Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Road Home

Alicia Nelson Yei-bi-chai Basket
Yei-be-chei Basket by Alicia Nelson

Alicia Nelson generously agreed to meet Alyssa, McKale and me at the trading post first thing last Saturday morning. We were to film a video clip of Alicia explaining her latest creation; a striking Yei-be-chei basket. Yeis are some of the most positive and effective healers in Navajo culture. and I wanted my daughters to hear of their significance from someone who had a more personal relationship with the deities and the art.

Alyssa and McKale were purchasing the basket as part of the "Traders in Training" program. We initiated this effort to ensure that our children get to know the crazily diverse and unique group of artists we grapple with on a daily basis. We are also hopeful the kids gain a better understanding of economics than we have been able to acquire.

After completing the taping session, I was obliged to run the girls part way back to Blanding; Laurie needed help with Christmas baking duties. My wife loves the Holidays, and has taught our daughters her sweet culinary skills. The neighbors love the treats as much as I do. With diligent instruction from Laurie, our daughters have evolved into handy kitchen helpers. I long ago recognized the fact that cookies, fudge and candy help me relieve the stress of the holiday season, so I was easily convinced to provide the shuttle.

We jumped in the van and cruised north, up Cow Canyon on our way to meet their mother. Alyssa and McKale were reminded of "the good old days," when I brought them and Spenser to Bluff and let them ride their Razor scooters down White Mesa Hill and then Cow Canyon. The girls laughed out loud as they recalled how Spense had let it all hang loose and sped down the hills hardly using his brakes.

Alyssa was slightly more timid, setting a reasonable, yet still thrilling, pace. McKale was the youngest and most reluctant to, "let 'er go." She nearly melted her shoe by riding the brake so hard, and picked up a little "asphalt rash" when she fell near the end. We were all laughing heartily before we exited the canyon. Good memories those!

Alyssa remembered a time, a year or so back, when our family pushed off from Blanding on a bicycle ride to Bluff. She had tried to pedal the entire route of 26 miles, but had fallen just short of her goal. She was looking forward to giving it another go next summer. I reminisced with the girls on the hundreds of times I have made the trip back and forth to Bluff. They rolled their eyes, anticipating another walking barefoot in the snow story.

I tried to explain to the girls how personal something so impersonal can be. This highway is a ribbon of memories for me I explained. I remember pulling up out of Cow Canyon, packed into the back of an old beat-up pickup truck, surrounded by my brothers and sisters, joking, laughing and sharing that loving feeling much as my daughters and I were. I recall riding rust bucket one-speed bikes and the latest technologically-advanced multi-speed cruisers to and from Bluff on a regular basis.

Santa Claus Carving by Marvin Jim & Grace Begay
Navajo Santa Clause Folk Art Carving

It seems like each curve and bump in the road brings back a memory. Bright light and shadow expose ghostlike visions of some experience or emotion. There is great happiness in certain bends and twists of the road, and depressing, hurtful sadness in others. I have to say that the overwhelming percentage of time I spend on this highway has proved positive. This old road has given me much time to think before I react, and allowed me time to meditate and realize the important issues in my life and those I come into contact with.

As we topped out on White Mesa Hill, I saw lights flashing on an oncoming van. I smiled to myself as I realized we had intercepted the mother of my precious offspring. Here too was one of the most valuable treasures I have discovered while traveling this scenic byway. I have been a trial to this woman. Somehow she has survived the missteps, outright mistakes and the mayhem I continually stir-up. I expect to receive a well-deserved marital pink slip at any moment, but greatly appreciate any reprieve she allows me.

After bidding my wife and daughters au revoir, I turned the car in a southerly direction, to return to Bluff and the adventure awaiting me at the trading post. I had added another pleasant memory to the stretch of road between Blanding and Bluff and knew it would return on significant occasions. The Holiday season provides me a gift of peace, happiness and love; a gift from our creator through those that care for us. Here at Twin Rocks Trading Post we wish you the same. Merry Christmas!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whose Story is it Anyway?

Of all the people we work with, Dennis Ross is one of our all-time favorites. Our fondness for him is not necessarily based in his artistic talents; it is mostly about the way he conducts his life. Biologically, Dennis is half Navajo and half Hopi, which makes for an interesting cultural mix. Historically, Navajo and Hopi people have been at odds with each other because of the federal government’s Navajo/Hopi land policy.

To complicate things, Dennis was raised on “placement,” and is a devout Mormon. Now, you can imagine the potential ideological conflicts associated with being Navajo/Hopi/Mormon. Dennis, however, handles these apparently competing interests with miraculous aplomb. When people ask whether he feels internally conflicted, as Dennis assures me they often do, he replies that he feels no conflict whatever. I believe him, if only because I understand we are all in a similar situation. Whether it is Navajo/Hopi/Mormon or Portuguese/Irish/Lawyer/Indian trader, we all must balance the differences in our heritage, training and experience.

Since Christmas is quickly approaching, the lights are up and holiday music is playing at the trading post. As a testament to our own personal diversity, we play songs by Elvis, Celtic artists, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, The BareNaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin and many more. Like the stray dogs that populate reservation convenience stores, we are clearly mutts when it comes to Christmas music, our personal culture and our lineage. Our blood runs always rainbow, never blue.

At the trading post, we are forever discussing traditional Navajo stories and legends as though we know something about them. Unfortunately, even when we are directly experiencing Native American culture, it is still in many ways second hand. As outsiders with white faces, it is virtually impossible to appreciate the importance of these life ways and what they mean to our American Indian friends. Much of that lack of comprehension can be attributed to the fact that traditions are extremely personal. There is, however, another intangible element that compounds the problem; you just cannot fully comprehend until you have immediate, deep experience.

From time to time, Dennis carves a set of six corn people which represents the creation of the Navajo. In the set, there is First Corn Girl, First Corn Boy, Grandmother Corn, Grandfather Corn and two corn children. One of the corn kids features multicolored kernels carved on its body, which Dennis calls “speckled corn.” He explains that this carving celebrates the intertribal, interracial nature of today’s Native American children.

As we talked about his carvings, Dennis mentioned that he also makes corn people nativities. These nativities consist of the six original corn people carvings, along with a baby in a cradle board/manger. Being raised in the Christian tradition, I immediately felt the need to point out that there was one too many carvings in his set. “No,” he said, “there are six corn people and a baby.” “No,” I objected, “there should be one Mary, one Joseph, three wise men and one baby Jesus; six altogether; not seven.” “Whose story is this anyway,” he wanted to know. “That’s just the point,” I replied, “It seems to me it is a Christian story and you should follow the Christian tradition.” “No, he said, “It’s a Navajo story.”

This dialogue reminded me of the time Jana took me to feast day at Acoma Pueblo. A traditional deer dance was in progress when we arrived, and as it advanced, the dancers entered the pueblo’s mission church, San Esteban del Rey. Although there seemed a colossal conflict between the traditional values of the Pueblo dancers and those of the Roman Catholic church, I can remember tingling with excitement as we stood in the cathedral and watched the parade of Puebloans. To me, the dance seemed the epitome of what religion is supposed to be; acceptance of different values, love of one’s fellow man and the celebration of life. I believed I was experiencing an exceptional combination of cultural chemistry.

Dennis had reminded me that it is not about the story, it’s about the people, and we all experience tradition and culture in different, and equally beautiful, ways. “Okay, I said, I need one of those nativities.” “See you next week with seven corn people,” Dennis said as he turned to go. I could not help smiling warmly at the man and his ability to balance the competing demands.

There is something larger at work in the land, and it transcends all of us and all of our stories. Merry Christmas, however you interpret it.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Which Rat Were You?

When I arrived home, my three children were dispersed about the living room in a random fashion. It was Monday night, and my wife had called us together as a family to entertain frank, open, honest and positive discussion. It was Spenser's turn to choose the evening's topic of conversation. Our son informed us that tonight's forum would revolve around "stress". I smirked to myself, thinking I could have some fun with this.

Lorraine Black, Joann Johnson, Spencer, Alicia Nelson & Peggy Black
Spenser Simpson with Navajo Basket Weavers at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

"Good," I said to the boy, "because I am stressed about the fact that your skinny frame is parked smack dab in the middle of my overstuffed, king-sized, super soft, distressed leather lounge chair. Hit the road skippy!" Laurie walked up behind me, making me jump. She does not always appreciate my humor, so I have to be respectful of her sensitivities; at least when she's within ear-shot.

