Thursday, May 3, 2007

My People Too

Tall Sheep

Since Jana and the kids left on the last leg of their big adventure I have had more time to read. As a result, I recently tackled Samuel Moon’s Tall Sheep; a book about Harry and Mike Goulding, and the founding of Goulding’s Monument Valley Trading Post and Lodge. The old time Indian traders fascinate me, and although Harry and Mike are not of the classic era, they did have an interesting adventure and a good story to tell.

When it comes to Indian trading, my primary interest is the relationship between the old timers and their Native American clientele. I find it distressing, however, that, for one reason or another, the traders usually seem somewhat patronizing; even when expressing affection for the people they served. Although I am generally careful not to engraft contemporary values on past circumstances, I often feel uneasy when reading about the early traders.

That discomfort may arise from the fact that I have, on occasion, been carelessly labeled a bigot. Not because I am mind you, but because I operate businesses in a reservation border town, and it is easier, or more expedient, to label people than to understand them.

For me, the reverse discrimination and reverse segregation I see on an ongoing basis is every bit as insidious as the traditional type. So, at Twin Rocks we are diligent to evaluate people on their personal character, not on the color of their skin. One of my all-time favorite advertising campaigns was the “United Colors of Benneton” promotion, so skin tone means little to me.

When I hear someone complaining about racial discrimination, I often think of Jamie Olson. Late one afternoon several years ago, Jamie, an Anglo artist, came walking up the steps of the Twin Rocks trading post. With a chip on his shoulder, he asked, “Do you buy from white people?” He had been in a number of galleries in Moab and Bluff, and had universally met with the, “We only buy from Native Americans,” response. His frustration was that the owners and operators of those shops did not even bother to look at his art.

Upon hearing Jamie’s question, I replied, “I don’t care whether you are purple, pink or aquamarine, let’s see what you have.” When I saw his work, I was absolutely knocked out. It was so extraordinary that I was certain we should have it in the Twin Rocks trading post. Over the years, Jamie and I have become friends, and his work continues to sell briskly. Fortunately, I was not concerned with his lineage.

In Tall Sheep, which is the name given to Harry by the Navajo people of Monument Valley, Harry and Mike often refer to their Navajo friends, acquaintances and patrons as “Navvies.” It was clear that both of them had a great love for the people of the valley, so I felt sure they were not using the term pejoratively. Knowing that Gerald LaFont, one of the current owners of Goulding’s, and Mike had been close friends during the latter part of her life, I mentioned my concern to him the next time he telephoned.

Gerald assured me that, although he would never use the phrase himself, Mike applied it to express her affection for the people she had lived and worked with so many years. Mike felt certain that the Navajo people of Monument Valley belonged to her and she belonged to them. Their kinship was genuine, complete and absolute.

Tohono O'odham Friendship Horsehair Basket
Tohono O' Odham Horsehair Basket

With all that banging around in my head, I recently found myself at a local healthcare board meeting with our county commissioners in attendance. On several occasions, our Navajo representative referred to the Navajo residents of San Juan County as, “my people.” As I sat listening to the commissioner’s comments, I remembered my conversation with Gerald and what he had said about Mike. Gerald’s statements made me think of Frank Douglas, a black man who worked at Goulding’s many years. In Tall Sheep, Mr. Douglas is quoted as saying:

"Well, honestly, you want the truth about it? I didn’t consider myself Negro either white or Indian, I was just one somebody. I didn’t even think about it. No one made me think about it. Didn’t anyone give me cause to think what nationality I was, I was just one of the group, and we all got along fine."

As I thought of Gerald, Mike and Frank Douglas, before I knew what was happening, I blurted out, “Commissioner, when you refer to ‘my people,’ please remember that those are my people too.” I was immensely pleased to receive a sincere, “Thank you” in response. As Frank Douglas said, we are all just part of the group.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2007 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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