Friday, February 25, 2011

Reach for the Sky

The old medicine man walked into Twin Rocks Trading Post looking for all the world like he had just emerged from a Shanto Begay painting. If I had not already become accustomed to feeling the trading post was an anachronism, his bowed legs, slightly soiled 501 Levi's, print shirt, traditional bull hide moccasins and red bandana tied round his still jet black hair, would have made me wonder whether I had somehow stumbled into the wrong era. As it was, I instinctively put my hand to my chest to ensure I was really real and not simply a character in some academic’s romantic rendition of a time long past. Realizing what I had done, I blushed slightly. Hoping he had not noticed, I said a little too loudly, “Ya’ at’ eeh ahbini, good morning.” He just nodded and grinned.

Coyote and First Man Placing the Stars

The healer must have been in his late seventies or early eighties, but still projected a strong and assured presence; one that surely gave his patients the necessary confidence in his ability to cure whatever ailed them. His back was what I have heard people who know horses refer to as “ramrod straight’, and I imagined him sitting a horse in the classic manner. Not being a horseman myself, I was unsure what the “classic manner” was, but I had seen enough John Wayne westerns to make some assumptions.

The man was carrying a white plastic bag printed with large red characters spelling out the words “Thank You”. It was the kind you find at any neighborhood grocery. Whatever was in the bag protruded in a circular fashion, and I concluded he had a ceremonial basket or two to sell. On occasion, John Holiday, another Navajo medicine man, brings us baskets he has used in his healing rites. John, who lives in Monument Valley, has been visiting us for decades, so we are not completely naive when it comes to this situation. John always arrives laughing and joking, although his humor is mostly lost on us because our Navajo speaking capabilities are limited.

As John accelerated past ninety years, he began wearing pajamas when he travels. John has also stopped getting out of the car and coming into the trading post, so when he drives up we are summoned by his apprentice to come out into the parking lot and bargain for his baskets. Barry and I universally purchase them, almost without concern for the asking price. We find these medical instruments smeared with corn meal or pollen an essential link to Navajo culture.

While John speaks only Navajo, our new acquaintance annunciated in near perfect English, no doubt the reason he grinned at my awkward greeting. Holding up his plastic bag, he announced, “I have baskets to sell.” As we negotiated the price, he glanced about the room, surveying the unusual geometric and pictorial weavings created by the Black and Johnson families. Barry and I find Navajo people who have not previously been in Twin Rocks are dazzled by the explosion of color and diversity of design local weavers incorporate into their baskets. It is common for them to purse their lips, indicating towards the baskets, and ask, “Paiute?” When I say, “No, Navajo,” they are genuinely surprised.

One basket in particular caught the healer’s attention and he asked me to take it down from the shelf. The design was one we usually refer to as “Coyote Placing the Stars.” This weaving tells the story of how First Man had his mica stars laid out on a buckskin and was cautiously installing them in the heavens. As he deliberately constructed the constellations, Coyote wandered by and began pestering First Man to allow him to assist. Knowing Coyote’s reputation, First Man resisted the overtures. Since Coyote was unrelenting, in frustration, First Man finally consented to allow him to place three red stars.

After a time, Coyote, master of chaos, became impatient at First Man’s slow progress, grabbed the buckskin, shook it and blew the remaining stars into the night sky, thereby creating the Milky Way. This motif, which was originally conceived by Barry, is one of the earliest designs to develop in the contemporary Navajo basketry movement. It has also become one of the most recognizable.

In what I took as a sign of approval, and not some indication he intended robbery, the old gentleman adjusted his headband, gave me a deep Santa Clause wink and said, “Reach for the sky.” Over the years, Barry and I have kept his advice in mind, and have often passed it on to the Navajo basket weavers as they struggle to keep their art fresh and interesting. Although once in a while Barry and I see Coyote’s influence on their work, surely the weavers have succeeded in following the old man’s counsel, their art is nothing short of stellar.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Tag, you're it!

