Thursday, August 31, 2006


There are precious few things in this old world that I truly despise, or dare I say it . . . hate. Prejudice, racism, greed, jealousy, envy and the like are obviously disturbing, but they are not the point of this missive. Miscommunication, misunderstanding and hormonal imbalance really mess with my psyche, but these natural wonders of matrimonial bliss are merely part of refining my male spirit. My primary complaint with the world and its various inhabitants, at this particular time, affects a more basic sense; the olfactory.

Navajo Folk Art

What brought this black and white topic of complaint to pungent light was a circumstance that occurred the other night. It was late in the evening as I wheeled the truck onto the concrete driveway of our home. A delightful mid-summer's eve was developing; deep dusk had settled in cool and comfortable. I was mentally preparing myself to drag out the over-sized plastic lounge chair and settle in for a relaxing stint on the refreshing lawn my wife has provided us. As I crested the hump in the driveway and came to a stop, my headlights revealed a disturbing scene.

Captured in the blue-white spotlights was my daughter Alyssa. The odd thing was that she seemed frozen in time. Her left hand covered her mouth and the right shielded her nose. It looked as if Alyssa was rooted in place like a blonde garden ornament; not a muscle twitched. As my mind searched out an explanation for this mysterious circumstance, my nose and, shortly thereafter, my eyes solved the riddle.

Gasping for breath, the musky stench overwhelmed me and I was nearly blinded by an almost instantaneous flush of tears. I grasped the shift lever to ram the truck in reverse, but quickly realized it was too late; the damage had already been done and I could not abandon Alyssa to her fragrant fate. I exited the truck and approached my stricken daughter. "SKUNK!", she stammered as she turned to face me. Tears ran freely from Alyssa's blue eyes, and a choking, gasping sound raggedly escaped her throat. Talk about overstating the obvious! "What the heck happened?", I coughed out. The answer was all too clear.

It seems Alyssa, along with her sister McKale and her brother Spenser, were spending the evening indoors, watching a made for television movie. My wife, Laurie, had left instructions to water the garden in her absence. The moment a commercial interrupted the show, Alyssa hopped up and sprinted out the back door to do her horticultural duty. It just so happened that the neighborhood bad boy had stopped in to dine on refreshments Laurie had left out for our local feral cat population. My wife has a soft spot for the homeless and malnourished critters that lurk about the region.

As Alyssa blew out the back door, the skunk, caught by surprise, turned on a dime and "high tailed" it out of there. The resulting expulsion permeated the entire area. Alyssa, miraculously, missed being thoroughly odorized by the beast, but was caught in the downdraft as, to my chagrin, was I. I had arrived just in time to miss the actual event, but still attract that most distinctive odorant. Alyssa pointed in the direction of Laurie's flower garden and said, "It went in there!" I narrowed my gaze and scowled in the direction she indicated, "Then back away slowly!" was my reply. "No!", said Alyssa, "I have to change the water and it may be in the garden."

Startled, I looked closely at my daughter and wondered if overpowering odor can adversely effect conscious mental function. I questioned her closely, "I thought you said it went into the flower garden, not the vegetable patch?" "Well it might be in there, I'm not sure!" she stammered. I walked back to the truck and pulled it forward to highlight the garden, got out and went with Alyssa to change the water. I was not sure whether a skunk can spray twice in such a short period, but I wanted to see it coming if possible. Just then Laurie walked up the driveway, saw us in the headlights, sniffed and said, "What is going on here?". "Skunk!" Alyssa and I said in tandem.

At this point McKale and Spenser came outside. McKale said, in her best Valley Girl imitation; "O' MaGosh! Everything smells really bad!" Spenser was rubbing his eyes and sputtering, trying to extricate the rank taste from his mouth. Stepping forward, I informed my family that I was going to get my shotgun and sweep the streets clean of these pungent pests. The skunk had thoughtlessly evacuated its scent glands upon our lives, thus initiating the need for aggressive action. "No!" said Laurie, "The only reason the skunk let loose is because it felt threatened and you are not going to endanger the entire populace, not to mention the children and me, by shooting up the neighborhood." That darned James Herriot attitude of honoring all creatures great and small is constantly getting in the way of my repercussive tendencies.

