Friday, July 9, 2010

Turn the Page

One of my all-time favorite tunes is the 1970s hit Turn the Page by Bob Seger. On my monthly journeys to Salt Lake City, I often put Bob’s album into the player and listen to the hauntingly beautiful song several times in a row. It is a good thing I travel alone, since anyone else in the car would surely suffer from repetitive song syndrome. Although the melody intrigues me, it is the concept of the next phase that truly captures my imagination.

Mary Black and Steve Simpson at Twin Rocks.

The other evening I drove the two miles across town to the Desert Rose Inn to retrieve Grange after he had spent the afternoon scuffling with his cousin Tarrik. As it turns out, my niece Breanne and her family were visiting. Breanne and her husband Aaron have recently added Tennyson to their familial inventory, so it was my first opportunity to see the baby.

As I sat on the sofa cradling their new addition, I was reminded of the early years when Dacia, Kira and Grange were small enough to properly manage. Somewhere in the distance I could hear Bob humming, “Turn the Page.” Surely it is a new stage for Breanne and Aaron, but the experience also pointed out to me that, as fast as the years pass, it likely will not be long before the little one in my arms is my grandchild, not my grandniece.

At the trading post I often marvel how quickly the Native art and culture pages are turning. In many ways the changes are progressive; in others, however, they are disconcerting. Things at Twin Rocks Trading Post have changed so much in the past 20 years that I frequently have a difficult time reconciling where we started and where we are now.

The other day Jana and I were reading through some old Tied to the Post stories. One narrative featured a photograph of our showcases packed with Navajo ceremonial baskets. As I look around the trading post this morning, I notice that our reserve of such weavings is practically nonexistent. In the early days we universally had stacks and stacks of them available. Now we may have only four or five at a time. This, I believe, signals a sea change in Navajo basketry specifically and Navajo culture generally.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of ceremonial baskets in Navajo culture. In her book, Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space, Jana quotes Betty Yazzie, who says, “[Baskets are] a representation of your life.” These weavings are also an indispensable part of any significant matrimonial or healing ceremony, and medicine men universally require them before performing traditional rites. In her monograph, Jana goes on to state, “Many families possess [a ceremonial basket], one that serves as a reminder of who they are as a people.”

Although the rug; whether it be Two Grey Hills, Ganado, Klagetoh or one of the other recognizable regional styles, is often seen as representative of the Navajo people, surely it is the basket that forms the foundation of their culture and traditions. For decades we had old medicine men like John Holiday bringing in the weavings used in their ceremonies. These baskets were part of their compensation, and are sold to the trading posts to raise much needed cash. Any more we hardly ever see a medicine man, and when we do, the quality of their basketry offerings is generally poor.

Jana is personally acquainted with the owners of Griswold’s Trading in Window Rock, Arizona. In the past they would have had over a thousand baskets in pawn at any one time. More recently, however, that number has declined by two-thirds. The reason for the decrease seems to be that the weavers are giving up the craft because it is too difficult, too time consuming and economically unrewarding.

What this phase in Navajo history means is truly anyone’s guess. My fear is that it represents the loss of an entire facet of Navajo culture. It may, however, prove to be nothing more than an adjustment. Last weekend I was sitting on the curb watching the Fourth of July parade at Barry’s house when the local Navajo queen and her attendants passed. All were holding baskets representing their heritage. On close inspection, I noticed that some had ceremonial style baskets woven in Pakistan. As the royalty faded in the distance, my mind drifted back to Bob’s lyrics. Surely change is coming. For better or worse the pages keep turning.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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