Friday, August 27, 2010

Eagle Way

Last Sunday afternoon I was driving my pick-up truck north of Monticello; free-wheeling it into my in-laws' Spring Creek property just west of the airport. The early afternoon was bright and sunny, and the fields were green with freshly mown hay stubble interspersed with heavyweight bales of fragrant alfalfa. I saw distinctive mounds of fresh earth dispersed about the fields and heard the definitive high-pitched bark of prairie dogs all around me. To my left, upon a rise above the dirt track 100 yards away, was an age old barn which was slowly migrating from together to apart. Admiring the scene, I wondered to myself how much time the dilapidated structure had before it fell in upon itself. It will be a shame when it goes; not only for the doves and pigeons that roost in its rafters and the cows that find shade in its shadow, but for those of us who appreciate its scenic quality. That distraction is most likely the reason I did not notice the giant golden eagle resting upon a knobby fence post beside the furrowed lane upon which I traveled. Before I became aware of the alluring bird of prey I was within 30 yards of it.

1960s Zuni Eagle Dancer Set

As I closed in, the great frequent flier turned its feathered brow lazily in my direction and blinked as if contemplating action. Sitting regally there, the eagle looked to be nearly two and a half feet tall. It must have decided I was not going to stop and gawk from afar as would most ornithological tourists. I wanted to get closer; to see this magnificent creature as closely as possible without causing a ruction or embedding it in my grill. As I moved in, the barnstorming bird rolled to its left and for the most part fell off the cedar post. I had the impression the eagle was full of varmint and reluctant to be pushed from its perch. As if in slow motion, great mottled brown wings unfurled to a width of what I presumed to be six feet. Just before it hit the ground, the captain of the skies flapped its marvelous feathered appendages, lifting itself a good three feet in the air with one stroke. Another lazy beat and it was six feet up as easily as you please. On the third beat I was within ten feet, my windshield was overshadowed with grapple hook beak, tufted breast and curvaceous claw. The bad boy bird let out a scream of indignation and banked a hard right, which exposed a very impressive underside. I was so close now that if I knew what I was looking for I might have been able to distinguish gender.

As the hefty heavyweight of the raptor world glided past my open window I was gifted with and even closer top side view of the ace aerialist and marveled at its grace, beauty and raw power. The bird's golden yellow eyes flashed in my direction and I saw a fierce aggression. Its hooked black beak, edged in yellow, opened slightly as it flew. The beak was larger and longer than my thumb, and a whole lot more ominous. The talons on its hoary yellow feet were longer than my fingers and, "Oh Baby!" did they look wicked as they flexed in flight. This was a creature not to be trifled with, not without significant body armor anyway. My mind flashed back to descriptions of early Native people hollowing out shallow depression in the earth on or near the edge of some windswept mesa overlooking a canyon or plain. In my mind's eye I could see some scrawny, malnourished fellow lying in a hole while his brothers covered all but his hand and eyes with a thin layer of brush and earth. At the last moment someone would pass him a frightened cottontail and his cohorts in crimes against nature would disperse and seek shelter from sharp sighted surveillance on high.

This unlucky contestant, holder of the short straw, would lie there with a shrieking rabbit in one hand and the other poised to grasp tail feathers from the monster bird if it made an appearance. Prayer feathers from the majestic, almighty Eagle are considered the most powerful of all transmitters of the sacred word. "Live feathers"; those extracted from a living, breathing eagle, allowed for direct and undisturbed communication with the spirit world. I wonder what Lucy talked the first Charlie Brown into attempting this feat of fearless bravery. It was a sure bet the bunny was a goner in this undertaking, but what of the poor schmuck in the covered ditch. From what I saw during my up close and personal inspection of the adult golden eagle, it is my guess that when that ravenous winged aeronaut swooped in for take-out there was significant danger afoot. There certainly would have been a higher moisture count in the bottom of that burrow upon extraction than upon insertion. A slight miscalculation of aerodynamics, ballistics or geometry could prove fatal, or at least allow for a walk on the wild side. Talk about placing your faith in "a wing and a prayer!" I mean to tell ya.