Spenser stood there smirking, he was enjoying my being dressed down and disarmed far too much, so I turned my frustration towards him. "This is a prime example of what I am always telling you son. Sharing the ozone with others is a responsibility one must take seriously; leaving behind volatile fumes when you exit the scene is not nice." That night we slept with Vicks VapoRub beneath our noses and I with a growing sense of hostility towards those black and white interlopers in my heart.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Art of a Trader

Several years ago, I was bent over the counter, eying the creation a Navajo carver had brought in to sell, when Duke strolled into the trading post. This was before Kokopelli became just another howling coyote; a time when people still looked at our doors and the Stormy Reddoor petroglyph pecked into the outside wall and asked, “What is that?” On the opposite side of the display case, the carver, who was about to lose patience with my indecision, anxiously shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

Steve's  drawing
Steve's drawing

The carving that had me perplexed was of three ant Kokopellis playing their crooked flutes and dancing across a small log. The figures were somewhat crudely carved, and the log was really just a big stick. When Duke finally rolled in, I had been looking at the carving for over 30 minutes, trying to decide whether it was genuinely inspired or just another knickknack destined to gather dust on the trading post shelves. Duke took one look at the piece and proclaimed, “Wow, that’s really good!” Shortly thereafter, the transaction was consummated and I carefully placed the Kokopellis on a shelf. It was not two hours before a patron came into the store, spied the piece and insisted on taking it home.

That was the first time I realized I am uniquely unqualified to identify quality art. Several years later, as folk art began to seep into my consciousness, and customers started asking about it on a regular basis, I knew it was time to unravel the mysteries of this particular art form. I had recently met Patrick Eddington and Susan Makov, and we had visited about the pieces they were collecting. As a result, I called Patrick and asked how I might contact the better folk artists. He was happy to oblige, and sent me a greeting card inscribed with several names, addresses and comments relating to individual artists. I have kept the card and still chuckle whenever I read it.

With regard to one particularly difficult artist, Patrick’s note said, “He does interesting work, just don’t loan him money.” During the man’s second visit to the trading post, he asked for a substantial advance. Having been forewarned, I was prepared for the query and easily avoided a disaster of significant proportion.

As a result of my newly acquired connections, I was introduced to the art of Charlie Willeto. When I looked at photographs of Charlie’s carvings, I clearly saw that I would not have had enough vision to believe his work would become so important. It was then that I began to wonder about the art of being an Indian trader.

Having stood behind that same counter over 16 years, I know that I often am not always the best judge of what is important when it comes to Native American art, and art in general. I have, however, become somewhat competent, and realize that a trader’s real contribution has little to do with the tangible manifestations of the artist’s work and much to do with interpreting the artists themselves.

Much of a particular creation’s importance is derived from what is influencing the artist to create the piece. Once you know the person, you can better understand the work and provide helpful comments that give the purchaser insight into why certain things are happening. In effect, our job is to help personalize the art.

As traders, we are windows through which people outside the Reservation can view a vanishing culture. Barry and I often listen to, read, interpret and convey messages from the artists, masking the unseemly and revealing the beauty. That is the art of a trader. I have tried my hand at many other art forms and find this one suits me best.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Corn is Life

The truck pulled up on our gravel driveway and I heard doors open. Someone got out, but I paid no attention to who it was. I was intently focused on ridding our corn patch of moisture-sucking weeds and singing my personalized version of the Navajo farm song to the stunted stalks sprouting from the earth. My song was an attempt to bring about a growth spurt through reverse psychology.

