Friday, May 31, 2013


Trekking the high desert surrounding Bluff, you soon come to realize trees are in short supply. Granted, there are a few cottonwoods located in canyon bottoms or along the San Juan River. There are also a small number of Russian olives growing among the tamarisk along the river, but they are few, far between and not much loved. The flats nearer Blue Mountain sponsor the stunted and sparsely populated "juniper forests" we hold near and dear to our hearts. Throw in a smattering of imported shade and fruit trees around our sunburned homes and there you have it. We are more likely to find shade behind a rock than a tree, and if a test were taken of the oxygen our little portion of the world contributes to the earth's daily requirement, we would certainly come-up short. Maybe that is the reason Steve and I are so often told we are acting "light headed".

Navajo Black and White Tree of Life Basket - Elsie Holiday (#355)

The other day I was working in my office when I heard the voice of Elsie Holiday. I groaned inwardly, because Elsie is most often looking for "Help". Yup, you guessed it help equals a personal loan. Elsie is, in our opinion, the most gifted Navajo basket weaver working in this modern age. The problem is that she is also, arguably, the most economically challenged Navajo basket maker of the common era. Because Steve is the softest touch of the two of us, Elsie will search him out instead of me. Steve is such an easy mark the locals call him, Steve Quicken-loans Simpson. I, on the other hand, am known as Barry McScrooge. If we were ever able to collect on all the loans we have passed out over the years, our retirement would be assured. In the mean time, it is anything but a sure thing. Anyway, when I heard Elsie's voice, I jumped-up and headed into the store in an effort to block Steve from blowing the down payment on my beach house in Florida.

When I reached the register Steve and Elsie were standing there looking over a most beautiful Tree-of-Life basket. The weaving was so nice I forgot about our financial woes and fell in love . . . with the basket. It truly was gorgeous. Elsie saw my interest and, in an effort to boost her bargaining power, began to explain the meaning behind the weaving.

The Tree-of-Life is one of the most unique and interesting of Navajo legends we have heard during our many years at Twin Rocks Trading Post. It is a metaphorical interpretation of where the Navajo people came from, their evolution, movement of life, connections with natural surroundings and involvement of the deities. It stands for who the Navajo believe they are and the life they intend to lead. At the base of the tree there are roots, which symbolize the emergence or center of all things. These roots reflect a connection to the lower worlds, the knowledge gained from the experience and the respect for the forefathers. The roots also represent the birth of the Earth Surface People and their appearance into this, the fifth world. Emergence from the lower world came about when Water Creature flooded it, due to Coyote's theft of his children. The water withdrew only when his youngsters were returned. Those same waters, along with the creation tales, feed and nourish the Tree-of-Life.

The trunk of the tree is symbolic in that it represents the Upward Moving Way of the Navajo. It is strong and supple due to ceremonial practice and the intervention of Changing Woman, the deity who cares for all green and growing plant life. The upper branches of the tree spread out in a protective manner. The limbs and leaves represent the chant ways and life ways the people have come to know, respect and live by. As a whole, the tree suggests a progressive, adaptive nature; one willing to learn, assimilate and even divests itself of cultural implications no longer viable. Navajo land is sacred ground to her people. It provides sanctuary to The People, providing protection from the outside world. Through an abiding honor and respect of the ancient culture and the accompanying deities, The People are promised health and prosperity. Above all things; Elsie explained, are the sky worlds, showing room for further growth and upward movement. The Sun provides essential light and energy, while the Moon softly nourishes. The stars reflect the past. In its entirety, the story told by the Tree-of-Life is rich with Navajo culture and tradition and gives rare insight into its nuances.

When Elsie completed her explanation I was sold as I could be. We negotiated a price and paid the toll. Just before Elsie departed, she peeled a hundred dollar bill from her freshly acquired wad of cash, handed it to me and said with a grin, "Take that off my bill, someday I'm going to pay you back completely." I took the bill with a sheepish grin and thanked her for both the basket and the payment. Steve turned on his heel and headed upstairs with the weaving. Don't think you are off the hook pal,” I called after him, "my retirement comes out of this place first, you get what is left after we forgive all these loans." Steve just held up the basket and waved it at me as he mounted the stairs. "Stinkin’ Steve,” I mumbled to myself.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, May 24, 2013

