Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wanda and the Fish Necklaces

When Blue Mountain Trading Post opened in 1976, the Simpson family was still relatively naive about Indian trading. For a few years prior to that, we had been selling Navajo turquoise and silver jewelry in the small filling station we ran just south of Blanding and from our mobile home, which was located immediately behind the business. When we began leasing the service station, we had about $200.00 in cash and owed $200.00, so we were essentially bankrupt. As Duke explained it at the time, “We were broke flatter than a popcorn fart.”

The Fisherman
Barry, Duke & Steve Simpson @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

As children, we never really knew how difficult the financial situation was. Duke made sure there was food on the table, and Rose was relentless when it came to keeping us properly scrubbed and dressed. Rose would remind us that we had to keep ourselves clean and neat, even if we had only one shirt and one pair of trousers. It was, however, never that bad; Levi's, sneakers and freshly pressed shirts were in adequate supply.

When we needed a quarter for swimming or a half-dollar to see a movie, Duke would put us to work, to, “teach us the value of money.” After inquiring into the specifics of the request, he would say something like, “Okay, my work boots need to be oiled.” By the time we retrieved his shoes, the necessary coins would be rattling around inside.

At the service station, Duke and Rose were constantly searching for new ways to supplement their modest revenue stream. Candy, chips and soda pop were clearly not the solution, because no matter how hard they tried, Duke and Rose could not stop the leakage. If they interrogated Craig, Barry and me about the missing inventory, we never had a satisfactory explanation.

When Duke hit on the idea of selling turquoise and silver jewelry, he must have though it was a masterstroke. Craig, Barry and I could not eat or drink it, and we surely would not think of pawning the bracelets, rings and necklaces for a little quick cash at Hunt’s, the local trading post and pawnshop. Craig and Barry were slow learners, and I was too young to be that innovative; consequently Duke’s cash flow improved.

As time went on and our sales increased, Duke realized he had to begin traveling a little to supplement the local supply. Eventually he found his way to Running Bear in Gallup, New Mexico, where, in addition to Navajo jewelry, he might find Zuni and Hopi artwork. There, he could select from a wide variety of handmade items for a modest premium over their original cost.

In the early part of his hunting and gathering explorations, Duke liked to go by himself. When he returned with his treasures, we would often scratch our heads in wonder, inquiring what had motivated him to buy certain things. “Why did you buy that?” we would ask in thinly veiled disgust. He would just smile and say, “Don’t worry, it will sell.”

One day Barry and I had a day off from school, so we put the bite on Duke to take us with him. Rose supported the request, so Barry and I piled into the truck, placed our noses firmly against the windshield and headed south with Duke. When we arrived at Running Bear, we were a bit surprised by what we found. Jerry, the proprietor, was just getting started, so his business consisted of an extremely small storefront with an approximately twelve by twelve foot vault. The vault was stacked from floor to ceiling with rings, necklaces, bracelets, fetishes and other types of Native American jewelry.

It was not the art, however, that captured our attention. Manning the vault was Wanda, the most buxom, vivacious woman Barry and I had ever met. To say she stopped our hearts would be an understatement; she absolutely enchanted us.

As Barry and I stood transfixed by Wanda’s wild beauty, our hearts thumping in our chests, Wanda began taking things from the shelves to show Duke. Casually, Duke would say, “Yes, that looks good. We’ll take it.” Then, smooth as silk, Wanda reached over and pulled two fish necklaces from the wall and, draping them diagonally across her chest, said to Duke, “Aren’t these lovely?”

I did not have the strength to object, and, looking sidelong at my stricken sibling, I could see Barry was in no shape to help. “Yes, we’ll take those too,” Duke said. Jerry just stood next to Wanda, smiling and knowingly nodding his head. These were obviously not the first fish necklaces they had unloaded.

When we got home, Rose began inspecting the purchases. Holding up the fish, she inquired, “Why did you buy these?” Barry and I just smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll sell.”

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Pauline Deswudt
Navajo Weaver Pauline Deswudt

The trading post was fairly busy with tourists, locals and a Mormon missionary couple when I heard the entry chimes go off again. Looking up to see who it was, I winced because I instantly recognized Pauline Deswudt. Pauline weaves very nice hand spun rugs, and is one of the toughest negotiators in the Indian art world. What I did not need at that particular moment was an audience while dealing with Pauline. I knew for a fact that she would use any and every advantage to make a deal swing in her favor. I also knew that working out a fair value for the weaving stowed in Pauline's Blue Bird flower sack was going to take time and concentrated effort. I walked over to Pauline and asked if she would give me a few minutes to help the customers. Pauline smiled and said she would.

