Friday, March 26, 2010

Settled in Bluff

Recently I have had reason to read and re-read several books about the pioneers who settled our little river valley. As a result I have grown to appreciate those who have gone before even more. My studies have been a lesson in faith, dedication and tenacity, and a reminder of just how spiteful and cantankerous this land can be upon first contact. It is hard to imagine the effort it took to creep across the shifting sands and crawl through vertical rock clefts just to get here. The scrapes and scars acquired from such a journey would have been evident for time and all eternity. Then to settle in the middle of nowhere with a whole lot of nothing to help you survive and only your brethren to lean upon. Well, Bluff must have seemed a lot like Purgatory.

Navajo Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday

Looking out from the Kokopelli doors of the trading post, I see spring creeping into Bluff and extending across the upper benches. For me, it is a time of wonder, a time to witness and appreciate the gifts Mother Nature provides. Changing Woman is young and beautiful again; youth and vitality are in the air, and she inspires and refreshes our attitudes. With the aid of sinus medication, I look forward to a green carpet of grass upon the red sands and the arrival of cliff flowers at the seeps where vertical slickrock meets talus slope. The bright warm days and cool nights enhance my well being. My guess is that the pioneers felt this way as well, but for them spring usually brought a rabid and unmanageable river; a torrent of runoff bearing silt and
sludge which came crashing downstream. The river seemed able to tear asunder the tremendous effort expended excavating a ditch and building head gates and cribs. At risk were the essential farmlands, crops, fruit trees and even home sites. Hopes and dreams were often flushed down stream to the mighty Colorado.

As I sit here writing, "Aunt Kathy" is out front, armed with Round-up to inhibit the advance of noxious weeds. The pioneers had no such chemical aid. There are reports that the weeds grew so high around town that livestock could be lost for days while only a hundred yards from the shed.If this were the case today, we might have to attach bells and whistles or a GPS implant to Steve just in case he wandered off. In the not too distant past, the grass of spring brought with it Texas and Colorado Cattle Companies forcing their caustic long horn cattle across the countryside to eat as much forage as bovinely possible. Navajo shepherds pushed their flocks of sheep and goats north across the variable Reservation boundary of the San Juan River. This was tradition with the Navajo, and they had fed their sheep thusly for generations. Their flocks had to be fattened before the heat of summer dried the grass into nutritionless stickers. Who were the settlers to tell them otherwise?

All elements knew the Mormons to be meek and mild, choosing to avoid conflict and promote good relations. They elected to feed the Native Americans rather than fight, and showed patience toward the rowdy cowpunchers. In today's society we tend to negativity and intolerance,
Bluffoons included. One thing we can learn from the past is that with careful thought and consideration we can work through our issues. Much can be accomplished when common ground is established, the goals and dreams of everyone fulfilled with concentrated effort. It also helps to settle on the most uncompromising land left in the western wilderness, since most of the competition eventually gives up and walks away, shaking their heads in disillusionment at the high cost of settlement.

We now anticipate the Holy People of the Navajo to let loose the Red Wind Yeis. During the winter, the Supernaturals contain the youthful beings in a Hogan located in the center of Monument Valley. When they are set free, the Red Yeis have a nasty habit of raising a red ruckus
and forcing the earth up to meet the sky. In the "good old days" our ancestors could expect dust and grit in every aspect of their lives. Red pearls were known to have grown from grains of sand, inescapably implanted in warm, moist areas of the body. Those implants went undiscovered for years, laying down layer upon layer of human nacre until, one day, at some of the most unexpected times, a thing of beauty, a gift of the desert gods sprang forth. These 'Red Pearls' are now extremely rare and valuable. Seriously! We are fortunate enough not to have to deal with such things in this day and age. Modern building materials help keep the blow sand at bay and consistent bathing rituals keep it out of delicate areas of our bodies. It's a good thing too,
because, as with most things of rare beauty, there is a price to pay. Those darn pearls could become terribly irritating and uncomfortable before they emerge.

Those early Mormon settlers did eventually discover treasures in Bluff and San Juan County. They found peace, solitude and room to grow. There was wonder and a stark beauty here amongst the scattered red rocks, pinion forests and shaded canyons of the high desert. The lofty
and majestic Blue Mountains allowed them life giving water to expand their territory, to grow cattle and sheep to feed and nourish themselves and, most importantly, plenty of space and time to populate and lay claim to southern Utah. Their relationships with the Navajo grew as
they came to know and understand each other. The Navajo were a creative, industrious people producing some of the most exquisite rugs, baskets and jewelry the pioneers had ever seen. The local co-op bought, traded for and sold much of the local art, giving the people an outlet
for their creativity. It was not unusual for the settlers to decorate their homes and selves with local crafts. Turquoise and silver was as much a part of the settlers' life as it was the Natives. The art of the people was gifted to visiting friends and dignitaries alike and was adopted into the culture of the pioneers.