No Cows Please

At the trading post Barry and I exist in what can only be described as a cultural cyclone. We invariably get caught up in interesting and unusual circumstances involving local traditions, folklore and mythology. Sometimes these situations include employee matters, but most often they are a sharing of personal stories, philosophies and beliefs. We are often swept up like Dorothy and Toto, and find ourselves enveloped in the colorful world of the Navajo, in the land of coral cliffs and turquoise skies.
Recently I was talking with Jenelia, a morning cook at Twin Rocks Cafe, about the upcoming marriage of her daughter to Wesley Simpson, a young man with no direct connection to us. Jenelia has three children, Jalvin, Menvalia and Melvida. She and her husband Melvin devised each name using a combination of letters from their own monikers. Menvilia, the middle child, is the bride-to-be.

Jenelia has a fascinating perspective, so whenever I can I engage her in conversation. Because she has diligently worked to educate her offspring and improve their lives, Barry and I have a great fondness and respect for her. On a recent occasion she and I hit on the topic of growing up poor. “It was bad for us”, she said. “Not any worse than it was for us” I countered, explaining that when we were boys, Barry, Craig and I slept on the living room floor of a partially burned, partially repaired trailer house that had surplus U.S. Army blankets for doors. “Oh”, she said, “that’s nothing, when I was a girl, at the beginning of each school year my family bought three pairs of pants and one package of underwear. My two sisters and I alternated the clothes so we didn’t have to be seen always wearing the same thing.” After comparing additional notes, I had to concede she had the better argument.

When we got back to talking about the wedding, she told me how she would be meeting with the family of the groom to, “sell her daughter”. This, she said, involved a complicated negotiation wherein she, as the presumptive mother-in-law, would receive turquoise jewelry, livestock and other items in return for arranging the marriage. In essence it seemed similar to the western culture’s tradition of dowry, just in reverse. This is probably because the Navajo have a matrilineal society.

As she explained the details of her negotiating strategy, she said, “Horses are good, sheep are good, you just don’t take cows!” “Cows”, I exclaimed, picturing the herds I see munching grass along our lonely reservation roads and those charismatic bovines on the Chick-fil-A billboards that say, “Eat mor chikin.” “What’s wrong with cows? I inquired, “I thought you liked them”. “I do”, she explained, “but if cows are involved, the bride will wander, so you never take cows.” Sometimes I think she says those things just to throw me off.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; The Team

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hogan Hunting

One of the many benefits of owning and operating a trading post and cafe in southeastern Utah is that it provides an opportunity to travel Navajo-land. Wither it be tracking down artists, making a mad dash to Farmington, New Mexico for last minute restaurant supplies, going to the Gallup Ceremonials, visiting the Santa Fe Indian Market or speaking at one of many museums in the Four Corners region, Steve and I have traveled "The Rez" most of our lives. The landscape is fascinating, there is cultural significance around every corner and the people are friendly. There are, however, a few obstacles to watch for. For example, when you see a pick-up truck cannonballing toward the main road from an ambiguous side road, know the driver will probably not stop when he hits the pavement. The driver will almost always pull out in front of you, turning right or left without any thought given to who may be coming or going. This will, certainly, cause you grief. Also be aware that there is a high probability a herd of sheep and goats will be parked in the middle of the highway just over the next blind rise. You must beware of emaciated horses along the roadway too. Many an unsuspecting traveler has T-boned one of these "prize ponies." Other than these trivial tribulations, the path is generally clear and easy.
Sterling Silver & 14K Gold Story Teller Bracelet - Robert Taylor (#30)

One of my other passions is studying the unique and varied communities spread out across the high desert country. From the air, family settlements have the appearance of a wagon wheel. Because they hold the home site leases, elders generally live at the hub. From there you will see double-track dirt roads radiating out in every direction not impeded by monument or canyon. Adult children wanting their own place will move a short distance from the main group, building a new dwelling or moving in a mobile home. Each generation spreads a little further out from that of their parents. Eventually a good-sized network develops. It is an interesting arrangement, but seems to work well because most Navajo families are closely connected and dependent upon each other for support.

