Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don't Kick My Sheep

As I have grown older, and the gray hair has begun to overwhelm the black, I have become less inhibited in conversations with trading post customers. The cause may be early onset Alzheimer's, or I may have simply inherited the Duke gene. Whatever the cause, as a result of my affliction, I frequently have to remind Barry, Priscilla and Jana that I cannot help myself, or be held accountable for my actions. They have all started to wonder whether gene therapy is in order. The effected segment of my genome has not, however, been identified, so there is little hope of a near term solution.

Duke & Rose Simpson
Duke & Rose Simpson

For years, Barry and I would stand back in silence as Duke talked to trading post patrons in such a frank manner that we thought they would turn and walk away. Much to our surprise, those on the other side of the counter usually enjoyed the banter and left smiling; pleased with their experience.

As my malady progresses, Barry works hard to intervene when he notices me gearing up for one of my bouts. With his recent eye surgery, however, he is usually unable to correctly read the signs, and I am often too far down the path before he can intercede. So it was recently when two young hooligans came in with their obviously weary mother. “Where is the bathroom?” she inquired in a beleaguered voice. Pointing her to the west side of the trading post, I gave her an understanding wink.

Since she was afraid to leave one or the other unattended, the frazzled mom and her two miscreants entered the lavatory together, and raised such a raucous I thought the stall would surely be destroyed. As she lead them to the exit with an exasperated, “Thank you,” one of the belligerents kicked at a Ruby Growlier folk art sheep and connected right under its chin.

“Hey, don’t you kick my sheep,” I said. The little antagonist turned and gave me a smirk. “Bring that boy over here.” I said to his mother, “I’ll give him a spanking’ he’ll remember.” Since they know I have, on numerous occasions, been instructed in the perils of spanking children, my companions in the trading post universally froze. Becoming a little defensive, I announced, “I was regularly spanked when I was a child, and look how well I turned out.” A collective groan arose from the trading post staff.

Ruby Growler Smith
Navajo Folk Artist Ruby Growler

The besieged mom, apparently understanding better than anyone else, wheeled the boy around and headed him in my direction. “No,” he yowled, and instantly dropped to the floor. “You need to take better care of your mother,” I directed, and he readily agreed; probably thinking he had fooled us all, but walking out the door a little more subdued than he had previously been.

Having seen how protective I was of the sheep, and the abused parent, a couple that had witnessed the entire incident strode over to inspect the damage. Noticing nothing amiss, they indicated interest in the ram, and asked about the price. Trying to ease the somewhat tense mood, I launched into my favorite sheep joke, which goes like this:

An old Navajo man was tending his vast flock beside the road in Monument Valley, when a large car pulled up nearby and stopped. Out clamored a rumpled man, who said to the shepherd, “If I can guess the exact number of sheep in your herd, will you give me one?” After considering the question for a time, the Navajo man agreed to the proposition.

As the sheep milled about, making them virtually impossible to count, the driver declared, “There are exactly 1,252.” The Navajo man, extremely surprised that the figure was spot on, said, “That’s right, which sheep would you like?” “That one,” directed the rumpled man, indicating a black and white member of the herd. The Navajo man walked over, picked up the animal and delivered it into the arms of the waiting man.

As the man strode toward the car with his newly won prize, the shepherd inquired in a very serious tone, “Excuse me. If I can guess where you went to college, will you return my sheep?”

“Why sure,” said the rumpled man, confident he would retain his winnings. “Harvard University,” said the Navajo man in a confident voice. “Right,” said the extremely surprised driver, “but how did you know?”

“You picked my dog,” said the shepherd.

“We’ll take it,” the couple declared in unison. As the transaction was processed and Barry wrapped the sheep for transport, the man reached inside his wallet, extracted a business card and handed it to me. My face flushed as I read the information, “Samuel Cruz, Professor of Art and Design - Harvard University.”

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The River

For the first time, we stayed home for summer vacation. Two years ago, when we set out to conquer the United States, I complained about gas prices doubling. Since our nationwide travels have ended, they have doubled again. I decided this is our summer of local discovery; I decided this is the summer of the river.

