Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Changing Woman/Changing Man

Navajo Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday

Last evening, I arrived home to a glorious sunset. As I pulled into the driveway, an orangy red glow radiated about the town. The streets and spaces between buildings visible from the west were ablaze with a fiery glow, while those running perpendicular to the light rested in murky shadow. Laurie and the girls were not due home from Monticello until later that evening, so I had a little time to kill. I grabbed a light jacket from the house, snatched a big white plastic lounge chair from near the carport and took a seat on the lawn to enjoy the autumn sunset.

The sun sank lower on the horizon behind me, and the skyline took on that blue/black/purple hue unique to this time of year. Main street was relatively quiet, the air crisp, clean. . . invigorating. The maple trees in front of the house were decked out in leafy halos of red, orange, yellow and brown. Dispersed light set the foliage on fire as the great, luminescent orb settled in for the night.

As I sat back and mentally relived the day at Twin Rocks, I shivered in the cold fall air. A question posed by an agitated e-mailer weighed heavily on my mind. I had received the note entitled, "A much needed correction", just before leaving for home. In the message, the sender strongly questioned the integrity of Elsie Holiday's interpretation of Changing Woman. The tone of the dissenting message disturbed me, and cast a shadow of negativity on a near-perfect day.

In a video we produced, Elsie described the deity she portrayed in her latest weaving, and gave her personal view of Changing Woman and what she stands for. The e-mailer was adamantly opposed to Elsie's version of the cultural icon, and said in part, "Being Navajo myself and growing up with these stories I am offended that someone could make something so beautiful and not know the meaning behind it."

Steve and I have spoken extensively with Elsie about her culture. Elsie was raised traditionally, and her father is a recognized medicine man. She often consults him before weaving such iconic images into her baskets. At times, Elsie seems embarrassed by what she apparently perceives as her poor language skills. In my opinion, however, there is no one more eloquent when it comes to presenting a mythological story through art.

Navajo Sun Bearer Basket by Elsie Holiday

Elsie's critic went on to say, "I admit there are many versions of the story but I have never heard one of Changing Woman being spiritually or physically female AND male. PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I AM WRONG!" As I sat there in the deepening twilight, I contemplated an adequate response.

As I understand it, the bedrock of Navajo mythology is attempting to discover a balance in one's life, and trying to hold onto it as one grows and develops. I think the key is, "as one grows and develops." I have read a number of books on Navajo myth and legend, but do not claim to fully understand it or have the personal perspective of a Native. What I have come to realize, however, is that even the recognized experts have differing opinions when interpreting Navajo mythology. And when it comes to individual beliefs, . . . well let me just say, "Katie bar the door!"

Experience has taught me that criticizing the cultural interpretations of others is detrimental to my own basic education. Anyone who intently studies a subject and honestly contemplates the possibilities will generally have something interesting to say about the topic. Many of the artists I have spoken with have given me thought-provoking and throughly stimulating interpretations of their traditional stories.

I do not feel that legends were meant to be translated literally. Instead, I believe they were intended to teach through metaphor. The intent or meaning of the story is contained within, but must be lived and practiced to be totally understood. Education and contemplation are a journey of understanding; a quest for knowledge. If they are approached with honor and respect, there really is no wrong answer, just different levels of understanding.

I have learned that artists such as Elsie have a special talent; through their creativity they have the ability to motivate. These incredibly creative individuals bring hope for the future of Navajo culture. They create not only to make a living, but to inspire. Open your mind and discover the mystery of an age-old culture that has relevance even in today's world of science and technology.

In the darkness I sat there thinking, listening and feeling, while Laurie's feral cat population rustled the nearby bushes. The more friendly of the pride tugged at my shoe laces. Then, out of nowhere, came a distinctly pungent odor in the chilly night air; a skunk was afoot. I stood up and moved cautiously towards the house, having no desire to meet Mr. Pole Cat up close and personal. It seems there is always someone or something causing a stink and fouling an idyllic situation.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2008 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Center of the Universe

Experience convinces me it is generally most difficult to fully comprehend the things we know best. So it is with Bluff.

