Thursday, March 29, 2007

On the Verge of Extinction

Kira and Grange Simpson
Kira & Grange Simpson @ Navajo Jewelers John Yazzie's work bench.

Since we initiated our Traders in Training program in April of last year, circumstances have begun to spiral out of control. I am shamefully aware that chaos is the general rule of thumb around here; occupational management and organization dissipated long ago and we accept that as a fact. The problem is that Steve and I are on the verge of loosing our place in the Twin Rocks trading post spotlight. Up until now, my brother and I have been the ones overseeing this turbulent state of affairs, but it seems there is a new and more glorious day on the horizon.

The thing that has agitated our insecure egos and made us feel uncomfortable is that our artists and customers would rather deal with the kids than us. Spenser, Alyssa, McKale, Kira and Grange are effectively, if not intentionally, displacing us. A case in point occurred the other day when Peggy Black brought in an exquisite basket and would only speak to Spenser about it. Feeling effectively bypassed, I sent her to Blanding with Spenser's updated personal schedule and, more importantly, a guesstimate of his actual whereabouts.

Peggy has begun developing a close and lucrative relationship with our children. This particular instance was a case of an incredibly talented artist directing her highly developed basket weaving skills and creativity towards capturing Spenser's imagination, and bank account. Need I say more about my feelings of rejection? I am desperately in need of a good psychologist here and now. The visual impact of Peggy's latest weaving is striking and dovetails nicely with what is now taking place in Spenser's life.

Peggy targeted Spenser by weaving a basket packed with images that relate so closely to his current state of affairs that it is uncanny. The woman should be a psychic; actually she may well be. When Peggy sat down to interpret the message in this weaving, she caught his attention immediately. As this gifted storyteller began to point out the meaning behind this basket, Spenser became enthralled.

Navajo Basket by Peggy Black
Peggy Black Basket

Peggy explained that the central theme in her basket was the harmony and balance portrayed by turtle; a creature with extraordinary healing powers. She said that by positively associating with the turtle, practically any physical obstacle can be overcome. Because Spenser deals with partial paralysis on his left side, he adopted the turtle as his totem animal on the spot.

Peggy showed Spenser the three graduated bands of alternating rainbow spots and human forms contained within and around the opposing forces of black and white. She said that in Navajo culture, these spots often represent portals into the realm of the supernatural. Peggy said the rainbow allowed us to, metaphorically, enter other worlds. By studying the cultural beliefs of a variety of societies and interacting with a diversely educated group of people, it would allow us a greater understanding of and compassion for Mother Earth and her inhabitants.

I think it was the horses and their associated meaning that really grabbed Spenser's attention. Peggy explained that the possession of horses brought a golden era of prosperity to the Navajo. Since the horse was not indigenous to the western hemisphere, its arrival brought a whole new way of life to most of the Indian tribes. Horses came to signify power, speed, wealth and most importantly independence!

The Spanish introduction of the horse had a profound effect upon Navajo culture; not only did increased mobility enlarge the range and frequency of contact with non-Navajos, it also altered the character of social relations within the tribe. Access to horses made It possible to visit distant relatives more frequently and to attend ceremonial events from much greater distances. Thus, the audiences at ceremonials became larger, and this in turn may have led to the more elaborate ceremonies.

Spenser,McKale and Alyssa Simpson with Navajo Basket Weaver Peggy Black
McKale, Spenser, Peggy Black & Alyssa Simpson

Peggy also told Spenser that it was common for parents to gift horses and other livestock to their children in an effort to educate them to animal husbandry, economics and responsibility. Spenser was fired up now, he was having visions of power, speed, freedom and social relationships of his own. When I got home that evening, my son cornered me to share his new acquisition and associated wealth of information.

After filling me in on what he had recently learned, and its relevance to him, Spenser said he felt he was in need of economic stimulation, responsibility, and basic transportation. "One Mustang would do," said Spenser, "preferably a red one with about 300 horsepower." I told Spenser I thought he had missed the point, but he assured me he had not. He bore witness to the fact that Peggy had explained herself quite well, that he was a willing and excellent student and that I was the one missing the point. Indeed!

