Thursday, February 22, 2007


Lately I had been feeling great; I was exercising well, had spawned no major disasters at home, business was good and I had even lost a few pounds; at least temporarily. Then Kay showed up with pictures he had taken at the annual Thanksgiving “Trot it Off” 5K run. In Kay’s photographs I look old, chunky and about to die from the strain. Seeing the pictures made it clear to me that I was not the prince I had recently imagined myself becoming; instead, I was still the same old toad I had always been. I could not help laughing out loud. Sometimes the truth is hard to bear.

Navajo Folk Art by Ray & Alondra Lansing
Navajo Folk Art by Ray & Alondra Lansing

Barry, Kay and I had some fun with the pictures, then, as he prepared to go, Kay made a comment that caused me to chuckle even more. As he started for the door, Kay turned back and said “Oh yea, I like what you write; I read your stories just like they were true.” Barry and I acknowledged that there are times when we even write the stories as though they are true, but for the most part we do not let the facts get in the way of a good tale.

As I thought about Kay’s comment in the days after his visit, I realized that between the ages of about 16 and 60, most people’s honesty gene becomes suppressed. All of the sudden we realize that if we are completely honest, we will never get a date, our grades will slip, our spouses will not be as affectionate, we will not get the raise or promotion we want and a whole host of other disasters may befall us. So we shade the truth and hide from the difficult issues, casting aside the maxim, “Honesty is the best policy” in favor of “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

Except for relatively rare occasions, until we are old enough to realize there is really nothing to lose, we favor moderation over candor. This was apparent to me a few days ago when Jana and I were invited to a Yei-be-chei practice at Jean’s house. The Yei-be-chei is a traditional Navajo ceremony which is rapidly becoming extinct. Locally there is a group of people who have been able to keep it alive. On the balance of the Reservation, however, not many individuals know the songs and stories associated with the rite. It is, therefore dying a slow and painful death.

The Yei-be-chei is one of two winter ceremonies that can only be performed from the first hard frost until of the first big thunder, so the recent skiff of snow was ideal and properly set the stage for the performance. The sacred ritual can only be performed within the boundaries of the four sacred mountains, but it is apparently appropriate to practice outside those confines, so we were treated to a glimpse of the traditional dance on our home turf.

When Jana, Kira, Grange and I arrived, I wondered out to Jean’s patio, which is an intimate space with a cozy fire pit. The fire was blazing, and the wieners and marshmallows roasting. The dancers and guests were loading up on dogs, chips, salsa and sodas, so I dug in. The mood was festive and snow was on the ground, so all the elements necessary for a perfect winter evening were in place.

As we stood around the fire watching the dancers, there were many questions I wanted to ask., but because I was unwilling to enter the mine field of cultural questioning, I held back.

In a moment of complete honesty and openness, one of the dancers asked if we wanted to know anything about the dance. In spite of the invitation, I was still a bit wary, so I did not ask the questions that were on my mind. When Kenneth stepped forward to explain the dance and answer all our queries, the cultural divide collapsed.

Navajo Humpback Yei Rug by Luana Tso
Navajo Humpback Yei Pictorial Rug

He explained that the Yei-be-chei is a nine day ceremony, that it is associated with the constellations, that there were seven male constellations and eight female constellations associated with the dance. I could not help thinking the women always get more than their share. When he explained the constellations represented the body, and that the females needed one extra because they are the keepers of the womb, I was satisfied that it was a fair exchange.

We discussed the kinaalda, the Navajo coming of age ceremony, and a variety of other issues in complete openness. The honesty and directness of the questions and answers was astonishing. The heavens opened and we were all blessed with new understanding.

I felt my honesty gene pulsating, and thought that maybe I had been wrong about truth. By being open about such important issues, we just might find a way to help preserve the Yei-be-chei and other important rites for our children and grandchildren. Now that would be princely.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Toilet Bowl Cleanzers and Snake Charmers

The education process continues; Alyssa and McKale recently cornered me, turned on the charm and hit me up for financial aid. Knowing I am not an easy mark, the girls alertly qualified their request by suggesting they accompany me to Bluff on Saturday and, "Work at the trading post for a fair and equitable wage". This was a rare moment, lately the kids are far too busy to travel to Bluff for a full day's work. I carefully considered the implications of their request, figuring they must have exhausted all other avenues. The quick and easy loan from Mom was apparently not available, and they were now ready to make a deal with the devil himself. To achieve their costly desires they were ready to embrace desperate measures.