I went back to work, hoping Steve and Priscilla would soon return from a meeting with the cafe managers and help me disperse the crowd. I was achieving fairly good success with the customers, helping them find what they were interested in and sending them back out into the gorgeous fall afternoon sunlight laden with turquoise and silver. As I worked, I noticed that Pauline and the missionaries were engaged in animated conversation. I groaned inwardly as she unveiled the storm pattern rug to the couple and began to explain its creation and meaning. Pauline caught me spying on her; I could see a twinkle in her eye and knew I was in trouble.

Before long, the crowd dwindled down to Pauline, the missionaries and me. I chatted for a moment with the missionary couple; they were very pleasant and told me to go ahead and take care of Pauline. "Great," I thought, "they were now on a first name basis with the woman I was preparing to negotiate with." I needed a distraction. Where were Steve and Priscilla? The missionaries told me they were hoping to look around the store while waiting to meet someone. I could tell they were curious how I would treat their new friend. Pauline rolled out her rug, and with great humor in her countenance, quoted a price double the regular rate.

In April of 1880, the Mormon settlers first struggled into this unaccommodating river valley and collapsed upon the red sand in frustration and fatigue. This devout group of rugged individuals were on a mission for their church. Simply put, they were sent by Brigham Young to expand the church's horizons, and bring the Book of Mormon to the Lamanites, (Native people), The stated philosophy was to be as unobtrusive as possible while proving the value the Mormon culture. When Brigham Young Jr. finally released the Bluff Saints from their calling, most of the families moved north to slightly greener pastures in Blanding and Monticello. Some left the country completely, vowing never to return to such a forlorn and desolate land, leaving Bluff in the hands of the heathens.

The point is that descendants of every Mormon family that ever resided in Bluff, and some that never did, still lay a serious emotional claim to our fair city, and an enduring, often times zealous, social responsibility towards her Native peoples. Pauline, the missionary couple and I were all very familiar with the past, present and future ramifications of what was happening right here and now, and one of us was taking advantage of the situation. I was in no mood to get "crosswise" with the religious right over a simple rug deal, nor was I in the mood to be the butt end of a joke either.

With a tortured smile plastered across my lips, I quietly told Pauline that there was no way in Hell that I was going to pay twice the regular price for her weaving. Pauline laughed out loud at my uncomfortable predicament, the missionary couple, nonchalantly, moved in closer to better hear the conversation, and I began to sweat. I could see where an unfortunate misunderstanding could arise from this particular circumstance. I was probably overreacting, but one can never be too cautious when it comes to political or religious fallout. I had to consider that my darling Mormon bride, a descendent of the original bishop of Bluff, "Brother Jens" no less, might take exception to an ideological misstep on my part. Pauline could see the deer in the headlights look in my eyes, and quickly pressed her advantage. "Please!" she said piteously, "I really need the money!"

Navajo Rug by Pauline Deswudt
Handspun Navajo Rug

The sister missionary had seen and heard enough, she clutched her purse, determined, I am sure, to give Pauline whatever currency was contained therein. The brother restrained his wife and bodily moved her across the store, mumbling something about nonintervention. I was a bit taken aback by his overly generous gesture; Pauline looked surprised as well and slightly guilty. Seeing a way out of the corner I had been painted into, I was about to tell the couple that they were more than welcome to purchase the rug directly from Pauline; it was fine with me! At that moment, a bright eyed young man in a black suit and a name tag poked his head in the door, located the couple and said, "Sorry we're late, we can go now!" The missionary couple quickly exited the building.

Focusing in on Pauline I said; "Darn your dry Navajo sense of humor, you could have had me black balled from Bluff. " "I know," laughed Pauline, "that's what makes it so funny!" Pauline must have felt sorry for me after that, because, without further debate, she quoted the price we both knew the rug was worth in the first place. I wrote her a check and she departed, still chuckling to herself at the joke she had pulled off at my expense. From that day forth, I have made a point of never mixing business with religion and Pauline.

With warm regards,

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bridge Beads

“How long are you going to wear those,” Jana asked when she noticed I had recently begun wearing two strands of cedar berry beads around my neck. “I’m not sure,” I responded, knowing full well that the look in her eye was one of uncertainty, and possible fear. It was obvious she was concerned that this seemingly slight change in apparel might signal a much larger problem. A reversion to the freewheeling 1960s was clearly weighing heavy on her mind. Barry readily acknowledged that he also had serious concerns. As for me, I was thinking on a more personal level.

Cedar Berry Bead Maker Alfonzo James

Jana and Barry were wondering whether the necklaces indicated some kind of sea change, and hoping it was just another attempt to get their attention. The 60s be damned, psychedelic posters, love beads and lava lamps had no place in the trading post as far as they were concerned; that was too far from traditional trading for them to accept.

