Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Road Home

Alicia Nelson Yei-bi-chai Basket
Yei-be-chei Basket by Alicia Nelson

Alicia Nelson generously agreed to meet Alyssa, McKale and me at the trading post first thing last Saturday morning. We were to film a video clip of Alicia explaining her latest creation; a striking Yei-be-chei basket. Yeis are some of the most positive and effective healers in Navajo culture. and I wanted my daughters to hear of their significance from someone who had a more personal relationship with the deities and the art.

Alyssa and McKale were purchasing the basket as part of the "Traders in Training" program. We initiated this effort to ensure that our children get to know the crazily diverse and unique group of artists we grapple with on a daily basis. We are also hopeful the kids gain a better understanding of economics than we have been able to acquire.

After completing the taping session, I was obliged to run the girls part way back to Blanding; Laurie needed help with Christmas baking duties. My wife loves the Holidays, and has taught our daughters her sweet culinary skills. The neighbors love the treats as much as I do. With diligent instruction from Laurie, our daughters have evolved into handy kitchen helpers. I long ago recognized the fact that cookies, fudge and candy help me relieve the stress of the holiday season, so I was easily convinced to provide the shuttle.

We jumped in the van and cruised north, up Cow Canyon on our way to meet their mother. Alyssa and McKale were reminded of "the good old days," when I brought them and Spenser to Bluff and let them ride their Razor scooters down White Mesa Hill and then Cow Canyon. The girls laughed out loud as they recalled how Spense had let it all hang loose and sped down the hills hardly using his brakes.

Alyssa was slightly more timid, setting a reasonable, yet still thrilling, pace. McKale was the youngest and most reluctant to, "let 'er go." She nearly melted her shoe by riding the brake so hard, and picked up a little "asphalt rash" when she fell near the end. We were all laughing heartily before we exited the canyon. Good memories those!

Alyssa remembered a time, a year or so back, when our family pushed off from Blanding on a bicycle ride to Bluff. She had tried to pedal the entire route of 26 miles, but had fallen just short of her goal. She was looking forward to giving it another go next summer. I reminisced with the girls on the hundreds of times I have made the trip back and forth to Bluff. They rolled their eyes, anticipating another walking barefoot in the snow story.

I tried to explain to the girls how personal something so impersonal can be. This highway is a ribbon of memories for me I explained. I remember pulling up out of Cow Canyon, packed into the back of an old beat-up pickup truck, surrounded by my brothers and sisters, joking, laughing and sharing that loving feeling much as my daughters and I were. I recall riding rust bucket one-speed bikes and the latest technologically-advanced multi-speed cruisers to and from Bluff on a regular basis.

Santa Claus Carving by Marvin Jim & Grace Begay
Navajo Santa Clause Folk Art Carving

It seems like each curve and bump in the road brings back a memory. Bright light and shadow expose ghostlike visions of some experience or emotion. There is great happiness in certain bends and twists of the road, and depressing, hurtful sadness in others. I have to say that the overwhelming percentage of time I spend on this highway has proved positive. This old road has given me much time to think before I react, and allowed me time to meditate and realize the important issues in my life and those I come into contact with.

As we topped out on White Mesa Hill, I saw lights flashing on an oncoming van. I smiled to myself as I realized we had intercepted the mother of my precious offspring. Here too was one of the most valuable treasures I have discovered while traveling this scenic byway. I have been a trial to this woman. Somehow she has survived the missteps, outright mistakes and the mayhem I continually stir-up. I expect to receive a well-deserved marital pink slip at any moment, but greatly appreciate any reprieve she allows me.

After bidding my wife and daughters au revoir, I turned the car in a southerly direction, to return to Bluff and the adventure awaiting me at the trading post. I had added another pleasant memory to the stretch of road between Blanding and Bluff and knew it would return on significant occasions. The Holiday season provides me a gift of peace, happiness and love; a gift from our creator through those that care for us. Here at Twin Rocks Trading Post we wish you the same. Merry Christmas!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whose Story is it Anyway?

Of all the people we work with, Dennis Ross is one of our all-time favorites. Our fondness for him is not necessarily based in his artistic talents; it is mostly about the way he conducts his life. Biologically, Dennis is half Navajo and half Hopi, which makes for an interesting cultural mix. Historically, Navajo and Hopi people have been at odds with each other because of the federal government’s Navajo/Hopi land policy.

