Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pesky Red Skin Trinkets

Priscilla and I looked at each other expectantly when we heard the front door chimes. We were sitting in my office eating lunch, and neither wanted to walk away from our chicken salad. I nodded my head towards the door and pointed with my lips in Navajo fashion, letting Priscilla know that it was her turn to serve. Dooda, dooda, dooda said Priscilla, shaking her head in the negative. She dutifully reminded me that she had taken the last two customers; it was, indeed, my turn.

Priscilla - a Twin Rocks Team member.

The women at the door was seventy-something, with a pleasant face and demeanor. Resting at the end of her nose was a funky pair of multi-colored, horn-rimmed bi-focals She wore a pair of teal blue, calf length polyester capris and matching canvas boat shoes. A fashion t-shirt of a lighter shade of teal graced her upper torso. Draped about her neck was a nice set of bluish-green turquoise beads, and on each wrist was a matching pair of similarly colored cluster bracelets. She was now in search of earrings and/or a ring that would match her ensemble.

As the lady and I began exploring possibilities, an elderly gentlemen, who reminded me of the late, great Colonel Sanders, strode purposely into the store. His full, carefully combed head of hair was as clean and white as the Datura blossoms outside our front door, as were his carefully trimmed, matching mustache and goatee. Instead of a fine white linen suit, the gentlemen wore a Khaki colored, square tailed, button down camp shirt. The garment was far too large for his thinly spaced, bony shoulders, but fit the girth of his ponderous ponch rather well. The shirt hung over a pair of off-white cargo shorts in an umbrella like fashion. Sticking out of the shorts were a knobby, relatively unused looking pair of pasty white legs that must not have known the sun for several decades. To add insult to injury, our hero had donned a pair of white, plastic Crocs to his sock less feet.

The man's outrageous outfit and form were truly unusual, but when he spoke the sound emitted from deep in his throat caused me to sit-up and take notice. He shook his head at the woman, and spoke to her in a voice that did not match his character. His voice was deep and rumbling, sounding something like the echo of heavy thunder in the distance, or maybe gravel being tumbled in a large, wooden whiskey barrel. I had been expecting a Truman Capote like emission from such a cartoon looking character.

The vision, in shades of white, rumbled deep in his throat, and began a tirade about how their time frame was now disrupted because his lady friend could not refrain from stopping into each and every Native American gallery and roadside stand in an attempt to complete a matching set of turquoise jewelry. He fussed and complained until the woman turned on him and gave him "The look!" You know the one. After years of marriage, your spouse can send you a sweltering message with just a momentary "look!" "I will be right out Bobby," the woman said to emphasize her point.

Well, Bobby took immediate offense to the "look" and dismissal; his face . . . no, every surface of exposed skin, instantly turned a frightful shade of red. He looked like a torch. A rumbling grew deep within his throat, and erupted when he said with emotion, "These pesky Red Skin trinkets are the bain of my existence!" The woman wheeled around, and, with a great deal of emotion, said, "Bobby Button that was one of the most thoughtless and disagreeable statements you have made in your life."

Rosita - a Twin Rocks Team member.

Bobby Button knew immediately that he had made a grevious error. He stammered, tugged on his shirt tails and shifted uncomfortably in his Crocs. The woman rejoined, "I will be right out!" Bobby turned on his plastic heels and exited the building. Turning back to me, the woman said, "He's usually quite pleasant, but sometimes he doesn't think before he speaks; this time he has certainly spoken out of turn." "I understand completely;" I said to the woman, "my wife often says the same of me."

A half hour later, the color-conscious woman and I had identified both earrings and ring to match her previous acquisitions. She was extremely happy about the experience, as was I. As I boxed her purchases, the woman smiled sweetly and said, "I love these pesky Red Skin trinkets!" We had a good laugh, and I told her I knew exactly what she meant. A passion for the art, the people and the land are essential when one is, "Tied to the Post". The opportunities, characters and humor we encounter on a daily basis are simply a residual benefit.

As the lady left and I was returning to my lunch, the door reopened and there appeared Mr. Bobby Button. He stood for a moment, then rumbled deep within his throat once again. In that incredibly deep voice, and with arms gesturing for emphasis, he sincerely apologized for his inappropriate remark. The door chimes picked up his gyrations, and began to ring like crazy. I stood there, taking in the scene with a great deal of humorous appreciation. I finally put the poor man out his misery by accepting his apology, and Mr. Bobby Button gratefully left the scene. As I returned to the office to finish my salad, Priscilla was just finishing. She looked up at me and asked what all the commotion was about. "Just the floor show" I said pleasantly; "all is well!"