Laurie frowned at me disapprovingly and asked if I wouldn't rather sit on the couch, with her. Carefully considering the implications of my actions, I decided that would certainly be the correct path. As I moved towards the couch, Spenser shot me a victorious grin. I gave my boy child a threatening look and mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear, that I was about to distress his leather.

Just before I arrived at my wife's side, Alyssa and McKale jumped up and
flanked her; effectively cutting me off at the pass. It seems my children derive great pleasure from inconveniencing me. I should have given fatherhood more careful consideration. I sighed in resignation, and flopped down on the saggy, baggy bean bag, readying myself to hear Spenser's thoughts.

With a nod of her head, Laurie gave our son permission to start. "Yeah,
go ahead," I said. "The sooner we get this over, the sooner we can get to those cookies I smell baking." A "no cookies for you!" look from Laurie stopped me in my sarcastic tracks. I groaned inwardly at my faux pas and angrily wondered to myself, just what experience Spenser might have with stress; the boy is 17 years old for heaven's sake.

Other than juggling high school and college classes, hormones, peer pressure, GPAs, ACTs, and ZITs, there is no significant stress. Kids stuff, a piece of cake compared to the life and times of a full-fledged adult. In the mean time, Spenser had been talking about the battle between mind and body, coping with stress, the the power of prayer, supportive families and exercise. Spenser noticed I was not paying attention, and asked if I had something to add to the discussion; the little bugger thought he had me. "Yeah," I said. " I know a bit about stress." "Pray tell," said my once darling man child.

I told my family of a Radio Lab story I had downloaded on my iPod. The pod cast concerned research by Robert M. Sapolsky, a neuroscientist. It seems rats have many human-like traits, so Dr. Sapolsky places rats in very tense and stressful situations to study their reactions. These unloved and unlucky rodents are singled out for many an initial test in which we human beings refuse to participate. In the tests, there are four or five ways in which rats alleviate pain. Scientists find parallels between the rats and humans, thus gaining greater insight and understanding into how most of us cope with stress.

The basic scenario is that there are two cages side by side; one rat in each cage, and both are going to get shocked. The electrical charge is exactly the same for each rat, the difference is that the rat in cage one just gets the shock, while the rat in the other is psychologically manipulated; getting four different scenarios or "fixes".

In the first version of the test designed to help the rat cope with stress and determine his character, a second rat is added to the cage. After receiving the shock, the first rat runs over and beats the heck out of the second rodent. This rat is going to be fine, no ulcer here, because it has someone on which to vent its frustration. Apparently abusive outlets feel great and are an effective stress reliever.

In the second scenario, the rat that gets zapped is given a stick to gnaw on. This also seems to alleviate stress and the rat, of course, is much less abusive to others.

In the third trial, the rat gets a warning that the shock is coming; a red light comes on just before the electrical charge. It seems the rat can cope better if it is able to predict the shock and prepare for the inevitable.

McKale, Alyssa, Laurie & Barry
Barry Simpson and Family

Scenario number four provides the rat with a lever that at one time reduced the voltage, but no more. It does not seem to matter that the lever no longer works, as long as the rat thinks he has control, he can better cope. The control (or perceived control) makes stress more manageable.

So what we learn from all this zapping is that beating up one another, chewing a stick, being forewarned or having a sense of control, even if it is false, are effective stress relievers. Other stress minimizers might be exercise, relaxation or, in some cases, therapy. If we can find a way to cope, we can survive. Oh yeah, the rat in the other cage, constantly being electrocuted with no way to relieve stress went totally insane, got sick and died of a massive heart attack!

"Dr. Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University," I told my son airily. "He has also developed some provocative theories, that might interest you, by studying baboons in the wild." It appeared I had made a positive impression on my family; especially Spenser. I could see him thinking deeply as he pushed down the foot rest and sat forward in my chair. As he lifted himself up he said, "I only have one question." "Go ahead son," I said. "So, . . . which rat were you?" Spenser then sprinted from the room, knowing full well what my reaction would be. "Dibs on Dad's cookies!" shouted the girls in unison as they followed their brother into the kitchen.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kids These Days

So there it was, one of those moments of clarity, when you suddenly see your life as it really exists, without all the built-in illusions. I had experienced a similar situation years earlier while participating in my last Blue Mountain Bike Chase. It was my 40th year, and I had peddled, pushed and shoved my bicycle to the summit of the Abajo Mountains. As I congratulated myself for making it to the top, and started “racing” down the backside of the mountain, two young turks went screaming past.

The Simpson Men from Twin Rocks Trading Post.

My initial instinct was to turn up the heat and catch them. My mind, however, had other thoughts. It declined to accelerate my body, telling me I was too old to go faster, and reminding me that if I crashed on that rocky road, it would really, and I mean really, hurt. That was the moment I lost my cycling courage, and I have never recovered.

On the most recent occasion, I was standing behind the sales counter of the trading post, rearranging the merchandise, when a couple in their late 60’s came lurching through the Kokopelli doors. As is my habit, I asked how they were getting on, to which they replied, “Well, the grass is still under foot, not overhead.”

A group of young people with wild hair, tattoos and pierced bodies stormed in right after the older couple. When the kids finally retreated and calm had been restored, the elderly woman said, “Can you believe it? Kids these days; many of them don’t even know how to read a watch. Just last weekend my husband was at the Farmington Mall and two teenage girls asked him for the time. When he turned his wrist towards them so they could see the dial, they became confused; couldn’t read it, because they were used to digital, not conventional watches.”

“Yeah,” the husband, who was built like a fire plug, and was also a bright shade of red, said, “and they probably didn’t know how to use a shovel either.” “Kids these days,” I sheepishly repeated, shaking my head, and realizing that I was not very good on the end of a shovel either.

As the dialogue continued, the wife began rotating her body to the right in a slow, evenly measured motion. After about a 90 degree rotation, I began wondering where this was all going. “Can’t read a watch,” she said, “so how do they know which is clockwise and which is counterclockwise? Can’t get that from a digital watch!”

Looking down at my own digital watch, and beginning to sympathetically tick myself, I wondered exactly how today’s kids can be expected to know anything about chronological cycles. As I slowly continued my circuit, Jana happened by, and, poking me in the ribs with her elbow, stopped my rotation.

It was about that time Kira and Grange came renegading through the trading post, and I cautioned them to cool their jets, before I had to trim their sails. “Grandchildren?” the couple asked. “No, children,” I responded, once again begin to tick. “Mid-life crisis?” they returned. “No, seventh marriage,” I replied, showing more than a little disdain. “Can’t be,” said the hydrant, confident I could never find seven women foolish enough to make that commitment, and in unison the pair turned; she clockwise and he counterclockwise, and tottered out the door, shaking their heads.

Later that day, I was standing next to my nephew, Adam, who makes me very proud, even though we don’t always agree. As we talked, he kept reaching into his trousers, extracting his cell phone, briefly peering at the display, rapidly pushing a few buttons on the key pad and returning the instrument to the pocket of his baggy, hole infested jeans.

After observing the process several times, I asked, “Just what are you doing?” “Texting,” he said, and patiently gave me a short tutorial. Now, I have known about text messaging for some time. I have, however, refused to make it a part of my life.

Feeling obsolete, and a bit like my father, who has never turned on a computer, and sees no need to do so, I suddenly realized that the concept of clockwise and counterclockwise was as unimportant to those kids in the mall as text messaging was to me or computers to my father. Their lives had rocketed past conventional time pieces, just as those cyclists had flown past me on the mountain road. Let the old folks worry about the old ways, the young people have moved on and they have no use or patience for antiquated processes. Kids these days, . . . aren’t they great.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Comfort Zone

It was late evening as I walked out on the wide iron-red porch of the trading post to enjoy the golden autumn sunset. Fall is my favorite event here in Bluff. The season often stretches into late November, and sometimes, if we are very lucky, into early December. In our small, protected, high desert river valley we are blessed with enhanced, often exaggerated, seasons.

Bluff Sunset
The Bluff, Utah road Twin Rocks Trading Post is located.