I watched in admiration as the great bird flew away and landed on the crest of the barn. For a brief moment I wondered whether the heftiness of this mighty master of the heavens might prove weighty enough to turn the gravitational tide and topple the outbuilding. It, of course, was not. I braked the truck, switched off the ignition and exchanged glances with the courtly creature for several moments. As I watched, I thought how, of all the great birds in Navajo mythology, the eagle ('atsa) is the most honored and revered. The child of Cliff Monster had become respectable, a symbol of ceremony and high regard; a warrior serving as a metaphor for the ultimate predator. The founders of our great nation concurred, and honored the eagle by designating it our national bird. This eagle, on the other hand, had no such regard for me, or anyone else for that matter. It screamed in my direction one last time and lifted itself skyward without leaving behind a single gifted feather.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, August 20, 2010


A couple years ago Navajo silversmith Kee Yazzie Jr. brought in an extremely unusual belt buckle he had made. The piece featured an asymmetric spiral with a drop of gold in the center. There is similar imagery on rock art panels scattered around Bluff, and I have been informed by many in the archaeological community that this is the symbol for eternity; the continuous cycle of life.

Steve's Buckle.

Kee had used meaningful symbolism in a clean and simple format, a combination I greatly admire in art. Native sculptor Allan Houser once said he tried to get everything into his work that was necessary and nothing more. Although that may seem an easy rule to live by, experience has taught me it is not. All too often I see work that is unnecessarily complex or completely overdone. In my opinion simple is best, and Kee had nailed it with this particular piece.

Navajo basketry is built on a similarly cyclical principle. A ceremonial basket, for example, is viewed by tribal members as a map through which Navajo people chart their lives. The center represents emergence, the place where the Dine’ emigrated from a prior world. As they emerged, all was white. The inner coils of the basket are this color to represent birth and entry into the light.

As the design spirals outward, an increasing amount of black stitching is incorporated into the pattern. This color represents darkness, struggle, adversity and pain; the difficult side of life. The black eventually gives way to red bands, which embody marriage, the mixing of one’s blood with a spouse; family. The red is pure, and in this section there is no darkness.

Progressing outward from the familial bands, the darkness begins to recede. This area is interspersed with increasing white and represents enlightenment, which expands until it reaches the border. This is the spirit world, a place devoid of darkness.

The line from the center of the basket to the rim reminds us that no matter how much darkness we encounter in our lives, there is always a pathway to the light.

It has always been interesting to me that ceremonial baskets embody progression in a spiraling path. In what seems to be an inherent contradiction, the spirit line indicates there may be a more direct course. It is that type of mystery that drew me to Kee’s buckle.

Although I do not buy much jewelry for myself, this piece had all the magic I like in Native art, so I took it home. The problem, however, is that I am eternally misplacing things, and the buckle was no exception. I immediately lost it. Having set it on the chest at the foot of the bed, I neglected it for a few weeks. When I went back to put it on a belt, it was gone.

Questioning the entire family brought no results. I had emptied drawers, searched under the bed and even threatened to waterboard the kids. It was no use, the buckle, like the Bush administration, was gone.

Living at Twin Rocks Trading Post has taught me that things often appear when you least expect them. Many times I have ordered a rug, basket or piece of jewelry for a customer only to have months, or even years, go by with no hint of the artist who promised to make it. Then, shortly after I have informed the buyer all hope is lost, the artist comes in with the item.

So it was with my buckle. Although I had searched the house a thousand times and finally given up all hope of reclaiming it, this morning I lifted one of my shirts only to have the buckle drop to the floor. Jana assures me it was my kinder, gentler approach that caused the jewelry gods to finally return the buckle. I, however, think it was my recent letter to the CIA requesting instruction on how to interrogate children under the age of sixteen.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Match Light and Rainbow Raillery

Last Saturday morning's sunrise was spectacular! From where I stood, looking out our living room window, it was as if a monstrous match had been struck. The virtual flame fired up the morning with a visage of red, orange, yellow and blue light, just as such a brilliant blaze might. Standing there in the fiery glow caused me to feel warm and comfortable with the world as I know it. Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz, spoke most eloquently when she said, "There's no place like home." When it comes to visual wonders, San Juan County definitely has its share. The Navajo artists that frequent Twin Rocks Trading Post are often asked, "From where do you derive your inspiration?" Almost without exception, these thoughtful and expressive people briefly look within themselves, then outward, lightly point their lips past the Kokopelli doors and say, "There!" They refer to the natural world in all its glorious, motivational splendor.