Navajo Pictorial Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket

In a cracked and off-key falsetto, I was letting our corn know that the plants of our neighbors to the north, in Wayne and Renee Palmer's garden, were at least a foot and a half taller and nearing fruition. This situation was unacceptable, because we had planted our seeds at nearly the same time. Being shown up by the superior gardening abilities of our friends frustrated me.

When we established our plot, I talked Laurie into planting the corn in small hillocks, much like the Navajo people do. The idea was to preserve moisture and eliminate our usual parallel rows. What we most often accomplished with rows were tall, stately, well watered plants on either end and short, stumpy, undernourished growth in the middle. Because the theme is so prevalent in Native American art, it was important for me to grow good corn. I feel an obligation to our artists to maintain a high standard when it comes to objects of associated interest.

Corn is of major significance to the Navajo people. One of their four sacred plants, it is a symbol of fertility and dedication to ceremonial activity. It is also deeply sacred to all Southwestern tribes, and is of major importance in many aspects of Native American life. To the Navajo, there is probably no rite or ceremony in which corn does not play a part. I once read that, "Corn is more than human; it is divine. It is connected with the highest ethical ideals." I figured if I practiced the well considered habits of centuries of Native gardeners, I might, in one fell swoop, overtake my neighbors in plant production.

It was getting dark as I rooted out the vermin of the plant world. As I worked, I struggled to portray some semblance of proper verse. I remembered the Navajo planting song had references to the earth, sky and moisture; all personifications of the female entity. Down on all fours, I was searching out weeds in the most remote corners of our garden. I could hear thunder off to the west, and recalled that Navajo culture implicates Sun as corn's father and Lightning as its mother. I once read a passage by Harry Walters, a Navajo medicine man, which explained that corn is a metaphor for human life. This is because both life forms go through similar stages of development. Corn and humans reach a time of fruition when they blossom; corn bursts forth with pollen, while humans achieve a peak of development associated with "hozho," a Navajo word describing harmony and balance.

I was so engrossed in helping our garden become all it can be that I did not notice my wife and daughters quietly observing my activities. I must admit I was startled when out of the dusky twilight came McKale's voice, "Dad you look like a stink bug crawling around in there!" My wife laughed and sarcastically said, "I think he's praying for forgiveness for being such a poor gardener." Alyssa burst out laughing, and after a great inner struggle finally got out her comment. "I was sure it was a Bad Moon Risin'," she said. I should have never introduced that child to the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival!

Marvin Jim Rattle Set
Navajo Folk Art Corn Rattles

Indignantly I rose up out of the corn stalks and informed my three would-be comedians that I was attempting to address our corn shortcomings, that the Palmers were showing us up, and that if they had any sense of competition or decency they would help out. "Speaking of decency," said my wife, "You might be a little less noticeable when you are pickin' and singin' in the garden. The neighbors may begin to question your sanity."

"Humph," I snorted, "What are we going to do to overcome this desperate corn situation." My wife then told me that the Palmers' success was really no secret. She had spoken with Wayne earlier in the day, and he informed her that they were using sheep manure to fertilize their crops. This additive was the reason for their bigger and better production. "No, . . . sh_t," I queried. Who would have guessed!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Livin' Like a Cottonwood Tree

Monday morning broke hot and clean in our sandstone sanctuary adjacent to the San Juan River. Jana, Kira, Grange and I were scheduled to leave on vacation. Before we left, however, we had to get a few things in order. The crush of the trading post over the past several days had left us more than a little behind, and we were hours late getting people and things packed into the Ford pickup that had been designated the vehicle of choice for our latest adventure.

Alicia Nelson Basket
Alicia Nelson Navajo Pictorial Basket

Wife, kids and camping gear were finally stowed, somewhat haphazardly, in the truck, so I hopped in and prepared to move out. I attempted to fire the ignition and discovered the battery was dead. The title of Father Liebler’s book, “Boil My Heart For Me,” flashed through my mind, and I thought, “Now this is the right way to start a vacation!”

