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.

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