvertently deposited a full, unopened can of soda on top of a trash heap. When I found it in my sights and let go a well placed round, an amazing transformation occurred. The overheated can of sarsaparilla sprang into the air in an exaggerated summersault, spewing forth its contents in a spray of excited foam that put on a memorable, albeit short-lived, show of acrobatic effervescence. A bright light of inspiration sprang forth from my cranium, and from that day forth I have been the first in line when inexpensive, vaporous soda pop goes on sale.

On this particular trip, I stopped approximately 50 yards from the trash heap. That was farther from the dump than I would normally park, but I wanted to give myself room for this long range cartridge. I laid the pistol across the hood of my truck and extracted a shell from the box of bullets Don had provided. I should have anticipated trouble when I noticed only one other round missing. I cracked the hinge plate and slid the shell into the chamber. Clicking the pistol closed, I braced myself and peered through the scope, down the long 14" barrel. Locating a large, nearly buried, lard can resting on a sand hill, I cocked the pistol and settled in.

Gripping the gun tightly with both hands, I leaned into the scope and found what I considered the proper relief between the scope and my eye. I could easily see my intended target. and focused intently on it. I slowly bore down on the trigger, touching off a disastrous chain of events. When the hammer collapsed onto the firing pin, forcing it into the primer and igniting the powder, the high velocity bullet went rocketing down the barrel. At that instant, all hell literally broke loose.

In a mere fraction of a second the pistol roared to life and bucked backwards, breaking my tenuous hold on the grips and smashing the edge of the scope onto the rim of my eye socket. The sound of the blast and the concussion caused me to experience instantaneous deafness, and the scope's impact with the soft tissue and bone above my eye sent me sprawling backwards. A blinding light and overwhelming pain enveloped me. I shook the offensive weapon from my fractured grasp and stumbled backwards, somehow managing to stay upright.

I grasped my aching head and blinked hard, attempting to clear the red fog and outlast the pain. Glimpsing up-range, towards the trash heap, I witnessed a plume of dust rising where the lard can had once been. Enveloped by the dust cloud was an enraged, black-winged visage ascending towards the heavens. Fear spread through me like a volcanic eruption. Stunned and in shock from my recent head-on collision, I was certain I had released the Angel of Death; and he was springing forth to claim his latest victim.

Anger welled up inside of me at the injustice of my predicament. I fell to my knees, scrounging in the dirt for the pistol. When I recovered it, I flopped back up onto the hood of the truck and shook loose another shell from the box. Rattled as I was, I fought to get a grip on reality, and quickly decided I was not going to be taken without a fight. I thought maybe I could get another round off before the demon took me out. If the shot did not kill that Bat out of Hell, the repercussions would most likely finish me off. Either way, one of us would find satisfaction.

Reloading, I glared through the scope, searching wildly until I discovered a winged creature preening itself on the edge of the cliff. I cocked the pistol and sighted in tight. As I stared down the barrel, anticipating another thrashing from the .06, I realized what I was seeing. Standing there crookedly, on one leg, was a very angry raven. It was shaking sand from its blue-black feathers and loudly voicing its frustration at being blasted out of the desert. Recognizing that this creature was probably not a genuine threat, I re-evaluated the option of firing again and elected to let the bird continue its one legged existence.

From that point on Stumpy and I were fast friends. Owing to his dangerous sense of humor, however, Don was disbarred from my circle of associates. Thereafter, whenever I saw that one legged raven, I would wave, honk and shout his name. He in turn would hop around to face me, cock his head to one side and blink his coal black eyes. He probably never forgot the poor fool who one fateful and memorable summer day learned valuable lessons about friendship, ballistics, the long term effects of muzzle blast on one's eardrums, the feeling of blunt force trauma to the head and compassion for other creatures.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 20, 2006

You Have To Go Through A Few Sponge Bobs To Get To The Yeis

The other day, I came back from a little time off to find Barry extremely agitated about something that had arrived at the trading post during my absence. As he led me into his office, in anticipation of disclosing this latest development, he was visibly affected. As I entered the room, I noticed him reaching up to retrieve this most recent artistic creation from the back of his high shelf.

