Friday, January 29, 2010

Of Cold Woman and Kokopelli

As I stood on our carport looking north toward Blue Mountain, I could see plumes of snow dancing above the tree line and along the ridges. Thinking how blustery and bone-chilling cold it would be at 11,000 feet made me shiver. Breathing deeply the frosty winter air, I marveled at the beauty of the intensely purple-blue sky, fast moving cotton ball cloud formations and magnificent mountain range that seemed to rest right at our doorstep. My mind wandered as I leaned heavily upon my snow shovel, appreciating the respite between storms. As I envisioned the hostile climate on that mountaintop, I recalled the ancient Navajo legend of how Cold Woman successfully petitioned Monster Slayer, one of the Hero Twins, to spare her life.

The story is from the Navajo Shooting Chant, and tells how Monster Slayer had set out to purge the earth of any and all monsters plaguing his people. In the tale, Monster Slayer searched out Cold Woman and prepared to end her existence. Cold Woman lived at the top of a high mountain where no trees existed and the snow never melted. She was a gaunt old woman who sat on bare snow without clothing, fire, food or shelter. She shivered from head to foot, her teeth chattered and water streamed from her eyes. Snow buntings, the messengers she used to announce storms, played close by. When Monster Slayer threatened her, she advised him, "If you kill me, the weather will always be hot, the land will dry up, the springs will cease to flow and your people will perish. It would be better for you and those you serve if you let me live." Monster Slayer recognized the logic in her plea and turned away.

This last batch of storm pulses had graced us with somewhere around 32 inches of moisture-laden mischief. According to my calculations, that meant it was time to relieve the heavy burden from all flat roofs, posthaste! My wife Laurie and I had kept up with snow removal to this point; she had been right there with me the entire time. She is surely the workingest woman I have ever known. The only reason she was not with me still was that she had slipped off the roof to make dinner.

There I was, taking a break and enjoying the scenery, and the sight from my lofty perch was truly beautiful. Every open space was blanketed in white; every home a picture-perfect postcard straight out of the Saturday Evening Post. I could hear the distinctive scrape-swoosh of snow shovels all about the neighborhood and saw four wheelers pushing snow and scraping asphalt. I noticed several other people removing snow from their roofs and driveways, and a few others attempting to dig out cars that had been parked on the street during the night. Snowplow drivers have no mercy on poor fools who block their path with vehicles. Every tree and bush wore a mantle of white. There were children playing on the lofty piles of snow, and though they were working and playing hard, everyone was smiling and joking with passing neighbors and friends.

From where I stood, I witnessed the warmth, tenderness and humor inside our home. I saw my wife whipping-up some tasty morsel, and noted my daughters, Alyssa and McKale, passing back and forth behind the windows, doing chores. Their mother had given them the option of working indoors or out. Although McKale had ventured outside a time or two, for the most part, the girls had chosen to stay inside and work in the warm and well-lit protection of our humble abode. Earlier, I told Laurie how the Navajo people used to drag their children into winter storms and wash them in the brisk, stimulating drifts of snow. This was meant to invigorate their senses and temper them to the harsh and intolerant elements.

Laurie had reacted badly to my suggestion that we do the same with our daughters in an attempt to drive the "disruptive nature" from their teenage demeanor. The girls were within ear-shot, and before I knew it I had a full-fledged mutiny on my hands. I shook my head sadly and smiled as I recalled the age old idiom, "Spare the rod and spoil the child". The notion that children will only flourish if chastised, physically or otherwise, for any wrongdoing had been turned inside out; re-emerging as something like, "Spare the child, flog the dad". As I stood thinking to myself, the clouds rolled in and it began to snow. I shivered at the oncoming dark storm, and mused, "This is what happens when you show mercy to a contrary old lady on a mountain top and attempt to teach your daughters freedom of spirit and independence."