The gnarled and twisted limbs of the cottonwood trees stubbornly hang onto their bright yellow leaves; like overprotective, jealous guardians. Eventually the frosty north winds of winter dip into our sheltered cove and tear them from the trees' selfish grasp. But not today! The circulating current of air was more than tolerable with just a hint of crispness to it. The breeze smelled and felt exhilaratingly refreshing.

I sat on the warm sunbathed concrete steps and looked to the south. Backlit by the rosy red cliffs, the cottonwoods, with their heavily textured trunks and bouquets of turned foliage, were lit up with an intensely rich glow. The slanting sunlight was filtering through the semitransparent leaves, and putting on a light show that inspired my visual senses.

At times like these, I tend to go "mind-blind". My brain shuts down, blocking the stress and anxiety of my world, and allowing the pleasures of sensation free reign. As I sat there thinking of nothing at all, I glimpsed movement to my right, over near the layered and stacked base of the Twin Rocks. Something had spooked a Merriam Turkey from behind the rocks, and the wild thing was beating a hasty retreat towards the river.

The bird was flying at a high rate of speed about ten feet off the ground, right across the parking lot in front of me. It was a large, full-bodied turkey with heavy plumage; I guessed it to be a tom. Its head was bright red and stretched far out ahead of its much larger body.

The dispersed sunlight washed over the bird, setting off the dark brown feathers tinged with gold. The white tipped tail feathers pointed straight back looking much like the back end of a lighted rocket. I could hear the turkey's wings beating furiously at the evening breeze. In a flash, the creature was gone over the highway and hayfield to the dense tamarisk bordering the river.

Twin Rocks & Trees
The Twin Rocks in Bluff, Utah.

My mind kicked back in, and I thought of how the Navajo people think of the turkey as a savior of sorts. When the people were forced from the previous world by Water Creature's great flood, it was Turkey who thought clearly. Making his way to the grainery, Turkey carefully placed two of each seed on the feathers of his body. Thus, heavily burdened, Turkey made his way to the growing reed; an escape route provided by two men who would one day become Sun and Moon.

The encroaching waters lapped at Turkey's backside all the way to the reed, causing his tail feathers to be forever white as a reminder of his heroism. Turkey was the last one into the reed, barely making his escape. The seeds Turkey made off with provided the people an opportunity to grow and prosper upon their emergence into this world. Turkey had saved the day, ensuring a future to the Navajo.

Breathing deeply, I smiled inwardly, thinking to myself how beautiful and amazing the sight I had just witnessed had been. The sun sank lower on the horizon and the shadows grew longer and deeper. I sighed to myself, thinking it was time to head up the highway to my warm, comfortable home and family. Life is good here at the base of the Twin Rocks; good indeed.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Grafitti or Cultural Treasure

Hosteen Etsitty
Navajo Sandpainting Artist Hosteen Etsitty

After trudging up the sand dune, Jan and I stood in front of the large petroglyph panel, studying the symbols and trying to decipher what may have motivated the ancient ones to scribble these particular images on the stone wall. As we admired the sandstone canvas, Kira and Grange scrambled over boulders a few feet away and Buffy the Wonder Dog dug into the dirt to find a cool spot. Although November had arrived several days before our hike, the sun was bright and the day warm enough to make you long for a siesta.

Looking carefully at the drawings, and considering all the Latino tagging associated with her native Los Angeles, Jan said, “So, is it just ancient graffiti?” Although I have been asked similar questions before, and have often wondered myself, Jan’s query raised a larger issue for me.

The line between cultural treasure and historical irrelevance is often difficult for me to draw; like the distinction between insanity and genius. I often think Barry is crazy, he, on the other hand, believes he is inspired. Experience tells me that, in many cases, time is the crucial element needed to determine the correct answer. Given enough years, what might initially appear to be unfortunate ramblings may ultimately become a significant window into the past.

My question, although related, was more personal than Jan’s. It goes something like this, “In creating their art, when are Native Americans improperly ‘selling their culture,’ and as Anglo traders, when are we inappropriately facilitating the prostitution of the those traditions?” The issue arises from a series of e-mails we have had in response to video interviews Barry recently did with Navajo sandpainter Daniel Smith, who is also known as Hosteen Etsitty.

The e-mails accuse Daniel of trading on his Navajo heritage to generate income. To which I must respond, “Yes, and your point is?” Having watched the video several times, I have developed an greater appreciation for sandpaintings. I also find that I more fully understand the meaning behind Daniel’s work and have a new fondness for him that I did not possess before hearing the stories. To me, the fact that he was so forthcoming about his personal history is especially endearing.

Quite often comments like those made in the e-mails cause me to think of the 1976 movie Network . In that film, news anchorman Howard Beale galvanizes the nation when he says, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

My mania results from Anglo paternalism relative to Native Americans, and the militant anger directed at Indian traders in general. Apparently those e-mailing individuals have not stopped long enough to realize that Native Americans have every right to provide for their families and improve their lot in life; that Native American culture and traditions are an important part of who these artists are; and that those traditions are naturally reflected in their work?

Hosteen Etsitty Sandpainting
Navajo Sandpainting by Hosteen Etsitty.

Additionally, don’t they realize that Barry and I are traders because we enjoy, even love, the people, their art and their culture? We feel very strongly that we are engaged in an endeavor that will ultimately help preserve and enhance a significant portion of that culture; not destroy or demean it. Are we wrong, and is it possible that the e-mailers are right? Certainly that is conceivable.

The other evening Barry and I were at a function for the Utah Museum of Natural History. In explaining a beautiful dance costume he had prepared for the museum, a Native American artist pointed to black and white beadwork on the breastplate of the outfit and said something to the effect that those colors related to an earlier time; a time when everything was either right or wrong, not gray as it is today. Frankly, I long for a time when my life has such certainty, and realize I will never find it.

Can it be argued that Daniel Smith is compromising his culture by doing his sandpaintings and speaking so candidly about his experiences? Sure. It can also be said that in speaking so freely and giving so openly he has brought many of us closer to his people and given us a newfound respect for them.

Might it also be said that Barry and I are trading illegitimately on the traditions of the local tribes? Again, sure. If our e-mailers take the time to properly investigate, however, they may realize that the issue is more complicated than they believe. After a patina, like that affecting the petroglyphs Jan and I were inspecting, has had the opportunity to settle over the actions of Daniel, Barry and me, we may know whether we are right or wrong. Until that time, however, we must do our best to give the artists freedom to be who they are and to produce what their heart tells them to create.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Changing Women

I am all for change, personal growth and development have been written into my strategic and directional manifesto from day one. I mean, "I was country when country wasn't cool". As my son Spenser says of me however, "You tend to be a bit hypocritical about personal views when they effect you on a deeply emotional and unexpected level." I would love to give that kid a nice "Hawaiian Punch," but the little bounder has a point. Let me explain my situation.

Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday
Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday.

In Navajo culture, there is a deity representative of totally positive energy. So positive, in fact, that any and all negativity she encounters is absorbed and redispersed as goodness and light. How cool is that? This same being is also representative of the ultimate female. She has mastered all skills essential to provide for her family and guide them safely and compassionately through life; the ultimate role model as it were.

Recognized as Changing Woman, this incredibly benevolent being is also known to evolve through time and with the seasons. She is born in the spring, grows into a young woman by summer, becomes a fully mature adult by autumn and declines through winter; eventually passing before the cycle begins again. I love this story, because it touches me on such a basic down-to-earth level. It also makes me sad and retrospective because of its reference to mortality.

From the story of Changing Woman emerges the young women's coming of age ceremony; the Kiinaalda. Very basically, a pubescent girl is inducted into womanhood by selecting an adult female she considers to be her idea of the perfect woman. This stand-in for Changing Woman guides the girl's charge through the ceremony and into a positive, productive and benevolent future; the demise of adolescence and the birth of a woman.

The significance of this story, for me, has altered slightly with time. It scares me now, and keeps creeping into my head; upsetting me. I watch helplessly as my children mature and begin edging towards the door. My darling offspring are growing up and looking forward to dispersing into the big, wide wonderful world. They are going to leave sooner rather than later, and the prospect terribly upsets me. I love those brats, and enjoy their presence in my life more than I can say. It distresses me to think that they are growing up and gravitating away.

Spenser, I believe, would have moved on by now, but for the fact that he has not yet worked out the financial complications of independence. He is one of the most driven and determined individuals I have ever known; the boy is fearless. He is constantly racking up accolades in tennis, cross country and academics, and is ready to fly.

