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.

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