Thursday, February 28, 2008

Through Sacred Eyes

Peggy Black Navajo Basket
Navajo Basket Weaver Peggy Black

In a recent interview with Navajo basket weaver Peggy Black, I asked about the Yeibichai she sometimes weaves into her creations. The Yei are powerful beings gifted to the Navajo to help stave off sickness, disease and other complications caused by unbalanced forces of nature. The Yei act as a buffer between the real and spirit worlds, and are a catalyst for positive change. They are the epitome of supernatural healing power, are not to be trifled with or summoned unnecessarily and generally do not have a sense of humor when it comes to nonsensical human misconduct.

As we talked, Peggy began to open up about her cultural beliefs. She spoke of being raised traditionally and of the spiritual comfort she found in those traditions. Peggy feels that by respectfully weaving the Yeibichai into her baskets, she can capture their benevolent presence and the blessings they bestow. We also discussed the sacred masks of the Yei.

Ancient Navajo legends speak of how the Gods often find favor in an Earth Surface Person of low standing. They then present him the tools, knowledge and understanding to raise himself up and walk with them in their sacred world. Coyote always appears to provide a little chaotic mayhem, but this too is overcome. Before the Hero is allowed to live among the Gods, he must first return to earth and accomplish a specific task. He must then teach his brothers the hard-won knowledge he has accumulated, and instruct them in the ceremonies he has acquired. In the case of the Yeibichai, the instruction often involves use of sacred masks.

Navajo Basket by Peggy Black
Navajo Basket Weaver Peggy Black

These masks were created to empower Navajo participants with the ability to transform; to metamorphose into the Yeibichai. What captured my attention, and stimulated my imagination, was a reference Peggy made to, "looking through the mask". As I understand it, Peggy was attending a Yeibichai ceremony when the people in the hogan were granted the opportunity to don a mask and view the world through sacred eyes. It seems that to look upon the Yei, to see them for what they truly are and avoid harmful consequences, one must first look from the inside out.

Without first taking the proper precautions, associating with the power of the Yei can cause blindness, or even attract the sickness and disease they are said to cure. If one is not familiar and harmoniously in tune with these positive forces, protection from harm is not assured. To truly know the Yeibichai, one has to see them from the inside.

I felt privileged that Peggy would share this interaction with me. Bits and pieces of personal information such as this bring me closer to understanding the people who inhabit this mysterious and strikingly beautiful landscape. One day, I hope to clearly see them through their own eyes.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Boomerang: A Rez Dog Success Story

Boomerang & puppy
Boomerang and her pups.

One chilly, dark evening a few days before Christmas, I drove my van over to the horse corral for their evening feeding. Wellingtons and work gloves are kept in a small shed near the corral and as I stepped into the outbuilding, a low growl resonated from a dark corner. Halting mid step with my right foot suspended midair, I was brought up short by this unfamiliar sound emitting from my simple shed.

Slowly withdrawing my foot, I peered into the blackness, looking for the growl’s owner. A small brown and black head emerged, followed by a white, spotted body and a brown and black tail. Yep, this little sheepherder looked like a whole dog made from two separate dog parts. The overall effect was quite pleasing, however, with golden brown eyes looking tentatively my way, a dog smile emerging and a wagging tail to match; that was my introduction to Boomerang.

For the next few days, we settled into a routine. Feed the horses in the morning. “Don’t forget to take food for Boomerang!”. Feed the horses at night. “Mom, I used one of your horse blankets for Boomerang's bed.” With her warm ways and endearing doggy grin, her situation was somewhat more secure to the point that when we left town to celebrate Christmas with my family in New Mexico, arrangements had not only been made to feed the horses, but Boomerang as well.

Upon our return, the kids could not contain their curiosity at knowing if Boomerang was still with us. They donned their jackets and ran to the horses. An hour or so later, I glanced out the window to see Kira, Grange and our golden retriever, Buffy, returning with an extra passenger. Boomerang had taken her next step toward homeland security.

