Monday, June 29, 2009

Westward Ho!

The other morning I found myself stumbling across the trading post porch in the direction of the cafe, my eyes barely open. I was focused on getting a tall, hot glass of my "personal Postum" to start the day. Rounding the Sunbonnet Rock, I skirted the edge of the gift shop and nearly collided with a tall, slender, handsome, twenty-something year old Navajo man punching digits into the pay phone key pad.

Southwest Jewelry

The man turned away from the telephone as he finished his entry and fixed his clear brown eyes on me. Facing me, he flashed a broad, brilliantly white, smile. The grin was accented by an electric blue pair of turquoise tabs tied to his ear lobes with cotton string. With a smooth, practiced motion, he raised his right hand, palm forward, and said "HOW!" I laughed out loud at his animated impression of a John Wayne western movie Indian. I heard his call connect as I replied Ya' 'at' eeh', which, as most locals know, is a Navajo greeting which means, "It is good". What I meant was, "That was a good one!" I think he understood, because he chuckled as I passed on by.

A few minutes later, as I exited the cafe with my hot drink, I noticed that same young man sitting on the juniper stump and sandstone bench next to the phone. He was dressed in a fatigued, button-down, long-sleeved denim shirt tied at the neck with a slightly used red bandanna; mostly new Wrangler jeans; and a pair of comfortably worn, swoop heel, riding boots. A black cowboy hat with just the right amount of wear was pulled down over his eyes. I thought to myself, "This guy has captured 'the look'". Stuffed under the bench was an army duffel bag with the name "Yazzie" printed in white block letters.

I walked back towards the man and the trading post, smiling to myself as I took in the character he had obviously created. At my approach he looked up from under the Stetson and said, "What's-up Kimosabe?" I laughed again at the good-natured remark and asked, "So, does that make you Tonto Yazzie?" "No!" he said, wrinkling his nose distastefully, then quickly flashing that Million-dollar Hollywood smile once again. "Rick Yazzie."

Rick stood up and extended his right hand. I extended my own hand to accept the gesture. He grasped my thumb, wrapped his hand around the back of mine, leaned in, gave me a shoulder bump and patted me on the back. "A man hug", I thought, "very personable".

"Rick," I said, "do you need a job? We need good good people around here, a guy like you would do well." Rick shook his head from side to side, eased back onto the bench and told me he had grander plans. "I'm heading "ober dere"," he said, pursing his lips and pointing them toward the western horizon. "Too bad." I said, laughing again at his use of Navajo/English slang, "You'd be a good one." "Thanks man," said Rick, "but I have to give it a try." I told him I understood and that we would be here if he changed his mind. Just then Priscilla stuck her head around the corner and announced that I had a phone call; our good friend Ed wanted to order a basket. I told her I would be right there.

As I turned to take the call, I told Rick he needed a nice turquoise necklace and a silver concho belt to finish off his outfit. He leaned up, flashed that engaging smile one last time and patted the duffel bag at his feet. With a twinkle in his eye he said; "It's in the bag man!" I should have known. As I spoke with Ed, I saw a big, black Dodge Ram pick-up roll to a stop between the cafe and trading post. I watched as Rick threw his duffel into the truck and climbed into the passenger seat. As the big rig pulled out of the parking lot, I thought to myself, Ha'goo'nee' Rick, good luck. Maybe we'll see you in the movies.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Culture of Art

Recently, as we were discussing the evolution of Native culture, one of our customers said, “I believe art is the best way to preserve traditional stories; possibly even better than religion or language.” Surely that will prove to be a controversial statement, but our experience tells us there is a great deal of truth to it.

Navajo Up Through the Reeds Basket.

Barry and I often discuss this cultural shift, and our role, if any, in the preservation and perpetuation of the Native American way-of-life. I often question whether we have any vested interest in the issue, or whether we are intruding into strictly tribal matters. We are, after all, businessmen, not anthropologists. Our knowledge of Native civilizations is derived primarily from on-the-job training, not formal education or guided instruction.

One can argue that we should stick to selling rugs, baskets, turquoise jewelry and pottery, and leave the larger issues to those who are properly trained. We are, however, emotionally involved, and simply cannot remain aloof. At Twin Rocks we specialize in contemporary art because we enjoy interacting with the artists and collectors. We want to be involved, even when it is expensive or painful. To us, historical art has great appeal. We have no connection to the maker, however, and therefore are not as personally invested.

