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,

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