The enthusiasm on Spenser's face made me realize why our children are in demand at the Twin Rocks trading post. They are youthful, fresh, open to new thoughts and easily excited. A while back Steve wondered whether it was time for us to freshen up with a face lift, tummy tuck and overall overhaul. I am not sure that is the correct answer, maybe it is simply time for the two of us to move on and let the next generation take control. I can smell the clover now!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tapestry of a Trader

Navajo Basket by Fannie King
Fannie King Basket

After watching Dr. Zhivago for the second time this month, I have become extremely contemplative. I cannot get Lara’s Theme out of my mind; it seems to be running in a never ending loop. As a result, I see the spring trying to break through at every turn. Earlier today, as I drove back from Blanding after dropping Kira and Tarrik off at school, the morning sun beamed through the side window, warming me against the outside chill, making me drowsy and causing me to wonder how it is that I arrived at this stage of life, in this isolated land, doing this same job for over 17 years.

Traditional Indian trading as we knew it is dead. There are, however, remnants of it surviving in out of the way places like Bluff, Ismay, Shonto and Sanders, and I have become part of those leftovers. How that happened, I do not really understand. All I know is that my journey has been like that of a leaf cast upon a stream. When I begin to believe I have some measure of control over my destiny, I am dragged up by the shirt collar and quickly realize that I have none. So it is with my life as an Indian trader.

After all this time running the Twin Rocks trading post, I am often amazed at the way things have changed. The old traders often speak with fondness of the people they traded with through the years. It took awhile, but eventually I fully understood the emotion. I too have become attached to the people, both Native American and otherwise, who rely on the trading post for monetary support, artistic beauty and any number of other needs and desires. The relationship is symbiotic, not symbolic, and we have all become interwoven.

Recently, after an accounting snafu that I failed to notice before it reached a critical stage, Barry and I agreed we would suspend buying inventory for the store. That may seem like a small thing, but many of the local artists view the Twin Rocks trading post as an important source of financial security. So, when Elsie Holiday came in with her latest creation, which was a beauty, Barry and I looked at each other and shook our heads sideways. Although it was going to be difficult, we had to tell her we could not buy the basket until we worked out things with our banker.

Navajo Basket by Elsie Holiday
Elsie Holiday Basket

The look on her face sent me into a deep, dark funk. I knew she needed the money to pay the house payment and feed the family, but this time we were unable to help. As she walked out the door, I thought my heart would break. I knew at this time of the year she would find it difficult to locate an alternative outlet. After she left, I realized there was another avenue; Kira and Grange had money in their Traders in Training savings account, so they could buy her basket.

For the next week, I waited anxiously for Elsie to return so I could give her the good news. When she finally did, I was stunned by her comments. She said she had been praying for us because she felt things must be really bad if we were not buying her baskets. She told me she had heard I had been killed and that the Twin Rocks trading post was closing. She went on to lay out a variety of other horribles. I assured her the accounts of my demise were greatly exaggerated, that I was currently more alive than dead and that the Twin Rocks trading post was still viable. I persuaded her this was only a small wrinkle in the overall fabric of the enterprise.

This episode made me realize just how much all this means to me and how intertwined our individual lives have become. Once in awhile I wonder what I would be doing if I were not an Indian trader in a small reservation border town. In truth, I can imagine a few things I would enjoy, but nothing I would like more.

A few years ago, Paul Zolbrod conceived an interesting publication idea. He brought together a group of weavers and had them examine old Navajo textiles. As the ladies inspected the blankets and rugs, they began to point out things that were incorporated into the warp and weft; a piece of horse sinew that may have been from a favorite horse; a color change that may have indicated an especially wet winter.

At this point I know I am like those tapestries, much of this land and its people have indelibly marked me. If you scratch my surface, you will surely find sumac slivers and wool fibers.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Espie's Jish

Navajo Folk Art by Marvin Jim and Grace Begay
Navajo Folk Art

Recently I received an e-mail from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources containing big game applications for Spenser and me. Hunting deer in our family has, over many years, become a treasured tradition. This yearly pilgrimage into the wilds of Southeastern Utah has provided me many memorable hours of quality time with my father, brothers, son and in-laws. Since Spenser was old enough to walk, he has been my constant deer hunting companion.

In hopes of sharing our adventures with them, I have often tried to talk my daughters into joining us; their response, . . . "Not even!" They, like their mother, will have nothing to do with such a barbaric undertaking. No worries about connecting with my girls though, I have learned to love volleyball; the sport of choice for Alyssa and McKale. They are both very good at the art of bumping, setting and spiking. I dare say they are much better at volleyball than Spenser and I are at bringing home the venison. No matter though, for us it is more about spending time together and sharing the love.

