Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Last Indian War

As a young man growing up in the small southeastern Utah town of Blanding, I often heard the story of Paiute warrior William Posey, and how he was responsible for the last Indian war in the United States.

Posey: The Last Indian War
Posey; The Last Indian War

At the time, we lived on the south end of town, just two blocks from the home of Clarence Rogers, an old-timer who had been involved in the incident. At scout camp, fireside chats and various other outings, Clarence related his experiences, bringing to life the characters involved in the melee. Those who participated in the events seemed to come from the all too distant past, but in reality were only a memory away for Clarence.

To my youthful mind, Clarence’s cowboys, Indians, government agents and pioneers were towering figures; far superior to the likes of Superman, the Green Hornet or Batman. In the age of abundant automobiles and airplanes, I could envision those individuals sleeping out on the range, slinging guns, drinking whiskey and fighting just to survive.

With that background firmly planted in my subconscious, I was excited when Steve Lacy, an educator I had known from my high school days, arrived at the trading post with a copy of his latest book, Posey; The Last Indian War. The book details many of the stories I remember from time spent with Clarence, and fleshes out the incidents and people who led up to the battle.

As I read through the book, I was once again struck by how thoroughly things have changed in the almost one hundred years since Posey roamed the San Juan drainage. His was another world; one with seemingly no connection to the modern day. Around Bluff, one sees constant reminders of the hardships endured by the settlers who arrived in this river valley during the late 1800s, and the difficulties their Native neighbors endured as a result of this incursion into their ancestral homeland. There are also readily visible signs of the benefits derived from this interaction. It is clear, however, that the resulting relationship produced its share of conflict.

Barry and I joke about our ongoing battles with the contemporary warriors. We often feel pierced through the heart by their unhappy tales; mourn the loss of yet another pound of flesh when we are not competent negotiators; and lament the resulting scrapes, scabs and scars. Battle worn as we are, however, we still enjoy the fight.

In spite of our humorous outlook, Barry and I realize there is a contemporary war raging; one based in progressive thought rather than direct conflict, but a war none the less. It involves those of us with lighter skin trying, often unsuccessfully, to comprehend those of us with darker skin, and those of us with darker skin trying, often unsuccessfully, to integrate into a dominant society in conflict with traditional values.

Having been at the trading post for almost 20 years, I have seen countless skirmishes, and, to my satisfaction, have never noticed anyone sustain a lethal blow. In fact, I have seen many people, myself included, develop a deeper understanding of their neighbors as a result of the struggle. It is often heartbreaking to witness firsthand the pain associated with the Reservation, and difficult to cope with the economic hardships of this geographic region, but all in all it is a battle worth fighting and an investment that must be made.

The good news is that, although the end is nowhere in sight, there is progress being made. As a result of the struggles, the belligerents have come to understand each other far better than they otherwise might, and integration without loss of self is occurring on many levels. It has been a painful process, but as King Lear said, “You will gain nothing if you invest nothing.”

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

My Tuna Can Trailer

“I was laid off today”. A door, which the previous year looked like an opportunity when Jim moved from General Dynamics to Bausch and Lomb, had been slammed shut. One might think those words uttered by my first husband would have sent me into paroxysms of worry. There was no time, however, to absorb the initial comment because his next statement unlatched and threw open a window of possibilities. “Let’s move to New Mexico”.

Hopi Pottery
Pueblo Pottery

Passionate twenty-something year old declarations go a long way in masking more desperate realities. We had little idea into what we were descending. Coming down from the turquoise skies of our theoretical musings, we had to deal with the practical aspects of making the transition from Southern California suburbia to Blue Highways. Sell the house; transport three cats, one dog and one horse; stow the furniture; find a vehicle.