Those first settlers gave up much to come to Bluff; they sacrificed comfortable homes, good businesses and close family ties to build a better world for those who followed. The pioneers were a diligent people focused on the future of their unique culture and the ties that bind. More sweat and blood was shed to put down roots in Bluff than most can even imagine; their story is heart warming and tragic at the same time. Those people were not my ancestors, but I feel a common bond because of where I was born, raised and work. Without their efforts I am not sure there would even be the town of Bluff. Without one of their descendants I would not be blessed with a wonderful, incredibly hard-working and tolerant wife and marvelous children. I, for one, appreciate their sacrifice, their tenacity and commitment to building such a place as Bluff.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, March 19, 2010

From Barrister to Busboy

As a boy growing up in the wilds of southeastern Utah, my parents often counseled me, “You have to be versatile to make a living in San Juan County.” Little did I realize, or even try to comprehend, the implications of their comments. They, however, knew quite well how important this advice was, so at the tender age of nine I was assigned my first job; attendant at a small filling station just south of Blanding. During that phase of my development, I was taught to pump gas; change tires; sell soda pop, candy and chips; check oil; clean bathrooms; and sweep floors. More importantly, I learned to communicate with the general public.

Steve's creations.

One of my earliest lessons in effective communication, and the high cost of ignorance, came when a traveler stopped by and brusquely instructed me to, “Put in a couple bucks worth of regular.” Not knowing exactly what a “couple” meant, I decided it must mean about five, so I confidently proceeded on that assumption. I was both surprised and embarrassed when the man handed me two dollars and drove away.

As I sat in the big chair behind the counter, drinking Pepsi, eating peanuts and wondering how to make up my three dollar deficit, I remembered an older friend who several months before had lectured me on the art of the small time con. One technique he had mentioned was placing interesting things near your cash register to distract a customer’s attention while you counted his change. My friend insisted that if the patron was paying attention to the distractions, rather than the money he received, you could easily short him a buck or two.

Although I had not given this instruction in petty thievery much thought, I now began to believe it might be the solution to my current monetary crisis. As a result, I took a fifty cent piece from the till, got a tube of silicon sealant from the storage closet and cemented the coin into a depression in the worn concrete floor, just in front of the register.

The next customer who came in took his change and, noticing the half dollar near his foot, reached down to retrieve it. Realizing the coin was secure, he pulled out his pocked knife, pried it up and walked out; giving me a knowing smile and leaving me with an even larger problem. When the man explained the trickery to my parents, I learned yet another valuable lesson; that a lie may seemingly resolve the present problem, but it has no future.

Having become newly converted to the virtues of honesty and integrity, my next position was shopkeeper and silversmith at the recently established Blue Mountain Trading Post. While this was a step up from pumping gas and washing windshields in all types of weather, my janitorial training was still in great demand.

When there were no customers in the shop to talk with about the rugs, baskets and Navajo jewelry, I sat at the workbench doing repairs and hammering out bracelets, buckles and bolos. That was the 1970’s, when everybody in the Southwest, both Native and non-Native, was making Indian jewelry, so the competition was fierce. I can still remember the sympathetic looks I received while proudly displaying my handiwork. “Oh, that’s nice,” the customers often said, asking to see something else.

Realizing my technical and artistic skills were limited and that my only real opportunities beyond sweeping up lay in a good education, Momma Rose encouraged me to attend college. Based upon my lack of scholastic achievement up to that point, she likely had doubts this was a truly viable alternative. In spite of that reality, I am confident she realized there may not be a better way to leverage me out of her house.

So off to school I went, and eight years later emerged with a license to practice law, which was in truth as dangerous as it sounds. Another five years passed and I found myself in Bluff, establishing Twin Rocks Trading Post. After a time I came to understand that economics in the southeastern corner of Utah is a lot like developing a watershed; in order to make a stream you must carefully channel all the small trickles. As the pioneers of this small community knew, however, conscientious though you may be, your flow is still likely to be disrupted by unforeseen events.

