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

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