The San Juan River in Bluff, UT. along with Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The San Juan River boasts a potent history. It is the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation, a male river known alternately as Old Age River, Male Water, One-with-a-Long-Body and One-with-a-Wide-Body. In Robert McPherson’s book, Sacred Land, Sacred View, which provides Navajo perspectives on the local land, the river is described as follows:

“The San Juan is a powerful river described as an older man with hair of white foam, as a snake wriggling through the desert, as a flash of lightning, and as a black club of protection to keep invaders from Navajo lands. Within it is a holy being who married a female, the Colorado River, and, where these two spirits joined in nuptial bliss, they created water children of the cloud and rain people.”

The Mormon pioneers who arrived here in 1880, soon discovered the capricious nature of this unbridled river. Already having suffered a most difficult journey, the Hole-in-the-Rock settlers came to rest in this little valley. Over the next several years, they suffered the erratic ebb and flow of the San Juan. By late spring of 1884, in a letter to President John Taylor requesting release from their missionary duties in Bluff, the men surmised, “Our experience has taught us that we cannot reckon with any certainty on what it [the river] may do.”

After Navajo Dam was completed in 1963, the turbulent river was somewhat tamed by the control of dam releases, although tributaries located downstream, such as the Animas River, can still contribute to an unruly flow. Wild Rivers Expeditions located in Bluff speaks in awe of the 1970 flood. As quoted from their San Juan River history, “During this event, the gauge at Mexican Hat measured about 35,000 cubic feet per second. Launching an oar boat early in the morning in Bluff, Wild Rivers’ boatmen rowed the flood for the 84-mile journey to Clay Hills--upper and lower canyon [a journey which typically takes several days]--in just 10 hours”.

When people talk about the San Juan now, they speak of a slow, muddy river. Experience and history tells me to never underestimate its might. With that in mind, I waited for the lower, calmer waters of July to get myself and the kids on the river. I have floated the river at various times since moving to Bluff and have frequented its banks often, either on horseback or foot. Yet, I wanted the kids to experience it firsthand; knowing you cannot truly experience the river until you are on the river.

After practicing in a calm channel, we prepared for a full-fledged duckie run between Swinging Bridge and Sand Island. My nephew, Tarrik rode in my kayak while Kira and Grange shared the other. I told them it was their opportunity to strengthen brother-sister cooperation. The trip took a bit longer than normal. While Tarrik and I cut a fairly straight path down the river, Kira and Grange slowly spun their way down the river; struggling with both coordination and cooperation.

Two different groups of Canada geese accompanied our float. At one point, we caught the attention of a goose who didn’t realize she was under the silent surveillance of one hungry coyote. The avian turned its attention to our large strange ducks and floated away from the river bank while the coyote, now disappointed, threw a woeful glance in our direction before disappearing into the dense shrubbery. Large herons flew away from us, deciding our ungainly aquatic presence was too much for their graceful ways. The kids learned to stay out from underneath the trees, lest they pick up extra passengers in the form of various species of arachnids.

A subsequent river trip proved special indeed. My 87 year old mother, sister Chris and niece Krista decided on a Bluff adventure. I asked them to bring grubby clothes, but would not tell them why. On the second day of their visit, I revealed my plan. “We are going on the river”. I told my mom to think about Venice and the lovely gondolas. Outfitted with an umbrella, plenty of cool water and my paddle power, she could sit back and enjoy the ride.

San Juan River
Blue Heron on the San Juan River.

After some slathering of sunscreen and bug repellant, I revised the vision. “Mom, think Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and the African Queen”. We slid the duckies into the water, neatly transferred Mom into the boat and opened her umbrella. Half of the stays were broken and my typically stylish mother nestled under a rather forlorn looking swath of shade.

Grange requested his favorite activity; joining duckies and laying back while silently floating downriver. I kept an eye on our progress, instructing everyone to break apart and paddle when needed. We all enjoyed the quiet of the river and the beauty of the bluffs while listening to various bird songs and crow caws. Late afternoon clouds obliged us with cooling shade while a slight breeze brushed over us.