Approximately 16 years ago, I returned to the trading post business, "for just two or three years." Back then, I questioned whether I could actually survive in Bluff. After I overcame my initial jitters, I found small town life agreed with me, and that I was immensely interested in how the art that found its way into the trading post evolved. Navajo basketry was just beginning to flower, so it was an interesting time. I even thought about writing a book called The Evolution of the . . . . Since I couldn't find the right word to rhyme with Species, however, my project never got off the ground.

Barry had read a great deal of Navajo mythology by that time and had developed a few concepts he wanted to implement. He and I have limited artistic capacity, so initially he sketched his basket designs using a compass and ruler. Although I felt the designs were a bit static, they began to catch on, and, with a little imagination from the weavers, some pretty interesting baskets started to come in.

Once we realized this design experiment might actually work, Barry hired Damian Jim, who at that time was a young man with some big ideas that fit very nicely with what we needed. Damian, who hitchhiked 30 miles to work each morning because he had no reliable transportation, had a good graphic sense and computer experience that far exceeded anything Barry and I had or have been able to develop.

Recently, the latest installment of Greg Schaff's American Indian series came out. The book showcases Native American basketry, including a large section on Navajo weaving, and I was pleased to see several of Barry and Damian's early designs represented. Many of the baskets featuring these motifs were submitted by other collectors and traders, which tells me the designs have gone mainstream.

Damian spent several years with us, designing and encouraging us to embrace the internet. I can still see the frustration on Damian's face when we asked him a silly question about the web or requested a design he thought was ridiculous. At times, the substantial investment in time and money seemed unmerited. I clearly remember one of our best trading buddies, Jacque Foutz, relating a story about how her father-in-law traded in baskets. Jacque had become interested in writing a book about Navajo basketry, and began her research by talking with Russell Foutz. When asked about his experience with baskets, Russell, one of the true old time traders, said, "Jacque, I bought them, I sold them; they were like cans of beans to me." Needless to say, she was deflated.

Since Russell had been a successful trader, I often questioned whether Barry and I were on the right track. But then somebody would bring in a truly great work, that was like nothing we had ever seen, and I would become convinced anew that we were doing something worthwhile. A few months later, however, when we noticed other people carrying similar items, our enthusiasm would ebb.

This morning I noticed a flock of crows hopping around behind the trading post. One of them had found a crouton and was carrying it around in his mouth. Once the other birds realized what he had, they all converged, trying to get a piece of his treasure. Barry and I have often felt like the crow with the crouton, trying to protect the gems we have discovered, but knowing all along that we had to let them go so things would be better for the flock. Letting go, however, can be difficult.

Navajo Folk Art

As Barry reached up for the gems hidden on his top shelf, he said, "You gotta see these carvings." My mind immediately flashed back to a Sponge Bob figure Ray Lansing, an artist who is being mentored by Marvin Jim, had carved a while back. Ray is a talented carver, but Sponge Bob was an enormous emotional stretch for me. Barry on the other hand felt a kinship with Sponge Bob, and believed we needed to purchase the carving to, "keep things going." I thought it was Barry's affinity to the cartoon character more than his love of the art, but was compelled to give in."Besides," Barry said, "How can you dislike a guy who lives in Bikini Bottom?" I had to admit he had a point.

Much to my surprise, Sponge Bob Rez Pants was a hit, and I was reminded that setting the artists free to create on their own terms, and believing in them even when Sponge Bobs are the result, is an important part of our business. When Barry revealed four Yei rattles Marvin had carved, I realized how far he has come with just a little encouragement, and thought,"Well, I guess you have to go through a few Sponge Bobs to get to the Yeis."

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thoughts on Bluff

It is strange to me how my mind sees the past, and how my perspective has evolved over the years. When I think back to the Bluff I knew as a child, and compare it to what it is today, I realize that I view things from an entirely different perspective. Having added a few years to my resume, I am more aware of my surroundings, and more tuned into this small town and her colorful history. My journeys through Bluff cause me to feel as if I am caught up in a whirlwind. At times, my agitated, spinning thoughts, emotions and memories turn like a whirligig. The spiraling particles of people and circumstances remind me what once was, and cause me to question why and how things have become what they are

Navajo Pictorial Basket

For me, focusing on the past is like folding back intangible pages of time and viewing watercolor images from a different world. There resides a surreal dimension I cannot comprehend physically. I do, however, allow myself the luxury of considering the implications of their evolution. Remnants of the Ancient Puebloans make me wonder about a people that existed in the harshest of climates. A stunted harvest of corn and a malnourished rabbit may have seemed like a royal banquet to those pint-sized and short-lived early inhabitants of this stark river valley.

