Thursday, March 27, 2008


The 2006 film, Babel, tells four interrelated stories, demonstrating the messiness found in interpersonal as well as global communication. Babel is evident in the American couple’s estranged relationship and the husband’s clumsy navigation of Moroccan generosity following his wife’s accidental injury. An international uproar is sparked by the shooting; an incident which results in the death of the young shooter’s brother. The gun is connected to a Tokyo businessman, a widower whose deaf teenage daughter struggles to understand her father and her surroundings. The Japanese daughter’s misery is matched only by the unraveling life of the American couple’s kind Mexican nanny. Bucking the American movie industry tendency toward a tidy ending, this story ends with a combination of shattered lives and rocky reconciliation.

Sarah Descheny
Navajo Rug Weaver Sarah Descheny

Babel is defined as a confused mixture of sounds and voices. Genesis 11:5-7 says: “But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

Babel or is it, babble? Babble means to utter a meaningless confusion of words or sounds. The experts say the two words are unrelated. Babble is akin to other Western European words for prattling such as the Swedish, babbla or the French, babiller; the Latin, babulus, or the Greek, barbaros. Whatever the words’ origins, in me, they conjure the same strange internal confusion.

I have patience for babble, especially in its purest baby form. Babel has proven itself a much tougher linguistic nut to crack. Eight years ago, when Kira first entered Bluff Elementary's preschool, a new episode of babel was introduced in our lives. One day, she returned from school with Navajo. I was understandably perplexed, also realizing this conundrum faces local Navajo and Ute families as well as migrant Hispanics workers in San Juan County struggling to learn English.

I resolved to learn Navajo in a managed attempt at the foreign ABC’s and 123’s. Another reason to master this rich language manifested itself in the weathered visage of a little, old Navajo rug weaver named Sarah Descheny.

Sarah walked into the trading post one day with a pictorial weaving filled with cows, sheep, horses and dogs. Steve and Barry turned her down. Before she left the premises, Priscilla Sagg, and her sister, Molly Yellowman, in their best conspiratorial tones, called Sarah aside. In Navajo, and I paraphrase, they basically whispered, “ should go talk to the lady upstairs”.

Sarah's Purple Hoogan rug
Navajo Pictorial Rug by Sarah Descheny

After taking in her small, smiling persona, my eyes rested on her weaving; more specifically on the purple hooves gracing several of her pictorial cows. I burst out laughing and that was the beginning of a fine relationship fueled by Sarah’s woven musings on Navajo life.

Barry, Steve and I each claim a grasp on the fundamentals of “trader Navajo”, the ability to transact our business in the language of numbers and dollars. I wished to advance into areas of more polite conversation, hopefully in the process conveying my respect toward the elders who ventured through our doors. With that goal in mind, I asked Clayton Long, the San Juan School District Bilingual Education Director, about polite ways to welcome a Navajo artist; how to ask them to sit down; how I may properly request to view their artwork; how best to express regret; make queries into a malady; or tell a joke.

Eight years later, I continue my struggle up the babel tower. Despite the dire warnings of the Bible, I believe my motivations are sound in this modern endeavor. With social and political discourse becoming more fractious and international misunderstandings more deadly, my quest for mutual respect and honest conversation deepens.

So, we babel; I babel and...I...babble.

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

Thursday, March 20, 2008


From the first time I saw the motion picture Fiddler on the Roof, the image of poor, confounded Tevye holding his hands above his head, pointing with his index fingers and shouting “Tradition” has stayed with me. Instinctively, I understood the comfort he felt in knowing his traditions, and the frustrations he experienced as a result of trying to live within their confines.

Mary Holiday Black
Navajo Weaver Mary Holiday Black

Tradition has been on the minds of many trading post patrons lately, so recently I took the time to watch the film once again. I wanted to see if there was anything I had missed the first several times; anything new to be learned. What I saw, however, only confirmed my fears; tradition, it seems, is a dangerous and slippery slope.

Trying to define my own personal traditions, the local American Indian traditions and the traditions of this pioneer community in which I live has left me feeling much like Tevye. I storm around, stamping my feet and raging at demons I do not, and never will, understand. All this, as you might guess, has left me exhausted and short of friends. On one level, I wonder whether that is the natural result of trying to live by rules set centuries ago.

Much of my personal history is lost in the mists of decades past; both my maternal and paternal grandparents died long ago. On my mother’s side there was Grandma and Grandpa Correia; Portuguese people whose family hailed from the Azores. They still spoke the language, and made food based in Portuguese culture. Unfortunately, all I learned of their native tongue was how to say, “You must have a bug up your rear,” which is something akin to having a burr under your saddle.

On the Simpson side, there was Woody, generally known as Papa. His wife, Elizabeth, died many years before I was conceived; when my father was still a boy. Trying to mend a broken heart led him to join the Marines during W.W.II, which led to the Pacific Theater and a stint in a POW camp.