I asked my mother if she had ever gone out in a canoe, thinking perhaps in her Illinois childhood, she would have made it to one of the lakes. She said, “No, this was her first time”. Later that evening, we hauled our sandy bottoms and smiling faces out of the river.

Several times over the course of this vacation, Kira and Grange have said to me, “Mom, we really love where we are from”. Our travels have provided them some perspective. Bluff is not always an easy place to live, but it is the place of my heart and, thankfully, my children’s hearts, too.

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

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Summer Musings

The toasty hot days of summer have settled upon Bluff. On scorching days, I often find myself looking upon the talus slopes, ancient ruins and antiquated rock houses and wondering at the tenacity early Bluffoons must have needed just to survive. Reminders of historic and prehistoric inhabitants abound in San Juan County; the rough and tumble remnants of their sandstone and mud mortar dwellings are scattered about the town and countryside. Looking upon these old dwellings reminds me of age-old tradition and culture.

Navajo Heavy Weather Rug by Eleanor Yazzie
Navajo Heavy Weather Rug by Eleanor Yazzie

Often I find myself drifting out onto the wide, warm, red porch to sit in the evening's golden sunshine. Like my father before me, it is common for me to nod off in the comfortable setting and dream. As the shadow of the towering Twin Rocks blankets the trading post, I relax in the glow and contemplate the history, life ways and influence people of the past have had on our fair community.

As young boys, my brothers and I explored nearly every canyon, nook, cranny and corner Bluff had to offer; our sisters were not so adventurous. Craig, Steve and I wandered this small river valley to the east across the "Holy Land" of Saint Christopher's Mission and the often precarious Swinging Bridge. To the west we roamed as far as Sand Island and the thought-provoking petroglyph panel pecked into the vertical sandstone cliff by people we then referred to as the Anasazi. The same San Juan River that often attempted to flush early Mormon settlers to the Gulf of Mexico provided a formidable border to the south.

The northern boundary of our range of territory was the towering red rock cliffs. We tested the bulwarks often, and scaled the walls a time or two. Occasionally, we found ourselves wedged tightly in some deep, dark crack or precarious ledge with no obvious way down. Luckily there were three of us. We became accomplished at search and rescue; surviving the hazards and pitfalls our surroundings offered by relying heavily on one another.

As we grew to know the land and her people, both past and present, we came to realize that Bluff was a mecca for a wide variety of vibrant and complex cultures. A number of early American Indian cultures honored a life force that dwells in the earth, sky and water, and within all animals and humans. Anglo societies embraced variations on the monotheistic theme. The Mormon people arrived through the Hole-in-the-Rock and settled Bluff in the Spring of 1880. St. Christopher's Mission was founded in 1943 by Father H. Baxter Liebler, an Episcopalian priest from Connecticut.

Navajo Fire Dance Basket by Lorraine Black
Navajo Fire Dance Pictorial Basket by Lorraine Black

There were also more reckless influences left over from Texas cattleman, fortune-hunting miners and outlaws seeking asylum in the far reaches of the American Southwest. Each and every one of these factions added to the hodgepodge mix of thought and ideas discoverable in modern day Bluff. Cultural parallels abound if one cares to look closely. Throughout my upbringing, I have come to realize that each and every influence and belief system has a positive aspect. Each has a special uniqueness or interpretation on a theme that may help them, and us, to better understand our own personal being.

Growing up in Bluff has allowed us to learn and grow from diverse groups of people; those who hold to the belief that ceremonial practice, tradition, culture and, yes, even myth and magic are integral aspects of daily life. One has only to re-engage the spirits of the past; their thoughts, beliefs, experiences and secrets are accessible through the written word, rock art and storytellers. For those in search of a more earthy spiritual experience, simply look to the upper reaches of the red rock spires and listen.

My brothers and I have learned that life is a journey; an educational process gleaned from pleasure and pain. We now tend to seek out moderate adventure, embrace diversity and enjoy life as best we can. Continuing education has been the key to a better understanding of our world. The rich and varied history, tradition and culture our special little community has to offer provided a great start. If you come to Bluff, we hope you realize and enjoy the beauty of the landscape, richness of character and unique characters our distinctive community has to offer. We feel Bluff has an unusual spirit that must be encountered in order to be understood.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who Ate My Corn?