The Navajo people, who came much later and have continued the struggle, refined the art of survival and, amazingly, devised a rich and diverse culture to direct future generations along the Pollen Path. When I was a child, our family was fortunate enough to associate with these thoughtful people, and we learned a great deal of wisdom from their mythology. I can remember lying on a stumpy, clumpy patch of lawn next to our home and looking up into an incredibly vibrant night sky. There was more red earth under me than green grass, which made for an extremely uncomfortable mattress. The heavens were attraction enough to comfort me, however, and I overcame the discomfort of the uneven soil. The sky was magnificent; as sharp and crystal-clear as only a Southern Utah sky can be. I remember looking into the vaulted heavens and considering what my Navajo neighbors had told me about how the night sky came to be. They said that during the creation of the universe, First Man had begun the process by placing certain constellations with exacting precision; until Coyote stumbled onto the scene. Disrupting First Man's project, Coyote scattered the remaining stars in a haphazard manner, destroying First Man's well laid plans and creating the Milky Way. This was my introduction to the concept of chaos and order.

I realize the importance of family, and remember the time and effort our parents invested into raising us as self-reliant individuals dedicated to the well-being of the family. Those lessons have endured, and provide our families with a web of support that furnishes a load of love, protection and comfort. As a young person, I was confused by how the Navajo people valued the "mixing of blood". I could not grasp their concept of kinship. Their "grandparents" are what we would call a great aunt or uncle; aunts and uncles are referred to as "mother" and "father"; cousins are "brother" and "sister".

What I did not realize then was that our English translations of family relationships do not feel right to the Navajo. They believe aunt, uncle or cousin do not do justice to the closeness of "blood ties". I now feel the Navajo terms for close relations seem a little more intimate, and do more to embrace the family unit. I am sure these incredibly close connections were essential to survival in a world of extreme hardship, and the tradition has carried through.

The Mormon pioneers who settled this wandering river valley had similar feelings concerning family. They have all realized the necessity and value of the family unit on many different levels. I have learned to appreciate the time and effort those tenacious characters put into building Bluff and expanding their relations. Their efforts went above and beyond what most were willing to invest in this unlikely endeavor. All I need do is take a walk on Cemetery Hill and read the markers to grasp the magnitude of their efforts.

Having read a number of books on local history by authors such as Albert R. Lyman, Robert S. McPherson, and a thesis by David S. Carpenter has provided me with insight into the Mormon perspective on Bluff as well. These thoughtful forward-thinking and respectful writers have placed in my head information that causes me to envision pioneer figures trudging about town in animated fashion; Bishop Jens Nielson bent and limping with hardship and age committed to preserving the town and its mission; "Aunt Jody" Wood the midwife hurrying in the footsteps of Posey to attend to the Ute's stricken wife; and many others.

I also see the ghosts of Brother Thales Haskell, the prayerful interpreter, and his Navajo tracker Jim Joe galloping south on the trail of stolen horses. Like dry and dusty autumn leaves caught in a dust devil, I catch only brief glimpses of these historical figures before they disappear into the upper reaches of gnarled cottonwood trees. The trees, too, are remnants of those ancestors of Bluff, planted so long ago in an effort to shade the pioneers in the heat of summer. Their twisted, bent and gnarly forms remind me of the hardship suffered to establish my birthplace.

Turning the pages in my mind back and forth, revisiting the past and evaluating the present helps me develop a better understanding and appreciation for my place in the universe. Ancient images flood my mind much as the San Juan River ebbed and flowed and raised a ruckus with the lives of the early inhabitants of Bluff. I often visualize myself back on that scraggly lawn looking up at the vast universe and wondering at its beauty. I am surrounded by the warm, rich darkness, faced with the magnificence of nature and embraced by the love of family, friends and those extremely vertical sandpaper cliffs of my home town.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Academics and Activists

As the summer months roll around and the moths return to dance at the outside lights, I am a daily witness to the carnage of an ongoing battle for survival. Each morning as I open the Kokopelli doors, I see that the porch is once again littered with detached moth wings. At first I was baffled by the scene. How could so many moths simply evacuate their body parts, and where were the remainders, I wondered. Then it occurred to me, the bats and lizards were responsible for this devastation; the wings were the leftovers of moths who had given their all to the nocturnal invaders.