While still in my professional high heels, I stowed containers of pottery and trays of jewelry in the trunk of my company car, deftly redirecting briefcases of executive visitors to the back seat, while boxes of art rather than boxes of Tide were concealed in its tail. After choosing the exit ramp from corporate America, I initially purchased a Toyota 4Runner for expanding my small trading business up and down the California coast. Wearing a broomstick skirt and attempting a good impression, I was, in fact, embarrassing myself by constantly stepping on and pulling it down while digging boxes out of the back of the truck. Some might think it was a particularly cheap sales ploy. In my case, it was akin to a donkey trying to work in a tuxedo.

With our world and small business expanding into the Great Southwest, a small trailer was needed. My minimum requirement was a bathroom with shower and toilet. Jim tracked down an eighteen foot Prowler. Condensing one’s life from a 2,000 square foot home to a 144 square foot travel trailer brings life’s essentials into focus. The miniscule box which was to become our mobile home provided for every need. The closet and drawers held enough clothes; the refrigerator held enough food; the cupboards held the basics; the simple stove and oven more than matched my simple culinary repertoire; and. . .our minute commode saved us from gas station bathroom purgatory.

Our little trailer lent itself to the illusion of a romantic lark, which in fact, it was. The larger truth, however, was that we were justly terrified by the yawning abyss of our future financial prospects. Rather than the big hat, no cattle approach, we were, well, little hat and the herd was fairly insignificant at that point, too. We were young enough and naive enough to envision the caviar dreams while puttering about in our tuna can trailer. It certainly did not embody a dress for success approach to business, but I know that little trailer more than made up for its humble appearance with a successful string of sympathy sales, free lodging and new friends acquired because of its less than impressive looks. We soon generated over a half million dollars in annual sales.

Navajo Ganado Rug
Navajo Ganado Rug

My beloved 4Runner was replaced with a larger truck to better handle the trailer load, plus I stopped running out of gas in between pseudo-towns in the middle of the Nevada desert. I camped on the beach sands of Lake Powell; in the granite splendor of Yosemite and parallel parked in San Francisco. My many friends chuckled at this eccentric new lifestyle, probably sometimes embarrassed by my rickety and rough-edged business, yet oddly intrigued. Every vestige of successful corporate trappings were as stripped as my little hauler’s siding and yet, I appeared, oh, I don’t know. . .happy.

I knew the beginning of the end of that simple carrier first emerged while sailing across the Hopi reservation. Construction was happening between Jeddito and Keams Canyon. Workers were waving to me as I passed. “How friendly”, thought I until finally glancing at my sideview mirror, I noticed the siding had peeled away and was flapping in the wind, promising to take out the first road employee who wasn’t paying close attention. I pulled into Keams Canyon, had the garage rivet the siding back in place and proceeded with my travels. My forlorn little carrier proved to be my greatest protection. Without a fancy outfit to haul the pottery, rugs and jewelry, who would ever suspect that several hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise was contained within its scarred, aluminum walls.

The little trailer never failed to provide a humble home while traversing the beauty which is this American nation. It was finally retired when I noticed it was giving the Tower of Pisa a serious run for its listing money. Bigger trucks and shinier trailers took its place. I remain fond of and grounded in those modest beginnings. Last year, when Kira, Grange and I toured the United States, I once again pondered my choice of vehicles and lodging arrangements. I settled on a Toyota van and a Coleman tent. My tuna can trailer taught me that simple is better, especially when national parks are your living room and cities your backyard; when inner experience is more important than outward appearances.

With warm regards,

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Singing for Horses

Family legend has it that “horse” was my first word. Doubtful, although the physical, emotional and mental image of horse occupies my earliest memories. As the youngest of eight children, my parents’ defenses against begging children were well fortified. Every run-of-the-mill pet, toy or vacation experiment had already been tested by my older siblings and thrown out by Mom and Dad.