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Who Carved Those?

The foursome tumbled into the trading post and began to excitedly pace back and forth. Standing behind the counter, I soon recognized something was amiss, but was at a loss to determine exactly what it might be. After a time, I began to wonder whether the quartet had robbery on their minds. The couples seemed, however, more like bumblers than felons, so I relaxed and waited for the other shoe to drop. After much whispering and gesticulating, one of the four summoned her courage. Pointing to the northwesterly portion of the ceiling, she queried, “Who carved those?”

Dacia Simpson
Dacia Simpson at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Looking in the direction indicated by my examiner, and not seeing anything that appeared carved, I shrugged my shoulders to indicate confusion. “No, no,” she admonished, “those rocks outside; who carved them?” She went on to explain that the group had recently been to Mount Rushmore, and were wondering whether the same sculptor who carved the mountain had also sculpted the Twin Rocks. Apparently they believed the rocks may have been a pilot project for the larger undertaking.

Trying to account for a variety of beliefs, I politely replied, “No, I think it was either God or Mother Nature; depending on your religious bias.” The explanation seemed completely unsatisfactory to them, and they quickly exited, leaving me to ponder the significance of what had just occurred. It would not be fair, however, to say that such incidents are unknown at the trading post.

Several years before this foursome fiasco, I had been standing outside the trading post with Dacia, my oldest daughter, who at the time enjoyed digging in the flower beds and eating the soil. As Dacia played in the dirt, a white Chevy van slid to a stop in the gravel parking lot, almost striking the porch. Just as I was about to cry out in anger, the tall, slender, ponytailed man literally kicked open the driver’s side door, jumped to the ground, and, holding his palms towards the heavens, announced, “I am Kokopelli.” Having informed us of his celebrity, he looked straight through me and almost shouted, “Can you feel the power?” It was almost like I had stumbled into a fundamentalist revival; I was completely unnerved and could only shake my head in wonder.

The Twin Rocks, or Navajo Twins as they are alternatively known, are 300 foot rock spires that rise ominously above the trading post, which takes its name from the formation. Geologically, the heads of the Twins are Bluff Sandstone, their bodies are Summerville, and their base is Entrada. It was the legends that envelop the formation, however, that had captured the attention of my modern day Kokopelli.

The Navajo Hero Twins, Monster Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water, are War Gods; the children of the Sun and Changing Woman, who is also known as Mother Earth. The boys were conceived one afternoon when the Sun espied Changing Woman as he progressed along his daily route. Being a philanderer, and admiring her beauty, he clandestinely impregnated her and the Twins were born.

Historic Image of Twin Rocks
A Historic Photo of the Twin Rocks.

The children matured with supernatural speed. Noticing no man about the hooghan, they soon asked their mother the whereabouts of their father, and after a time were informed that he resided in a great hooghan in the sky.

After a long and tortuous journey to their father’s house, their sire initially denied their paternity and they were forced to endure several trials before being acknowledged as the Sun’s offspring. Upon being formally recognized by the Sun, they were outfitted with flint armor, lightning arrows and other implements of war essential in their quest to return home and slay the monsters who had been terrorizing the Navajo people. Demons such as Kicking Rock Monster and Big Monster were systematically slain, one after another.

Kokopelli, however, had a different interpretation. He believed the Twins to be prayer sticks, used to assure the Holy People hear prayers being said in their honor. In essence, he understood them to be colossal transmitters to the heavens, and he was feeling the wattage. As I later learned, his interpretation is consistent with that of many traditional Navajo people, including Mammie No Teeth, grandmother of my trusty sidekick of almost 20 years, Priscilla Sagg.

Whether they are representative of the Hero Twins or colossal prayer sticks hewn from local sandstone, Mother Earth is ultimately responsible for their creation and, as Kokopelli taught me, their power is undeniable.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lost and Found Treasures

A new exhibit, Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan, recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Since the 1980’s, Afghanistan has been torn asunder, first by the Soviet invasion, followed by years of civil war; then by the ruinous dictates of the Taliban; and, more recently, as a result of America’s pursuit of Al Qaeda terrorists. Afghans have suffered terribly from these destructive forces, as has their culture.