Because she is only twelve, our youngest, McKale, may stay awhile. She has the mind and wit of a 30 year old, and is raw emotion personified. McKale wants to eventually work for NASA. That prospect excites me; I have always wanted to be a space cowboy. Having a daughter in the business couldn't hurt my chances of accomplishing that goal.

Volleyball Team
Alyssa's Volleyball Team.

Daughter Alyssa is also growing up way too fast, she just turned 16 and is gaining confidence in leaps and bounds. Boys beware, her father is, "dangerously psychotic"! Alyssa was recently on a high school volleyball team of totally talented and tenacious young girls. This highly motivated and spirited group battled for and won the AA Utah High School Volleyball Championship. Top notch and motivated coaching, and the outrageous support of an entire town has helped the school bring home five straight titles, and nine in the last eleven years; quite a tradition!

The story of Changing Woman helps me understand the cycle of life and the beauty that can be found in it. Attempting a life of turning negatives into positives, learning and sharing love and compassion seems a great way to live. Surely children grow up and move on, and, as parents, we have the responsibility to, "teach them well and help them find their way." I know the dispersal of my children should make me happy and proud, since I know they can and will survive, and will be both positive and productive additions to society. The truth is that the effect on this parent is traumatic at least. I am also afraid that without the distraction my kids provide around the house, Laurie might take a closer look at who and what she has been saddled with and want to change ponies!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Embracing Change

It was the summer of 1977, and I was sitting at a workbench in the back room of Blue Mountain Trading Post, contemplating what to do next. The trading post had opened a year earlier, and Craig, Barry and I soon recognized the need to develop new work skills. No longer could we get by pumping gasoline, changing tires and checking oil; our employment opportunities had changed and we needed to evolve.

Southwest Jewelry by Craig Simpson
Southwest Jewelry by Craig Simpson

In an effort to ensure a continuing source of walking around money, we had begun to make and repair silver and turquoise jewelry. Craig showed a real talent for it, but Barry and I were scarcely tolerable. As I sat considering what project to begin, my favorite Eagles song, Ol’ Fifty-five, blared in the background on KUTA, AM 790, The Voice of the Canyonlands. As a recent high school graduate, the song’s references to the sun coming up and time passing so quickly were extremely meaningful, and made me think of the new path my life was about to take.

KUTA, the local station, and, as I recall, the only radio signal available in Blanding at that time, was an extremely small operation, with very limited geographic coverage. The last time I toured the old trailer that constituted its broadcast office, the facility seemed in imminent danger of collapse, both physically and financially. There was no water to the building, and the bathroom consisted of a portable camp toilet. Not long after my visit, the station closed permanently, leaving a void on the AM dial.

In the 1970s, southern San Juan County seemed, to me, an isolated, almost impenetrable, fortress. Very few outside influences pierced its secure walls. The roads into this region were serviceable, but not inviting, and the communities were far from mainstream America. I have often thought of them as being more than a little like Mayberry RFD; safe, simple and secure from the influences of the larger environment.

In my mind, radio reception has become a metaphor for the changes occurring in this region of the country. In the not too distant past, there were few reliable signals available between Bluff and Salt Lake City, Phoenix or Denver; the options were severely limited. During the day, you could generally have country, country or a little more country. By night, you might pick up KOMA, a clear channel from Oklahoma City. Fuzzy air time was, however, guaranteed as you descended into the canyons breaching the Colorado Plateau.

Recently I traveled to Salt Lake City, and was amazed how many new stations are currently available. Oldies, country, rap, pop, NPR, classical, Christian and hip hop frequencies are all broadcasting. To individuals living in metropolitan settings, this may seem trivial; to those of us accustomed to more spartan accommodations, however, it is a significant change of circumstances.

When we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post in 1989, there was a lot of talk about technology changing our world. High speed communication, it was argued, was about to alter the way people lived. No longer did we have to persevere in a congested parking lot to make a living, we could reside in even the remotest locations and telecommute. Since Bluff is one of the most isolated places in the United States, that dialogue interested me greatly.

At the time, I concluded the “lone eagle” model did not operate in a community like Bluff, telephone equipment servicing this area was antiquated and would not accommodate new technology; travel into and out of San Juan County was inconvenient, if only because the distances are so vast; and there was no reliable air service within a reasonable distance.

Just as new stations are populating the radio dial, so we have begun to see improved services; regional roads have improved, high speed internet connects us to a broad range of services and cellular telephone waves will soon breach our sandstone walls. As a result, the world has started to discover the benefits of our insulated oasis, and we have begun to appreciate the advantages of that larger environment.

As I flipped through the numerous selections on the radio dial while the miles between Salt Lake City and Bluff rolled away, never staying with one station too long, I was reminded how simple it was when KUTA was the only alternative. Change, it seems, can be complicated.

Lately Grange and I have been reading Melville’s Moby Dick, and in Ishmael I found the inspiration needed to openly embrace the changes occurring in our local culture. “[Y]et see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them,” Ishmael said of his unusual associate, the cannibal Queequeg. Love, it seems, is the balm which softens our emotions, and allows us to embrace the changes we fear; love of place, love of one’s companions and love of progress.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Indians for Sale!

From behind the counter, I stared in wonder at the attractive young anglo woman with a closely-cropped haircut and striking hazel eyes. She had strowed into the Twin Rocks Trading post dressed in an oversize, wrinkled and stained khaki outfit overlaid with a photographer's vests that had about one hundred and one pockets. On her feet were a huge pair of "waffle-stompers," and on her face she wore a look of frustration.

Handspun Navajo Storm Rug
Navajo Handspun Storm Rug by Pauline Deswudt.

The reason I examined her so carefully was that I was contemplating a statement she had just made; wondering where the heck it had come from. I was not insulted by her inquiry, or the hint of anger in her demeanor. She stood shifting a bit under my calm, questioning gaze, anticipating a hostile reaction I am sure. I could tell she was ready to do battle.

I first saw her when she came striding into the Twin Rocks Trading post on those "big boots". I recognized a bit of the militant attitude in her, but thought nothing of it at the time. I smiled and said, "hello," but received only a blank stare in return. I was working with a retired couple who were interested in a Pauline Deswudt hand spun rug, so I did not immediately engage her. The older folks were putting me through my paces; peppering me with questions regarding the who, what, where, when, why and how of the rug's creation.

As we discussed the cultural significance of the storm pattern design, the girl moved nearer and leaned up against the counter. I could tell she was listening intently. Because the couple was so interested in tradition and ceremony, our conversation turned into a lengthly discussion on the richness of meaning packed into this pattern. The couple loved the rug, its significance and what I shared with them about the wonders of Pauline and her creativity.

I heard the young woman, "humph" when the couple said they would like to purchase the weaving, and figured the girl would have something to say about it. I only hoped she would wait until the deal was consummated and not spoil the couple's experience. I could tell she was building up steam for an assault, because she was pacing about the store nervously. I wrapped the rug, thanked the couple and watched the satisfied customers walk out the door.

Turning to the girl, I watched as she marched toward me. I asked her calmly if there was a problem. Breathing deeply, as if ramping up her courage, she placed her hands on her hips and, in a slightly shaky voice, said, "Do you realize you are in the business of packaging and selling the Navajo culture! And this land belongs to them; you kicked them off of their land!" This is where I found myself looking into a fiery, if unsettled, set of hazel eyes, and mulling over her statement.

I do not often go forth seeking confrontation; in fact, I do my best to avoid it when possible. There are times, however, that, like accidentally stepping on an unseen, upturned rake, confrontation rises up and strikes you square in the face. At times, you simply have to deal with the issue, no matter how painful it is.

Finally I shrugged my shoulders and said, "You don't know me, and I find your statement unfair, but, I guess if you strip away the personal, emotional attachment I have for this place and the positive things I believe it stands for; disregard my passion for the art and people; and harness me with the guilt of the past 200 years of land grabbing nastiness, then, yes, that is what we are doing here. Guilty as charged."

"You think it's that simple?" stammered the girl incredulously. "No indeed," I said, "I think it's overwhelmingly complicated." What I gave you was a simplistic answer to a statement you obviously haven't thoroughly thought through." The young woman was livid now, and she looked as if she was ready to punch me in the honker. Just then a large, boisterous group of people flowed into the Twin Rocks trading post and broke the tension. The girl shook her head at me, turned on her heel and left the building, leaving me to contemplate the seriousness of her query.

