Friday, May 28, 2010

Hand Trembling

Long ago Barry and I began asking people who bring art into Twin Rocks Trading Post if there is any symbolism or special significance associated with their work. As anyone who has been in the trading business will tell you, American Indian art is steeped in tradition. As a result, even the most innocuous geometric patterns may have deep meaning. We are, therefore, constantly inquiring, “What does it mean?”

Mary Black & Lalana @ Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Often the artists simply chuckle at the questions, evidencing our general lack of understanding. There are times, however, when these inquiries uncover volumes of information. This additional knowledge has helped us understand the extremely complicated local cultures. It has also taught us a lot about our own traditions and allowed us to build stronger relationships with the people around us.

One example of this occurred last week when Mary Holiday Black came in with her latest weaving. It was Mary who instilled this curiosity in us when she brought in her Fire Dance basket several years ago. As she laid out the message of that weaving, Barry and I were amazed to have stumbled onto such important information about an almost extinct ceremony. At that point we were hooked.

This time, after she had secured the Kokopelli doors against the howling spring winds that persistently blew red sand high into the atmosphere, Mary unveiled a relatively simple basket adorned with brown, orange and yellow lines spiraling out from the center. “What does it mean?” I asked as Priscilla and I peered at the weaving through our reading glasses. “Ndilnihii,” Mary said. “Hand trembler,” Priscilla interpreted.

Although I tried to make sense of the design, I finally concluded it was purely abstract. Mary explained the pattern was one she had been taught as a young girl, when she was just learning to weave. She had not recreated it for several decades, but had recently determined it was time to reach back into the past for inspiration.

The Navajo believe their people must live in harmony with nature. This state of being is generally referred to as hozho. When someone becomes ill they are said to be out of balance and often go to a medicine man to discover the source of their imbalance. The medicine man can be either a hand trembler, a crystal gazer or a star gazer. This ndilnihii diagnoses the source of affliction through prayer, concentration and the sprinkling of sacred corn pollen, which causes the ndilnihii ‘s hand to tremble. The medicine man then passes his shaking hand over the patient’s body as he prays to Gila Monster. Diagnosis comes either through interpretation of the tremors or as a direct revelation from Gila Monster.

Once the origin of the problem is determined, the patient engages a hataalii, who treats the individual using herbs and one of approximately 23 different sings, including the Flint Way, Evil Way, Monster Way and the more widely known Yei-be-chei. Priscilla says this process is like going to a family practice doctor who then refers you to a specialist.

Interestingly the Veterans Administration in Phoenix, Arizona has approved the treatment of Navajo warriors returning home by the ndilnihii and hataalii. The government will now reimburse the veterans for all or part of the cost of nine ceremonies which are intended to restore hozho in the returning soldiers.

By the end of Mary’s explanation my hands were trembling, with excitement. The diagnosis: Our basket affliction, although incurable, is usually not fatal.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Last Sunday I had the opportunity to take a hike. After my formal duties of church and state, I decided it was high time to exercise and commune with nature. I had an idea to walk up the pavement to the northwestern tip of the mesa above town. I would then go off-road and trickle south through the pinion, sage and juniper, scamper along the canyon rim and meander towards the reservoirs our forefathers so thoughtfully provided west of town. I asked Laurie and the girls if they were up for a hike, but they declined. Laurie was in the midst of preparing one of her delicious Sunday dinners, so I forgave her without remorse. I knew I would benefit from her labor of love when I returned. Alyssa was hiding behind a computer screen, interacting with someone far more interesting than I, and McKale was engrossed in a book. After being denied accompaniment by my wife and daughters, I decided to go it alone. McKale handed me a cell phone as I left the house and emerged into a glorious day. McKale knew I could not read the screen without my glasses, and would likely forget about the telephone in short order, but sent it along "just in case".

Navajo Tree of Life Weaving.

As I walked the narrow blacktop to the north, the houses became fewer and fewer and the languid Sunday afternoon traffic dropped to a trickle. I topped out on the mesa and walked the incredibly scenic ridge top road that borders Recapture Canyon and the Abajo mountains that sweep majestically up from the ruggedly rocky canyon floor. Looking across the great expanse, I could see several interesting rifts in the adjoining mountainside that deserved closer inspection. Alas, those would have to wait for another day! The sky was amazing, a deep azure with an abundance of puffy, white cotton ball cloud formations floating majestically overhead. As I walked, passing "woollies" caused intermittent zones of light and shadow, allowing constantly differing perspectives on the surrounding landscape. Just before the road dropped into the canyon I veered left and hopped a locked, gated fence meant to deter vehicular travel on this particular dirt track. As I trekked south I witnessed a multitude of wild flowers. There were wild white phlox, golden sunflowers, orange Indian paintbrush, and an occasional milky white blossom of yucca flowers set among prickly, protective green spikes. I also noticed several other varieties whose names I am not familiar with.