Navajo Basket by Lorraine Black
Navajo Snake Pictorial Basket by Lorraine Black

Because the Bluff Balloon Festival was on that weekend, and Steve was heavily involved (thus unavailable), I knew I could really use the help. This, and the fact that I love it when my kids come to work, caused me to quickly agree to sponsor them for the day. "What will you have us do?" asked McKale. "We'll find something when we get there!" I said cavalierly. In unison, Alyssa and McKale shook their heads side-to-side and asked me to be more specific. The girls were looking for a clear and concise agreement, they probably wanted it legally binding as well.

Being fairly quick-witted, and used to my habit of playing with words and their meaning, the girls asked what, "Finding something to do!' meant, exactly. "Something in the field of sterilization management with the aid of very light machinery," I said, once again waiving off the question. Alyssa and McKale stopped dead in their tracks, looked at me with raised eyebrows and, "Whadda ya think, we're stupid?" looks. "If that translates into cleaning toilets with a tooth brush, you can count us out!" chirped my eldest daughter. Rats, foiled again!

They had figured me out; I could tell it was time to step-up and take the game of love and logic to the next level. Although it sounds like I was trying to trick my children through deceit and deception, nothing could not be further from the truth; I was simply attempting to educate them to the subtleties of communication. A little less gullibility and a lot more skepticism in today's world may go a long way towards keeping them out of troublesome situations in their formidable futures. A father's duties are many, and I take mine seriously. In my humble opinion, teaching creatively adds humor and hopefully makes life's lessons more stimulating and memorable.

As we drove up to the trading post that morning, we noticed an absence of colorful hot air balloons in the skies of our uniquely charming red rock valley. I told the girls that the stiff breeze we had encountered on our way down the hill from Blanding must have disrupted the launch This meant Steve would be stressed out because Mother Nature had derailed the festivities. The store would also be much busier because people would be looking for alternative pleasures. Alyssa spoke up and said, "Good! I was afraid if it wasn't busy you would have us seeking out and extracting hazardous waste from the local, somewhat delicate environment". "Very Good, young Jedi," I said, "there are always plenty of cigarette butts in the parking lot to keep you busy".

Alyssa and McKale were real troopers that day; they cleaned the glass, courteously waited on customers and shopped the internet for swimming suits, expertly multitasking and easily earning a whopping, minimum wage. The trouble began when Lorraine Black pulled up in her high profile Dodge pickup truck. Lorraine is one of the most gregarious artists you will ever meet, so the minute she walked into the store and saw the girls she was all smiles and laughter, hugging Alyssa and McKale and lamenting how they had such an outlandish father.

McKale readily agreed with Lorraine, and told her of my attempts to trick them into cleaning toilets with a toothbrush. Lorraine laughed heartily and told the girls that if they used my toothbrush, just once, that it would surely nip such nonsense in the bud. She told Alyssa and McKale that the only way she had survived dealing with their Uncle Steve and me through the years was to stay one step ahead of us. I scolded Lorraine for attempting to sabotage my lesson plan, but she ignored me and spoke only with the girls.

Lorraine had brought in a small snake basket and offered to sell it to the girls at a more reasonable rate than she would me because, "She liked them better". She had heard about our "Traders in Training" program, and agreed with the idea of teaching our children to achieve a higher level of understanding and professionalism. Lorraine said she saw a definite need in that regard and wanted to help alleviate the deficit. All I could do was shake my head sadly and realize that I had brought this on myself in more ways than one.

Attempting to regroup, I told Lorraine that if she was going to sell the basket to Alyssa and McKale, she was obliged to explain its cultural significance. Lorraine turned back to the girls and spoke to them candidly about how many Navajo people have criticized her for placing such a powerful image in her weavings. She explained that her critics focus on the negative implications of Snake, rather than the positive. Lorraine told the girls this was a basic human tendency, and that they would certainly encounter such criticism in their own lives for being creative and unique. She told them that if they believed in what they were doing strongly enough, and were passionate about it, they would have to show conviction and be true to their causes to be successful.

McKale Simpson, Lorraine Black, and Alyssa Simpson
McKale, Lorraine Black & Alyssa Simpson

Lorraine told the girls that Snake has an undying spirit, is extremely loyal to its loved ones, is tenacious in service and is looked upon as a powerful guardian figure. This sometimes criticized artist said that was why she sought the allegiance of Snake through her weavings and was also why she was determined to pattern her life after it. Observing Lorraine and her interaction with my daughters, I realized we are all extremely lucky to live in this place among the rocks. Although we live at a time when historical cultures cling desperately to the precipice of extinction, we still have the opportunity to learn and grow from simple but effective tales of harmony and balance.

