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.

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