With gasoline soaring into the $4.50 a gallon range locally, fuel prices are on everybody’s mind. Each radio, television and magazine story seems to focus on the ramifications of and reasons for the run-up. In our rural village on the banks of the San Juan River, we have developed our own concerns, which have more to do with our constituents than our pocketbooks.

Navajo Going to the Fair Basket by Alicia Nelson
Navajo Going to the Fair Pictorial Basket by Alicia Nelson

Many of the artists we work with are living fairly close to the bone, and do not have a great deal extra to withstand rising raw material costs; let alone the additional expense of filling their fuel tanks for what is always a long trip. The artists have therefore contrived many innovative ways to ensure the transaction comes before the travel, or at least that the trip results in legal tender.

The other day I received a crackly telephone call from Sally. She wanted to know my e-mail address so she could send digital photographs of her latest masterpiece to us via the internet. “It’s too far to drive if you aren’t buying”, she explained. “Take a look and call me back on the cell.” The web, however, didn’t transmit, and the cellular phone wouldn’t receive, so we never made the connection. Technology is great when it works, but this broken landscape challenges even the most modern equipment.

Taking a cue from her innovative sister-in-law, I next got a call from Alicia, who informed me that she too had posted a picture to my inbox. This time practical considerations got in the way. Barry was off for the day and the shop was full of people, so I did not have time to check the electronic mail. Alicia was, however, ahead of that game. When the return call did not come on a timely basis, she simply loaded up the kids and came driving in. Gas prices be damned, she needed the sale and wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

We have had our share of, “I drove all the way here on an almost empty tank and don’t have enough gas to get home.” When we couldn’t come to an accommodation, Barry and I took to giving the artists a $10.00 bill and sending them off to potentially greener pastures, which seemed a reasonable alternative to buying something we didn’t need or couldn’t afford. As you might guess, however, there were problems inherent in our logic. First, as word spread, our supply of Alexander Hamiltons became quickly exhausted. Secondly, $10.00 just won’t take a pickup truck very far, so as gas prices increased we began receiving petitions for ever larger sums.

By far the most inventive case, however, is Elsie, whose imagination is readily apparent in the exquisite baskets she weaves, and also extends to many other aspects of her life. Recently she came rambling into the trading post with her two daughters, son and granddaughter in tow; husband Peter as usual stayed in the car.

Navajo Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday
Navajo Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday

With her newly minted basket under her arm, and an extremely sad look on her face, she proclaimed, “We’re hungry. We haven’t eaten all day.” Never mind that it was only 9:00 a.m. when they arrived. She went on to explain that escalating gas prices had blown their budget, so they had taken to eating only one meal a day. Thoroughly inspecting them, however, I decided the habit must have been recently implemented, and that no significant physical change had been effected. The act was, however, convincing enough that I considered auditioning them for reality television.

The negotiations commenced, and with new found energy Elsie won the bout. Maybe she could smell the bacon and eggs cooking next door, or maybe she just knew she had me on the ropes; I am a sucker for underfed children. In any case, the exchange was made and off she went.

My old friend Brandon once told me the Hopi people have a saying that goes something like this, “If I have corn, everybody has corn.” This maxim seems to have been adopted into the Navajo culture as well, so I should not have been surprised when I followed the foraging party out onto the porch, only to find a black Lincoln Navigator; a white Pontiac Firebird; and a brown, just off the lot, Toyota Camry parked out front. Shrugging her shoulders and pointing to her daughters, Elsie declared, “Well, they need something to drive too. We’re hungry; we’re going to get something to eat.”

Several years ago I read a book entitled, Who Moved My Cheese, which was about how many of us fail to adapt to our changing environment until it is too late. This time I was wondering, “Who ate my corn?” and realizing that once again I had failed to evolve as quickly as my artistic counterparts.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts recently bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon local Navajo basket artist Mary Holiday Black. Prior to the presentation, my attention was drawn to the Youth Fellowship Awards. Brittany Begaye, a 13 year old Navajo weaver, and Ruthie Edd, a 13 year old Navajo painter, were each awarded $500 for their artistic efforts. Each young artist, in her expression of gratitude, promised to use the cash prize to further her individual art form.