Navajo Basket by Peggy Black
Navajo Pictorial Basket by Peggy Black

Knowing the stench of manure was a much more powerful force than a child’s willingness to clean it up, my mother wisely found other diversions for my equine yearnings. I plowed through every horse book ever written; Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague; Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty; Walter Farley’s Man ‘O War and, mistakenly, John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, a devastating read for a horse-dreamy eight year old. Mom sent me to Girl Scout Camp in the Jemez Mountains where I was able to ride for weeks on end. My sister, Chris, and future brother-in-law, George, carted me along for crude horse lessons in the Zuni Mountains.

My first job, excrement duty at another brother-in-law’s veterinary clinic, paid a whopping $1.00 per hour. After school and on most Saturdays, I happily hopped aboard my brother’s old ten-speed and propelled myself along the few miles of the Gallup truck bypass, furiously pedaling in cowboy boots; quickly realizing they were better suited to rough leather stirrups than smooth metal pedals. No bike helmet, either. At the end of a good day, I was allowed to ride Opie, the sweetest little sorrel Quarter Horse for which a young girl could wish. Off to the hills we would go where we pretended to barrel racing greatness, reveled in bridleless gallops or sauntered along the golf course fence, pondering that ridiculous game of long sticks and tiny balls.

My raking and shoveling endeavors in the clinic’s large animal enclosures were placed in a wheelbarrow to be taken up a board ramp and hauled off in the bed of a 1960’s green Chevy truck. The only problem was that the wheelbarrow would get mighty full and I was a mighty small twelve year old. In order to get the load up the board ramp without sending its fermenting contents flying in forty directions, I would have to start at one end of the gravel and sand yard, gaining a wobbly momentum with my slippery cowboy boots, picking up speed like a cartoon character. This was my Saturday morning test; me against the stinking manure, the tottering weight of the wheelbarrow and the slickness of the narrow board ramp. As in the remainder of my life, most times I succeeded. Occasionally, I was up to my neck in . . . .

Cleaning cat and dog cages, raking stalls and clearing out cow pens provided me a great line at later job interviews. Upon graduating college, I was sometimes asked, “There may be some tedious aspects to this initial position. Do you think you can handle it?” Do you think, after being on the losing end of a parade of sick pets?

I realize now in my half century of acquired wisdom that my begging, borrowing and stealing approaches were all wrong. In my teenage attention deficit approach to activities, I believe my parents wisely recognized a lack of long term horse commitment in me. Already in their fifties, pooper-scooper duty simply was not on their agenda and they were fairly certain it would only, sporadically, be a part of mine.

If I had any horse sense at all, I would have sung them into existence, following the guidance of Johonai’ei and Changing Woman as they wisely ushered their twin sons into the responsibilities of bringing horses to The People. This Navajo story is told in They Sang for Horses, a book by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

Zuni Prancing Horse Fetish
Zuni Fetishes

“After arriving at their father’s house, they discovered that Sun had four horse fetishes of mirage stones and shells; he kept these sacred possessions in a beautiful ceremonial basket. The boys longed for the horse fetishes so much that they passed up the live horses of the cardinal directions, which they saw in the deity’s corral, and asked, instead, for his horses of shell and stone. Now, this was not, as it might appear, a foolish thing for them to do; their choice proved to Sun, just as it would prove to any Navajo father, that his boys were bent upon acquiring the necessary ceremonial objects to produce live horses on earth. Still being a wise father, Sun decided, as the boys’ mother had, to make them first earn the right to this valuable equipment.”

The twin boys were not to receive the horse fetishes from their father, but they now realized their mother had the necessary figures and ceremonies to bring the horses into being. Upon approaching Changing Woman, however, she was not going to give in so easily. She sent them away to another deity in order for them to acquire more learning. It was not until they procured the knowledge and necessary ceremonial objects from this additional training that she knew she could fulfill her own desire to give them what they wanted once they “proved themselves capable”.