An image as seemingly inconsequential as a snake, and a thoughtful artist straddling the fence separating her radically different worlds of the past and present, educate us to life ways as effective today as they were hundreds of years ago. Time moves on, cultures fade or evolve and people change. The older I become, the more meaningful the term "assimilate or die" becomes. It makes me sad when I think about how tenuous this lifestyle we lead really is. I am, however, determined to enjoy it as long as I can and be grateful for the opportunity to share it with my children.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Owls and Arrowheads

The darkness clung stubbornly to the bedroom window as the alarm clock sounded 5:30 a.m. I struggled out of bed just as Jana returned from her rendezvous with the tooth fairy; Kira had lost yet another tooth, three in the last few weeks. As we passed in the inky morning, I said, “I’m going for a run.” “Okay,” Jana said skeptically and scrambled under the comforter.

Navajo Jewelry Artist Robert Taylor
Navajo Jewelry Artist Robert Taylor

As I gathered the cold weather gear, I too had serious doubts whether I would make it out the door. A few minutes later, however, I was on the porch stretching at the Twin Rocks trading post railing and telling myself, “Well this is not that bad.” The temperature was in the single digits, but the cold was stimulating and I began to feel positively alive.

As my muscles loosened, I peered into the darkness. Out on the highway, a car crept slowly past; apparently it was also having difficulty warming to the chill. The vehicle approached the intersection of Highways 191 and 162 and Bluff’s only street light came to life, inspired by the movement. As the lamp illuminated the pavement, a gentle “ha-who, ha-who” floated on the air. I wondered whether my mind was playing tricks on me or whether Brother Owl, who from time to time inhabits the old Jones Farm, had returned. Although Barry has often reminded me that I am not necessarily subject to the taboos and beliefs of the Navajo people, I often find myself directly affected by those traditions.

In the Navajo culture, owls can be a sign of impending danger. Additionally, Grange and I had recently been reading about humbug wizards with no wiz, dragonettes, wooden gargoyles and various other strange creatures, so the owl spooked me a little. Robert Taylor had recently told me that catching a horned toad, sprinkling corn pollen on his stomach and releasing him was a surefire way to protect yourself from bad times. I was certain no toads were immediately available, so I quickly abandoned that alternative.

Instead, I returned to the trading post and searched out the small box of Anasazi arrowheads we keep stowed under the counter; the ones Navajo people covet. Believed to be made by Shicheii, grandfather horned toad, these points are strong medicine against the ch’iidiih, or evil spirits that inhabit the night. This morning I thought I might need the extra support, so I carefully tucked two of the flint talisman inside the zippered breast pocket of my running jacket.

Navajo Folk Art by Matthew Yellowman
Navajo Folk Art Horned Toad Carving

As I walked to the street and began my run, I noticed Liza’s Christmas light peace sign glowing and thought of all those young men and women fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wondered where I might find enough arrowheads to supply them all; they could certainly use the protection.

Jogging through the blackness, I often wonder what oncoming cars, trucks and busses see of me, so the other day I asked Tish, a server at the restaurant, what she noticed when she passed a week earlier. She said something like, “I thought it was a USMO; an unidentified slow moving object. All I could see were a few flashes of something; kinda’ like a tortoise with reflective stripes.” I thanked her for her insightful comments, made a note in her personnel file and moved on.

When I came to the first curve in the road, I was thinking of Tish’s comments and watching the light expand from an approaching car. As the driver rounded the bend, I moved off the road, since it was apparent he had not yet identified me as a potential speed bump. He passed closely by and I could see his spectre-like face illuminated by the dashboard. The close call made me question whether my good luck charms were working.

Then John Hatch passed in his white Ford pickup and gave me a flash of his blinkers, which I took as a good sign. John is a bright young man who was raised at Hatch Trading Post, which is located north of Montezuma Creek; near Hovenweep. Hatch is one of the last remnants of the old trading post system, and my only recollection of the post is having ice cream there during a school field trip approximately 40 years ago; about the time ice cream was invented. John escaped the trading post life to become an oil field engineer.

After John’s passage, the few vehicles that went by gave me a wide berth, so I became convinced everything was working fine. Then, out of the darkness I heard a whoosh, and something flying close to the pavement winged sharply to the right about five feet in front of me. It had to be the owl I reasoned, so I pulled over and took a long, deep look into the starry sky, trying to identify the invader.

As the constellations blinked, I felt the sting of cold, fresh air in my lungs. Somewhere from the depths of my being burst forth an unexpected one syllable prayer; something like, “yes” or “oh,” or “ahh.” I am not exactly sure where it came from or why, but it extinguished my fright and accurately expressed my happiness at being in God’s largest and most spectacular cathedral. I have seen Saint Peter’s, Saint Mark’s and even the Sistine Chapel, but for me nothing compares to the beauty, peace and contentment I find in Nature.