One of our friends recently decided to write a book about Navajo weaving. As part of her initial research, she contacted her father-in-law and asked about his experiences as a longtime Indian trader. She was startled when, in response to her questioning about ceremonial baskets, he said, “I bought them, I sold them; they were like cans of beans to me.”

Our friend was crestfallen, but probably should not have been. To most people in this industry, trading is merely a job, and the buyers and sellers simply a necessary part of the equation. Surely that is no different from the principles held by a majority of the larger business community. Barry and I, however, simply cannot accept it, and neither could our friend. The book, as you may guess, was never written.

Many years ago, I developed the belief that there is a direct relationship between mainstream education of indigenous people and the loss of traditional values. It seems natural that once one becomes integrated into the dominant culture, he or she is less likely to maintain ancestral customs.

As the surrounding society develops, one must adapt or die; woven baskets give way to metal pots, machine woven textiles replace chief blankets and horses lose out to automobiles. That is not, however, necessarily bad. Although we might chose to remain in our hogans without modern conveniences and sanitation, there are significant costs associated with doing so. Additionally, our children and grandchildren are likely to opt for a change when they are able.

I have seen this principle at work in my own family. My Portuguese grandparents did not speak their native language to my mother because they “wanted her to be American”. Consequently, a generation later, much of their heritage has been lost.

A few years ago a study was commissioned by the local school district relative to its Navajo population. The investigation determined that no students below the sixth grade were fluent in their native tongue. That is a staggering statistic, since it is generally assumed that language is one of the primary indicators of cultural survival.

As I look around the trading post, I see many traditional Navajo stories documented in artistic creations. A perfect example is Lorraine Black’s Up Through the Reed basket, which tells of the Navajo people’s evolution from their early forms as dung beetles, ants and locusts to their present incarnation. Hopefully, as this basket is passed from generation to generation, its story will be told and retold, thus reinforcing valuable cultural traditions. Although we may regret the loss of language and religion, art may ultimately be our salvation.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pond Memories

The full moon looked huge as it hung silently over the Jones farm. In fact, it was absolutely luminous, captivating me with its clarity and priceless golden glow. Looking down into the dirty red water in front of me, I saw the image of that reflective orb and marveled at its face. Ripples rolled across the murky surface and drew my attention to the left. I could see movement in the pond, next to the cattails, just under the broken cottonwood limb hanging in the water. I unconsciously rubbed my right hand between thumb and forefinger, the place where that big, old, nasty catfish had "finned" me minutes earlier.

Navajo Silver & Coral Butterfly Buckle

I was resting on the cut-bank of the small pond behind Bob Howell's grocery store in our home town of Bluff. I had come here to enjoy the cool respite provided by the evening breeze blowing leisurely across the water, and was looking for adventure. It was my intent to catch the "monster cat" that dwelt in the pond. I had removed my short-boots and waded into the thick, putrid muck of what was now only slightly more than a glorified mud puddle. The summer heat had evaporated the water to a point where the fish was barely able to move about. When I cornered it and made a grab, the "whiskered terror of the deep" raised the spiny fin on its back and struck. Surprised at this unexpected response, I waded back out of the pond, cut a large, thick willow with my camp knife and began to fashion a jiggin' stick to dispatch the creature.

The new moon held my attention as I watched it highlight the rusty, red, mineral-stained face of the cliffs surrounding our hometown and exaggerate their shadowed cracks and crevices. With the stillness, the bullfrogs began to sing their raggedy love songs. The crickets soon joined in with the high-pitched, fiddle-like chirp distinctive of their kind, and the mourning doves added their gentle, yet haunting, coo to the mix. I could hear the raspy caw of a raven near the Twin Rocks, the crunch of gravel under rubber as a car drove slowly down Mulberry Lane, dogs exchanging greetings across the valley and the distinctive call of the neighborhood owl hooting across the pond near the Gaines home. I also heard my mother calling Craig, Steve and me to dinner. Mom's voice was followed by the more insistent chorus of our sisters Susan and Cindy.

I was not sure where my brothers might be, but I knew they could not be far. It was typical for us to splinter off in the evening and seek out personal interests. I sat there enchanted by the evening, enjoying the simple beauty surrounding me, the sounds of nature and home while carving away on my spear. I still had thoughts of delivering that catfish to my mother's kitchen, although I was equally sure she would not be happy to see it. No matter, my brothers and father would certainly be impressed.