I have thought about that young woman's passionate statement a great deal since the incident. I have shared it with a number of people, both Native American and Anglo, in an attempt to obtain open and honest opinions. After much conversation and contemplation, I have concluded there have certainly been past indiscretions, of which I am not personally responsible. Additionally one might easily defend our packaging and selling of a culture. I only hope history will show that we have done our best to treat everyone with respect, dignity and honesty.

Navajo Fire Dance Basket
Navajo Fire Dance Pictorial Basket by Lorraine Black.

The old days of, "captured audience Indian trading" have long since disappeared. We deal with intelligent, educated individuals, who are acutely aware of their options in the world of Native American arts and crafts. Discussing the young woman's comments with Navajo basket weaver Lorraine Black, led her to comment, "This is my design, I wove it into this basket, not you. If I didn't feel like you respected that and didn't treat me fairly, I wouldn't be here right now!"

The young woman with hazel eyes made me look closely at how we present the art here at the Twin Rocks trading post. Hopefully, I will be more sensitive from now on. I believe she was well-intentioned, but poorly informed. That may be how she views me as well. What I know for sure concerning human relations and cultural issues is that nothing, I repeat nothing, is simple. Being open-minded and objective regarding constructive criticism is a must in any business.

I actually hope the young lady returns. I would like to introduce her to my son Spenser. He informs me that I know nothing of the modern woman. Maybe not, but I do know something of dealing with women of attitude. I think it would do the boy good - educate him if you will, to get to know such a spirited creature. Some things just have to be experienced to be appreciated. The song Nancy Sinatra and later Jessica Simpson made popular comes to mind: "These boots are made for walking!"

With warm regards,

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Race Between the Day and Night Animals

Elsie Holiday Mates Basket
Navajo Mates Design Pictorial Basket by Elsie Holiday.

In Navajoland, tales are often told of a contest between the day and night animals. The competition to determine whether it would be always day or forever night occurred in the early days; shortly after the Navajo people emerged into this, the Glittering World. Until recently, I have assumed the stories were nothing more than superstition; that however was about to change.

Fall has brought shorter days, so my morning bicycle rides begin in almost total darkness. The uncertainty of that darkness, with all its possibilities, like the lack of predictability of a long-term lover, fascinates and excites me. I immensely enjoy the freshness of the new day and the expanding glow as the sun spreads over the jagged landscape of southeastern Utah. One Bluff pioneer used to say that when God finished creating the world he had a lot of rock left over, so he dumped it here. One glance at our local geography, and you realize the old settler may have had inside information.

Late in September, I rose early and scrambled downstairs to begin the day’s exercise routine. A harvest moon rode low in the sky, its beams illuminating the morning. As I crested Cow Canyon, my breath coming in frosty puffs, the sky expanded before me. I was struck by the Big Dipper, handle down in the northeastern sky, and innumerable mica stars populating the heavens. The air was fresh and clean, and the highway vacant.

A short while later, I topped White Mesa Hill, and although Johonaa'ei, the bearer of the sun, had not yet shown himself in the east, Tl'ehonaa'ei, the bearer of the moon, was creeping towards the westerly mesas. Turning the bicycle around, I headed back to Bluff. The semi-tractor trailers were beginning to appear on the highway, and as they sped past I was swept along in their wakes.

All in all, it was shaping up to be a great ride. Then, thump, bump, pssssst, my front tire struck an unseen rock. Seconds later, I was riding on the rim. Not wanting to lose too much time, I quickly dismounted the bike and extracted the tools necessary to replace the tube. As I began to re-pressure the tire, I felt the swoop of a raven pair over head and heard what sounded like tiny feet pattering on the pavement. Startled, and a bit frightened, I began to refit the wheel to the bicycle. About that time, I heard someone say, “Ya’ at’ eeh’, Cousin Brother Man. Whassup?”

You can imagine my surprise when I realized it was Cousin Coyote, speaking to me in Navajo-Gangsta-English, and my astonishment when I noticed he was jogging upright and wearing a pair of Nike running shoes and black T-shirt with white sleeves, which proclaimed, Septicentennial Day-Night Competition. “Get on your wheels and ride along,” he instructed me.

As I climbed aboard the bicycle and began to peddle, Cousin Coyote explained that every 100 years since the initial shoe game in which the day and night animals had failed to determine whether the world would be composed of all day or all night, the animals reconvened to see if a final determination could be had. None of the prior efforts had proven successful. Each time, the game ended without a definitive winner, so day and night continued as before. In frustration, certain day animals; Rabbit, Prairie Dog and Squirrel, had proposed a new challenge to the night animals, Bear, Skunk and Mountain Lion; a foot race from Dinetah to Bluff.

The ravens were spotters for the race, and, in order to minimize the chaos associated with the contest, coyote, still unable to choose between the day and night animals, had been given the job of scout. As Coyote and I led the way, I noticed Cousin Bear shambling upright, Disneyesque, with his sneakers on the wrong feet. At the end of the initial shoe game, Bear, in his haste to beat the sun home, had put his moccasins on backwards. Apparently he had never corrected the mistake.

Navajo Rabbit Carving - Ray & Alondra Lansing
Navajo Folk Art

Close behind Bear were Cousin Rabbit, Cousin Skunk, Cousin Mountain Lion and Cousin Prairie Dog, with Cousin Squirrel, who had apparently been smoking a little too much mountain tobacco, bringing up the rear. The animals, all similarly attired and running erect, jockeyed for position, with the lead constantly changing; now Cousin Bear, now Cousin Rabbit, now Cousin Mountain Lion. “Ouch, you tripped me,” I heard Cousin Prairie Dog bark as the group tumbled to the ground in a heap. The pack quickly recovered and the race resumed.

To the west, Tl’ehonaa’ei lingered atop the mesa, cheering the night animals. Johonaa’ei, while clearly close by, but seemingly loathe the begin the day, had still not made an appearance. We quickly covered the flats leading to Cow Canyon and were about to descend into Bluff to complete the race and finally resolve the outstanding issue when Johonaa’ei broke over Sleeping Ute Mountain and sent his rays cascading across the land. At that precise moment, the animals skittered for the underbrush, leaving me to consider what had just occurred, and whether it was all a dream.

Continuing into Bluff on my own, I parked the bike inside the Twin Rocks trading post and ambled upstairs to prepare for the day, internally debating whether to mention my experience to Jana and the kids. I was seriously concerned they might question my sanity and try to have my morning cycling privileges revoked if I did.

As the morning progressed, I checked under every bush and rock of appreciable size to see if I could locate the animals and discuss the outcome of the competition. I wondered whether one team or the other may have been declared the winner, or if the result was as it had always been. As Johonaa’ei languished in the west that evening, I questioned whether the day animals had in fact prevailed. Finally, however, the sun capitulated and dropped behind Comb Ridge, confirming the continuation of day and night as they have always been.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and The Team

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Changing Bear Maiden by Marvin Jim & Grace Begay
Navajo Folk Art

In Navajo culture, there are numerous mythological tales involving individual reinvention, transformation and rebirth. These stories often include references to Changing Woman, Changing Bear Maiden, the Hero Twins and Coyote, just to name a few. A reawakening of consciousness frequently is a central theme in these tales, sometimes by chance, but generally as a result of someone aggressively seeking knowledge.

These stories remind me of a wondrous magician who rips a piece of plain white paper into a hundred fragments and miraculously restores it. From the refreshed page, the magician shapes a bird, which he transforms into a beautiful, living white dove. The metaphor of the paper dove, and these mythological stories, is that as individuals we have the power to interrupt our lives and reshape them into something pure and beautiful; the magic comes from within.

The trick in all this is to avoid basing the transformation on greed, jealousy or other turbulent, misguided wants or needs. The drama can get out of hand, and when it does a tumultuous outcome is assured. Coyote teaches us that thinking and acting on personal, selfish desire allows chaos into our lives and generates disastrous repercussions for our associates. Coyote's message is that a new and improved life includes accountability; valuable not only to the individual, but to those for whom we are responsible.

Reinvention seems logical and necessary as man struggles with reality and truth; a higher plane of understanding becomes desirable, if not essential. In numerous cultures around the globe, Snake is commonly associated with rebirth. Its ability to shed it's skin (or past) and grow into something larger and more significant makes a great deal of sense. Human beings are generally tenacious, and motivated when it comes to improving their minds and station in life.