Now, in all fairness, I was a little too young to have felt the full impact of the 60s. When the Simpson family moved to the Bay Area of California in 1967, I learned of San Francisco, Height-Ashbury and wearing flowers in your hair. For the most part, however, that decade passed me by without so much as a ripple. To me, free love meant getting a kiss from mom, and getting high involved climbing tall trees or scampering up the steep sandstone cliffs embracing Bluff.

The cedar berry necklaces I had recently acquired are variously known as ghost beads, sweet dream beads or, as I recently learned, balance beads. The traditional thought is that they chase away bad dreams and let you sleep in peace. One newly developed theory is that they lend a certain equilibrium to your life. As with many Navajo beliefs, this one is constantly evolving.

Although they do, in some ways, resemble the love beads of the 60s, cedar berry beads have a deeper heritage. Older Navajos would often put cedar berries in their mouths while walking at night. The berries were believed to ward off the bad spirits that skulk about in the darkness. Today, a few local Navajo people make their living stringing and selling the beads to tourists. The necklaces are extremely simple in construction; just strands of colored seed beads interspersed with cedar berries. Barry and I have been buying the necklaces for years to give as gifts to little girls who wander through the store.

Recently a progressive young Navajo man named Alfonzo James strode into the trading post with a slightly different, more simple design. Instead of the standard double strand with a tassel on the bottom, Alfonzo and his mother decided a single strand of beads was more aesthetically pleasing, cut production and labor costs in half and garnered the same revenue stream. Their simplified design is a testament to Navajo ingenuity and confirmation of the concept that simple is best.

Being a very broad-minded and driven young man, Alfonzo, while trying to convince me to purchase his entire inventory of about 400 sets, explained that his mother, with his assistance, made the beads to support his desire to obtain a degree in international business. He had recently returned from an educational trip to China, and was eager to generate the cash flow necessary to finance his next trip to Egypt.

Alfonzo expressed a desire to expand his travel plans and eventually transfer to a larger university where he can finalize his degree. Selling the beads is an integral part of his overall business plan. As we talked about his latest trip, Rose walked into the store, overheard the conversation and began sharing her China experiences with Alfonzo. “Did you go to Tiananmen Square? Did you see the terra cotta soldiers in Shaanxi province? Did you eat Peking duck? Did you visit the Forbidden City?” For the next half hour Rose and Alfonzo stood toe to toe, excitedly firing questions at each other. Having discovered a fellow traveler, both were in a heightened state of adventure; reliving their similar exploits.

It was then that I realized Alfonzo’s beads represent a powerful connection between our Anglo and Navajo cultures, a bridge allowing Alfonzo to experience the world on his own terms and a means for Barry and me to help Alfonzo realize his dreams. It was also then that we began referring to the necklaces as bridge beads; a vehicle for change.

In spite of Barry and Jana’s concerns about my new attire, and its potential effects on the trading post, there is no immediate crisis on the horizon. The psychedelic 60s are safely stowed in the past, although, from time to time, mom still gives me a little free love, Grange is now getting high on the cliffs and Kira has a new lava lamp.

To learn more about how you can help save the Bluff Swinging Bridge click here!

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 9, 2006


Navajo Ceremonial Baskets
Navajo Ceremonial Baskets

The young French couple stood across the counter from me, studying a small ceremonial basket with intense concentration. They had asked to see the weaving a few minutes earlier, then, in halting English, asked if I would explain its significance in Navajo culture. It does not take much to get me talking about the depth of meaning associated with ceremonial baskets, so, before I knew it, I was overwhelming them with information. The young woman seemed to understand better than her mate and soon formed an attachment to the weaving and its metaphorical significance.

The gentleman was not so easily sold, he continued to stall and ask questions; seemingly uncertain about spending his hard earned Francs on the basket. The mademoiselle patiently listened to his questions and my explanations for a few minutes longer, then quietly intervened. Placing her hand on his, which held the basket , she said " C'est Magique!" He looked into his sweetheart's eyes, understood her passion and relented on the spot. As they walked out the door with their new treasure, I thought to myself,
"She is right, it was magic!"

Maybe it is the time of year that makes me think of supernatural occurrences and their associated paraphernalia. The apple-crisp autumn mornings, warm harvest gold sunlit days and lingering nighttime hours packed with brilliant diamondesque star-filled skies are mystical. Our sunrises and sunsets glow ominously with wide ranging variations of blood red and pumpkin orange light enhanced by smudged black, smoke-like cloud patterns. The trees are losing their leaves and taking on a more skeletal, primordial appearance. Crazy-weird, chaotic weather patterns affirm the struggle between summer's tenacious warmth and the cold frosts of winter, adding to the magical feel of the season.

Navajo ceremonial baskets speak of an awakening of consciousness, life lessons, morality tales, connections to ancestors, family relations and visions of a bright and positive, progressive future. All this, contained in a tightly woven, specifically patterned plaque that is an essential element in all ceremonies led by a Hataalii or Medicine Man. Ceremonial baskets are woven of sumac, a sacred plant that provides healing sensations to the weaver and strength and durability to the basket.