To complicate things, Dennis was raised on “placement,” and is a devout Mormon. Now, you can imagine the potential ideological conflicts associated with being Navajo/Hopi/Mormon. Dennis, however, handles these apparently competing interests with miraculous aplomb. When people ask whether he feels internally conflicted, as Dennis assures me they often do, he replies that he feels no conflict whatever. I believe him, if only because I understand we are all in a similar situation. Whether it is Navajo/Hopi/Mormon or Portuguese/Irish/Lawyer/Indian trader, we all must balance the differences in our heritage, training and experience.

Since Christmas is quickly approaching, the lights are up and holiday music is playing at the trading post. As a testament to our own personal diversity, we play songs by Elvis, Celtic artists, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, The BareNaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin and many more. Like the stray dogs that populate reservation convenience stores, we are clearly mutts when it comes to Christmas music, our personal culture and our lineage. Our blood runs always rainbow, never blue.

At the trading post, we are forever discussing traditional Navajo stories and legends as though we know something about them. Unfortunately, even when we are directly experiencing Native American culture, it is still in many ways second hand. As outsiders with white faces, it is virtually impossible to appreciate the importance of these life ways and what they mean to our American Indian friends. Much of that lack of comprehension can be attributed to the fact that traditions are extremely personal. There is, however, another intangible element that compounds the problem; you just cannot fully comprehend until you have immediate, deep experience.

From time to time, Dennis carves a set of six corn people which represents the creation of the Navajo. In the set, there is First Corn Girl, First Corn Boy, Grandmother Corn, Grandfather Corn and two corn children. One of the corn kids features multicolored kernels carved on its body, which Dennis calls “speckled corn.” He explains that this carving celebrates the intertribal, interracial nature of today’s Native American children.

As we talked about his carvings, Dennis mentioned that he also makes corn people nativities. These nativities consist of the six original corn people carvings, along with a baby in a cradle board/manger. Being raised in the Christian tradition, I immediately felt the need to point out that there was one too many carvings in his set. “No,” he said, “there are six corn people and a baby.” “No,” I objected, “there should be one Mary, one Joseph, three wise men and one baby Jesus; six altogether; not seven.” “Whose story is this anyway,” he wanted to know. “That’s just the point,” I replied, “It seems to me it is a Christian story and you should follow the Christian tradition.” “No, he said, “It’s a Navajo story.”

This dialogue reminded me of the time Jana took me to feast day at Acoma Pueblo. A traditional deer dance was in progress when we arrived, and as it advanced, the dancers entered the pueblo’s mission church, San Esteban del Rey. Although there seemed a colossal conflict between the traditional values of the Pueblo dancers and those of the Roman Catholic church, I can remember tingling with excitement as we stood in the cathedral and watched the parade of Puebloans. To me, the dance seemed the epitome of what religion is supposed to be; acceptance of different values, love of one’s fellow man and the celebration of life. I believed I was experiencing an exceptional combination of cultural chemistry.

Dennis had reminded me that it is not about the story, it’s about the people, and we all experience tradition and culture in different, and equally beautiful, ways. “Okay, I said, I need one of those nativities.” “See you next week with seven corn people,” Dennis said as he turned to go. I could not help smiling warmly at the man and his ability to balance the competing demands.

There is something larger at work in the land, and it transcends all of us and all of our stories. Merry Christmas, however you interpret it.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Which Rat Were You?

When I arrived home, my three children were dispersed about the living room in a random fashion. It was Monday night, and my wife had called us together as a family to entertain frank, open, honest and positive discussion. It was Spenser's turn to choose the evening's topic of conversation. Our son informed us that tonight's forum would revolve around "stress". I smirked to myself, thinking I could have some fun with this.

Lorraine Black, Joann Johnson, Spencer, Alicia Nelson & Peggy Black
Spenser Simpson with Navajo Basket Weavers at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

"Good," I said to the boy, "because I am stressed about the fact that your skinny frame is parked smack dab in the middle of my overstuffed, king-sized, super soft, distressed leather lounge chair. Hit the road skippy!" Laurie walked up behind me, making me jump. She does not always appreciate my humor, so I have to be respectful of her sensitivities; at least when she's within ear-shot.