Bluff, Utah Sunset seen from Twin Rocks Trading Post.

“How do you get married in this county?” Cindy asked over the telephone. It was an odd question, since she and her husband have been together well over 20 years. When I inquired why she asked, Cindy explained that there was a couple standing at her motel counter who desired to tie the knot, and she did not know how to advise them. Not long ago, a French-Canadian friend who could not wait to marry his Russian sweetheart had posed the same question, so I was prepared.

A few days later, the happy couple was standing at the Twin Rocks counter, smiling from ear to ear. When I asked why they had chosen Bluff for the wedding, they stated emphatically, “Because it is the center of the Universe!” Although their response may appear surprising, I simply nodded my head in agreement. My familiarity with such logic also goes back almost 20 years.

It was 1990, and, much to the embarrassment of my family, I was a newly minted divorcee. My marital canoe had run aground, and the turbulent tides of marriage had overwhelmed it. In the process, however, I learned some valuable lessons, and had discovered that some things are just not meant to be, and that love surely does not conquer all.

Finding myself with large blocks of unallocated time, I began investing more of it in the trading post. Leaving the lights on and the Kokopelli doors flung open on those beautiful October evenings, I would often sit on the porch watching the light turn to dark and wondering at the majesty of Mother Earth. I will admit, however, that because of my singular status, much of the natural beauty was wasted on me.

As I sat on the porch one evening, enjoying the mild weather and wondering what can to open for dinner, a young couple wandered up the steps. Saying nothing, they sat next to me, one on my right and one on my left. As odd as it may seem, we were all extremely comfortable with the seating arrangements and nobody felt compelled to speak.

After a short time, the female part of the team, turned to me and asked, “What is it?” Somehow, instinctively, I knew what she meant, and responded, “I think it may be the diffused light on the cliffs, the quiet, the peace, the stars just beginning to show themselves, the lack of artificial light . . . I don’t know for sure. I have this feeling, however, that Bluff is a little like Santa Fe and Taos in the early days; the days that brought Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz and Millicent Rogers.” “Yes,” was all she said. A few minutes later, the couple stood up and with a thoughtful, “good-bye” were gone, leaving me to ponder the significance of their visit.

Several years later, in March of 1997, the comet Hale-Bopp streaked across the night sky; Heaven’s Gate opened in Rancho Santa Fe, California; and Susie Bell designed and Anita Hathale wove an extraordinary, and somewhat macabre, Yei rug commemorating the event.

Susie Bell Navajo Rug Design

Not long after Hale-Bopp’s appearance, I received a telephone call from Cindy. “They’re coming to Bluff,” she said. “Who is coming?” I inquired. “Orpheus, Orpheus Phylos.” “What’s an Orpheus,” I wanted to know.

As it turns out, Orpheus Phylos and Virginia Essene had co-authored a book entitled, Earth, the Cosmos and You. In the book they propose, “Bluff, Utah is the heart center or pivotal point of the source of energy in the Electromagnetic Gold Band and is known as the generator. . . Those who live in, or will migrate to, the Four Corners area are the ancient Lumurians, and possibly some Atlanteans, coming back into the frequency that they had previously used in Venus and other stellar systems.”

Orpheus, Virginia and a small group of followers had arrived in Bluff to await the arrival of the “Mother Ship.” Expecting to see cultish figures, and still vividly remembering the gruesome scenes from Rancho Santa Fe, I was extremely worried what their arrival might mean for our small town.

As it turned out, Orpheus and her followers were well-educated, well-mannered, mostly middle-aged and extremely pleasant. By the time it was determined the ship would not arrive at the appointed hour, we had developed friendships with many of the faithful, and were hoping to get a glimpse of the craft when it landed; maybe even a ride. I think we were all a little saddened when we realized our friends had been disappointed and we came to “good-bye.”