Moving at a fair pace, I came to the head of a canyon running north and south. The slight depression quickly became deeper and rockier as I moved along its flank until I could no longer see its most interesting and alluring depths. I thought about delving into the darkness, but knew I was expected to attend a meeting with my wife at 5:00 that evening. Even worse, I might miss a family dinner that promised delicious delicacies. I was hesitant to chance such a disappointment. I never wear a watch, claiming I refuse to be ruled by time. On the other hand, I despise tardiness and seldom miss a scheduled appointment. A conflicted personally? Probably! Anyway, I did not know what time it was, how long I had been out, exactly where I was or how far from the house I might be. As I stood there marveling at the peaceful silence, I could hear the breeze through the trees, the creak of branches and the songs of birds all about me. There was nothing else. I thought back to the trading post, the artists, art and culture I am blessed to deal with on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded how the belief system of the Navajo people evolved from their close, personal relationship with Earth, Sky and Water.

Standing there in the near silence, and looking out over the spectacular landscape with the snow-capped Blue Mountain at my back, caused me to reflect on those wonderful stories I have heard from early childhood. I thought how Wind, Rain, Thunder and Lightning, almost every aspect of the natural world, are deified, and how Sun, Moon and Earth are held in extreme reverence. I heard a meadowlark sing his five-part melody and thought how the people believe the gods have stepped aside to allow their precious charges time to explore the Anglo world of science and technology. "You will know of our being by the song of the small birds" was their departing promise of continued support. I can't help but believe that world still exists for those who embrace that primitive but thoughtfully hopeful philosophy. I heard a buzzing sound and felt something land on my forearm. Looking down I recognized a pesky horsefly and thought to smoosh it where it rested. Hesitating, I was reminded of Dotso, Messenger Fly, the Navajo mythological guardian that reminds the people of meaningful events. "Shoot," I said out loud, and thought to myself that this friendly fly had placed himself at risk to remind me of an important appointment. It was time to fleet-foot it home. But where was I?

I navigated a cluster of pinion trees, dropped into a small valley, hopped another fence and climbed a rocky hillside before finding a dirt road that looked promising. Following it to the south a few minutes, I thought I was beginning to recognize my surroundings. Walking further I encountered a relatively unused double track I had hiked a week earlier with a small group of young people. I knew if I traveled that rugged road for a half a mile I would find myself overlooking the fourth reservoir. That would put me somewhere close to four miles from my front door. Looking up at the position of the sun, I realized it was time to pick up the pace. Before too long I reached the reservoir and hit pavement. I hustled as fast as I could, passed-up a couple ride offers because I wanted to finish what I had started. As I came to the church, about a mile from our home, I saw "my ride", the Toyota Torpedo parked out front. That meant Laurie had gone to the meeting without me. I dredged the long forgotten cell phone from my pocket and called Alyssa to come and get me. When she picked me up, Alyssa told me I had been gone three and a half hours. I quickly cleaned-up, changed my clothes and drove my truck to the meeting. As I arrived at the church (half and hour late), I looked to the heavens and thanked that fresh fly, or whoever he might have been, for reminding me of my responsibilities.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Hummingbird Chronicles

As anyone who has visited Twin Rocks Trading Post will attest, it is literally packed with brightly colored objects. To name just a few, on the walls you will find vividly red rugs from Luana Tso; multicolored Changing Woman baskets by Elsie Holiday; wild plank and canvas folk art paintings by Leland Holiday; and vibrant Red Mesa weavings by the Coggeshell family. It should come as no surprise then that hummingbirds often fly in through the open doors to explore this explosion of color.

Priscilla and Lalana looking for birds at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

In Bluff we have what are known as black-chinned hummingbirds, which are characterized by their small size and metallic green coloring. Navajo legend tells us that the first hummingbirds were large, white and rapacious. As such they often killed the flowering plants in their search for food. Because of this, the gods became displeased with them and, in an attempt to reduce their appetite and quell their destructive tendencies, made the birds smaller. During this process, the hummingbirds somehow lost their ability to sing. The other birds took pity on them and asked the gods to compensate the hummers for their misfortune by giving them beautiful plumage. After much deliberation the gods agreed, and hummingbirds, although songless, have been exceptionally handsome ever since.

Hummingbirds often arrive after a rain, and are therefore associated with moisture and good luck. Surely that is why Priscilla has historically counseled Barry and me to carefully recapture the birds that enter the trading post, give them a drink of water and release them back into the wild. Hers is in essence the catch and release program for wayward hummers, and we universally comply. To date we have not lost a single bird.

Last Tuesday was, however, different. Having been chased around my office for over an hour, the latest hummer to visit the store finally succumbed to exhaustion and I was able to catch it. As I prepared for its release Priscilla declared, “Wait, you first have to bless it with corn pollen.” A bit startled by her directive, I asked, “Where will we find pollen at this time of year?” Priscilla was unsure, so we began to contact all our traditional friends to see if they were inclined to contribute to this process.