Changing Woman placed white shell, turquoise, abalone and black beads along with four kinds of pollen in four spots of an unmarked deerskin, then placed twelve more unblemished deerskins on top. She sang the horse’s creation song:

“I am White Shell Woman. I am thinking of the deerskin blanket spread out on there. A white shell horse lies in a white shell basket. I am thinking about it. They [horse fetishes] lie in the pollen of flowers. Those who come to me will increase. Those that will not die lie in it [the basket]. . . .

The horses were sung into being. When Kira and Grange grumble about horse feeding, watering and clean up, I think I will remind them to sing.

With warm regards,

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Folk Traders?

Shortly after we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post in the fall of 1989, Wilford Yazzie wandered into the store with about a dozen carved wood chickens. As Wilford arranged his hacked out poultry on the counter and asked if I was interested in purchasing them, Barry, Duke and Amer sat on the opposite side of the post like crows on a fence. When I expressed interest in the carvings, they universally cawed and guffawed. “What are you thinking?” they asked once Wilford departed, “Have you gone crazy?” Well, yes, in a way I had; but not just because of chickens.

Barry & Wellito Sculpture
Barry with a Willeto Sculpture at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

That was the early days of the contemporary Navajo folk art movement, and not many people, including me, understood what was happening. Barry, Amer and Duke can, therefore, be forgiven for their lack of faith. At the time, I viewed the chickens as simply funny creations that might generate some much needed revenue. Lately, however, the carvings have come to symbolize much more.

Not long after Wilford arrived at the trading post, I met Patrick Eddington and Susan Makov. Pat and Susan were in the process of accumulating information for what would ultimately become the Trading Post Guidebook, a very informative publication describing trading posts, galleries, auctions, artists and museums of the Four Corners.

Pat and Susan were avid folk art collectors, who spent a great deal of time introducing me to the craft. Once my baptism was complete, I asked Pat if he was willing to disclose his sources. Generously, he sent me a notecard listing names, addresses, types of art and pertinent advice. Echoing the words of Winston Churchill, his recommendation relating to the Willeto family, for example, was, “Never, Never, Never loan them money!”

Following Pat’s recommendations, I wrote to each individual on his list, introducing them to the trading post and directing them to Bluff. To my great surprise, the correspondence set off a veritable folk art flash flood; artists streamed in from all corners of the Navajo Reservation, inundating us with everything from mud toys to muslin memory aids.

Folk art has always fascinated me, probably because I have never been able to fully comprehend it. Variously described as naive, self-taught, primitive or outsider art, it covers a variety of media. It is generally work done by untrained artists that is non-utilitarian and highly personal. In their book entitled The People Speak; Navajo Folk Art, Chuck and Jan Rosenak state that one of the universal truths of this art form is, “[T]hat the compulsion to communicate through the medium of art exists in the human soul even though the creator may not recognize his or her work as art.”

I have come to wonder whether a similar compulsion might explain the attraction Barry, Jana and I have to the people of the Southwest, and why we have chosen to spend our lives in this remote corner of the world, peddling American Indian art. I have often thought how illogical it actually is, but have recently begun to consider the possibility of it being explained by obsession.

Georgiana, Steve & Barry Simpson
Georgiana, Steve & Barry Simpson, the "Traders" of Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The reason for this revelation occurred last week, when an interesting man whose wife was teaching at my alma mater, Weber State College, came into the store. Since we had a common connection to Ogden, Utah, and since he was an accomplished artist interested in Navajo folk art, we struck up a dialogue. During our conversation he mentioned that much of the primitive art movement was obsessive in nature, and at that moment I began to relate folk art logic to the trading post.

My companion opined that folk art comes from deep inside the individual, and is generally an obsession that must be satisfied. He concluded that there was no alternative but to engage in the creative activity to sate the craving. That is, in many ways, how we feel about the art and people of the Southwest; we must be immersed up to our . . . ears; poster art simply will not do.