Father Liebler’s book refers to the Navajo term for jump-starting a car when the battery has gone dead. Not long after he arrived in Bluff, Liebler discovered the literal nature of his Navajo converts. Since the Navajo people were not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the automobile, they associated cars with living beings and named the parts accordingly. The battery was, therefore, designated its “heart.”

Once we boiled its heart, the truck was ready to roll. Jana, in the mean time, had decided a tall iced tea was in order, so she headed next door to the cafe. Wondering whether we would ever actually get on the road, I eased the truck in gear and tracked Jana east to the restaurant. As I did so, I noticed a kitten tottering across the parking lot, obviously seeking a spot of shade.

Now, stray and abandoned animals are plentiful around here, and the last time I said anything complimentary about one I became the proud owner of Freckles, the ugliest dog on the planet. So, this time around I was proceeding carefully; too carefully as it turns out. When I finally realized the cat was in trouble and went into the cafe to get some water, it was too late. Although I splashed the cool liquid on the kitten to see if it would revive, there was no response; it was gone.

The death of the kitten reminded me just how severe this desert environment can be, and how careful you must be to avoid disaster. Many years ago Harry Walters, a Navajo scholar from Dine’ College in Tsaile, Arizona, had a big impact on me when he described the duality of Navajo culture in terms of a snowstorm. Harry explained that everything in the Navajo cosmology is both positive and negative, depending on how you approach it. He went on to describe how the snow could nourish the land or kill you if you are unprepared; the cat had been ill-equipped.

Cottonwood Tree
Cottonwood Tree up Cow Canyon in Bluff, Utah.

As we drove north up Cow Canyon, searching for a place to plant the recently departed cat, a cottonwood tree stood shimmering in the mid-afternoon light. Its lush leaves made me think of the kitten and Harry’s comments. Somehow the cottonwoods have found a way to prosper in this difficult region. We laid the kitten to rest beneath the tree, and I remember thinking, “I would like to be like that tree; a symbol of persistence, stability and endurance in this arid and unforgiving land.” For some reason, on that day I bonded with those trees. It was not until we returned from our journey that I fully understood why.

Reading the words of local author Robert S. McPherson at the trading post a few days after our repatriation, I suddenly discovered my cottonwood connection. Speaking of the early Bluff pioneers, Bob said, “In April of 1880, a group of Mormons tethered their tired horses at the future site of Bluff along the banks of the San Juan River. Nearby, they found only cottonwoods for construction; these trees, with their twists and knots, proved as unruly as the river that gave them life.” Bob’s words seem to accurately portray me and my uncontrollable life in Bluff.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Butterflies and Sad Goodbyes

John Yazzie Butterfly Pin
Navajo Pin by John Yazzie

It had been a long, hot day in Bluff, and I was looking forward to returning home to participate in sunset ceremonies on Laurie's carefully manicured patch of heaven. My mate of 19 years has a green thumb which was passed down from her grandmother, Allie Adams. This trait is particularly advantageous, since we inherited the responsibility for the yard Allie, and her husband Lloyd, brought to life from a sagebrush-encrusted plain back in the 1940's.

Long summer days of educating myself and others about Indian art and culture make me yearn for the quiet, peaceful, close-to-the-earth comfort of Laurie's yard. My wife tolerates my laziness as she zips around watering, fertilizing and providing tender loving care to her flowers, plants and trees. I often collapse into my oversized, plastic Father's Day chair to enjoy the evening and Laurie's invigorating scenery of motion. As I sit in the garden, I often contemplate the life lessons and relationships the trading post experience has provided throughout the day.

On this particular night, I was listening to the sounds of nature and my wife with my good right ear and music with my somewhat deaf left ear. I was plugged into an iPod Nano I had acquired to listen to books on tape downloaded from the Internet. When I purchased the Nano, I was hoping to advance my education of classic and not so classic literature. A side benefit of this nifty little gizmo is that I can purchase my favorite songs without having to pay for the entire album. As in the Napoleon Dynamite movie when Kip croons to LaFawnduh on their wedding day, "I love technology".