Lately, I have been playing tag with the sun. I leave Twin Rocks Trading Post each evening enveloped in an air of sundowner anticipation. My goal has been to photographically capture the magnificence of late winter Southwestern sunsets in the most photogenic spots along Highway 191 between my home and work. To appropriate an outstanding image of the majesty and glory of such an occurrence seems far beyond the digital capability of my little Canon Power Shot camera, but the fun has been in the chase rather than the eventual image. Most recently I have been motivated to abduct an image of the sun just as it disappears below the horizon in the west, at one particular place and time. The place is a small farm owned by the Flavels, just south of Shirt-Tail Junction, a couple miles south of Blanding.

The exact moment of sunset, as I have discovered, is relatively indeterminate, and depends on specific conditions, some of which are constant, some of which are not. Because of my quest, I have learned that technically sunset and the best time to photograph it occurs when the body of the sun is already about one degree below the horizon. Obviously the time varies throughout the year, and is determined by the viewer's position on this planet, specified by longitude, latitude and elevation. Small daily changes and noticeable semi-annual variations in the timing of sunsets are driven by the axial tilt of the earth, its daily rotation, the planet's movement in its annual elliptical orbit around the sun and the earth and moon's paired revolutions around each other. And to complicate the issue even more, to allow a show of outrageous candle power and spectral exuberance worth embracing, there needs to be an outstanding cloud base to allow for a highly distorted ray path of light from the setting sun.

For me, all of that scientific mambo-jumbo is a bit too confounding and technically disturbing to get a firm grip on. Rather, I choose to see such things in a more mythological manner, embracing the Navajo cultural significance of the close of day. This is: One day after a ceremony based on the coming of age of a young girl and a naturally immature boy, the People watched in amazement as the earth swooped down and the sky swooped up and bumped each other. From that exact spot sprang forth Coyote and Badger, brothers and children of Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Ma'ii, Coyote, chose to stay and linger among the Surface People, causing chaos and forcing them out of their comfort zones. Nahashch'id, Badger, on the other hand, dug a hole in the ground and to this day remains mostly out of sight. His role is one of support, harmony and balance. So now, every time I see a sunrise or sunset I think of the birth of Coyote and Badger. They cause me to contemplate the clash of cultures going on around the world; disagreement, discord and fighting, and the opposite side of the coin too, which includes compassion, unity and compatibility. These natural occurrences cause me to consider the constant contact between those of an indifferent attitude and those of a concerned nature.

On one particular day I was speeding north, listening to the evening news on the car radio and frowning at the discontent around the globe. Coyote was a busy boy on this particular day. I was also keeping an eye on the western horizon, appreciating the sporadic cloud cover and hoping my timing was in sync with the sun's downward descent. This was my lucky day, the sun and I arrived at the farm at precisely the same moment! I whipped the Previa around, popped out of the car, clomped through the mud to the fence and began taking pictures. The sunset was amazing, the western horizon was ablaze in colors of red, orange, yellow and black. The lone windmill and barren tree were back-lit by the display; they appeared cold, lonely and forlorn. The contrast was perfect. The image in my mind will remain forever. The picture? What one might expect of a pocket camera. I stood admiring the view until the lights went out and the glow faded.

Making my way back through the goo, I climbed back into the van, checked traffic and swung the vehicle back around in a northerly direction. Just as I regained highway speed and passed Shirt-Tail Junction, I recognized an oncoming diesel truck, a big refrigerated unit being towed by a massive Kenworth tractor. Because of the curve of the road and the speed of the approaching behemoth, I moved further to the right side of the roadway to give the big boy plenty of room. As the truck and my van closed on each other I caught a glimpse of movement sprinting, low and fast across the highway from north to south. I gasped as I recognized a badger moving quickly in my direction. I witnessed the truck barely miss the creature, but I was bearing down quickly and feared the worst possible outcome. Because of the oncoming truck I dared not slam on the brakes or swerve right or left. I unintentionally humped-up in my seat and drove right over the top of the poor beast as I was buffeted by the passing big rig.