Why such a large number of people feel so strongly about this small town has remained a mystery to me. Using logic not unlike that of Orpheus, one western trained medical doctor who had studied eastern healing techniques recently explained that the answer resided in the large amounts of iron contained in the sandstone, which attracts a stronger than normal magnetism, thereby directly affecting human energy fields.

Whatever the case, those of us in Bluff, whether Lumurian, Atlantean or just plain Bluffoon are bound by the magic of this community, and its rocks and art are clearly the center of our universe. Perhaps that is why my compass always point home.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2008 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ballistics and such

Don and I just stood there with our heads bowed in humiliation, shoulders hunched in disgrace, hands thrust deep in our pockets; dumbly kickin' horse turds because we could not think of anything else to do. Buck watched us closely, without saying a word. He finally walked past us, and went over to lean on a fence post to survey his cows and disgraced pony. We turned on our heels and went back inside the building, hating that we had done what we did, and, worse, that we had been caught doing it.

Navajo Folk Art

It was the early 1980's, and my sister Susan and I were running the Bluff City Trading Post for our parents. We purchased the old grocery store from Bob Howell and had renovated it into an Indian arts and crafts store and silversmithing shop. My father, Duke, thought it a good idea to train me as an entrepreneur and silversmith, in hopes of securing my future as an "Indian Trader".

Susan was recently married. Her husband, Renis, worked for Utah Power and Light and was stationed out of Bluff. This worked out perfectly in the minds of Mom and Dad. My older sister was charged with keeping an eye on me; a big job for such a small girl. This was my first taste of independence, and I loved it.

We quickly hired a silversmith by the name of Don Dale. Don said he was a Missouri hillbilly who had walked out of the Ozarks and straight into the Army. After his tour of duty, he made his way to the Southwest. Don then hooked up with the Sanchez family of Cortez, Colorado. They owned San Juan Gems, and had taught Don the art of silver and gold smithing. After a bad experience with a dark-eyed girl and her ill-tempered family, Don found his way to Bluff.

Don is a talented artist who taught me a great deal about silver smithing. Knowing the difference between quality and shoddy workmanship has come in handy over the years, and I have to give credit for this education to my parents for being astute business people and to Don for his masterful tutelage. Don had been a sharpshooter in the military, so he also taught me about guns, ammo and shooting.

One day, as we worked at mastering soldering techniques and discussed ballistics, Don began explaining the various angles of trajectory between light and heavy caliber bullets. As we spoke, a light went on in Don's head and he said, "Actually, I can show you trajectory right here and now!" "How's that?" I asked. Don went on to tell me that he had a Benjamin air rifle in his Volkswagen Beetle. He said that if you pumped up the pressure only slightly, you could see the lead projectile exit the end of the barrel and watch it travel to its destination.

"OK then," I said, "let's do it!" We went out to his Bug, got out the air rifle and walked to the back of the building. Don put a .177 caliber pellet into the gun, pumped it twice and handed it to me. "Pick a target," Don told me, "and watch the flight of the pellet."

The field next to the building was grassy, with a small, old, dilapidated sandstone block building. Roaming the field was a rank old stud horse that had been put out to pasture and a small herd of Hereford cows. I smiled to myself, picked out a cow that stood chewing its cud about 30 paces away and pulled the trigger. I watched as the pellet "puffed" out the end of the barrel and fell to the earth short of its mark. "Hhmmph!" I said reaching into the box for another pellet and pumping the pressure up to a five on the danger scale. "Hold the barrel just over its shoulder this time," said Don. I pulled up, sighted in, pulled the trigger and watched as the pellet arched in and struck the cow in the shoulder. The beast barely moved; didn't make a sound.