Woody was your standard American mongrel; his ancestry drawn from numerous parts of the world, with Irish and Scandanavian blood likely predominating. He was a master with his hands, and could create anything with a Caterpillar tractor, welder or tool chest. Somehow that creative gene did not come down to me. Just turning the key in the car ignition is enough to make me perspire. “What will I do if it doesn’t start,” I always ask myself. “Walk,” is the answer that universally comes back.

The Navajo culture enraptures me, because it is constantly moving, ever evolving. I often hear the term, “A tradition of change,” applied to this group of people, and feel it not only accurately describes them, but also is the only solution to maintaining a viable culture. As I interpret the Navajo landscape, woven baskets stand as the primary metaphor. Here you have the traditional ceremonial basket that is still used in healing and wedding ceremonies. The medicine men demand these utensils for any sing they prescribe.

Joann Johnson
Navajo Weaver Joann Johnson

Ceremonial baskets do not, however, generate the income necessary to sustain a growing family in contemporary society, so the local Navajo weavers have developed striking adaptations and completely new motifs to attract the collector and inspire them to generously open their wallets. You cannot even begin to imagine the thrill Barry, Jana and I feel when one of our weavers brings in a basket featuring a completely new pattern. This, I believe, is tradition in its truest and most practical sense; something based in the values of the people, but adapted to survive in a modern, ever-changing world. Without this innovation, traditions begin to wane and eventually disappear.

In spite of my fondness for Navajo culture, probably the one I most closely identify with is that of the pioneers who settled this small town on the banks of the San Juan. Those individuals worked hard to scratch a living out of this extremely isolated river valley. Often, when they had built their structures, their diversion dams, their irrigation ditches and their gardens, all was wiped out in an instant by a surplus of water, a drought or a devastating illness. They, however, continued to believe it was possible to establish a foothold in this wilderness, and some eventually prospered. Theirs was a tradition of faith; faith in a benevolent God, faith in hard work and faith in themselves. I have come to understand that you do not settle in a place like Bluff without a sense of the traditions developed by your predecessors, and an abundance of hope.

Tradition, as the old 1970’s song by the Youngbloods says, can “Make the mountains sing or make the angels cry.” A little too much tradition and you have bigotry; just the right amount and you have a rich, diverse and vibrant heritage. As Tevya discovered, tradition is not a static concept.

With warm regards,

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Super Heros

A few years back, I wrote about a hero of mine - someone I truly admire and look to for inspiration. After the first story, at his request, I stopped writing about him. I believe the attention may have embarrassed him. He must have felt uncomfortable in the spotlight, and felt I was disrupting his life by turning the beam in his direction. I do not intend to embarrass him further, but I have remained quiet long enough.

Spenser Simpson @ CEU

My hero, then and now, is my son Spenser. When I wrote of him previously, Spenser had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and we were unsure whether he would survive another day. As usual, we misjudged the strength and tenacity ingrained within the very fiber of his being. Spenser not only survived, he emerged from the accident with a new, uninhibited nature, and a will to succeed that caused us a good deal of concern in the beginning.

What struck me then and even more now is how much the people around us can and do effect our lives. Spenser lived to continue his odyssey, in large part because he had the love and support of a large group of people. The four communities he is associated with; Monticello, Blanding, Bluff and Twin Rocks, provided just what he needed to pull through. We all drew strength from others, and the catalyst for healing was a good kid in need of help. The outcome was simply amazing.

Winning Mr. San Juan
Spenser winning Mr. San Juan

Many Native American cultures believe that every human being in the world is connected by strands of life; invisible threads that, like a spider web, connect us in ways we may never understand. Everything we do, be it positive or negative, sends ripples of energy along those life lines, and effects the entire web. The closer we are to people, the more we feel their push or pull. When a huge event is initiated, each of us feels the impact in one way or another.

In modern society, this phenomenon is often referred to as String Theory or The Field. Science is just beginning to understand the nature of and implications of what many "aboriginal" societies have long referred to as the web of life. Quantum theory is coming of age; Einstein would be proud. We all understand such things in different ways, and interpret them through personal experience. The fact is that there is definitely something to it.

Tennis Championship
Spenser playing Tennis

I hope it does not come across as bragging, because I attribute Spenser's success to a great many people and circumstances. Spenser came through his ordeal with scars and paralysis, but he emerged as an incredibly positive, progressive and loving individual. Our family has often tried to apologize and protect Spenser from himself, and others, because we did not appreciate his new, uninhibited self. Spenser decided long ago to accept his new lot in life, and not to let it detour his hopes and dreams. It took his immediate family a bit longer to grasp the concept, but we are being drawn into acceptance and appreciation by witnessing his example.

Spenser will soon be leaving us to discover his future. He is ready, willing and able to fly solo. We on the other hand are reluctant to see him go, because we feel there is much more to learn and love from such an incredible individual. What we must accept is the fact that Spenser has more work to do. He must go forth and stimulate the web of life. Spenser's influence will certainly bring back ripples of positive energy. Thanks to each and everyone of you for helping Spenser survive and allowing him to be himself. Fly Superman, and be well.