Morpho Butterfly

Nature-based or agricultural societies attempt to explain their world through natural occurrences. Wind, rain, lightning and thunder are minor deities, while Mother Earth, Father Sky and Fire are more significant. Aboriginal people looked to their surroundings to educate themselves and improve their lot in life. It was all they had, and to be perfectly honest it served them well. We would all do well to know better the ways of the natural world.

The Navajo people have a legend that refers to an upward moving way. The caterpillar lives near the earth; is of the earth. If this lowly being pays attention to its surroundings, learns from them and focuses on self improvement, it has the opportunity to make a change; a metamorphosis. The end result is one of the most beautiful creatures ever created. The butterfly provides us with a striking reminder that each and every one of us has the power to re-create ourselves in beauty. The question is, will we.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

On the Web

Not long ago, I took Grange to Bluff Elementary School to conclude his Student Education Plan. Every year parents convene with their child’s instructors to set goals for the upcoming term. Upon our arrival, Grange’s teacher, Mrs. Hart, informed us it would be about ten minutes before she finished the current round of interviews and could see us. As a result, Grange rounded up his old buddy Trevor, who had been eagerly standing by, and out to the playground we headed.

Trevor & Grange at Bluff Elementary
Trevor & Grange at Bluff Elementary in Bluff,
Utah by Twin Rocks Trading Post

Upon exiting the easterly door, we spotted an adolescent lizard scampering up the side of the building. The reptile was only about three inches long, and had an unusually beautiful blue tail. Apparently it was new to the location and had not previously been harassed by the school yard population, because it was fully intact and not overly skittish.

All that was about to change, because Grange and Trevor could not resist the challenge of catching the small beast. The kids whooped and yelled as I directed the creature towards them by stamping my feet; all the time cautioning the boys not to harm the lizard. At one point the harried reptile sought sanctuary beneath my shoe, and, as Grange and Trevor dropped to their stomachs to peer under my Nike, I carefully lifted the sneaker.

Realizing it was once again in danger, and hearing the excited war shrieks of the children, the lizard took a flying leap off the stairs and onto the playground. As it raced among the drawings of various chalk masters; darting from side to side in short, quick bursts, Grange and Trevor did the same, albeit more slowly and awkwardly.

A few days earlier, a French woman had browsed the trading post. Trying to explain her Southwest vacation, and searching for the English word “memories,” she had described her recent experiences as “pictures of the brain.” The sight of Grange and Trevor chasing the illusive racer provided me some truly memorable brain pictures.

Although the lizard was getting a good workout, he did not appear in any danger of being caught; Grange and Trevor were having too much fun to actually capture him. All of the sudden, the lizard’s fortunes changed. It decided to climb straight up a cement corner, which at first appeared to be a good decision. The snag, however, was a large spider web suspended in the nook.

Elsie Holiday Navajo Spider Basket
Navajo Basket by Elsie Holiday

As the creature dashed vertically up the concrete, he all too quickly became ensnared in the web and was irretrievably lost in a completely unexpected and unforeseen impediment. Grange snatched him up as Trevor and I looked on. The boys thoroughly inspected the reptile and gently scratched his tummy to make him a little more comfortable in his captivity.

Holding the lizard gently, but firmly, Grange and Trevor marched him into their classroom to get Mrs. Hart’s impressions. “What a beautiful tail,” she said, and encouraged the boys not to harm him. By that time Mrs. Hart was ready to meet with us, so I asked them to liberate their hostage. When they returned from their mission, a little later than I expected, I inquired into the status of the lizard. “Oh, he’s all right,” they reported, “but his tail is a little bent.”

At the trading post, we often feel our experiences are much like that of the lizard; as we scurry from one project to the next, we sometimes feel there is a larger power dictating our movements. Just when we think we are on top of things, we realize we have been tripped up by an unexpected web. There are times when we get our tummy scratched, but usually at the cost of a bent tail.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Don't Mess With My Barbie

"Uh Oh!" I thought, as Ian, Priscilla's four year old grandson, strolled into my office and hopped up onto one of my heavy wooden chairs As he sat there swinging his skinny legs freely beneath the seat, he looked over my assortment of Navajo collectibles on the shelves above his shaved head. I continued typing, answering e-mail, in hopes Ian would not ask about the toys again. Not a chance, Ian cannot tolerate unopened packages. He focused on my Navajo GI Joe, Barbie and Adam Beech Windtalker dolls, and started in on his favorite subject.

Ian in Barry's office
Ian at Twin Rocks Trading Post

"Why do you have toys you never play with?" asked Ian. "Go away kid!" I said jokingly, "Ya bother me." Ian was not in the mood for humor; he felt rebuffed and struck back accordingly. "Those are cheap toys," he said, hopping down from the chair and leaving the room. Watching him stomp away in anger made me regret not explaining the difference between collectibles in mint condition and used toys. Shortly thereafter the school bus came for Ian, leaving me feeling badly about the encounter.

After Ian left, a young Danish family came into the trading post and began looking at the store displays. The parents were probably thirty-something years of age, the little boy maybe five and the girl three. They all spoke English fairly well, and we fell into easy conversation.

I noticed the little girl was packing around a Barbie doll. I could tell the doll was well loved, because its clothes were tattered and soiled, and its hair stuck out in all directions. I spoke with the little girl about the doll, telling her that I too had a Barbie. "Nuh Uh," she said after looking me over carefully. "I do," I assured her; "I have a Navajo Barbie doll." The child just stared at me in disbelief, so I walked into my office and pulled the doll from the shelf.

Arriving back at the counter, I carefully showed the little girl the box with the untouched Navajo Barbie displayed behind cellophane. Her eyes grew to twice their normal size as she reached for the box. "She's beautiful!" said the little girl as she fingered the plastic. Then, without warning, she tried to open the packaging. The child's mother anticipated the move and took control of the box before any damage was done.

Navajo Barbie Doll

"I just wanted to touch her," complained the little girl, "I wouldn't hurt her." I thought back to what Ian had said about me not ever playing with the toys and thought, "What the heck?" I took the box and cut the tape off either side, then, oh so gently, removed the lid. I handed the open box to the little girl, she smiled brightly and handed me her doll before taking the box and looking upon the now exposed Navajo Barbie.

The child breathed deeply and looked at me once more to make sure it was all right. I nodded to the girl and her mother, signaling that it was okay. The youth reached into the box and touched the doll's earrings, pin, necklace and concho belt. She fingered the velveteen blouse, the rug-like shawl and Barbie's flowered skirt. "She's beautiful!" she said, again stroking the doll's jet black hair. "See, I didn't hurt her," said the child as she handed back the box. "No you didn't," I said handing back her own well loved toy, "You treated her very well."

The family departed, and left me in a good mood. As they made their way out the door, the little girl waved at me with the hand holding her Barbie, and said "Thank you!" "You take good care of that Barbie" I said. "I will" she replied, "You take care of yours too." "I will." I said, and thought to myself, "It's a greater treasure now than it ever was before; thanks to Ian.''

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A New Philosophy

Lately we have been shooting a lot of video. As a result, Barry, Tina, Rose, Tarryl and Jana have begun wearing dark glasses and speaking like celebrities. One would think Bluff had become Hollywood East. When artists bring in baskets, rugs, jewelry or other artistic creations, we immediately put the bite on them to explain the techniques and motivations behind the piece.

The Twin Rocks Video Team
The Twin Rocks Trading Post Team.

Although we are just learning the secrets of good video production, we have captured some interesting cultural material and have even begun referring to the trading post as NCC; Native Cultural Channel. Rose has demanded a video van to traverse the Reservation in search of breaking stories. Although some have gone next door to the cafe with tales of crazy people at the Twin Rocks trading post, the artists have been extremely open with their personal stories, and we are discovering a great deal about local Native American traditions.

The other day, Navajo silver and goldsmith Robert Taylor came in with a beautiful silver and gold story bracelet. Although it took a while, and a call to his agent, we finally convinced Robert to talk with us on camera. Robert’s story bracelets typically feature symbols that illustrate various aspects of Navajo culture and life on the Reservation.

