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,

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