This has been a banner year for Spenser, he has racked-up a list of accomplishments thus far and has his sights set on many more.

San Juan High School Student Body President 2007-08
Mr. San Juan; School Spirit Competition
President of The National Honor Society
Principals List for Academic Excellence
Mentoring at Blanding Elementary
Member of Future Business Leaders of America
Boy Scouts of America, Timberline Leadership Training Staff
AA State Tennis
Academic All State Cross Country
Recipient of the Calvin Black Scholarship at College of Eastern Utah, San Juan Center
Member of San Juan High School Band
Attending Brigham Young University in the Fall
Seminary Class President
Sterling Scholar Winner 2008

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Whose Culture Is It Anyway?

There are times in this life when I feel I am cruising along, with the top down and the wind in my hair, only to find I am really skating on thin ice, about to break through. So it was recently. Everything appeared to be progressing nicely, then an e-mail message arrived that cast a dark shadow over the trading post.

John Huntress
Bead Maker John Huntress

The internet team had done an artist feature, which I felt was well done, on bead maker John Huntress. The message we received as a result of the spotlight, however, indicated we had once again failed to properly identify a cultural cyclone that was blowing outside our red rock sanctuary.

The missive was from one of our longtime friends, and it said, “I am surprised and disappointed to see you carrying heishi jewelry by an Anglo, John Huntress. ” Not many people, besides my mother and first wife, have ever said they were, “surprised and disappointed” with me, so I took the comment seriously.

We have long appreciated John’s work. Brother John, as he is affectionately referred to at the trading post, is an aging, long-haired fifty-something Hippy, who makes some of the most beautiful turquoise beads I have ever seen. I do not remember when we first met John, but it seems he has been part of our trading post family from the beginning.

Years ago Barry and I resolved we would not discriminate based upon skin color; we do not care whether an artist is red, yellow, green or aquamarine. We are primarily concerned with the individual and his or her art, and believe that if we are open about the origin of the work, our customers can decide for themselves whether or not to support the maker. John never misrepresents his beads, because he is genuinely proud of who he is and what he can do with clumps of colored stone.

Although the message made me think of reverse discrimination, it was not mean-spirited. Instead, it was complimentary of our web site and the work we have done. As a result, I replied by explaining that I am personally unable to determine where one tradition begins and another leaves off, so I am loath to tell any artist what he or she can and cannot create.

Rug and blanket weaving, for example, is a skill the Navajo people borrowed from the Pueblo Indians. Additionally, many of the “traditional” regional patterns originated in the Middle or Far East, and were imported onto the Reservation by Anglo traders. Am I required to tell my Navajo weavers they can no longer sell their work at the trading post because it is not part of what my correspondent referred to as their “cultural patrimony,” I inquired. And what about Navajo silversmithing?

It is generally accepted that sometime around the 16th century the Spaniards found their way into the American Southwest, and about that time the Mexican people learned to work silver from these Spanish explorers. The first Navajo silversmith, believed to be Atsidi Sani, was trained by a Mexican metal smith, who studied under the Spanish, who learned from . . . , well you get the picture.

The squash blossom necklace is an excellent example of how cultural patrimony is often dictated by civilizations other than those with which it is commonly associated. The crescent shaped pendant, or naja as it is known among the Navajo, associated with these necklaces was first seen by Southwestern tribes as ornaments on equine bridles of the Conquistadors. Originally brought to this country from Spain, these horse decorations were influenced by the Moors. Must I tell my Navajo silversmiths I cannot purchase their necklaces because the initial design may be Moorish, Spanish or Mexican, I questioned.

Turquoise Necklace by John Huntress
John Huntress Turquoise Necklace

Putting aside the fact that the oldest shell beads ever found were excavated in Israel and Algeria, and are approximately 100,000 years old, heishi is believed by many to be an exception to the cultural spaghetti bowl that is Native American art.

The meaning of the word heishi is “shell necklace,” and comes from the Keres people of modern day Santa Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico. Heishi may be one of the few types of Indian jewelry deriving primarily from Native America, so my commentator made a valid point when she said, “It is one thing to carry jewelry by non-Indians that is not a direct copy of Native work, but another to sell types that are based upon centuries-old Southwest Indian traditions.”

After much spirited dialogue about Indian traders and their role in the Southwest art market, bias, prejudice, protectionist views and cultural misappropriation, my counterpart stated, “As for being discriminatory and protectionist, I’m convinced that, unlike being pregnant, one can successfully be just a little bit of these two!” Again, I had to give her credit for making an excellent point; we all protect that which we love and discriminate against that which we do not.

As for me, I prefer to give art a forum to flow freely, and believe I am obligated to allow our artists to employ the most personally inspiring influences. I think it was Saul Bellow’s Augie March who cleverly noted that, “If you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” In my opinion, art must go where it will, and creative freedom for one means creative freedom for all; no exceptions.

In the end, my friend and I agreed to disagree, which seems a reasonable conclusion to a complicated and emotional issue.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.