We have, therefore, begun to refer to ourselves as naive, primitive, outside or folk traders, all of which apply on many levels. The obsession has fully engulfed us, and there is nothing else that will satisfy our hunger. I wonder whether there is a Betty Ford clinic or a ten step program where we can get treatment for our malady.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Forget Diamonds: Turquoise is a Girl's Best Friend

For many Native Americans, turquoise is believed to possess a healing energy; providing protection while enhancing cognitive function and communication skills. Last month, I traveled to a Navajo language competition in Monument Valley in support of our daughter, Kira. Dressed in yellow satin reflecting her Navajo name, Shandiin, which translates to “Sunshine”, we completed her outfit with a turquoise pin from her great-grandmother, a turquoise squashblossom from her grandmother and turquoise earrings of my design. Believing in the strength and beauty skystone brings, I reminded her that she carries the love and support of previous generations of women in her family.
Kira dressed for competition
Kira Simpson dressed for Navajo competition at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Diamonds were first collected from river beds in India. Four thousand years later, Marilyn Monroe crooned “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”. Perhaps if her eyes and spirit had focused on turquoise and blue skies rather than diamonds and the stars, she may have stayed happy and alive. After all, Tibetans believe turquoise is essential for physical well-being, its cooling nature lowering high blood pressure, purifying the blood and aiding the liver.

In the Southwest, we tend to take turquoise for granted, yet it has been labeled the “Gemstone of the Centuries”. Over 7,500 years ago, slave convoys were sent into the Sinai Peninsula to pluck pieces of the blue gem from the rocks where it had formed. In ancient Egypt, turquoise was believed to have mystical powers and appeared in amulets and talisman representing their gods Amum and Isis. A gold and carved turquoise bracelet was found on the mummified arm of Queen Zer, a ruler during the first dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. The four bracelets found in her burial are the earliest known examples of precious metal jewelry.

The Middle East emerged as the great purveyor of turquoise, supplying the ancient Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks and Romans. It is believed the name was derived from the French word, Turquie, a reference to the Turkish traders first bringing the rich blue stones to the European continent. It was assumed that the brilliant blue and green stones originated in Turkey when, in fact, they were most likely extracted from mines in the Sinai Peninsula and the Alimersai Mountain in Persia (Iran).

Royston Turquoise
Royston Turquoise Cabochons

Last month, the archaeological world was abuzz with a find near Lake Titicaca, Peru. A hammered gold and turquoisebead necklace from approximately 4,000 years ago was discovered, the oldest gold jewelry item yet found in the Americas. Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the crown jewel of Ancestral Puebloan sites, has yielded astonishing amounts of turquoise treasures. In one burial chamber at Pueblo Bonito, over 56,000 turquoise items were unearthed, including a necklace with 2,000 beads,turquoise-covered baskets, pendants and fetishes.

Turquoise is healing; turquoise is protection; turquoise is life. If good turquoise brings so many blessings, what happens with bad turquoise? During my tenure on the Indian Arts and Crafts Association board of directors, a meeting was convened at the Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Leaders from the Rio Grande Pueblos and Navajo Nation were invited to discuss the multimillion dollar problem of Indian jewelry fakes flooding the market and undermining Native American artists.

We were well into the meeting when the President of the Navajo Nation finally arrived with his entourage, including several large bodyguards behind dark glasses. Moving forward to greet the President, my eyes rested on his necklace. It was a classic case of the Emperor and his new clothes. The large turquoise necklace meant to connote his status and sincerity to our cause was a fake, blue plastic through and through. Unable to avert my gaze, I pondered the hypocrisy of that necklace. If this leader was so poorly advised regarding this elemental aspect of his own culture, what other weaknesses did he possess? Indeed, the fake necklace proved incapable of any special charms. This particular leader was asked to resign.

Navajo Turquoise Bracelet
Turquoise Jewelry

The history of turquoise does not explain “zat”, the characteristic which separates your ordinary stones from the killers. Steve, Barry and I are often asked how to identify good turquoise. It is not an easy question to answer. Decades of looking at thousands of stones have honed our individual tastes; we know what we like.