So, as my parents suggested all those years ago, I have learned to adapt. It is not unusual for me to be in court arguing a motion in the afternoon and back at Twin Rocks Cafe bussing tables that evening. If, as the English poet William Cowper once declared, variety is the spice of life, in San Juan County, diversity is the prerequisite of survival.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Heard Museum Guild, Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix, Az.

Recently, I was privileged to judge at the Heard Museum Guild, Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix, Arizona. The Heard is a leading entity when it comes to supporting and promoting Southwest art and artists, so I felt honored to have been called. This was a chance for me to view some of the best art in our business. Judging at this level allows me a first look at cutting edge creativity and craftsmanship. There were more than 700 top American Indian artists displaying and selling jewelry, textiles, sculpture, pottery, paintings, carvings and beadwork. The best, or most daring, of the group submitted creations they have spent up to a year preparing for this juried competition. I was definitely excited about spending up close and personal time with such a treasure trove of art.

It was looking to be a crazy week at the trading post and cafe. Craig was just recovering from knee surgery and Steve was scheduled to travel to Salt Lake City for a meeting. Several months before I had promised Carol Cohen, who was heading up the judging committee at the Heard, that I would be there for the event. I was becoming concerned that my long-term commitments here in Bluff would oblige me to renege on that promise. Fortunately, Kathy stepped-up and offered to cover my shift at the cafe and Steve offered to forgo his monthly meeting and cover the trading post. I would not be able to stay at the Heard and attend the Best of Show reception and stroll through the fair, but I could at least judge and frolic through the entries, so Laurie and I loaded up the truck and headed to the bright lights, big city.

We left early Thursday morning and drove onto the Reservation at daybreak. I am constantly amazed by and appreciative of the graphic nature and stark beauty of Navajoland. The early morning sunlight sets off the eastern face of monuments and mesas with a soft yellow/orange glow which is contrasted by deep, dark shadow on western slopes. For me, looking closely at the enhanced rock face and sheltered surfaces is reminiscent of the wonderful, weather-worn complexions of our local Navajo elders. I see in both an aged and complex attraction, and witness patience and intimate associations with time and space. Even the undulating sand dunes whiskered with scraggly plant life and stoic red rock, pockmarked and scarred by wind and rain speak to me of ancient associations. The asphalt highway splitting the landscape seems to have only a tenuous grasp on the terrain. As we traveled its narrow expanse, we were jarred by cracks and buckles upon its surface. This land is ever moving, ever altering its face. It is a wondrous, evolving place.

The trip from Bluff to Phoenix is one of constant visual stimulation. We traveled from our secluded, underpopulated, red rock embraced river valley, through the Navajo Reservation and its monolithic desert spires and red blow sand, up into the Coconino National Forest and the sacred, San Francisco Peaks; cascaded off the Mogollon Rim and into the overpopulated desert city which is encircled by giant saguaro cactus and barren, rock strewn hills. This is some of the best scenery Mother Nature has to offer. There is no need for digitally enhanced visual aids reflecting off drop down screens in your car, you simply need a clean windshield. The fact that the mother of my three children came along added greatly to my scenic perspective. We spoke at length of how much of the road we now traveled paralleled the path an early Mormon scouting party took to find their way to what would become Bluff and Montezuma Creek. I was blessed with good company, great visuals and easy conversation.

After arriving at our destination and checking into the hotel in downtown Phoenix, we had a couple hours to kill, so we went out on the streets for a walk-about. It has always interested me how other people live and adapt to their surroundings. Being born and raised in a small town makes the idea of living in a big city rather unappealing. I like the idea of being so close to the natural world, without much human competition for perfect peace and quiet. I am truly a "Bluffoon" in all aspects of my life, and that tour of Phoenix reaffirmed my belief. There are a few things that draw me into the city, and the Heard Museum is just such an attraction.

It was now time to explore the possibilities. Laurie and I went back to the room, donned fresh Levis, walked down the street to the Heard and entered its oasis in the desert. We were treated to a picnic lunch from Honey Bears, introduced and reintroduced to our peers, given a discussion on judging etiquette and turned loose into the hall. I was to be a basket judge, and was teamed with Dianne Dittemore, Ethnological Collections Curator at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, Arizona and Mark Bahti from Bahti Indian Arts in Tucson, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The good folks at the Heard were well aware of how opinionated and hardheaded some of us can be, so they put three of us together in an attempt to overcome gridlock. Our group, however, had very little trouble agreeing on prize winners. We gave the Best of Class award to a basket titled: "Gathering of Nations" by Carol E. Douglas. The Best of Show award went to a wooden reticulated sculpture titled, "Coyote as Champion" by Ed Noisecat.