Mother Earth is known to absorb all energy, whether positive or negative, and reflect it back to the world of humans in an uplifting, widely dispersed, nourishing manner. She allows only the ceremonial basket to momentarily neutralize her powers, giving the singer time to re-create a healing ceremony and redirect that energy directly into the patient. Magic? Yes, for those who believe!

Medicine Man John Holiday
Navajo Medicine Man John Holiday

I have always held an affinity for Navajo ceremonial baskets; I believe it came at an early age. When they ran a filling station in Bluff during the 1950s, our parents traded gas and oil for baskets; there were stacks of them placed about our home, in corners, under the beds and on high shelves. Duke and Rose still have some of those same weavings; treasures they lovingly associate with weavers, traders and ceremonies long ago re-assimilated into the bosom of Mother Earth. Due to these woven mementos of the past, those ceremonies are gone but not forgotten .

I am sure we will always want to carry Navajo ceremonial baskets at the trading post. As long as they are available to us, we will make them available to others. Ceremonial baskets are exemplary ambassadors for Navajo tradition and culture. A simple, circular step pattern woven with splits of red, black and white sumac portrays the basic, essential elements of a dissipating belief system. The Navajo have a unique, agriculturally based culture that has served them well for possibly thousands of years. Science has caused many of those once loyal to those beliefs to question their viability. Progressive thinking is natural and beneficial, but the old culture and tradition should also be remembered and respected; it also has much value. If ceremonial baskets can aid in the cause, that is indeed magical.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Thoughts on the Construction and Destruction of Bridges

The San Juan River Swinging Bridge by Bluff, Utah.

An individual is defined by the bridges he builds and maintains. The most important bridges are not necessarily those that span great rivers or chasms; it is often the smaller, less well known structures that bind or bring diverse people together which make the greatest contributions.

My mind is crowded with fond memories of bridges I have successfully traversed, and regrets for the ones I failed to properly navigate or carelessly burned along the way. Songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water and excerpts from The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller enter and exit my brain at the most unexpected times, reminding me that I must proceed cautiously when life delivers me to a new crossing.

Bridges have played an extremely important part in my life, so it was with great reluctance that I drove to the edge of the cliff just east of Bluff to view the status of the Swinging Bridge. This structure has for several decades connected our small, mostly Anglo, community on the north side of the San Juan River to the vastness of the Navajo Nation on the south. It had been rumored that the bridge was down, and I needed to see for myself.

Tourists and townspeople had both informed me that the Swinging Bridge was desperately clinging to its moorings, and that it simply did not have a chance of survival. I wondered what this would mean to the Navajo people, and how we, the residents of Bluff, would take our friends and families to visit the small Ancient Puebloan ruin located on the south side of the river.

The bridge’s origins are shrouded in mystery, and nobody seems to know exactly who built it or when. The most likely scenario is that it was constructed in the 1950s by an oil company to allow the enterprise’s Navajo employees easier access to the fields located near Montezuma Creek and Aneth. One thing is sure, the bridge has been an integral part of the community for many, many years.

The San Juan River Swing Bridge broken apart by Bluff, Utah.

As I turned off the paved road onto the dirt path that runs to the cliff overlooking the river, I could hear the generator of an oil pump popping loudly in the distance, its echo bouncing off the cliffs and rattling around the valley. Similarly, memories of my experiences on the bridge ricocheted through my head.

Looking back, I remembered Duke and Rose shepherding their young, expansive brood carefully across the span, over the twisting path and up the precipitous slope to the ruin, which is variously referred to as Sixteen House and Canyon del Echo. It was only a few months ago that I had taken Kira and Grange along that same route and enjoyed a gloriously sunny day digging in the dirt as the kids scrambled from rock to rock laughing and shouting.

Sitting in the sandy bottom of a small wash as my two renegades ran wild, I remembered the first time I rode a bicycle across the cable and plank structure; recollected teetering from side to side, wondering whether the bike and I would end up splashing into the San Juan; and relived the satisfaction of successfully reaching the other side.

Climbing out of the car to make the short walk to the overlook, I felt my emotions rise. What would I find? As it turned out, the rumors were correct, the old gal was partially submerged; lying on her side in the muddy river and accumulating a collection of debris that may eventually pull her downstream in a tangle of cable, cut boards and wire.

Can she be saved? Only time will tell. Many people speak of lawyers and lawsuits. “Nobody wants to take responsibility because of the potential liability,” they say. Fear of attorneys and our incomprehensible machinations and indecipherable vocabulary may doom the bridge. We all need to remember, however, that lawyers were children once too; that many of us know the value of building and maintaining quality bridges; and that a functioning, well maintained bridge is a truly wondrous thing.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post