Navajo Baskets

I squinted at the cow in consternation, reached for another pellet and pumped the gun up ten times. "This time hold dead on," said Don. I raised the air rifle, held just behind the bovine's ear and let fly. The cow lurched forward in stunned surprise, and let out a bellow of indignation. "Cool!" I said, pumping the gun up again, "Where's that nasty horse?" It was nowhere to be found. I sighted in on a few more of the nearer cows and let 'em have it until Don took the rifle and made some long, beautiful shots by holding well over the target and arching the pellet in.

Just then that old stud horse stepped out from behind the broken-down rock building to see what all the commotion was about. He was standing tall, proud and looking for love. I reached blindly for a pellet, hoping to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. I fumbled the projectile into the chamber, pumped the handle twelve times, raised the rifle and sighted in. When Don realized my intention, he reached for the rifle and began to voice opposition. "Phfoof!!!" The rifle belched. "whack!" The projectile found its mark, the horse screamed and began bucking wildly.

We watched in amazement as the horse tried to shake off the shock of the insult. As we stood marveling at the sight, we heard a frightening sound. From directly behind us, a voice heavy with sarcasm said calmly, "Good shot!" We turned slowly . . . There stood Buck, the cowboy who owned these now highly-agitated cows and the big, black stallion standing cross-legged on the far side of the fence. If a horse can look indignant, this one did - as did his disgruntled master.

Buck stood there with his hands stuffed in the back pockets of his threadbare Wrangler jeans. His potbelly was encased by a well-worn red paisley cowboy shirt with faux pearl snaps. An antique silver rodeo buckle with gold accents and a woven horsehair belt held his over-long britches in place. His beanpole legs and meatless buttocks were long and lean. On his big ol' feet were a pair of heavily scuffed, once black cowboy boots, with high swooped riding heels. The bottom of his jeans bunched up on top of those "Biskit Kickers" in wrinkled layers of denim and dust.

Buck's face was deeply tanned and wrinkled from many years of exposure to the harsh elements of the high desert. His livid brown eyes flashed at us from under his furrowed brow. Resting upon his high forehead sat a rustic black Stetson as well-worn and weathered as he and his boots. His overly black bowl cut hair stuck out in several directions from under his hat. We could tell by Buck's expression and posture that he was fit to be tied. We were guilty as sin, and suitable to be hung at sunset.

Navajo Rugs

Buck said nothing more. He simply walked past us, leaned on a cedar fencepost and quietly inspected his livestock. I wanted to say something about scientific experimentation, ballistics or trajectory, but could not make it sound reasonable in my head, so I just shut-up and walked away.

There are obvious morals to this story, and I have discovered a few more after years of thoughtful contemplation. Realizing that I might have wound up in a penal colony for my misdeeds, I leave you with this missive in hopes you will learn from my mistakes, and be inspired to resist similar temptations. Amen brothers and sisters.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2008 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Good Trade

Jana’s relatives are generally more diligent when it comes to tracking their family history than ours has been, and probably with good reason. For several years, her clan has been writing its stories, and this work recently culminated in a manuscript entitled A Good Trade, which is slated for publication by the University of Arizona Press.

Jana & Steve @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

In 1965, Jana’s paternal Grandmother, Mary Jeanette Kennedy, published her personal exploits in the book Tales of a Trader’s Wife. Since first learning of this small but interesting gem, I have feared Jana may become inspired do the same. Although my concern may seem irrational or unfounded, I have serious reservations what may happen if the truth is known.

Many years ago, with an eye on preserving our heritage, sister Cindy took it upon herself to begin looking into the Simpson family lineage. Having been raised around the Mormon culture, which makes researching one’s genealogy a priority, she felt we too should know more about where we originated and who we are. I am sure she had it in her mind that somewhere in the distant past there must be royalty; a king, queen, prince, princess, duke or duchess. A court jester or resident of the palace dungeon is, however, the most likely scenario.

Cindy began her inquiry by interviewing family members and reading documents that had long ago been hidden from public view. When I later asked how the project was progressing, she stated without explanation, “It has been permanently suspended.” It was only after an independent investigation of my own that I began to appreciate her decision. The list of incarcerated Simpsons only a few generations back was both embarrassing and impressive. My findings helped me understand both the shame and pride of Australians.