But I digress. Receiving the applications for the deer hunt spawned memories of a culturally educational experience I had with Espie Jones, an old Navajo medicine man. It was at the Blue Mountain Trading Post in Blanding that I first met Espie. By his own account, Espie was an herbologist, a practitioner of the ancient art of healing with the aid of plants. At that particular time, Espie was probably 65 years old; with a full head of salt and pepper hair. He was a small, wrinkled man; maybe 150 pounds after a long prosperous winter. His right leg was much shorter than his left, which caused him to walk with a pronounced limp.

Espie was most commonly seen in a plaid cowboy shirt with pearlesque button snaps; well worn Levi's that were two sizes too wide at the hips and long in the leg; and waffled sole, blond, short topped work boots. Whenever he saw me, Espie would smile broadly, exaggerating his weathered face and say, "Yah'at'eeh Hasteen Daghaa," which translated into, "Hello Mr. Mustache". Espie's greeting jokingly referred to my position as a youthful store proprietor and the carefully trimmed growth on my upper lip.

Espie was not a wealthy man; far from it. He had a large family which depended heavily on him for financial support. Espie took it all in stride; he maintained a ready smile and progressive attitude, believing his family was his greatest asset. If I remember correctly, the reason he came into Blue Mountain Trading Post was to borrow money on his turquoise chunk necklace. After several years of satisfactorily pawning his jewelry with us, Espie decided to use the trading post as a repository for his most prized possession-his jish.

Simply put, a jish is a deer hide pouch containing personal items of ceremonial significance. When Espie first brought in his jish, he patiently explained that the pouch contained sacred items he used in healing ceremonies. He removed each carefully protected item, individually explaining its importance in the ritual, and replaced them without letting me touch anything. When he was finished, he told me I was never to remove anything from the bag and that I was to protect it with my life. I knew by his actions and facial expression that Espie was entrusting me to safely and honorably store his jish in our safe; to do otherwise would be profane. After I placed the jish under lock and key, Espie decided to explain to me the significance of the deer hide pouch. He stated, in broken English, that when he settled on becoming a medicine man he was instructed to ceremonially track down and dispatch a deer. Once that job was complete, he was to make a bag from the hide.

Espie said this was no small feat for a young crippled man. He had to search out a buck deer, track it, run it to earth and smother it with corn pollen and prayer; all without the aid of a weapon. Espie told me that deer rarely leave their home range, so the deed is difficult but possible. This trait provides an opportunity for a tenacious, enduring human being to chase the animal and dispatch it. The trick is to never let the animal eat or rest, to force it to keep running until it surrenders itself to ceremonial circumstance. The animal then has to be flawlessly skinned from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail and down the legs; leaving the hooves attached.

Navajo Silver Jewelry by Clarence and Russell Lee

From that point on, I had a lot more respect for Espie, his jish bag and deer hunting in general. I have never attempted to hunt this way; never had the time or inclination to do so, Espie told me that if everything went in your favor, it could take as long as a week to run down a deer; it took him six days and nights. After hearing that story, whenever I have been out in the hills hunting with my son, I think of Espie. In my mind's eye, I have seen the image of a youthful Espie Jones limping stolidly through twisted stands of juniper trees and rocky canyons, trailing a magnificent buck, both stumbling from exhaustion, both determined to outlast the other.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, March 8, 2007

It's All So Confusing

Several months ago we were asked to present at the annual SUN conference. For weeks before the inquiry, Barry, Jana and I had been discussing how we should get out more and see what is happening outside the Twin Rocks trading post. The consensus was that we had become stale and needed to broaden our perspective, so I accepted without actually knowing what the event involved.

Navajo Basket by Evelyn Cly
Navajo Ceremonial Baskets

As it turns out, the SUN (which is an acronym for Spanish, Ute and Navajo) Conference is a gathering for educators hoping to improve the lot of their Native American and Spanish charges. When I finally realized what I had gotten us into, I began to question what we have to do with education. I have always jokingly maintained the Twin Rocks trading post is a nonprofit educational institution which is primarily responsible for collecting stories from the local artists and passing them along to our patrons. That, of course is a long winded way of saying that we stand around and shoot the you know what. In any case, this assignment would put us to the test.