“May we keep her?” “She hasn’t had her shots”. “She is so cute”. “She is so pregnant”. That’s right, preg-n-ant. Evidently, Boomerang’s charms were not limited to human beings. Scratching her belly one evening, I noticed that not only had she previously produced a litter, but she was well on her way to a new round of motherhood.

The holidays had passed and we were off to a Phoenix wedding. Our Internet manager, Tina had agreed to horse and Boomerang duties, an increasingly important assignment now that we were looking at impending puppyhood. We left on Wednesday. Upon our Friday return, Tina informed us that Boomerang had disappeared.

By Friday evening, there was no Boomerang; nor on Saturday. Sunday afternoon, Grange came skittering down the scree behind the trading post with an “I Found Them” grin stretched across his freckled face. Once again demonstrating her resourcefulness, Boomerang had found a small den where the bluff meets the slope. Digging out the only working flashlight in the house, an illuminated skull left over from Halloween, we ventured up the muddy hillside. Boomerang gave us a tired, mother-of-quintuplets look. There were no growls as she let us move in and admire her hard work. A trail was soon worn up and down the incline. Kira, Grange and their cousin, Tarrik, beat a path to the puppies while Boomerang beat a path to our door for her twice a day feedings; beefed up to accommodate her lactating needs.

Boomerang's puppies
The puppies in their new home.

One quiet evening while in my bedroom, I heard a scraping sound outside. Bless Grange’s ever-lovin’ sweet and generous soul. My remonstrations on the toughness of strays in this area had absolutely no effect on his eight year old logic. I walked out on the porch to see Boomerang worriedly eyeing her puppies which had been left on a patio chair while Grange and Tarrik were heave-ho-ing the old dog house.

“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, I spluttered. “I told you to leave the pups where they are warm and protected”, but that bovine had already left the barn. I hurriedly found some old towels and shuttled the shivering puppies inside. With momma and litter nestled on Buffy’s sleeping pad, Boomerang flopped on her side and heaved a big sigh of relief.

A busy week ensued between work and preparing for our 10th anniversary balloon festival. There were celebrations to plan, a video retrospective to complete, and a Bluff Balloon Rally limerick to write. On the Thursday evening before the main event, we held a reception for pilots and sponsors. Boomerang decided she had been a faithful parent and needed a little sanity break. Driving my truck to the Bluff Community Center, I looked in the rear view mirror to see Boomerang rocketing along behind me. She proceeded to endear herself with everyone present as she had initially with me and soon became the Belle of the Balloon Festival Ball.

The following morning at 6:30 as we drove away in the darkness, who should come galloping after us but Little Miss Canine Social Butterfly. Once pilots were briefed and flight crew were assigned, I clucked Boomerang into the truck and dropped her off at the house. “Now, darlin’” I said, “You need to think about staying a wee bit closer to home”. She merely smiled her dog smile and disappeared into the doghouse.

At noon that same day, I met with three women from Durango to schedule a knitting retreat. During the meeting, I was continually interrupted by phone calls regarding the rally, pages regarding the business, with the funniest interruption coming from one of the pilots, Rolinda “Sam” Tzamaloukas.

Boomerang at home finally
Boomerang at home, finally.

You simply cannot ignore Sam. She is full of good times and big wishes. “We want to see the puppies!” “Sam, I’m in the middle of a meeting right now. Why don’t you head up the stairs and have a look”. Not five minutes later, Sam again approached the table. “We want them all!” “What?” “We want them all, Boomerang AND her puppies”. “Are you serious!? They haven’t had their shots! One of the girls has six toes on her back feet”. “We don’t care. My crew wants to take them home!”

Boomerang earned her name because she kept getting thrown out and she kept coming right back. Resourcefulness, tenacity, a kind spirit and a sweet face resulted in a one way ticket to Tom and Julie’s home in Albuquerque. Now, that is one successful and lucky bunch of rez dogs!

