Friday, August 14, 2009

In Search of the Old Ones

Not long ago I was leaning on the counter, thumbing through a copy of In Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts, when a couple from Flagstaff began pushing on the Kokopelli doors. The book, which is about the Anasazi culture, has been on my “to read” list for several years. Like many things, however, I never seem to find time for it.

Navajo Monument Valley Mitten Basket
Navajo Monument Valley Mitten Basket

Not wanting to risk losing a potential customer in these challenging economic times, I put down the book and hurried around the counter to assist them. The trading post doors have gotten old and cranky. The automatic closer (not being mechanically inclined, I am at a loss for the correct term), has gotten sticky, requiring a strong push to enter and a powerful tug to exit the store.

Although Barry and I have attempted several repairs, none has been completely successful, and the thing-a-ma-bob is surely doomed. Replacing it, however, has been difficult because acknowledging that it is worn out will also be acknowledging the obvious; that it is not the only old and cranky thing that needs to be replaced. Barry and I realize we are not far down that list.

The couple wandered into the back room and noticed several piles of Navajo baskets Barry and I had laid out for transfer to the Utah Natural History Museum. We recently concluded an arrangement to convey our collection of approximately 300 weavings to the institution. After 30 years of accumulating, Barry and I have a serious case of separation anxiety, so we wanted to live with the baskets for a while longer before shipping them to their new home. The collection not only chronicles the evolution of contemporary Navajo basketry from its earliest days until now, it represents much of our work as Indian traders. Aside from being beautiful art, each piece serves as a repository of trading post memories.

Looking through the stacks with us, the couple was amazed by the variety, creativity and beauty of the baskets. As a result, they stayed for hours talking about Mary Holiday Black, Elsie Holiday, Joann Johnson and Lorraine Black, and the extraordinary creativity these artists have exhibited over the years. Barry and I explained how the art seems to be contracting, and that many of the basket weavers have slowed their production or quit weaving altogether. We talked about the halcyon days of basketry and discussed a time when the traditional Navajo people regularly came into the store with their beautiful turquoise jewelry, traditional clothing and leather moccasins. Admittedly, we were all a bit melancholy as we discussed the loss of traditional culture, including Navajo basket weaving.

At one point, the couple wandered past the cash register and noticed my book laying open on the counter. Picking it up, they read the title and, referring to the Navajo rather than the Anasazi, asked, “Where have all the old ones gone.” “I don’t know,” I responded, “but I genuinely miss them.”

Their question reminded me of Espee Jones, an elderly Navajo man who used to come into Twin Rocks Trading Post to pawn his rifles and turquoise beads. Espee had a congenital hip problem and walked with a severe limp. In spite of that, he was generally cheerful and fun to talk with. I always wanted to photograph him, but never seemed to have the right equipment when he arrived.

As pawn became complicated by gun registration laws and a variety of other issues, Barry and I determined to give it up. When we explained to him that we would no longer be pawning, Espee shook his head knowingly, and said, “Okay, just for me then?” It almost broke my heart to tell him that we would not be doing it for anyone, including him.

Although I never knew if the story was true or not, several years later I was told that one day Espee decided he had lived long enough and simply walked out into the desert to let nature take its course. I guess Barry and I have gone soft on old people and old things. Maybe we will hang on to that door thing-a-ma-bob a little longer, if only for sentimental reasons.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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