The ever creative Jana said, “Don’t worry, I have an idea.” That statement always makes me worry. Not that Jana lacks good ideas, it is just that she is the creative type and I am . . . not. So, while my linear mind likes things to be more concrete, she is comfortable winging it. As a result, we arrived at the conference with about a dozen baskets and a vague outline for our discussion.

The conference is held annually at the Ute Mountain Casino at Towoac, Colorado, which is not one of my favorite places. I do not inherently dislike gaming, I just hate to see all that hard earned money going down the drain when it could be put to better use. There are such great needs on the Reservation, and feeding a one-armed bandit should not take precedence over feeding the kids. Through the years, however, I have become reconciled to the fact that once they leave my checkbook, the funds are no longer mine to control; if the artists enjoy the slots, so be it.

The keynote speaker read a poem about Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and how they had stripped his people of their language, pride and heritage, so right out of the chute I thought Jana and I were in trouble. Indian traders are an easy target for idealists and anybody with a race card. Barry, Jana and I have, on several occasions, been scraped and scarred during similar events. As Duke would say, “We have been shot at and missed and shit at and hit.” Unfortunately, there is a sound basis for the accusations. Historically, a few Indian traders have done a great deal to earn their bad reputations. I, however, never take credit or responsibility for what someone else has done, and insist that people measure me based upon my actions, not upon those of others.

Once the keynote address was complete, Jana and I propped our baskets up on the stage and she launched into her introduction, addressing the crowd in Navajo. As she explained her spaghetti clan affiliation and my connection to the linguisa sausage people, the crowd warmed and I began to feel more at ease. For the next hour we talked about how we had noticed the children of our basket weavers becoming more interested in the traditional stories their mothers, uncles, aunties and grandmothers wove into their baskets, how we had seen more dialogue among the generations about these cultural tales and how we felt the Navajo culture was being perpetuated, if only in a small way, by the weavings.

The presentation seemed to be well received, and once it was over, a group of teachers and students crowded the stage to inspect the baskets and ask questions. The visitors were generally complimentary, and expressed their delight that Jana spoke Navajo so well. As I worked the group, I noticed an older woman whom I guessed to be about 65 standing back with her hands on her hips and a frown on her face. She exhibited a sense of disgust. Thinking I might engage her, I asked, “Do you have any questions?” Walking straight up to the only ceremonial basket we had on display, she pointed her arthritic finger at it and said in a clear and distinct voice, “That is the only basket that should be woven. All this other stuff is just confusion. It is what is creating all the problems on the Reservation.” I was taken aback and did not have a sensible response, so she simply walked off.

Not long after that, we were asked to remove the baskets from the stage so the conference could go forward. As it turned out, the next act was a rap group called Mistic. The lead rapper, Mistic, a rather large Navajo youth with charisma that lit the entire auditorium, stepped on the platform and launched into a discussion about how the group’s music was dedicated to keeping the Navajo language and culture alive. It was clear that Mistic’s message connected with the group, because everyone began to clap and cheer.

Navajo Basket by Lorraine Black
Navajo Story Basket

As Jana and I sat there watching the show, I was amazed by how effective Mistic was with all ages and how the rappers really were doing a lot to keep Navajo values alive and well. Mistic and his posse were nothing short of sensational. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed my older inquisitor leaving the room, so I got up and followed her out. Touching her on the arm as she exited the auditorium, I asked, “What do you think of Mistic; don’t you feel the group is doing a great deal for the Navajo people?” “No,” she said, “that is the kind of confusion those baskets create.”

Turning away, I could not help thinking, “If that is the kind of confusion our baskets create, then bring it on.” I walked back into the room to see kids from 13 to 65 dancing, waving their arms in the air and rapping in Navajo. After experiencing Mistic, I have become convinced that confusion may be the key to cultural survival. With that in mind Barry, Jana and I have become more confusing then ever. Let confusion reign.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Hi Jolly's Camels

Navajo Folk Art Camel by Matthew Yellowman
Navajo Artist Matthew Yellowman

"A camel carving, what craziness is this?" I asked Matthew Yellowman. Matthew patiently gazed at me over the top of his latest sculpture, which portrays a calvary officer astride a camel, and pondered my question. As I watched him, Matthew's eyes focused inward as if searching for something. I could literally see him capturing a thought and brushing away the cobwebs of time. Refocusing on me, Matthew smiled softly, and then, in his gentle way explained how his mother had once shared a girlhood story with him about how, in the late 1800's, the calvary brought camels to Fort Defiance, Arizona.