With warm regards,
Georgiana, Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Basket and the Boy

Every school day morning, Grange and I walk the quarter mile from the house above the trading post to Bluff’s small elementary school. Buffy The Wonder Dog, excited by the prospect of each new day, universally tags along, and, depending on the weather, is happy to roll in the green grass of spring or the small patches of crusty winter snow.

Navajo Ceremonial Basket by Lorraine Black
Navajo Ceremonial Basket

Sometimes Grange and I kick rocks, jostling each other for position; sometimes we play tag, with constant shouts of “You’re it”; sometimes we throw a football; sometimes we have foot races; and sometimes we just talk. Whatever the activity, I feel intensely fortunate to have this time with him; our time, no matter how short, and regret that it will someday end.

At eight years old, Grange has begun asking interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, questions. His recent explorations remind me of a story I was once told about Navajo baskets.

This particular storyteller announced to me that the Navajo ceremonial basket is illustrative of one’s path through life. The hole in the center of the weaving represents your emergence into this world. The coils spiraling out from this starting point, being all white, express the ideal that the world seems pure and uncompromised when you are young.

As you progress along the journey, however, in the basket and in your daily life, you begin to encounter some of the darkness, or adversity, of this earth. This realization is the beginning of knowledge and understanding. The blackness expands until you reach the blood rings, which delineate the commingling of your blood with the blood of your spouse; the genesis of family.

After the blood rings, the darkness begins to recede, which indicates a greater acceptance of your world, the seeds of wisdom germinating and an ability to manage difficult occurrences. At the end of your term here on earth, you enter the spirit world; the rim of the basket, which is all white. The weaver’s pathway, as it is commonly known, extends from the center of the basket to the outer perimeter, and is there to remind us that no matter where we are along this continuum, there is always a pathway to the light.

Grange is just starting his exploration of life’s dark patches, and I often worry about slipping on the black ice created by his ventures into the unknown. Yesterday he asked, “Dad, why do people want to love someone when they don’t really love that person.”

Reluctant to probe his knowledge of the mechanics of “love,” and confident I did not want to explain them to him at that particular moment, I was unsure how to answer his query. I, therefore, fudged by asking what brought about the question. Apparently he had seen a picture of a western saloon, which included painted ladies attempting to gin up business of a horizontal nature. By this time, the school bell was ringing and I told him to run along.

By late afternoon, having had time to consider Grange’s question, I enlisted the aid of Kira, our 11 year old, who has apparently learned more than I guessed. When I told her of Grange’s question, she said to him very candidly, “Oh, it happens all the time.” Grange seemed to accept Kira’s rationalization at face value, so I attempted to clarify things a little; explaining that love is a great gift which should be carefully invested, not casually spent. That discussion seemed to thoroughly confuse them, so I left off for the moment.

Granger Simpson
Grange at Disneyworld

Growing up in Bluff, which is an odd combination of the innocence of Mayberry, R.F.D. and the quirkiness of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, has sheltered Kira and Grange from some, but not all, of the darkness in our world. Television, friends and Jana’s Great Adventure has given them some glimpses into real life, but they remain idealistic and optimistic.

It is exciting, and unnerving, to see Grange exploring his surroundings in wholly unexpected ways. With the guidance of our local traditions, he may actually succeed in gaining a fuller understanding of our environment in this complex town along the banks of the San Juan River, and the world at large.

In the mean time, I will continue to struggle with my own darkness, and wonder how to appropriately answer his questions.

With warm regards,

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Power of Belief and Suggestion

Navajo Pictorial Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket

Since I was first introduced to the Native American trade, I have been awed by Navajo medicine men. Stories of dramatic healing rituals and supernatural accomplishments often filter through the trading post community. These stories are told and retold by dedicated followers and true believers of these powerful Hathales; men like Espie Jones and Tom Yellowman from Montezuma Creek, John Holiday in the heart of Monument Valley and June Blackhorse who resided just south of Bluff in Color Rock Canyon. When I first caught sight of these larger than life figures, I imagined them surrounded by pure magic.