Turquoise, chemically described as an aluminum phosphate colored by copper salts, is almost always associated with great copper deposits such as were found in Bisbee, Arizona and Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai Peninsula. A compound of copper, aluminum, phosphorus and water formed while ancient mountains and oceans grew and receded, its unique molecular structure allows for combination with other elements. The addition of these other minerals affect the color and hardness of the turquoise and account for its great variety from different locations, even within a single mine. If the mix contains a greater concentration of copper, the stone will tend toward the blue range whereas more iron will swing it toward the greens. More aluminum will move the color in the green to white range; while the addition of zinc promotes a yellow-green color.

For the Zuni people in New Mexico, blue turquoise represents the sky and the male, while the green stones represent the earth and the female. Having grown up forty miles from the Zuni village may explain my strong affiliation with the green side of the turquoise spectrum. Like a good Zuni woman, I prefer turquoise stones which reflect the earth; deep greens and blue-greens with brown matrix mapping miniature land masses and large bodies of pristine ocean, the very reflection of Mother Earth or perhaps a fantastical green world as yet undiscovered.

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

Thursday, May 1, 2008


In the northeastern corner of the trading post stands a showcase housing numerous pieces of pottery representing the various Native American villages of the Four Corners region. In this display are vessels, bowls and plates from Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Jemez, San Juan, Acoma and Zia pueblos, and all of the Hopi mesas. Scattered among the “potteries” are several seated figures with clay children arrayed on their backs, over their shoulders and in their laps. These figures are commonly referred to as storytellers, and they represent the passage of a village’s oral traditions from one generation to another.

Pueblo Storyteller
Pueblo Storytellers

Although clay figures had been seen in Pueblo pottery traditions from ancient times, it was Cochiti artist Helen Cordero who gave them a contemporary twist and brought them into the mainstream. Apparently Helen was not accomplished at making the well known forms, and consequently turned her attention to figurative pieces. Upon seeing her “little people,” folk art collector Alexander Girard asked Helen to make a larger seated figure with children. From this simple request was born one of the most iconic and meaningful symbols of the Southwest.

Since no Southwest tribe had a written language, storytelling was indispensable to the transmission of legends and important tribal occurrences from one group to the next. When asked to make a seated figure with children, Helen used her grandfather as a model, because he was a great storyteller, and because his grandchildren often swarmed about him to hear his stories. Helen’s grandfather was also an important link between the pueblo and several generations of anthropologists and observers of Pueblo life. Through stories transmitted to these outsiders, he helped ensure that Pueblo values were accurately represented.

Choctaw Storyteller
Native American Storytellers

Although many people focus on the strict cultural aspects of these clay figures, to me they represent a much larger principal. In them I see the sharing of ideas among cultures; the innovation which comes from honest and sincere dialogue; the preservation of traditional values through art; and direct but respectful openness. I have begun to understand that these small statues encapsulate the entire business philosophy of the trading post, one which is focused on an uncompromising respect for all cultures, an open sharing of ideas, innovation and preservation of traditional values.

From time to time we are confronted with comments about how Anglo culture has historically failed to add value to American Indian life, and how it detracts from, rather than enhances, their traditions. As Indian traders, we are especially susceptible to this accusation. In my opinion, Helen Cordero and Alexander Girard illustrate the immense benefit that comes from collaboration. One cannot say whether the storyteller tradition would have ever been born but for Helen and Alexander’s combined work, but it can certainly be said that by working together they improved each other’s daily existence.

This is, of course, but one small example of how distinct and diverse cultures can come together for their mutual benefit. At the trading post we strive for just such combinations. Over the thirty plus years we have been Indian traders, we have seen the flowering of many new traditions, and hope to witness many more before we pass from this stage. With luck, our children and grandchildren will continue to be part of these changes, as will countless others who love and enjoy the many and varied cultures of the Southwest.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.