At that moment, a sharp whistle split the night and reverberated through town. My illusions of grandeur abruptly dissipated. When dad called we made it a point to get home in short order. I quickly drew on my boots, mud and all, and headed to the house. Pausing for a moment at the street lamp near the post office, I let fly a couple hands-full of pea gravel at the bats swooping in and out of the light. They were grabbing moths and other flying insects drawn to the artificial flame. It never ceased to amaze me how those crazy bats can avoid a full load of hand-thrown buck shot. Mrs. Goforth's cat, hiding in the nearby bushes, proved much less elusive. Another sharp note; time to get home!

I never did catch that ornery old catfish. It disappeared that very same night. I expect it was the owl that fished it from unsafe waters, or maybe a fox or coyote; they were all common in town. Mom and the girls were happy to hear the fish had gone to feed some more appreciative soul; "mud cats" were not their favorite food. The pond has long since dried up, as has another favorite watering hole across town, to the north of the L. H. Redd Jr. home.

Those ponds were fantastic little ecosystems for young boys and girls to learn from and enjoy. They attracted every bug, reptile and varmint in the country, including us. We became aware of outrageous creatures such as bulbous-eyed red and blue, "souped-up", dragonflies; delicate yet strikingly attractive butterflies; and other flying creatures. We stayed away from moths, however, because our Native American friends warned us of "moth madness", an ailment that makes you crazy. We recognized snakes, frogs and plant life. Nature was our playground and we took advantage of the opportunity to revel in it.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, June 4, 2009

All Buildings Great and Small

During our recent trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the 85th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee with Kira, I was reminded of my youth, and how, as a young boy growing up in Bluff, Utah, I yearned to see the wonders of the world. We were, however, dirt farmer poor, so I could identify no particular prospects for finding my way out of this small community.

Twin Rocks Monument

At the time, Dorothy Nielson, the post mistress and wife of Dick Nielson, wrote a column for the weekly newspaper. It was Dick who maintained that he was one of only two sane people in Bluff and, having properly obtained his acquittal from the Big House where the staff all wear white coats, could in short order produce the paperwork necessary to prove it. Everyone agreed with Dick’s personal evaluation, and speculated who might be the other rational individual.

Dorothy’s stories told what was happening in our town; focusing on deaths, births, shopping trips, town get-togethers, residents moving in, residents moving out and other similar occurrences. On rare occasions, Dorothy would relate the details of a trip one of our inhabitants had taken to some exotic place outside of the Four Corners. Those columns were of particular interest to me, and I read them over and over, trying to understand what it was like in Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston or even Washington, D.C. Anything outside the continental United States was too far out of my realm to even consider.

As I have traveled over the years, I often thought of Dorothy and what it was like to live in Bluff during the 1960s. So, as Grange and I stood at the base of the Washington Monument, gazing up its 555 foot length, Dorothy, Dick and the entire cast of characters from Bluff, circa 1967, came to mind.

Despite their unique qualities, to my knowledge, nobody from Bluff has ever made an enduring mark on the national stage. This may be because we have never found ourselves in the right circumstances, or because we simply did not recognize them when they occurred. In any case, we are all just ordinary citizens taking care of our daily lives in the best way we can.

As I surveyed the monumental buildings on and around the National Mall, however, I began to notice the ancillary structures necessary to maintain and support the standouts. It occurred to me that these smaller, less memorable, buildings were every bit as important as the ones we stand in line to experience. Those maintenance sheds, ticket counters, heating and cooling pump houses, security buildings and guard stations are every bit as important as the magnificent structures, and were often beautiful in their own right.

Living in our isolated environments, whether that be small town Southeastern Utah or a large metropolitan area, it is easy to forget that without “We The People”, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence would have had no meaning, Washington would have had nobody to lead and Lincoln could not have brought freedom to the enslaved. So, as Barry and I do what we can to ensure the preservation of the local Native culture, we must remember that Twin Rocks Trading Post, as small and unimportant as it may seem to us at times, is much like those maintenance sheds, guard stations and pump houses. If nothing else, we are providing much needed support.

Later that week, as we stood at the grave site of Robert F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, I realized just how powerful small can be. As opposed to his brother’s tomb, which has an eternal flame, a broad view of the capital and marble all around, RFK’s final resting place is comprised of just one small cross and an expanse of grass. What I felt at the grave of John F. Kennedy was nothing compared to the simple, raw power of RFK’s burial.

Although we may at times aspire to fame and notoriety, we must always remember that even small contributions can be big.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post