As I bent to finish my task, I imagined I heard the haunting melody of a cedar flute. I stood and listened intently. . . nothing. It must have been wishful thinking. There are many myths of the infamous Kokopelli, and some are outlandish to say the least. I have, however, taken one of them to heart and adopted it as worth holding on too. It is told thusly: In ancient times, Kokopelli traveled from village to village, playing his flute and bringing about the change of seasons. The music melted the snow and ice, and brought about nourishing rain for a successful planting and harvest. It is believed the hump on his back depicted the sacks of seeds and songs he carried. Kokopelli’s flute is said to be heard in the warmth of the spring’s breeze. As I was buffeted by a strong, frosty wind and snow found its way down my collar, I thought to myself, "Not yet. No, not quite yet!"

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Fish Tale

One of the things I most enjoyed as a young scout growing up in the wilds of San Juan County was prowling through the remnants of cliff dwellings built by what were then known as the Anasazi. “Anasazi” is a Navajo word for “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy”. Since the term is not favored by descendants of these prehistoric people, more recently archaeologists have begun referring to that civilization as the ”Ancient Pueblo People” or “Ancestral Puebloans.”

Priscilla at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

In addition to learning that I was mistaken in my labeling of this culture, I have also realized that my scrambling in and out of those ancient apartments may have resulted in significant damage to the structures. Such is the ignorance of youth.

As a result of my newfound enlightenment, several years ago I ceased to pocket pot shards, clamor on cliff dwellings or pencil rub petroglyphs. At the same time, I began to inspect this culture with a more studied eye. I learned much about their cultivation of plants, their construction techniques and their religious ceremonies. All this investigation ultimately lead me to the big question, “What happened to these people and why did they leave?”

Of course scientists have debated these issues vigorously for decades. Stress on the environment, warfare among competing societies, violence, cannibalism, drought, the influx of Numic-speakers and a variety of other theories have been discussed and tested. Still, no definitive answer has been concluded.

At Twin Rocks Trading Post, business is universally slow during the winter months, so I have time to look further into issues that interest me. Late last week, having sat at the computer for an hour or two researching Ancient Puebloan culture, my stomach began to growl. Noticing it was noon, and remembering there were a few tins of tuna upstairs in the kitchen, I jumped down from my stool and headed toward the house. As I ascended the stairs to the upper level, I noticed Priscilla arranging the turquoise jewelry and Navajo baskets, so I said, “Hey, you want a fish sandwich?” “Sure,” she replied.

From his office, Barry shouted, “Navajos don’t eat fish!” “What do you mean,” I asked. Barry slid his chair over to the bookcase and took out a copy of Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region, written by Robert S. McPherson. “Look at page 91,” he said.” Turning to the appropriate page, I read:

For many generations, the Anasazi were hard taskmasters over the Dine' [Navajo], forcing them to carry wood and corn on their backs for long distances and perform menial acts of service. Eventually, a large and handsome man came from the east, appearing to "rise out of where the sky and earth join together. He carried with him a long rod or staff. When he came amongst the Dine', he saw how they were being treated by the people who dwelt in the stone houses in the cliffs north of the San Juan River and he was very much displeased." He told them to stop this harsh treatment, but they replied they were "the greatest people in the world" and would do as they pleased. The stranger counseled the Dine' that at the next new moon they should prepare a feast of turkeys, rabbits, corn, paper bread, and other delicacies and serve it at places on the south bank of the San Juan and Little Colorado rivers. They sent runners to the cliff dwellers, who were "great gluttons" and responded in large numbers. "They were first to cross from along the north bank of the San Juan River as the feast was spread along the south bank for a distance of four miles, and as the horde of cliff dwellers came forward to take part in the feast, they rushed to cross the river." The stranger waited until they were in the middle of the river, then raised his arm to the level of his chest, twice waved his rod, and uttered some magic words. The Anasazi turned into fish instantly. He then faced westward and southwestward, pointed his rod in each direction, said the same magic words, and all the remaining cliff dwellers were struck with lockjaw and paralysis of the arms and legs. They died within four days. By then, the Dine' had eaten the feast they had prepared. Manuelito did not divulge the name of the stranger because he was yet considered a friend. He did say, however, that this incident explains why traditional Navajos do not eat fish, the descendants of the cliff dwellers.
Finally, I had my answer. I immediately sent messages to the leading scientific journals advising them that I, Steven P. Simpson, had solved the mystery. Forget about cannibalism, violence and warfare, no longer would we have to wonder what happened to the Anasazi. Surely I am destined to become widely recognized as the expert on this subject. Never mind that Bob McPhearson and numerous Navajo medicine men solved the riddle long before I arrived on the scene.