When it comes to Southwest Indian trading, which has been a part of our histories for several generations, our families have been both cooperative and competitive. It was not long after we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post that Jana and her father arrived to explore the opportunities. They opened their trunks of pueblo pottery, storytellers, Zuni jewelry, and miscellaneous other goods and the trading began. It has continued for almost 20 years.

At 96, Jana’s dad is clearly the senior member of the trading establishment, with decades on many of the other old-timers like Elijah Blair. I chuckled at Jana recently when she dejectedly informed me that her father was coming to Bluff to make his, “Last ever trip to the Reservation.” “Last trip!” I hurrumphed. “He will be back in less than 30 days.” “No,” she assured me, “this is really it, he’s getting too old to travel.” Two weeks later he was here trading for Navajo baskets, and has been back several times since.

Navajo Baskets @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

At the recent Second Annual Southwest Traders Rendezvous, Jana’s dad was recognized for his long-standing involvement in the industry. As Jana and I sat on the lectern with several contemporary legends of Indian trading, Claudia Blair, who is legendary in her own right, took the microphone and declared, “I want to shake Steve’s hand and give him a hug; he is the only one that ever out traded old John Kennedy.”

Claudia had unwittingly let the cat out of the bag. Unfortunately, taking the position that some things are better left unsaid, I had never informed my wife that I had gotten her in trade for Navajo basketry. “They were very nice baskets”, I sheepishly assured Jana. Although Claudia may have overstated my trading abilities, since that transaction was consummated I have understood how the Dutch traders must have felt when they bought Manhattan for $24.00 worth of beads. Now that was a good trade.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2008 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Standing near the cash register, I was just finishing a telephone transaction when an older couple walked into the trading post. From the lines on his face and the abundance of gray in his beard, I estimated him to be approximately 70 years old. The lady had only a few laugh lines around her eyes and her hair was more brown than gray, which made her appear at least 15 years younger than her companion.

Navajo Rug Weaver Sarah Descheny

As soon as they came through the door, the couple split up. The man veered off in the direction of the Navajo rugs, poked his hands into his pockets and took on a look of complete indifference. The woman walked right up to where I stood and smiled in a bright, friendly manner; hesitating a moment as if waiting for me to finish my work. At the back counter, Priscilla, our trusty associate, was busy pricing bracelets we had just purchased from Ella Toney. I set what I was doing aside and greeted the woman, who was dressed for summer in khaki shorts; a sleeveless, button-down shirt; and sandals.

Her pageboy haircut and sparkling brown eyes made her seem even younger than my original guesstimate. She said she was interested in earrings, so I showed her a variety of styles. She liked those by Navajo artist Jimmy Poyer, and began to closely investigate his work.

Looking up to locate her husband, I found him standing near the bat wing doors leading into the rug room, tapping them impatiently. I told the man he was welcome to enter and look more closely at the weavings. Except to push through the doors and walk in, he did not acknowledge my comment. His wife and I returned to Jimmy's earrings. She soon found a pair that suited her and held one to her left ear to view it in the mirror.

Neither of us saw her husband approach, but we both distinctly heard his next statement. "I am dumbfounded," he said emphatically. We were caught completely off guard, and stared at him in wide-eyed wonder. He reiterated, "I am dumbfounded!" "So am I," I thought to myself. "Why?" I asked. I could tell the woman was thinking the same thing, because she had a similarly startled look on her face as she continued holding the earring to the side of her head.

The man was slight of build, with sharp features and a slightly olive complexion. He stood there looking intently at us in his Levi's, hiking boots and plaid button-down shirt. I admit I am sometimes slow on the uptake, but this guy was not giving me any clues. I looked to Priscilla for help and saw only confusion in her eyes. The man gazed at us intently from under his "Indiana Jones", sage green felt hat; waiting. At close range, the man's bearded face and the serious look in his eyes allowed me to see just how passionate he was about this subject.