“No,” was the typical response. What one must realize is that pollen to the Navajo is like the Eucharist to the Catholic. Consequently nobody wanted to give over. When we asked Priscilla’s daughter-in-law, there was a slight pause before her negative response. I therefore suspected we were on to something and turned things over to Priscilla, who put the bite on her relative. Toni could not resist her mother-in-law, and we got a small quantity of the yellow spores.

Placing both bird and pollen into a paper bag, we carefully coated the hummer in the manner you might encrust a pork chop. Once that task was accomplished, we released the bird and placed the remaining pollen in a small plastic bag. “Now,” Priscilla said, “if you want to think fast, put some on your head. If you want to run fast, put some on your legs. You get the picture?” I did.

The next day, before our morning run, I invited Grange to my office and related the events of the prior day. Retrieving the tiny bag of hummingbird pollen from my desk, I smudged his legs the way a priest might mark the forehead of a parishioner on Ash Wednesday. “That’s weird,” was all he had to say. That day, however, he ran faster than he has ever run in his young life. “Has nothin’ to do with Dad’s pollen,” he assured his mother. Clearly he has an underdeveloped appreciation for ritual. After a few days of much slower times, however, he may have seen the light.

Yesterday Priscilla and I made the mistake of allowing Barry to taste some of the pollen. He now talks like an auctioneer. Oddly enough, however, his sales are improving. Priscilla is surely on to something.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tree Hugger!

Recently I agreed to take some young people on a hike, so last Monday evening I was out driving the back roads of Blanding looking for a good trail. I knew the area well, because Spenser and I would ride our mountain bikes out there when he was barely old enough to mount-up. To be more accurate, I peddled and Spenser rode behind on a trail-a-bike securely attached to the seat post. It was great fun, and remarkably memorable. This time, however, I was driving my Toyota four wheel drive pickup, and going places I probably should not have gone. Not because it was dangerous, but because the heavy winter had left the ground moisture-laden. The roads were steep, washed-out at several critical junctures, and I did not have a jack with me. It would have been relatively easy for me to slide off into a ditch and become high-centered. Yes, I have personally gotten stuck while driving a four wheel drive, so it is possible. It takes talent, but it is doable. Walking the five miles or so back to town would have been easy, but explaining the mishap to my wife would have been tough on my ego. The possibility of becoming bogged down and busted kept me from pushing the limit.

First Woman/Changing Woman Basket

Driving to the western edge of the mesa, I espied an enticing area peppered with interesting looking juniper and pinon trees located just across a small canyon. Looking closely at the rock strewn dirt track winding its way into the steep depression caused me a little anxiety, but not enough to extinguish my desire to attempt a crossing. I believed I could traverse the wide ditch at the bottom and scramble up the opposite incline without too much trouble. It was, however, a trifle hairier than I thought, because the ditch splitting the arroyo was deeper than it seemed from the top. I took my time, drove carefully and soon found myself on the opposite side. As I topped out, I looked to the left and discovered faint impressions marking an old road passing through the trees. I steered the truck south and slowly drove into the ragged and stunted forest. As I passed beyond the trees, I noticed the little mesa I was on becoming narrower by the yard. I soon realized I was on an extended finger of land high above two deep canyons. The vague road ended without warning and I found myself at a tight turnaround point overlooking what I assumed was Big Canyon on my right and a smaller, unnamed side canyon on my left.

Turning off the engine, I exited the vehicle and walked to the rim. It was a spectacular view. I stood high above the impressively rugged canyon floor looking directly west into the setting sun. I could see Elk Ridge rising up just in front of me and surveyed a vast array of canyons and mesas to the southwest. Because of the slow course of the sun, the landscape ebbed and flowed with light as I stood appreciating its variable colors. It seemed as if I were watching a slow-motion slide show. It had been a cloudy, somewhat blustery day up to this point, but as the golden orb of the sun made its last stand on the horizon it seemed to pause just under the cloud cap and rest for a moment on the rim of the world. The wind died down, and a sense of peaceful calm crept over the land. As I stood there in silent admiration, something on the periphery of my vision captured my attention. Looking to my right I saw an especially unique tree which had sprouted near the canyon rim. This stunted and gnarly pinon had more twists and turns in its trunk than I thought possible. Except for the three separate caps of greenery on top, it looked like an ancient octopus with highly weathered and textured tentacles. I walked up to the singularly impressive visage and looked it over carefully.

The tree was a perfect example of nature's artistry. Her handiwork was impressive, and inspirational. As I looked, I noticed a depression in the trunk of the aged pinon and two upward sweeping arms extending from either side. A throne, I thought to myself as I crawled under the three piece canopy and settled down upon a comforting cushion of debris consisting of tiny dead branches, boughs and seeds laid down over centuries. I sat down and felt the trunk accept the curve of my back, raised my arms upon the extending branches and found my kingly seat to be a perfect fit. As I sat there looking over the canyon depths and watching the Sun Bearer ride his chariot into the depths of the netherworld, I realized this same tree had surely seen several thousand spectacular sunsets in its time, and would hopefully witness several thousand more. On this occasion it had very appreciative company. Embracing it as it had me, I returned to the truck and drove back into town.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.