The motto for the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul is, "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” Until the time of the Taliban, the museum housed one of the finest collections in Asia; over 100,000 art treasures reflecting both violent conquest and peaceful intermingling. At the crossroads of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route which spanned from the Mediterranean to China, Afghanistan’s multicultural history is mirrored in Begram ivories, Roman glass vessels and Greek sculpture. The “Bactrian Hoard”, a collection abundant in wearable gold found in the burial site of six royal nomads, was discovered in 1978 and hurriedly excavated by a Russian-Afghan archaeological team before the Soviet invasion.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, 80% of the collection was already decimated by bombing and looting. In a strict interpretation of Sharia, depiction of human figures was expressly forbidden by the regime. In March 2001, with impotence and rage, nations watched as the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world, were dynamited out of their sandstone alcoves. More inconspicuous and insidious was the destruction of figurative art in the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Fortunately, a few forward thinking museum personnel spirited away over 22,000 of the most precious objects. Hidden in a vault deep within the Presidential Palace, it was not until 2004 that this cache was found to have survived the ravages of war. Over 2,000 Greco-Bactrian gold and silver coins; hundreds of Buddhist terra-cotta figures; carved Begram figurative ivory panels; the beautiful Bactrian gold jewelry; as well as numerous glass vessels, bronze and stone sculptures were protected.

A similar collision of artistic innovation and traditional values is the overarching theme in Orhan Pamuk’s most recent historical novel, My Name is Red. Set in sixteenth century Istanbul, the text chronicles gifted miniaturists, the illustrators of the great handmade books of the Ottoman Turks. At its peak this empire encompassed much of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, with Istanbul at its ethnic epicenter.

The conquering of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks created a meeting place for eastern and western schools of painting. The public and private lives of rulers, their portraits, historical events, major ceremonies, epic poems, folk stories, animals, plants, medical and technical themes were all subject to centuries-old dictates of representational interpretation. Works were rarely signed, because most pages represented a collaborative effort between a head painter and his apprentices.

The realistic aspects of Frankish portraiture was pushing its influence into the eastern styles. Over the centuries, the miniaturist had learned to treat landscapes and human features equally. Never was an artist’s individual style to become apparent; never were you to look at a figure and recognize the individual depicted. In a November 2001 article, J. Stefan Cohen said, “ Portraiture was prohibited for fear that a human likeness would replace Allah as an object of worship--idolatry, in short. Light, the Koran says, belongs to Allah, nature belongs to Allah; it is for mankind to love, to view without competing: If you study nature, you will find Allah. Thus miniaturists were considered the most likely to burn in hell.”

Cultural conflicts and intersections are no less important today. Steve and I recently visited Santa Fe for a ceremony in which Navajo basket artist, Mary Holiday Black, along with San Ildefonso potter, Blue Corn; Santa Clara potter, Mary Cain; and Hopi artists, Lawrence and Griselda Saufkie, were awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Southwest Association for Indian Arts. Few people understand the significance of her unassuming role in keeping this art form alive and providing a springboard to the most dynamic period seen in any Native American basketry form.

Navajo Basket Maker Mary Black
Navajo Weaver Mary Holiday Black

Mary was under great pressure from other Navajo people, traditionalists who felt (and many who still feel) that the only correct form of Navajo basketry is the ceremonial basket. Mary comes from a medicine family and strongly believes in the telling of ancestral stories. Because of her quiet and single-minded conviction in support of her childrens' and other weavers' endeavors in individual expression, Navajo basketry is vibrant in this corner of the Navajo nation while in all other areas, it has . . . vanished.

Those of us who have walked through the history of Native American art are uncertain of its future. When gazing forward, we are both confused and unsettled. Native basketry is learned at the sides of mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers and, more recently, the occasional father, uncle, or brother. Modern culture pushes iPods, cell phones and shoddy entertainment and we embrace it. Years of apprenticeship and mastery of art forms does not appeal to our, “I want it all now” sensibilities. Why buy an heirloom when a look can be replaced every few years at IKEA?