As I grew older, and began to accumulate a rudimentary knowledge of the ways of "The People", I became even more fascinated by Navajo healing arts. The book "Hasteen Klah", by Franc Johnson Newcomb, fired my imagination and gave me insight into how an individual becomes truly responsive to the natural and supernatural worlds. I soon began reading everything available on the subject. Books like "Navajo Religion", by Gladys A. Reichard, and the great little series of bulletins printed by The Museum of Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico; a set of wonderful explorations into a variety of ceremonies, legends and myths.

I must admit, however, that my Roman Catholic upbringing, and western, science-based, education kept getting in the way of my full acceptance of the Navajo healing arts; my view was slightly jaded. I, however, kept looking for the magic, and maintained the investigation through an incessant, probably obnoxious stream of questions directed at anyone who would tolerate my intrusions into their world.

Admittedly, I was not privy to exact Navajo ceremonial practice, substance and ritual paraphernalia, but to me there was something essential missing. I soon realized that these powerful practitioners were working mostly with local flora, along with bits and pieces of fauna, and a healthy accumulation of song and experienced historical perspective on aboriginal culture. Where was the science? Where were the cutting-edge medicines, equipment and educational degrees? My mental state was in an uproar. These rudimentary tools of the trade did not compute to someone who was taught to believe only in strict religious dogma and scientific fact.

My first genuine insight into this world of alternative medicine came from an arrowhead. For as long as I could remember, we had carried tiny arrowheads to sell to the Navajo people. These were contemporary points made by flint-napper Homer Etherton. Their purpose did not concern me as much as the revenue generated through the sale of these artifacts. One day I asked Espie Jones what he was going to do with the petite point he had so carefully selected. He looked me over carefully, as if considering whether I was worth the trouble of an explanation. He must have decided that I was ready for educational advancement, because he shared a tidbit of information. Simply put, the idea was to undertake a ceremony to remove foreign objects which were causing his patient pain and suffering.

The comment intrigued me, so I did additional research on the subject. What I found was that this is common practice among medicine men and shamans around the world. During the ceremony, the object is slipped into the mouth of the healer, along with a feather or two. The act goes unnoticed, because of the dark, smoky atmosphere. A scratch is made where the pain is concentrated, the healer bites his lip to add a little blood to the mix, bends over and sucks the terrible, troublesome mass from the patient. Smoke and mirrors? Slight of hand and mouth as it were? The most problematic aspect of the entire process for me was that the pain was almost instantly relieved; a majority of patients were entirely healed. The placebo effect?

I was devastated, and accosted Espie the next time he came into the store. I asked him outright if this was how he "healed" his patient. He smiled broadly, and shook his head in the affirmative. I must have looked crestfallen, my belief had been dashed on the rocks of reality. There was no magic here! Espie looked at me sadly, like a misunderstood parent. He touched his wrinkled, earthy finger to my chest and told me that the cure did not occur there. He then moved his finger to my temple, and said that this was where the healing took place.

Navajo Pictorial Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket

It has taken me years to understand what Espie meant that day; he used the tools most readily available. In this case, he was talking about "faith". His patients, and those of all the other medicine men, have that intangible belief they will be healed. The power of psychology is immeasurable to those who believe. I have spoken with numerous doctors, psychologists, faith-healers and, yes, even medicine men, and they all agree that the greater the faith in the healer, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome. All seems to be fair when it comes to helping someone feel better, even slight of hand.

If you believe, have complete faith and a firm commitment to something, that becomes your reality. I freely admit that, for me, faith is intangible. I struggle with it every day of my life, question it, overanalyze it and worry it like a bull dog does an oversized knuckle bone. I am one of those people that has to see to believe. Scientific, rational proof is my desire, but has never been my reality. Whether we are talking about medicine men, doctors, religion or even parents and spouses, "faith" seems to be where true comfort is found.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.