The song softly filtering through my consciousness was Unwell by Matchbox Twenty. Now that is a song I can relate to, especially the chorus:

But I'm not crazy,
I'm just a little unwell
I know right now you can't tell
But stay awhile and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me
I'm not crazy, I'm just a little impaired
I know right now you don't care
But soon enough your gonna think of me
And how I used to be . . . me.

Subtle hints from my wife and children imply that I may be just a little impaired, or possibly I am just realizing my own insecurities on a subconscious level. My family assures me they do care, and think of me often in a kindly, albeit somewhat concerned, manner. As the cool evening breeze drifted across the lawn and soothed my mind, I was visited by a dainty butterfly of a golden color bordered by a frosted black framework.

The delicate creature floated into my line of sight and settled on a thorny rosebush inches from where I reclined. The Navajo metaphor of the butterfly flashed into my mind as I watched the insect balance on the nearby stem. The fragility of life and the wonder of its experience are symbolized by the seemingly insubstantial, yet beautiful, nature of the butterfly. Images of friends recently lost came to me as I sat in the gathering dusk. Our long-time friend Mary Jim, along with her wonderful weaving abilities and concern for tradition, had succumbed to the ravages of cancer.

Christine King Butterfly Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket

Kim Hoggard, with his creative zest for life and thoughtful imagination, was taken from us far too early in his journey through this realm. Our dear friend Wally Lange, tragically taken, left us fond memories of his love of art and the artists who spend their lives creating such beauty. As darkness gathered and the evening star appeared, I reminisced about Uncle Curtis, Grandma Lorraine, Cousin Mitchell and many others, until a sad melancholy overcame me. I wondered to myself if individual consciousness did not somehow continue, and where, as vibrant beings, each of us begins and ends.

The words to the song reverberated through my head, "But soon enough your gonna think of me, and how I used to be". I looked to the now star-filled sky and was blessed with the visage of a shooting star. I began thinking how life might be very much like that star; a visible body of light burning brightly that blazes a path across the heavens then fades and flames out. The wonder is that the image remains in our minds, pressed into our consciousness. Maybe memory, that deep connection to those we love and care for, is the vehicle that allows our energy to continue.

I do not think I will ever look at a hand-spun Navajo rug without thinking about Mary, or admire a woven vessel without remembering Wally's thoughtful insight. When I pick up a telephone Kim installed, the image of him walking through the trading post with that smile of conspiracy on his face will certainly spark my imagination. Every time I witness an early morning sunrise over the farm to the east of Twin Rocks or hear the honk of geese resting there I will think of Uncle Curtis and his generosity towards others. The eyes, facial expressions, walk and talk of the family these people left behind project their love.

I realize now that life is a journey of understanding. We are made up of situations and circumstances that play in and out of our lives; some are lost and some remain. It is our responsibility to learn and grow as much as humanly possible, to pass on the best of what has effected us. We are all connected, the closer we are to someone, the stronger the bond. Our life force just might continue in some inconceivable manner, and that is a heady responsibility if this is the case

As I sat there, lost in thought, the living embodiment of Grandma Allie walked up to me with a questioning look. I smiled at her and silently gave thanks to the matriarch of the Adam's family for passing along a love of the natural world and those positive, hard working traits to my spouse. "What are you thinking," Laurie asked. Shaking my head, I remembered the words of the song and said, "I've been talking in my sleep, pretty soon they'll come to get me, Yeah, they're taking me away." It was Laurie's turn to shake her head. "My fault for asking," was her only comment. Sounds of joking and laughter from our children inside the house. "Come on woman" I said, grabbing Laurie's hand, "We have work to do before time runs out!"

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post