On this particular cuff, Robert had overlaid cowboys, livestock, a weaver, a hogan, an outhouse, a shade house and one of the Monument Valley Mittens. By the time he began explaining the significance of the Mitten, Robert was feeling pretty good about his performance and started talking about the movies that had been made in Monument Valley.

Being a movie fan, and having spent a great deal of time at Goulding’s, which is in the heart of Monument Valley, I was familiar with both the old and new adventures filmed in that magical land. I have often wandered through their museum, and have many times been told how Harry and Mike traveled to Hollywood to meet producer John Ford. According to the myth, Harry and Mike camped in John Ford’s outer office until he agreed to come have a look. Upon his arrival, Ford was smitten with the landscape, and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

Robert is apparently a serious John Ford and John Wayne fan, so he began telling stories about the making of certain films. He explained that on one particular occasion, John Ford had assembled his “Indians” and set about explaining very carefully just how they were to come riding over a certain pass, whooping it up and looking fierce. The headman was taken aside and instructed that when the war party crested the rise, John Wayne would aim and shoot, at which point, the chief was to fall from his horse.

Everything was properly arranged, and the leader assembled his warriors, saddled up and rode off into the distance, where they awaited their cue. The signal was given and the tribe began agitating. As they crested the hill, John Wayne carefully sighted in on the leader and gently squeezed the trigger of his trusty rifle. Bang went the blank cartridge, whereupon the entire war party fell to the ground.

Robert and I had a good laugh, and a little while later he headed back to Indian Wells; having enriched himself through the sale of his art and me with his funny stories. A few days later, an older gentleman came into the store and inquired about Robert’s bracelet as a gift for his wife. As we discussed the symbolism of the piece, I eventually came to the Mitten, and related Robert’s John Wayne story.

Worrying that Robert may have been pulling my leg, I said, “I don’t know if it is true.” In return, the gentleman said, “What difference does it make whether it is true or not; it’s a good story.” Barry and I have decided we agree with that philosophy, and have adopted it as our motto for the Twin Rocks trading post. Now, whenever someone looks at us askance and asks whether our tales are true, we just say, “What difference does it make, it’s a good story.”

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cutting Off the Ugly

"We need to have that cut off;" said Laurie, "it's ugly!" "Cut off what," I said rather defensively, and in a voice slightly higher pitched than normal. My wife was in the process of trimming my hair with a sharp pair of scissors. I was afraid that if she got started cutting off parts of me that are ugly, there might not be anything left.

Navajo Skinwalker Carving
Navajo Folk Art

"Dr, Jones can cut it off in a matter of minutes," claimed my wife, "I'm worried about it." "What "IT" are we talking about?" I asked again." "That mole just above your left ear; the one I keep snagging with the comb." "I thought you were doing that to antagonize me," I said with a smirk. Laurie smacked me lightly upside the head, reminding me of her dislike of sarcasm.

Running her fingers through my locks, Laurie said, "Your hair is different." "Still thick, full and not a gray hair one!" I said defensively. "No," said my adoring wife, looking closely and feeling it suspiciously, "It's thinner with just a hint of gray, but it's also . . . coarser!" "A product of my environment," I quipped to myself smiling inwardly at my quick wit. "Smack!" "Did I say that out loud?" I asked in confusion. "That was ugly;" said Laurie, "cut-it-out!"

A few days later, I stood behind the counter of the Twin Rocks trading post rubbing my new temporal scar and worriedly wondering if Laurie had somehow acquired the ability to read my mind; a scary thought indeed! As I contemplated this possibility, Marvin Jim and Grace Begay walked in the door and gently, but firmly, set a carving in front of me. As I focused on, and then recognized the creature crouching before me, I looked up at them and asked, "Have you guys lost your minds?"

Marvin and Grace laughed out loud, and, with a humorous glint in his eye, Marvin said; "I told Grace you would say that." "We carved it because we realized you knew just enough about Skin-walkers to be dangerous." Marvin Jim and Grace Begay are two of the most gifted Native American sculptors I have had the pleasure to associate with. This time, however, they had crossed the line; our friendship was in jeopardy.

Dangerous indeed, I was born and raised around the Navajo culture; I have read the books! I had read "the" book on Skin-walkers. Clyde Kluckhon's thesis on Navajo witchcraft is considered the most intensive study of this cultural phenomenon to date. Dangerous? I think not! Grace smiled patiently and said "Sometimes you look too close at the bad stuff, you need to cut-it-off!" "You mean out?" I asked scratching my head and remembering Laurie's earlier comments. "Off, out, whatever," said Grace, "just get rid of it, look for the good!"

"Okay!" I said, "It makes sense that everything in Navajo culture has an opposing force. Are you willing to talk about this; on camera?" "That's why we are here together," said Marvin. "Get your video recorder set-up," chimed in Grace, "we are here to educate you!" "Great," I thought to myself, "now I have to deal with Navajo philosophers and educators instead of simple sculptors." "Stop it!" Marvin and Grace said in unison. "Did I say that out loud?" I asked in confusion. "That was ugly," said Grace "cut-it-off!"

Twenty minutes later, I was indeed a better informed man. The dynamic duo taught me that their carving was based on the time and place when medicine men knew how to transform themselves into animal-like creatures. The transformation was based on the need to expedite the gathering of healing herbs from the sacred mountains. The intent was based on harnessing supernatural powers for good, beneficial purposes.

The turnaround came through human beings, when a few misguided souls succumbed to what I interpret as the seven deadly sins and strayed from the seven heavenly virtues. However you personally describe this occurrence matters not; the outcome is the same. Many things intended to benefit humans are turned by corruption into that which is harmful. Embracing evil or negativity drove a positive force underground.

The sculpture Marvin and Grace bravely presented was intended to bring to light the upside of a cultural symbol, in hopes of reviving its original, positive intent; to, "cut off the ugly," and raise it back up to its original status of a helpful and beneficial force. I have personally gained a new and improved perspective of Skin-walkers and, hopefully, I will be more open-minded when someone tries to improve my health and well-being or better my education.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Evolutionary Art

Being a slow learner, it took me a while to understand the importance of art in my life. My first truly significant acquisition came as Barry and I strode the pavement of the weekend flea market at the Phoenix dog track. It was the early 1970s, and Duke frequently took us along when he went seeking treasures to supplement the inventory of a secondhand store we ran from a leaky tin shed on the south side of Blanding. Since Barry and I also enjoyed the hunt, we often wandered independently and reported back to Duke when we found something useful.

Kira Simpson & Allison Snowhawk Lee
Kira Simpson with Navajo Jewelry
Artist Allison Snowhawk Lee

On one occasion, we stopped by a booth containing a large assortment of items Barry and I did not recognize. As the owner of the curiosities spoke earnestly with other interested individuals, and intentionally neglected us, Barry reached into a bin and extracted an unusual gadget neither of us recognized. Thinking the shape looked familiar, I took a step back, believing it might be safer to observe the developing situation from a distance.

As he puzzled over this latest find, and questioned whether it was something Duke might be interested in, Barry spied a button on the bottom of the instrument and flipped the switch. The thing came to life and began to dance wildly. Startled by the movement, Barry dropped the squiggler back into the bin. The gentleman manning the booth became extremely animated as he intervened to stop the commotion. Barry and I took the opportunity to quickly exit the scene.

As we anxiously continued our quest, speculating on the intended use of that extraordinary item, I noticed a poster of Farrah Fawcett and knew my life would never be complete without it. Although I could not compete with the Six Million Dollar Man, I did have six bucks in my pocket, and soon the image was mine.

Barry assured me Rose would never allow the poster in her house. Upon our return, however, the pinup was quietly affixed to the back of our bedroom door, where it stayed the remainder of the 1970s; serving as a constant reminder of God’s most artistic, fascinating and baffling creations.

Once I finished my formal education, and began generating a stable salary, I invested in framed Ansel Adams posters, assuring myself I was on the path to artistic nirvana. Almost everyone I knew had similar copies, so I felt comfortable I had made a good start. It was not until I came to the Twin Rocks trading post, and met Jana, that I knew for sure my initial ventures into the world of art had been misguided.

Not long after our marriage was consummated, the Ansel Adams posters were jettisoned in favor of original art. Although I felt a bit like an art refugee, I soon acclimated.