The three of us stood gazing at this interesting character and wondered where he was going with his comments. He shook his head and produced a pictorial rug which I had not previously noticed him holding. "Sarah Descheeny" he said. Then again, "I am dumbfounded!" "I understand that part," I said, "but why?" Shaking his head at my lack of comprehension, he began to explain. "I am Jewish, and my last name is Deschenes. This rug was woven by Sarah Descheeny!" He looked at us again with raised eyebrows. "Oh," I said, somewhat relieved, "you have similar last names."

Turning to Priscilla, I asked what Descheeny means in Navajo. She thought a moment and said, "I think it is a clan name meaning, 'Start of the Red Streaked People.'" "There you have it," I said. The guy just stood there, shaking his head side to side. I turned to the women, who looked at her husband and tried to change the subject. Shaking the earring next to her earlobe, she asked if he liked how it looked. Waving off the question, he said, "I can't be bothered with that right now; this is amazing!" The woman handed me the earrings and sighed in resignation.

What had captured the man's imagination, aside from her name, was an image of Sarah that was attached to the weaving. Mr. Deschenes held the picture up to his face and said; "Do you see the resemblance?" "Okay, this is getting weird," I thought. "Think man," he said, "her name is Sarah!" Now I was loosing patience. Shaking my head in disbelief, I said, "There is also a Rachel next door working at the cafe, and I know for a fact she is not Jewish!" The man gave me a look of disdain and turned to his wife to explain. She cut him off by turning away. I am sure she was remembering the earring dismissal.

Navajo Pictorial rug by Sarah Descheny

The man turned back to me and said, "I think this is my sister!" I just stood there a moment, letting his statement sink in. He waited patiently, and I started to disagree. Looking into his eyes once again, however, I thought better of it. I could not, however, let it go and said; "If that is true, it would mean that your father visited the Reservation 80 some-odd years ago and . . . planted a seed. "Yes," he said shaking his head in the affirmative, "I am dumbfounded!"

I stared at the man in surprise, and thought through the implications. I considered how surprised Sarah might be as well, and smiled inwardly at the thought of presenting her with the facts. The idea just did not make sense, and I said so. In reply, the man said, " I'm Jewish; I know a Jew when I see one." He held the picture up again and said, "Can't YOU see it?" What I wanted to say was, "Well, I'm not Navajo, but I have lived among them for years. In spite of that, I don't always know a Navajo when I see one!" I resisted however, and in the alternative said, "What I think is, at this point, it really does not matter what I think; your mind is made up."

Things quickly went downhill from there, and the earring sale fell through. "I just can't think about that right now," he said again. The couple departed, and Priscilla and I stood there looking at each other in wide-eyed wonder. Yup, you guessed it . . . dumbfounded!

The next time Sarah came to the trading post we mentioned the encounter to her. I thought she would fall down laughing at the thought of such a thing. Her two daughters ribbed her unmercifully the whole time they were here, and then departed laughing and joking. This was quite a contrast to how Mr. and Mrs. Deschenes left the building.

As I considered the parallel encounters, I realized that Sarah never really refuted the accusation. She laughed about it, joked about it and allowed herself to be tormented by her daughters, but never actually denied it. Either Sarah thought the idea too ludicrous to take seriously or she would make an excellent politician, or just maybe . . . .

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Great New Items! This week's selection of Native American creations!

Special Focus on: Bisbee Turquoise

Artist Spotlight on Navajo Folk Artist Leland Holiday.

Our TnT's purchased new treasures! Check out Traders in Training!

New Staff Picks for the Month of October, coming soon!

Auction ends Friday, Oct. 3rd @ 2pm MST. Place your bids! eRocks Auctions!

Enjoy artwork from our many collector friends in Living with the Art!

Copyright 2008 Twin Rocks Trading Post