Twin Rocks Trading Post

Upon our worn counter tops artists like Bessie and Ruby Coggeshell, Edith and Bernita Martin, Eleanor Yazzie and Luana Tso unroll woven wonders derived from a palate of color gathered from surrounding landscapes. From their highly practiced fingertips and active imaginations spring intricate interpretations of myth, legend and native spirituality expressed in extremely complicated designs. Looking closely we recognize iron red sandstone formations, sage, rabbit brush and cornstalk greens with golden yellow desert flowers and silky, pollen encrusted tassels. We are introduced to dark brown to black manganese flows staining cliff faces, resulting from millennia of echoing summer thundershowers. There are also turquoise blues and greens drawn from skystone, and patches of zinc leeched from the earth. Within the weaving are color variations of dawn, daylight and dusk. Beauty abounds!

From artists like Kenneth and Irene White, Susie Crank, Nancy Chilly, Lorraine Williams and Alice Cling, we see flood bowls depicting ancient water sources, seed pots and utilitarian items. Vessels plain and decorated with deities, those benevolent beings so near and dear to the hearts of the People. Presented from the soiled folds of a tattered towel or a rumpled cardboard box padded with crumpled newspaper, these pottery pieces propose a lesson in creativity spawned by a nearly lost tradition and culture. The potters search out banks of clay, dig it, dry it, pound it and sift it for foreign debris, then re-wet the clay, hand work and decorate it into irrationally symmetrical and stylish pottery forms. The finishing touches come from a red hot firing with charcoal and dung. The pots are then coated with purified pinion pitch to allow a high shine and glowing finish. Simply put, from earth, water, fire, tree sap and man's incredible ingenuity comes a work of fine art.

Jewelers the likes of Allison Lee, Eugene Livingston, Verdy and Albert Jake, the Reeves Brothers, Ray Lovato and Tommy Jackson allow us wonderful objects of wearable art. These shining examples of adornment decorate our showcases and then the appendages of appreciative customers. The soft and alluring glow of precious metals set with turquoise from rare and remote mines such as Bisbee, Morenci, Orville Jack, Stennich, Lander Blue, Indian Mountain, Pilot Mountain, Battle Mountain and Damele. Localities producing minute amounts of high-grade natural turquoise through excessive amounts of patient effort. The range of blues and greens are as randomly varied and exciting as Mother Earth can and does allow.

Basket weavers are an interesting bunch, to say the least. They are highly creative, expressive and, dare I say it, quirky! The basket makers we deal with are some of the most renowned Native American craftspeople in today's art world. The Black family; Mary, Sally, Lorraine and Peggy, just to name a few, are as varied and unique a group of people as can be imagined. Throw in a spicy mix of personas like Elsie Holiday, Alicia Nelson and Joann Johnson and you run the entire gambit of personalities possible to the human condition. What spills forth from this perplexing population, are a few of the most incredible art forms you will ever see. These woven storyboards present the best expressions of Navajo Life Ways, Chant Ways and historical perspectives Native art has ever realized.

Then there are those who keep us laughing, stretch our imaginations and push our limits of jocular understanding; the folk artists. Jokesters the likes of Marvin Jim and Grace Begay, Ray and Alondra Lansing, Rena Juan and Matthew Yellowman. From these crazily creative individuals we are introduced to the drier, wittier side of Navajo humor. We think these jesters of wood and stone see things a bit differently than the average Joe Begay, Benally or Betsuie. Thank the good, red earth they do, because they add a joyful light-heartedness to our existence. It is always a pleasure to see a sculpted witticism emerge from under a scruffy coat, pulled from a Blue Bird flower sack or playfully presented from behind the back of Tom Foolery. The fun and fanciful fantasy just does not get better than this.