After judging the baskets I was able to stroll through the wonderland and visit all the other categories, unfettered by normal viewing constraints. For me, this was an amazing opportunity to closely inspect and appreciate the passion these individuals infuse into their art. It was great to be able to study the technique, attention to detail, materials and creativity used to produce this art. Browsing the myriad of entries made me feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store. The only thing between me and that fabulous art was a pair of thin cotton gloves. The experience was overwhelming. Laurie was patient with my over exuberant attitude; she let me wander at will while waiting patiently for me to wind down. My judging duties ended around 10:00 p.m. Afterward I bid a fond farewell to the experience and we found our way back to the hotel. As I drifted off that night I must have had a smile of complete satisfaction on my face while dreams of Indian art danced in my head.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Beneath the Grass

Here in the Southwest, horses have attained almost mythical status. Since they were not indigenous to the western hemisphere, their acquisition had a profound effect upon Native Americans. Once horses were introduced to North America, tribes were no longer limited in their reach and could range far and wide. Not only did this new mobility increase interaction among diverse populations, it quite often changed the character of social relations among them.

Kira and Pistol Pete outside of Twin Rocks.

The Navajo in particular have a great reverence for these animals. It is believed that Johonaa’ei’, the bearer of the sun disk, rides each day from his home in the east across the skies to his hogan in the west on the most beautiful of horses. He is said to have five, one of turquoise, one of white shell, one of pearl shell, one of red shell and one of coal. When the weather is clear, Johonaa’ei’ rides his turquoise, white shell or pearl horse. When the skies are dark and stormy, however, he is atop his coal or red shell horse.

During many years spent at Twin Rocks Trading Post, I have heard countless stories about the horses of the Sun, and have often seen these stately animals designed into Navajo rugs, baskets and turquoise jewelry. As a young man growing up in Bluff, I have vague memories of infrequent rides on the back of some old nag and can still remember when many Navajo families came to town in buckboard wagons equipped with pneumatic tires. In one particularly vivid recollection, I can see two Navajo ladies driving their team past the old Twin Rocks Bar. Adorned with squash blossom necklaces, turquoise bracelets and coin buttons, they literally shimmered in the noonday sun.

Horses, however, were not on my list of things to own until Jana and I were married. As part of the dowry, I acquired a fractional interest in Harry, an Arabian gelding which I have most studiously avoided. Jana is, however, a horse lover, so next came Pistol Pete, Kramer and finally Today. It has often been the case that Jana, Kira and Grange would be resting comfortably in their saddles while I hiked or rode my bicycle behind them, conscientiously avoiding the intermittent clumps of manure that fell to earth.

It is fair to say that horses are one thing I have never developed a fondness for. When it comes to transportation or recreation, just give me a good bike, which does not need to be fed and will go for miles on just one bottle of water.

Life, however, is never tidy. So it was last week when I came to work thinking the sun was shining, the birds were singing and all was right with the world. It was not long after I propped open the doors of the trading post that Jana came hauling Pistol Pete by a lead rope. We had acquired Pistol many years ago from Craig and Kathy, who had gotten him from Priscilla, who had procured him from nobody really knows where. As far as we could tell, Pistol was something in excess of 30 years old, which is about 80 in horse years.

Poor old Pete had been down during the cold night with a serious case of colic. His coat was smeared with dirt, mud clumped on his mane and his eyes were impacted with yellow goop. Although he and I had never been close, I could not help feeling a great deal of compassion for the old beast. As I rubbed his muzzle and did the best I could to comfort him, I realized he was at the end of the trail and would soon journey to the great pasture in the sky, where the days are always warm and the fields universally green.

Although I had often considered his passing without emotion, as I walked Pistol around the trading post parking lot, I was deeply moved by his suffering. It could have been that in trying to keep him alive, I began to feel my own mortality and the mortality of those around me, or it might have been empathy for the loss I knew Jana’s would soon realize. In any case, I was genuinely sad to see Pistol in such poor condition and was relieved when Doc. Watkins pronounced his pain at an end.

I believe it was Mark Twain who said that every man dies, but not every man lives. As Pistol’s years of nibbling the grass waned and his days spent beneath it neared, I began to question whether I had actually lived, and whether it was time to make some real changes. It has been almost a week since Pistol went underground, and I am still wondering. Change, even in the face of loss, is difficult.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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

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

New Staff Picks for the Month of March coming soon!

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