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.

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