Oh Man! I thought to myself, I just upset the harmony and balance of nature and the human race by leaving an imprint of Badger's metaphorical meaning smashed on the asphalt. My dismay at the demise of such a benevolent creature caused me to slow down and turn around at the next side road. I felt I should at least remove the poor thing from the highway and give him a proper burial. Returning to the spot where I interrupted the forward motion of the creature caused me confusion, there was nothing there! I knew for a fact the car had run right over the top of the badger. I had not felt a bump, but I figured that was because I was so intent on avoiding the truck that I had not recognized it. To be sure there was nothing there. Just then I saw movement to the south, there, striding in traditional badger fashion across the stubble of the hay field went the badger. He had survived! The creature must have flattened himself on the roadway at the last possible second and allowed the van to pass right over. Seriously? The fate of man and nature would survive after all. Coyote would not have the upper hand and eventual downfall of humankind would not occur. I had not disrupted the life of one of God's precious creatures. Hallelujah! "Tag, you're it, you lucky devil!" I yelled after the retreating Badger. He paid me no never mind.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, February 11, 2011

As the Windmill Turns

During winter, Sunday mornings often find me staring out across the small and lonely avenue stretching between Twin Rocks Cafe and the home of Betty and Melvin Gaines, waiting for bacon to fry, coffee to perk and customers to arrive. Several years ago, when home numbers first came to Bluff, this street, which forms the easterly portion of Bluff’s Historic Loop, was renamed Twin Rocks Drive. As the sun breaks over Sleeping Ute Mountain and begins warming the structures along this uneven patch of pavement, Bluff is chronically tranquil. Even the Canada geese, which have homesteaded the nearby Jones farm, seem reluctant to activate in the frosty dawn.

Barry and I once visited the Demele and Burnham turquoise mines located just off Highway 50, which is commonly known as the “Loneliest Road in America.” I remember standing in the middle of Main Street, Austin, Nevada, thinking I could lie down on this section of highway and take a long nap without being concerned that I might wake to screeching tires and a blaring horn. Winter mornings along Twin Rocks Drive leave me with a similar impression. But for the cold, one might peacefully and comfortably rest there a very long time without interruption.

Betty and Melvin have lived at this location long before construction commenced on Twin Rocks Trading Post in 1989. In fact, they form part of my earliest consciousness. When Craig, Barry and I began climbing Bluff’s steep cliffs, they were there to watch over us. When we had dirt clod fights with Ray and Perry, the Johnson brothers, they were there to mediate. When we went to Dorothy Nielson’s Post Office, they too were there to retrieve their mail. They are inseparable from my thoughts of Bluff.

Because cement was in short supply, when Mormon pioneers built their Victorian style sandstone mansions in Bluff they used large stones as footers to support the weight of all those sculpted blocks. Melvin and Betty are like those substantial foundations, they have supported this community an exceptionally long time.

As a buffer against the red dirt that threatens to overrun everything in this desert environment, Betty maintains a small patch of lawn in front of her house. Along its outer perimeter flowers of soft color hang on the weathered cedar post and sheep wire fence. On summer evenings, I often smell the scent of freshly mown grass as Betty navigates her riding mower over this section of greenery.

In the northeast corner of Betty’s lawn is a windmill replica that stands five or six feet tall and is approximately 36 inches wide at the base. It is similar to the much smaller version placed on Johnny Johnson’s Cemetery Hill grave site. Johnny was the paternal grandfather of the Johnson boys. His fan untimely spun itself to death; the bearings failed and its wheel fell to the ground, leaving only its superstructure to commemorate Johnny’s life.

For years I have watched Betty’s windmill spin, pondering whether there is some larger meaning in its incessant turning. Like the gray that has crept into my hair in ever increasing volume, rust has invaded Betty’s blades and continues to expand its influence over the metal. Also, like me, the winds of change seem to buffet the windmill at every moment.

Ultimately determining it might somehow be a barometer of my economic fortunes, I used to carefully track its motion. When Barry and I had a particularly good rug, basket or jewelry sale at the trading post, I would glance out the plate glass windows to see if it was whirring. If things were slow, I would step out on the porch to test the wind and note whether the wheel had stopped altogether. I justified this superstition by noting that Navajo people at times have similar, seemingly unfounded beliefs that somehow make sense.