Laurie frowned at me disapprovingly and asked if I wouldn't rather sit on the couch, with her. Carefully considering the implications of my actions, I decided that would certainly be the correct path. As I moved towards the couch, Spenser shot me a victorious grin. I gave my boy child a threatening look and mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear, that I was about to distress his leather.

Just before I arrived at my wife's side, Alyssa and McKale jumped up and
flanked her; effectively cutting me off at the pass. It seems my children derive great pleasure from inconveniencing me. I should have given fatherhood more careful consideration. I sighed in resignation, and flopped down on the saggy, baggy bean bag, readying myself to hear Spenser's thoughts.

With a nod of her head, Laurie gave our son permission to start. "Yeah,
go ahead," I said. "The sooner we get this over, the sooner we can get to those cookies I smell baking." A "no cookies for you!" look from Laurie stopped me in my sarcastic tracks. I groaned inwardly at my faux pas and angrily wondered to myself, just what experience Spenser might have with stress; the boy is 17 years old for heaven's sake.

Other than juggling high school and college classes, hormones, peer pressure, GPAs, ACTs, and ZITs, there is no significant stress. Kids stuff, a piece of cake compared to the life and times of a full-fledged adult. In the mean time, Spenser had been talking about the battle between mind and body, coping with stress, the the power of prayer, supportive families and exercise. Spenser noticed I was not paying attention, and asked if I had something to add to the discussion; the little bugger thought he had me. "Yeah," I said. " I know a bit about stress." "Pray tell," said my once darling man child.

I told my family of a Radio Lab story I had downloaded on my iPod. The pod cast concerned research by Robert M. Sapolsky, a neuroscientist. It seems rats have many human-like traits, so Dr. Sapolsky places rats in very tense and stressful situations to study their reactions. These unloved and unlucky rodents are singled out for many an initial test in which we human beings refuse to participate. In the tests, there are four or five ways in which rats alleviate pain. Scientists find parallels between the rats and humans, thus gaining greater insight and understanding into how most of us cope with stress.

The basic scenario is that there are two cages side by side; one rat in each cage, and both are going to get shocked. The electrical charge is exactly the same for each rat, the difference is that the rat in cage one just gets the shock, while the rat in the other is psychologically manipulated; getting four different scenarios or "fixes".

In the first version of the test designed to help the rat cope with stress and determine his character, a second rat is added to the cage. After receiving the shock, the first rat runs over and beats the heck out of the second rodent. This rat is going to be fine, no ulcer here, because it has someone on which to vent its frustration. Apparently abusive outlets feel great and are an effective stress reliever.

In the second scenario, the rat that gets zapped is given a stick to gnaw on. This also seems to alleviate stress and the rat, of course, is much less abusive to others.

In the third trial, the rat gets a warning that the shock is coming; a red light comes on just before the electrical charge. It seems the rat can cope better if it is able to predict the shock and prepare for the inevitable.

McKale, Alyssa, Laurie & Barry
Barry Simpson and Family

Scenario number four provides the rat with a lever that at one time reduced the voltage, but no more. It does not seem to matter that the lever no longer works, as long as the rat thinks he has control, he can better cope. The control (or perceived control) makes stress more manageable.

So what we learn from all this zapping is that beating up one another, chewing a stick, being forewarned or having a sense of control, even if it is false, are effective stress relievers. Other stress minimizers might be exercise, relaxation or, in some cases, therapy. If we can find a way to cope, we can survive. Oh yeah, the rat in the other cage, constantly being electrocuted with no way to relieve stress went totally insane, got sick and died of a massive heart attack!

"Dr. Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University," I told my son airily. "He has also developed some provocative theories, that might interest you, by studying baboons in the wild." It appeared I had made a positive impression on my family; especially Spenser. I could see him thinking deeply as he pushed down the foot rest and sat forward in my chair. As he lifted himself up he said, "I only have one question." "Go ahead son," I said. "So, . . . which rat were you?" Spenser then sprinted from the room, knowing full well what my reaction would be. "Dibs on Dad's cookies!" shouted the girls in unison as they followed their brother into the kitchen.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.