"Not only that," said Matthew pointing to the south with his lips, "Mom was born near Fort Defiance and claims to have seen one while she was herding sheep as a very young girl. Whether she really did or just witnessed a mirage really does not matter, the fact is there were camels on the Reservation." I snorted contemptuously and asked Matthew if he was, "Pitching camel dung in my direction". "You're such a wise guy!" said Matthew, eying me and then the computer behind me.

Matthew pursed his lips again, this time in the direction of the computer, and asked if it was connected to the Internet. "Of course," I said, "we are technologically advanced around here". "Too bad you haven't taken better advantage of the educational opportunities it offers!" he responded. Frowning, yet secretly admiring Matthew's quick wit, I turned to the Mac and Googled Camel/Navajo. Instantly a barrage of nonsense listings came up. "Just as I thought, no camels!" I said turning back to Matthew. "Try The Beale Expedition or Hi Jolly." he said. "What the heck is a Hi Jolly?" I asked, feeling I was being set up and about to find out.

Matthew's eyes twinkled, and an air of confident victory came over him. I did the search, and sure enough, several hundred hits popped up. I groaned in educational agony. I clicked on the first listing and began to read, "Jefferson Davis, as secretary of war in President Pierce's cabinet, approved the plan to experiment with camels for freighting and communication in the arid Southwest. Major Henry C. Wayne of the army and Lt. D.D. Porter of the navy visited the Near East with the store ship supply and brought 33 camels which were landed at Indianola, Tex., Feb. 10, 1856. On a second trip they got 41 more."

With the first shipment came a caretaker; a short, heavyset, happy-go-lucky Arab named Hadji Ali, whose name was promptly changed to "Hi Jolly" by the soldiers. The Texas base for the camels was Camp Verde, a frontier outpost in Kerr County. On the Beale expedition (1857) to open a wagon road across Arizona from Fort Defiance to California, the camels, under Hi Jolly, proved their worth. Nevertheless, the war department abandoned the experiment, and the camels were left to shift for themselves on the Arizona desert.

Navajo Folk Art Buzzard by Matthew Yellowman
Navajo Folk Art by Matthew Yellowman

It must be admitted that I always admire a well managed sales pitch. Whether Matthew had planned this one in advance or simply allowed it to unfold on its own accord, I cannot say. The fact is, Twin Rocks Trading Post is now the proud owner of a smartly dressed Native American calvary officer sitting astride a two hump Middle Eastern camel. Chuckling to himself, Matthew headed for the door with a hefty check poking out of his breast pocket. He turned back just before he left, waived and said, "Next time I am going to bring you a buzzard!" "No buzzards!" I said with conviction. "What?" said Matthew, "You have never heard how Buzzard wound up so shabbily dressed?"

Shaking my head in admiration, and wanting to know more about what happened to Hi Jolly, I went back to the Internet and continued to read, "The army never explained officially why it abandoned the experiment. Perhaps they proved uneconomical or perhaps the Arizona desert country was too tough for them. Keiser said the rocks hurt the camels' feet. For a time, Hi Jolly wrapped their feet in burlap. Later a special shoe was fashioned for the animals' split toes."

The camel shoes were unsuccessful at keeping rocks out of their toes. Hi Jolly was grieved to lose his animals, but took up scouting for the army and also did some mining. On Dec. 16, 1902, he died in Quartzsite, Arizona at the age of 64 years. The Arizona Highway Department has built a tomb for him; a pyramid of quartz and petrified wood, topped by a tin figure of a camel. "The last camp of Hi Jolly," a sign says.

Just as I finished reading, I heard the door chimes ring and turned to see Steve returning from school with Grange. He immediately spied the camel and gave me a look of consternation. With a note of frustration in his voice, he said, "A camel carving? You have got to be kidding!" I adopted a pose of patient understanding, and said, "What, you have never heard the story of Hi Jolly and his camels?" Cautious skepticism came over him as I continued, "For someone who is supposed to be educated to the culture, you are representing, you are severely lacking."

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post