As I once again headed back to the house to sate my hunger, I said to Priscilla, “Sorry Buddy, there is no fish for you from now on.” “Darn, she said, “do you have any hot dogs or ham? I don’t think that’s my kin.”

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Spider Woman Tales

"Dad, can you check my boots for me?" asked McKale. "Check them for what?" I inquired of my youngest daughter as she sat at the kitchen table looking fearfully at her "stylin'" black suede boots. "Spiders!" she said with a look of disgust. "Seriously?" I asked, mimicking the slang I had previously heard Alyssa and McKale use with each other while they fought over clothes. "You want ME to aggravate Spider Woman?" I asked sarcastically. "What am I, the royal taste tester, poison control officer, deific agitator?" My baby girl rolled her eyes and said, "Da'aad, I can't go to school until someone checks my boots for spiders." "Ask your sister," I said, "she's rather fond of arachnids." "Yah, right!" came Alyssa's caustic reply.

Elsie Holiday Spider Woman Cross Set

Just then my wife walked into the kitchen from the nearby bathroom. She had a hairbrush in one hand and the other resting on her hip. On her face was a look that said "Oh for heaven's sake, can you just check her boots?!" I checked the boots, handed them back to my daughter and said, "Spiders are friends, not foes." I smiled sweetly at my wife, who shook her head sadly and walked back into the bathroom. As I drove McKale to school, I reiterated the Navajo view that spiders are considered benevolent beings, that Spider Woman taught the Dine' to weave and that Spider Man built the first loom. I also explained how Navajo people have a phrase similar to, "cobwebs in the brain" and believe that Spider Woman spins webs in the head of those who treat her badly. "She will mess you up!" I warned. Just before McKale exited the vehicle she turned and said: "Yah, well, the only thing a spider has ever done for me is freak me out. As far as I am concerned, they are cooties and vermin!"

When I arrived at the trading post that day, I found Elsie Holiday visiting with Steve. She had just completed a beautiful and striking Spider Woman cross series and was negotiating her price. The Spider Woman cross is often believed to represent the united and complimentary couple of Spider Woman and Spider Man, and their contribution to the weaving arts. This basket set was impressively woven in the colors of white, black and orange. Elsie has often told us how her mentors, Mary and Sally Black, took her to the desert, found a spider web and applied the web to her hands. The custom was intended to transfer the weaving talents of the spider to Elsie. I would not hesitate to say that the ritual accomplished its goal. Elsie Holiday is one of the best Navajo basket weavers of all time, and Spider Woman would be proud.

That afternoon we heard from Luana Tso. Luana was on her way to the trading post with one of her classic single figure Yei rugs. Because they are always beautifully woven, straight and even, Steve and I have a real weakness for Luana's weavings. They are also always endowed with hugely impressive figures. As we anticipated the arrival of this magnificent weaver, we talked of how Spider Woman and Spider Man brought rug weaving to the Navajo People. According to legend, Spider Woman taught Navajo women to weave on a loom Spider Man designed and constructed. In the traditional stories, the cross poles were made from sky and earth cords, the warp sticks of sun rays, headles were of rock crystal and sheet lightning. The batten was a sun halo, white shell made the comb. There were four spindles: one a stick of zigzag lightning with a whorl of cannel coal; one a stick of flash lightning with a whorl of turquoise; a third had a stick of sheet lightning with a whorl of abalone; a rain streamer formed the stick of the fourth, and its whorl was white shell.

When Luana arrived with her weaving, as expected, Steve and I were impressed. Years ago we encouraged local Navajo rug weavers to recreate the Simpson Yei weaving of the early 1900s. The movement took hold in the person of Luana Tso, and she has likely become the premier contemporary weaver of this particular style. Luana has made a name for herself creating these stunning Yeis, and there has never been a collector who regretted acquiring one. We are extremely blessed to interact with the top-quality artists who inhabit the northern edge of Navajoland. They not only educate us to what qualifies as masterwork, they also introduce us to their culture and tradition. Can we be blamed if these cultural tales become part of our consciousness and we incorporate them into our personal lives? It is a certainty that we carry home some of what we gain at work and attempt to share it with our loved ones.