The detached body parts remind me of how I have felt after certain encounters with academics and activists who believe they understand the relationship between Anglo traders and Native Americans. In all honesty, I have always been a little ambivalent about the term "Indian trader." The title reminds me of slavery and the economy of human flesh. Trading does, however, have an extremely rich history, with large quantities of both positive and negative elements woven into its fabric.

One of the most influential traders of all times is Lorenzo Hubbell, and Barry and I often look to him for inspiration. Hubbell is, in my opinion, the archetype for this positive/negative trading personality. While he is one of the individuals largely responsible for keeping traditional Navajo rug and blanket weaving alive, he is also largely responsible for increasing the number of Navajo children residing in the Ganado area. His influence on Navajo art and population is undeniable.

Much to my dismay, there is the often repeated legend of how traders purchased Manhattan from the Indians for a few hanks of beads, which leads to the ever-present opinion that Indian traders are universally angling to disadvantage our darker skinned trading partners. Partners is, however, the operative word, and you cannot maintain good relations without a large measure of honesty and fairness. I have known many traders during my long tenure in this business, and have found them, on the whole, to be, as you might guess, a mirror of society in general. Most are extremely honest and fair, others, however, are not.

All of this occurred to me recently as I soaked my head, which needed a good soaking, in a hot spring cave formerly frequented by the mighty Ute chief Ouray. It seemed to me that most people have a difficult time finding the good in Native American/Anglo trading. For some reason, wrong generally prevails over right, and encounters are measured in who won and who lost, not how both parties may have benefited from a long-term relationship.

This internal dialogue brought me to a conversation Barry and I recently had about the Navajo carver Marvin Jim. Years ago Marvin began to truck his carvings into the trading post for sale. While Barry and I greatly appreciated the quality of his work, we found ourselves immediately ensnared in the controversy over Navajo artists carving Hopi images, and whether we were promoting the rumpus by buying and selling his work.

Possibly because of my background, I have never paid too much attention to one group telling another they cannot do something that is perfectly legal. Barry, however, had a better idea; he asked Marvin to switch from carving religious images of the Hopi to sculpting objects with Navajo themes. The rest, as they say, is history.

In our ongoing effort to ensure Marvin continues to evolve and progress both artistically and economically, recently Barry asked Marvin to carve rattles with Yei masks. Yei masks tend to be controversial as well, because the Navajo people believe that an improperly represented Yei may cause its creator may go blind, become physically twisted or worse.

Marvin Jim Folk Art

In the early 1900's a Navajo weaver named Yah-nah-pah began weaving Yeis into her rugs. This created a great controversy among her people, since tradition dictated that Yeis were not to be depicted in a permanent medium. Despite threats that Yah-nah-pah would be stricken with illness for this transgression, her husband, Anglo trader Richard Simpson, encouraged and delighted in their production.

Although Yah-nah-pah did indeed die at the age of 24, Yei rugs have endured to become a staple of Navajo weaving. In spite of their popularity, Navajo artists are still cautious when reproducing Yeis in their art. Which brings us back to the tension between Indian traders and the academic and activist communities.

Hubbell maintained that it was the responsibility of Indian traders to improve the lives of their Native American trading partners. The problem, of course, is that in attempting to improve the lot of our artists, we often ask them to create those things that are more rare, more unusual, more culturally risky. Whether this is good or bad, I can only guess. I have a difficult time viewing the world as black or white, so I wonder whether the answer is that it is both right and wrong; the water is murky. The beautiful creations and improved living conditions of the artists tell me there is good in what we do. The argument that a certain amount of culture is lost in the process is not however lost on me.

Barry and I try to manage this issue by asking and suggesting, never demanding. It is up to the artists to decide what they are comfortable doing. In essence, we attempt to influence without offending, promote without detracting and by giving our artists the freedom to create. That way, they decide for themselves exactly what risks they are willing to take and what parts of their culture they are willing to expose. From time to time this still results in my dismemberment, but overall, we have found a workable balance with our partners, if not with the academics and activists.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post