Try though I might, I have never been able to detect any consistent pattern in the movements of that wind driven mechanism. Its speed and direction seem to have no discernible impact on my financial or emotional well being. That has not, however, stopped me from noting its movements, hoping I will one day divine my future in its pitched blades or vertical tail. As Bob Dylan once said, “Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind.”

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Navajo Revolution

First there was the American Revolution of 1776, then the French Revolution of 1789, next came the Russian Revolution of 1917, and finally the Navajo Revolution of 1994. This insurrection, at times referred to as the Sumac Revolution, did not involve throwing off the yoke of an oppressive king, casting aside an absolute monarchy or overthrowing a Tsarist autocracy. There was no political unrest and nobody is known to have been injured, maimed or killed during this uprising. Instead, it was quite, more like the Velvet Revolution of 1989, where peace, justice and tranquility reigned.

Mary Holiday Black at Twin Rocks.

The Sumac Revolution was about discovering and encouraging artistic freedom and was founded upon inspiring and innovative art. The movement grew out of the traditional craft of woven basketry, and its seeds were sown a decade or so earlier, when Navajo basket weavers Mary Holiday Black and her daughter Sally began to incorporate age old symbols into their art. Their new imagery included Yeis, the Holy People; the four sacred plants, corn, beans, squash and mountain tobacco; and sand paintings, representing powerful healing ritual.

Navajo rug and blanket weaving had actually gone through a similar stage approximately 100 years earlier. At that time, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, protests against this secret language being woven into a permanent format were held across the Reservation, death threats were heard by Indian traders who bought and sold the creations, and medicine men feared the decline of an ancient culture. Navajo weavers were informed that, should they persist in creating this new style, they would become gravely ill, their limbs become twisted and deformed, they would lose their vision, and they would not survive to enjoy their children and grandchildren.

So it was with Navajo basketry. Historically, there had been only three types, the pitch covered water jar known as to’shjeeh, baskets woven strictly for ceremonial purposes, and a wickerwork burden basket used for carrying peaches. When their art began diverging from the traditional wedding and ceremonial basket motifs they had previously woven, Mary and Sally Black were instructed by tribal elders to cease using these ancient and hallowed symbols in their weavings.

Seeking counsel from well respected medicine people in their own family, and not being able to suppress their burning desire to create these new works of art, Mary and Sally quietly persisted until they received word that there was in fact a ceremony to protect them from harm. The Beautyway ritual seemed to be just the remedy they needed, and their movement was allowed to progress.

A middle aged woman in traditional dress and a sweet faced teenager were unlikely candidates to spark a revolt. As is often the case, however, revolution springs from the most unlikely sources. Like Al Bonazizi, the poor 26 year old Tunisian who incited the recent unrest that ultimately toppled his government, Mary and Sally could not have predicted the impact they would ultimately have on Navajo art.

As far as Barry and I have been able to determine, the reformation smoldered for a long period and then burst into full flame when Mary created what has come to be known as the Fire Dance Basket. Incorporated into this weaving was a representation of the Mountain Chant, an ancient and almost extinct ritual. Initially, we at Twin Rocks Trading Post misread the significance of this weaving and believed it to be representative of the Apache Crown Dance.

This basket brought into full flower the now widely accepted practice of freely depicting important Navajo traditions and legends in basketry. The results of this movement can be seen every day in trading posts and art galleries across the Southwest, where exquisite weavings commemorate Navajo stories, life and lifestyle. These woven masterpieces celebrate Navajo culture and remind us of traditions that will one day be seen no longer. When Navajo culture has evolved from its present form, these weavings will recall a simpler, more richly traditional time. One often wonders what might have happened had Mary and Sally Black not had the courage and tenacity to pursue their passion; if their enthusiasm had been quenched in its infancy.

Many may be inclined to dismiss the Sumac Revolution as insignificant, unworthy of serious consideration. It would, however, be a mistake to underestimate the significance of the artistic liberation and economic independence it has brought to local Navajo basket weavers.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.