Luana Tso Simpson Yei Weaving

At our house, the job of relocating spiders to the natural world is mine. If not for me, the poor, misunderstood creatures might find themselves goo on the sole of a shoe. For some unexplained reason, the women in my household are scared to death of arthropods. Whenever there is a scream or shriek, or when the depths of someone's shoes must be plumbed, the job of managing these eight legged friends falls to me. If this were not the case, there would be far fewer arachnids in our little corner of the world, and nature would likely be thrown out of balance. Until awareness and enlightenment have dawned upon the gentlewoman of my abode, I am afraid the fate of those little buggers is in my hands. Until such open-mindedness occurs, let us hope Spider Woman does not turn vengeful and begin a "smack-down" of her own.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, January 8, 2010

2010-The New Year

Christmas has passed and the New Year begun, so this morning Grange and I renewed our morning treks to school. Year after year I have appealed for snow during the holidays; mostly to no avail. This is the desert after all. Hoping my dismal results did not somehow reflect on my relationship with the Big Kahuna, I kept asking. Finally, my request was granted and mountains of snow blanketed the ground just in time for Christmas. Well, for Bluff these are mountains. In other places they might well be considered mere foothills, or just a skiff.

Bluff Elementary Snowman

Two years ago, Bluff Elementary was awarded a Navajo Nation health grant. As part of the appropriation, the school administration developed a walking program for the children. Soon after Jana campaigned for a running program to enhance the project. The kids have responded, so Monday through Thursday mornings one can see the unruly mob of brightly colored kids hopping, skipping, jumping and chattering through the streets of this small community. It is a great way for the students to begin the day, and threatens to become a tradition.

Grange and his buddy Sammy have taken these excursions to the next level, and instead of walking a few blocks through town, they jog to the top of the small necropolis that juts up in the center of town, descend its northerly slope to the old pond road and scoot back to school along Navajo Twins Drive; a journey of about a mile and a half.

This morning as Grange and I left for school the snow shimmered like silvery glitter, flakes of frost cascaded from the cliffs and the winter flora swayed rigidly in its crystalline coat. To say it was cold would be an understatement; it was frigid. To say it was beautiful would be like calling the Sistine Chapel pretty; it was truly remarkable.

Since Grange and Sammy have increased their speed and extended their distance beyond that of the other students, I have been assigned the job of following them to ensure their safety. After too many years of running on pavement my old knees will no longer sustain me through a run of any consequence, so I ride the bike. With ice built up on the roads and no gloves on my hands, a significant oversight on my part, I was unable to peddle up cemetery hill. As a result, I asked Jana to follow the boys as I tracked them from the street.

It was not long after our departure that I arrived at the intersection of the pond road and Twin Rocks Drive to begin watching for the boys. My hands were truly frozen, so I shoved them deep into the pockets of my trousers in a vain attempt to warm up. In a while, two solitary figures appeared to float across the crest of the hill, illuminated by the rosy dawn of the new day, new year and new decade. About a minute later, Buffy the Wonder Dog could be seen wagging her tail, snuffing the ground and endeavoring to keep up. She, like me, has developed joint problems. She, unlike me, has kept on trucking. Trailing Buffy by about ninety seconds was Jana, soldiering on despite her disdain for running.

When Grange and Sammy finally reached me, they looked more like mobile snowmen than young boys. Their hats and jackets were frozen, their faces encrusted with ice crystals and their shuffling feet covered with snow. Even Buffy’s muzzle was frozen white and her whiskers clumped together, making her look more like a catfish than a canine. The runners were, however, having the time of their lives, slipping and sliding on the extensive ice sheets that had accumulated in low spots.

As I turned toward the trading post to begin the first work day of the new year, I reminded myself that I have been truly blessed. In spite of the economic woes embracing these United States, in spite of astronomical foreclosure rates in many areas of the country and in spite of the worst financial climate since the Great Depression, we have much to smile about. Seeing happy children striding through town each morning convinces me that the important things are still in order in this small village on the banks of the San Juan River.


Steve, Barry and the Team.