Last week, I was reminded of my inartistic legacy, and Barry’s flea market misadventure, as Jana, Kira, Grange and I strode the booths of Santa Fe Indian Market. Kira and Grange had bulging pocketbooks and were looking for art to supplement their Traders in Training inventory. Having had the benefit of an early immersion into Native American art, they sped quickly towards artists specializing in jewelry with unusual stones and potters with refined techniques, and I began to believe they may have been spared the poster phase.

Grange Simpson & Michael Kantena
Grange Simpson with Pueblo Potter Michael Kantena

While the kids scurried from Wilfred Garcia, to Michael Kantena, to Myron Panteah and on to Allison Lee, I felt comfortable they were acquiring the skills necessary to develop a rich relationship with art. Along the way, they were getting to know some the the most interesting individuals in the Southwest; doubly enriching their lives.

Having spent so much time at the Twin Rocks trading post, I have come to believe the primary reason I enjoy the art we collect and sell is that I love the people. When I look at a rug from Eleanor Yazzie or a basket woven by Lorraine Black, I see those individuals in every fiber of the creation. Kira and Grange are beginning to realize that same emotion, and are now incorporating this beauty into their lives.

Yesterday I went into Kira’s room to tell her good night and noticed a poster of Harry Potter. Scratching my head, I walked across the hall to Grange’s room and there I found a poster of the Nebraska wrestling team; featuring one of Grange’s heroes, Robert Sanders. Maybe the kids have inherited my genetic predisposition for posters, or it may be a case of art evolution. In either case, gene therapy may be in order.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Trace of Truth

"Am I not crazy," the woman said as we strolled about the Twin Rocks trading post perusing the displays. "I shouldn't love this stuff, but I can't not!" Each time I showed and described another piece of art to my enthusiastic patron, I was graced with another creative example of negative/positive expression; "Is that not terrific," and "I can't hardly imagine the time and effort that didn't take to create."

Simpson Family
The Simpson Clan in Bluff, Utah by Twin Rocks Trading Post

The woman had a sweet personality, and I couldn't not like her, even though I figured she was not unimpaired. After about two hours of reviewing nearly our entire inventory, I was beginning to seriously question my own grasp on reality. There was a knot of pain growing between my eyes, and I struggled to comprehend the twists and turns of this woman's roundabout communication. So when I heard her say, "I hardly have any resistance for this necklace, I can't not have it," my brain failed to properly interpret the comment.

The woman stood there, holding the jewelry out to me, with a submissive smile on her lips and, ever so slowly . . . I got it! Was I not amazed. I had nearly missed a sale because my primitive brain was struggling to discipher the code and understand, "not the nothing." I soon wrapped up the sale and the nice lady left me saying, "This is not good-bye, but hello!" Not to be reductive, but I hope her return visit is not hardly soon.

During my stint with the "Roundabout woman," Steve had taken a telephone message. As he handed me the note, he said, "I couldn't not begin to understand what the heck that woman wasn't talking about!" "Very funny," said I, rubbing my temples and rummaging through the desk drawer for Ibuprofen. Our cohort, Priscilla, walked up, handed me the pain relievers and said, "Was she not sweet?" I groaned loudly and stumbled towards my office, looking for peace and quiet.

I can't not begin to understand why, but from that point on life at the Twin Rocks trading post began to tragically digress. It seems word had spread, and everyone in the building was trying their hands (or mouths) at double negatives. Like a food fight at a verbiage smorgasbord, tasteless tidbits of vernacular began to fly, unabated, about the room. I pushed the office door closed, and did my best to ignore the nonsense.

I hardly had no patience for quitting time to arrive, and headed out the door as disagreeable salutations nipped at my heels. Driving home helped me regain a sense of right and become not twisted. By the time I arrived home, I was feeling much better. As I exited the car, tempting aromas drifting on the breeze. I could tell Laurie had laid on a fine evening meal, and I was looking forward to sampling her fare.

As I sat down to dinner with my family, I was doing my best to forget the distasteful occurrences of the day. Laurie had cooked an amazing meal for us, tender, juicy fillets; steaming baked potatoes; crisp green salad with fresh peas and carrots; and hot dinner rolls. I settled in, prepared to truly enjoy the banquet.

"Is this not an amazing meal," chirped Alyssa. I snapped to attention and looked harshly upon my middle child. "What did you say," I demanded. "She was simply commenting on how nothing hardly could look and smell better," chimed in Spenser. The headache I had suffered earlier returned with a vengeance. I suspected a saboteur from the south had infiltrated my home by telephone and turned my family into antagonists.

"Not to be less than subtle," said Laurie, "but are you not all right?" I pushed back from the table and found myself walking, slightly off-kilter, towards the bedroom. My appetite had abated; all I could think of was retreating from such disruptive language management as soon as possible. "Can't I not have your dessert," called McKale as I slipped a pillow over my throbbing head.

Not to be overly critical, but I have always assumed it was my responsibility, as a parent, to help my children achieve a higher standard. They can't not accomplish this if they have an uncle, who shall remain nameless, that will sacrifice everything for the sake of a joke. A well-refined sense of humor is one thing, but to fall back on slapstick is an altogether different matter. I hardly don't have any words to describe such a contemptuous act. This is one good reason why family business isn't not hardly such a bad idea.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Get Your Ark Together

Not long ago, I received a telephone call from a man who said he had an arts and crafts business in the east and wanted to learn more about the Twin Rocks trading post. The gentleman asked about Twin Rocks; what we do, who we are and what was our connection to the local Native American tribes. As we talked, I realized his questions were related to an interest in preserving Native American culture. He said his name was Leon, that he was from the Micmac and Penacook tribes, and that he had become seriously concerned that the history of his people, and of Native America in general, was all too quickly being lost.

Alicia Nelson Basket
Navajo Basket Weaver Alicia Nelson

Over the years, many legends had come to him, and he accumulated them for transmission to the members of his tribe and any other interested party. Leon counseled me that we must collect the thoughts of our grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters, nephews, nieces and children, whether or not they are Native American. He told me that of all the stories he had heard, there was one in particular that was most meaningful to him. The story was about a young man and his journey on the road home.

The legend tells of a group of Native people who lived in an expansive wood. One by one, the people passed on, until only the youngest was left. One evening the youth fell asleep and dreamed of traveling a road populated by his relatives. As the boy greeted each one in turn, the elders related their personal stories.

Eventually, the young man came to a rainbow with a longhouse on the opposite side. In the longhouse were people of all nations speaking openly about their traditions and living in harmony. Beyond the greathouse stood the Creator, with his arms open; welcoming the young man home and telling the boy that he had learned much and been given a great gift.

As the story unfolded, I began to think of the youth as an ark in which the stories of his people were being invested; a vessel to carry the traditions across the waters of time to succeeding generations. I could hear my grandfather Woody Simpson singing his Biblical chronology, “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I saw the apple they was eatin’. I’m the man who swore, cause I’m the one who ate the core. Then came Noah stumblin’ in the dark, tryin’ to find a hammer just to build himself an ark. Then came the animals two by two, the hippopotamus, the kick kangaroo, then came the lion, then came the bar, then came the elephant without any har.” I could see Woody bouncing my brothers and sisters on his knee as his tune spilled out into the living room of the small white house in great clumps of irregular harmony.

I distinctly remembered Woody sitting next to me in Blue Mountain Trading Post, on an old blue sofa purchased at the flea market in Phoenix, telling me of his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. I have since discovered that some of his stories were fiction, but I still love having them. Although I remember him well, I have virtually no stories from my Grandfather Correia; a quiet, gentle man who worked hard and said little.

As these memories eddied through my mind, I suddenly realized the young man of Leon’s story had died, and with him the stories of his tribe; the ark had sunk, and the legends of his people had been lost. My grandfathers had both died many years ago, and with them the stories of their families. There is much I would now like to know about these two men and their lives, but it is too late, that boat sailed without me.

Leon cautioned me that we must preserve the old stories, and practice the old ways when we can. He said that most of us are not sharing the legends the way our forebears intended. At 56 years of age, he had made a commitment to spread the word, so he can stop the hemorrhage and keep this body of knowledge alive.

For much of Native America, and the rest of us as well, the rain has been falling for some time; the ongoing loss of culture and tradition is dramatic. Many of the narratives have either not made it onto the ark or have fallen overboard and are lost forever. We must build ourselves a solid vessel and begin filling it with the stories of our ancestors, our own stories and the stories of our children. If we don’t, the unicorn will be lost.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.