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.