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 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 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