The glory of Afghan treasures have been mostly scattered or destroyed. The miniaturists of Istanbul faded, incapable of reconciliation with European realism. “A nation stays alive when it’s culture stays alive”. Blue Corn is gone; Mary Cain no longer creates pottery; Mary Black is slowing down. Soaring silver prices strange jewelry artists and basket making is struggling or dead across most American Indian nations. We no longer see huge stacks of Navajo rugs. While we are wildly encouraged by the stunning innovation demonstrated in certain young artists’ creations, in the back of our minds, a small voice asks, “Is it enough?” Perhaps the more correct question is, “For whom, is it enough?”

With warm regards,

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Super Heroes and Yeis

The three boys sprang into the trading post with a loud yelp, assuming karate stances and preparing for battle. The Hulk, Spiderman and Superman; all on my doorstep in one moment, and all ready to save the world, any available princesses and the current occupants of the trading post. I reached for the broom that stood just outside the door, and the hooligans scattered like leaves in a gale. “So much for that threat,” I muttered to myself, informing them that they better save themselves before worrying about anyone else.

Navajo Sandpaintings
Navajo Skywoman Sandpainting by Hosteen Etsitty

Over the past three years, Grange had accumulated a collection of Halloween costumes that he and his Navajo buddies, Trevor Sampson and Darrien Maryboy, enjoyed wearing whenever they got together after school. When the boys arrived at the house above the trading post after class, daily wear flew in all directions to facilitate the transformation from ordinary schoolboys to super heroes.

These were not the homemade costumes of my youth; no cutout eye patches and wooden swords in this group, their getups had steroid induced muscles and bright graphics. Forget the ghostly bed sheet with Magic Marker eyes, only catalog cloaks and plastic weapons will do for today’s children.

In spite of my cautioning them not to run in the trading post, once the boys were wound up, there was no stopping them, and they rampaged from one end of the property to the other, without regard for unseen danger or perilous pitfalls. Tourists and traders alike gave way as the warriors fought their way through various challenges.

It was late September, and gentle breezes blew the fallen leaves around the gravel parking lot and along the paved street. Autumn is my favorite time of the year, and having the boys blow through the store made me even more contented with this small river valley.

It is in the fall of the year, just after the first thunder that the Yeis sometimes appear at the trading post. Washington Matthews, in his book, The Night Chant; a Navaho Ceremony, states, “Yei, or in compounds, ye is a name applied to many Navaho divinities, but not to all. Perhaps we should translate the word as demi-god or genius. . . . “ As I have been informed many times, the Yei are spiritual beings that assist medicine men in the healing ceremonies. They are, therefore, important and indispensable to the traditional Navajo way of life.

My first firsthand experience with the Yeis came shortly after the trading post opened in September of 1989. Priscilla had come to work for us and set about trying to educate me to the ways of the Navajo. She and I made a great team, and I valued her insight into traditional ways of thinking.

Navajo Sandpaintings
Holy Man Sandpainting by Hosteen Etsitty.

As we poked around the newly opened store, cleaning and straightening up, I heard a quiet, almost ghostly, “hooty who,” much like an owl hooting in the distance. “Oh no,” Priscilla exclaimed, “we don’t have anything to give them.” “What do you mean?” I questioned. “It’s the Yeis, and we have to give them something to eat if they stop here,” she explained. Trusting her judgment, I quickly pulled a ten dollar bill from the cash drawer and sent her scrambling to the K and C Trading Post for refreshments.

When the Yeis arrived, Priscilla was prepared with sodas, flour and fruit. Dropping the supplies in their bag, she received a blessing of corn pollen and off went the real world incarnations of these spiritual beings.

As the heroes searched for maidens to rescue and beasts to slay, I once again heard the now familiar “hooty who,” and noticed a white Ford van pulling up to the porch. As the Yeis piled out, with their leather masks and bare bellies protruding into the chilly fall air, the dynamic trio stopped in their tracks. This time I knew what to do; and dispatched the boys upstairs for supplies. When they returned, I asked the kids to place the food in the pillow cases held by the spirits. “No,” they said, refusing to go near the masked beings who had been painted with kaolin clay, making them all the more spooky.

Nothing I could say would entice the boys to approach the Yeis and place their offerings in the bags; their bravery had failed them. Dieties, however, have grown more sophisticated, and these Yeis had retained a spokesman. “It’s just like Halloween,” he wisely explained to the super heroes, instantly liberating them from their fears. That was something they could understand, and they immediately stepped up and placed their offerings in the pillow cases.

With corn pollen adorning their heads, and emboldened with newly found courage, the heroes once again set off to redeem the world. I instinctively reached for the broom.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.