Standing on the side of the road, an old Helen Reddy song came to mind; “I am strong, I am invincible, I am . . . woman.” Realizing that unless I wanted to get a sex change that was not going to work as a theme song, I searched for another tune to occupy my thoughts. As I started back up, I felt renewed strength in my legs and imagined the arrowheads glowing with power. The good luck charms were surely working; the increasing traffic was giving me lots of room, Old Man Owl had evacuated my space and I felt, well, invincible.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Experiencing the Art

For many years now our family has made a concentrated effort to introduce our children to the wonderful and often outrageous cast of characters we are blessed to interact with at the Twin Rocks trading post. Artists, craftspeople, turquoise miners and lapidaries, dealers and customers alike. Each individual has a story, a unique perspective on life and diverse interpretations on proper and improper etiquette. Some introductory censorship applies, based upon parental discretion, of course. As a general rule, however, most of these people are fairly laid back and moderate. We feel it is our obligation to attempt a unique and varied education for the kids. The goal is an introduction to the best and most interesting side of Twin Rocks trading post life which will most benefit them.

Navajo Rug by Rena Begay
Navajo Tree of Life Pictorial Rug

Lately, it has become much more of an effort to bring the children into contact with these people. In the early days, before school, sports, music lessons, recognition of the opposite sex and other disturbing distractions, the kids were always about and easily accessible when an opportunity arose to introduce and educate. Since they have begun their formal education, it has become increasingly difficult to make these connections. That problem is compounded by the fact that Dad is "not cool," and less than familiar with modern life, their personal emotional state of being, wants and needs and generally, the workings of universal circumstance. All these factors cause a crimp in my "get along" and effect the main objective; thereby altering the odds of success, but not eliminating them entirely. .

Thus was the case last Saturday. Steve had the day off, so I was working the store alone when Rena Begay came in with a truly remarkable rug packed with imagery and metaphor. Before Rena got started on her explanation and sales pitch I phoned home. Luckily Alyssa and McKale were up early and available to travel. Spenser was already off playing tennis, thus unavailable for the remainder of the day. My patient and compromising wife understands my persistent effort to share my life at the trading post with our children and was willing to bring our daughters down from Blanding to meet the artist and hear the message.

The girls were twenty-five minutes away, so I had to stall Rena and her small entourage until they arrived. It cost me five servings of cake and associated beverages at the cafe, but I felt it was worth the sweet sacrifice. Luckily I caught my girls just before they had dispersed for the day; they were already made up and ready to move with no particular place to go. My daughters have listened to me discuss Navajo myth and legend so often that they are somewhat familiar with the stories. This was a special opportunity for them to hear it directly from the source.

Everyone arrived at the store at about the same time. Rena was flattered that we were so interested in her weaving and the meaning behind it. It did not take long for us to negotiate a price for Rena's strikingly beautiful rug, because I had decided we needed it in the store the minute I saw it. Rena told us that the rug contained more birds than any rug she had previously woven. McKale counted the feathered features twice and came up with a total of 121 birds.

Tabita Bitah, Rena Begay & McKale & Alyssa Simpson

Rena started out shy and slow by saying she had always loved small birds because of their delicate beauty; she had watched them flitter about her Reservation home since early childhood. Lately Rena had noticed a number of new species in her area and had been curious why they were there. She had discovered that, through global warming, the temperatures in the U.S. have been rising. Because of this, birds that would normally be suited for more southerly climes were venturing further north. Rena was so pleased with the discovery that she dedicated her rug to the occasion.

As Rena became more comfortable, we found that she was raised nontraditionally, in a Christian home, so she was not intimately familiar with Navajo culture and tradition. Being a curious person by nature, however, she was in the process of discovering the secrets of her people and weaving her new knowledge into her textiles. The girls learned that the Navajo people believe there are important and worthwhile messages hidden in the mythology of the Navajo people. Rena shared stories about maintaining relationships with the elders and attempting to learn from them and their experience, and about how nature stands as metaphorical reference to many of those messages.

Rena indicated that she felt there was also an inherent promise that the caring deities of Navajo people will stand patiently by as their people explored alternative beliefs. They continue to provide supernatural support as the people go forth in an attempt to grow mentally and emotionally. Their covenant is to support their Navajo creations until they were ready to embrace the traditions through a more defined cultural understanding. Prayer, respectful ceremonial practice, a deeper, more thoughtful experience and understanding and an open-minded attitude is desired. Simply put, Alyssa and McKale shared in Rena's life experience portrayed in her art.

For me, the meeting, the interaction with my family, and Rena' s explanation and her art will remain a treasured memory. One day a memory triggered by a small bird, will be dredged up from my sticky primordial past. I can be counted on to exaggerate a bit and then recount "Trading Post Stories" to my adoring grandchildren. If nothing else, there is the possibility that my family will better understand why I am so adamantly and emotionally invested in this business and cut me some slack when I obnoxiously carry on about it. And then again, probably not!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post