As I stood there reveling in the magic of the sunrise and contemplating the trading post lives we lead, the sun popped over the horizon, extinguishing the perceived flame. To the south and east of the house a rainbow magically appeared. There must have been moisture and/or dust in the wind somewhere there. Unlike Dorothy, we are not from Kansas, but we do feel we magically dwell somewhere over the rainbow.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Kissing the Cohab

In 2003 our friend K Carpenter gave us a copy of her son’s Master of Arts thesis, Jens Nielson, Bishop of Bluff. The writing documents the settlement of our small town and details the hardships endured by its early pioneers. In an effort to better understand this community’s roots, Barry and I have read and reread the book. At times Barry argues that his struggles are even more monumental. I think he is overstating his case, but he does have to wrestle with Navajo artists over the cost of their rugs, baskets, pottery, folk art and jewelry on a daily basis. And then there are the tourists, a subject which should probably be avoided, lest we alienate the source of our livelihood.

Barry, Lalana, Steve and Buffy with the Cohab.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Bluff’s colonization is plural marriage, which was practiced by many of the settlers. By 1890, however, anti-polygamy pressure from Congress was intense. Prior to that time the federal government had disincorporated the Mormon church, confiscated its assets and imprisoned many polygamist members of the faith. It was a difficult time for those with multiple wives.

Included in the appendix of the thesis is a series of photographs that detail the people and important occurrences of the time. One of our favorite pictures shows a number of “Cohabs” in the Salt Lake City Jail; men who had been convicted of cohabitating with more than one woman. All but one of the men are dressed in striped suits. Many sport neck ties and are dapper in appearance. One gentlemen in particular, listed as George Q. Cannon, is stout, has a chin full of whiskers and looks much like a sea captain.

A few years ago, Dave Sipe, a folk artist from Mancos, Colorado agreed to carve a large stump we had acquired. After much discussion, Barry and I showed him the Cohab photograph and pointed to Mr. Cannon. “Done,” he said. A few weeks later, we had a new sculpture on the porch. In the mean time, however, Barry and I had gotten into a scrape with Dave because one of the local Navajos has been inspired to use his ideas and we had purchased the resulting creation. As a consequence, Dave endowed our Cohab with horns; a reference to the urban legend that Mormons, like the satyrs of Greek mythology, are horned beings. Over the years, the carving has generated much speculation. There are times we explain its meaning and times when we just sit back and listen to the speculation. In both instances, the discussions are lively.

Not long ago, a young woman wandered into the store and asked about the Cohab. I showed her the photograph and explained a little about Bluff’s history. “Isn’t it a shame?” the young woman probed as Buffy the Wonder Dog ate a bee on the porch and I leaned against the counter watching the dog consume the insect. Intrigued by whether Buffy would or would not be stung, I distractedly glanced back at the woman and asked “Why?” “Well, having more than one wife seems unnatural to me. And what about the descendants? Aren’t they ashamed?” she said. Admitting her questions baffled me, I prompted her to go on, saying, “It is their heritage. What do they have to be ashamed of?”

Attempting to end the conversation, I admitted that I am a better judge of turquoise jewelry and Navajo rugs than sociologist or psychologist. That did not, however, work and she continued her investigation. “Okay,” I said, “what about the Australians? They are mostly descended of convicts. Should they deny their linage? What about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, both slave holders, should their descendants be ashamed? What was it Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ There’s a bit of hypocrisy in that isn’t there? Everybody has something dark in their history, right? There is nothing we can do to change it now. Why worry? It’s in the past and without it we probably wouldn’t exist. So, shouldn’t we just move on?”

In the mean time Barry, hearing my diatribe, had wandered out of his office and into the conversation. “You know,” he said, winking at the young woman, “people tell us that if you rub the Cohab’s horns and give him a kiss on the cheek, like the satyrs, you will have interesting and exciting relationships. Oh yea, there’s the part about endurance and stamina too.” The woman decided she had had enough, and left Barry, Buffy and me to contemplate what had just occurred.

A few minutes later, when Barry and I had gone back to our regular duties, I noticed the woman had returned with her camera and was photographing the Cohab. As she turned to go, she reached over and gave the horns a guilty rub, kissed her fingers and lightly touched them to its cheek. I walked to the door and said, “Hey, let me know if it works.” Obviously embarrassed, she shoved her hands into her pockets and quickly strode away.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.