Shawn Begay weaving
4 Year Old Navajo Weaver Shawn Begay

Seeing young artists striving and thriving is one of my greater pleasures since joining the trading ranks over twenty years ago. Traders can be simultaneously a clairvoyant and obtuse bunch. Hindsight is 20/20 and foresight is 20/whatever. With that in mind, Barry, Steve and I often find ourselves peering into the crystal ball and wondering about the future of American Indian art.

Today, a disconnect exists between the enormous success contemporary artists such as Tammy Garcia, Tony Abeyta and Vernon Haskie enjoy, and the long path of apprenticeship necessary for a younger generation to reach similar expressive and financial heights. Plainly stated, there are not enough young Native artists to sustain the momentum generated by the last century of Native American creative output.

Shawn Begay weaving
4 Year Old Navajo Weaver Shawn Begay

Brittany Begaye and Ruthie Edd are rays of hope. Allison Snowhawk Lee’s sons, Trent and Kyle, are rays of hope. Angelina Holiday, emulating her mother Elsie’s fine basketry technique, is a ray of hope. My favorite sunbeam, however, is a little boy named Shawn. Brittany, Ruthie, Trent and Kyle have benefited from exposure to more sophisticated methods for progressing in the Indian art market. Shawn, at the tender age of four, is simply motivated to be the man of the house.

I first met Shawn when he was three years old, shadowing his Aunt Cecelia and mother, Colleen, into the trading post. Cecelia Curley, a Navajo pictorial weaver, was following her “once-a-year” program. Annually, I pass some unwritten test which signals my readiness to purchase another family member’s weavings. Colleen and her husband hail from Sanders, Arizona. She understands weaving pictorials, while her husband is a fabulous raised outline weaver. I purchased three rugs from Shawn’s dad prior to his disappearance.

A month passed before Cecelia and Colleen returned. Colleen’s husband, Shawn’s dad, was in jail. Colleen and her two young sons had moved in with Cecelia and were struggling. Unable to buy her pictorials because of an overabundance of that particular style, we wondered how to move her forward.

Another month passed before Colleen brought in a small raised outline weaving. “I thought you didn’t know how to weave this style”. Colleen answered, “I have been watching my husband for years, so I figured it out. I lock myself in my room so no one may see what I am doing. This is now my own special style”. Over the ensuing months, Colleen worked in this new manner and brought me the results. Every once in a while, she had both boys, but most often, it was her oldest, Shawn, who accompanied her.

Shawn Begay weaving
4 Year Old Navajo Weaver Shawn Begay

The now four year old Shawn decided he wanted to be the one proffering her weavings. At first, his negotiation skills were understandably wobbly. He would slap the rug on the counter and emphatically state, “Five dollars”. Suppressing a smile, I bent down and said, “Shawn, you may want to ask a little more for your mom’s weaving”. “One hundred dollars!” Colleen giggled, poked him gently in the ribs and whispered a sensible resolution.

After several more months, Cecelia, Shawn and Colleen stopped in with more small rugs. Shawn proudly marched to the counter and said, “I’m weaving a rug”. Colleen explained that Shawn had slipped away with one of her small looms and tried to teach himself to weave. Upon anyone’s approach, he would hide his attempts under the bed. Colleen finally unearthed his secret enterprise. “Would you like me to show you how?” she queried, and the weaving apprenticeship of this four year old commenced.

After a couple more selling visits, Shawn proudly walked in with his own creation, a small banded rug featuring his highly personalized color scheme. “How much?” I asked. “Five dollars!” “Hmmmm, I think your weaving is worth more than five dollars”. “One hundred dollars!” We worked through the pricing ritual once again to our mutual satisfaction. “What are you going to do with the money?”, I probed. Shawn puffed up his small chest and exclaimed, “I’m going to buy some shoes”.

Shawn tells me he wants to make rugs like his dad. His father is now out of jail, but not allowed to see the family for another three years. Shawn will remain, for the time being, the man of his house while I nurture a bittersweet hope for this little boy’s nascent endeavors.

With warm regards,