In my mind, one of the coolest things these compounds contain are hogans. The interior of an authentic hogan, i.e., one built in the manner prescribed by Navajo deities, is truly beautiful and has a look and feel of tradition and culture. The main upright posts are forked at the top and planted deeply in the ground to support the upper, interwoven framework of skinned logs of various sizes. The cross over beams and angular ceiling braces are reminiscent of a woven Navajo rug or basket; they add a great deal of character to the dwelling. Because Hogans are covered with earth, they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were, and may still be, the perfect shelter for this environment. That is because, except for the need to replace a little dirt after a rainstorm and the need to weed now and then, Hogans are low maintenance. To Navajo people the hogan is a sacred dwelling; it is a gift from the gods, and the womb of Mother Earth. It shelters the earth surface people. It also protects them from evil and, because it is safe and secure, allows them harmony and balance. The first hogans are believed to have been built by the Holy People with layers of turquoise, white shell, jet and abalone shell. The rounded hogan is female and the conical shaped one is male. Male hogans are rare. The doorway of both styles always face east, because that is the direction life began and begins anew each day.

The construction of a new hogan is almost always a family and community affair. Those who help are believed to be blessed for their donated labor. Once completed, the new hogan undergoes a Blessing-way ceremony, which invites the Holy People in to bless and sanctify it. The position for people and familial objects all have their designated place within the hogan; the south side belongs to the women and the north to the men. The hearth rests in the center of the room, it is communal, has cleansing powers and brings the family closer together. The male head of the family and any distinguished guest sit on the west side of the hogan, facing the doorway. During ceremonies or other important events everyone has a prescribed position.

Hogans are extremely durable, and if properly maintained will serve a family for generations. The only time they are intentionally taken down is if they are struck by lightning or someone dies inside. In the case of death, a hole is broken through the north side to let the decedent's spirit escape and it is abandoned. Because a hogan is essential to everyday life, a replacement is generally built post haste.

It is well worth running the roadside gauntlet of the Reservation to see the variety of hogans. You will witness everything from the original styles to modern variations. Some may disagree, but to me the construction materials are not as important as the intent to maintain cultural values and traditional ceremonies. For some years now I have thought someone with a creative eye and a good camera might produce a picture book on the many styles of hogans and their significance to the Navajo. The audience might prove to be limited, but the work useful in helping to enlighten those interested in the Navajo experience. So, the next time you are out and about the Reservation, beware of free ranging critters and keep your eyes peeled for the ceremonial hogan.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the Team.

Friday, May 10, 2013

One Indian Short of a Tribe

Grange and I were wrestling in New Mexico when the call came in. Since this is our all time favorite activity, I usually don’t allow any distractions during the matches. Seeing it was the trading post, however, and thinking it might be important, I picked up. “I sold one of your Indians,” Barry said when I answered. “What?” I shouted over the din, “you sold what?” “One of your Indians,” he repeated. Thinking he may have missed the lesson about Abraham Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, I assured him I did not own any Indians. “I think that would be both illegal and immoral”, I said in my most sincere voice. “No, no, one of your wooden Indians”, he explained.
2 Indians and 2 Anglos

My 22 years at Twin Rocks Trading Post have taught me not to get overly attached to the inventory. “Can’t get high on your own supply,” a customer recently counseled while trying to convince me that Barry and I did not need a set of Ray Lovato beads Barry had become extremely fond of. Apparently one of the shopper’s friends had been a drug dealer during the 1970s and had given him that sage advice many years ago. Additionally, Duke always says everything is for sale except Rose. When we were young, I assumed that meant he would sell Craig, Barry and me if the right offer came along. Apparently no one was interested enough to make a proposal, so we stayed on.

My Cigar Store Indians are, however, almost sacred, and Barry knows that. They have been outside the trading post as long as Priscilla and I have been inside. “How could you sell my Indian?” I wailed, astonished he would even consider the possibility. “They are part of my family, like my kids. They have stood by me, stoically supporting me through thick and thin, through good times and bad, through sickness and health. They even got me through the Great Recession“, I said dramatically.

Thinking it would ease my pain, Barry said, “Hey, let’s get Dave Sipe to carve us Barry and Steve sculptures to put out front.” “You don’t know Dave”, I explained, “He’s temperamental and won’t like that idea. Dave has provided some nice carvings over the years, but he only does what he wants to do. I estimated the odds of him doing a Barry or a Steve were low, and the odds of him doing both were about zero. When that ploy didn’t work, Barry said matter-of-factly, “She bought several rugs and baskets, spent lots of money. She wanted your Indian and was extremely persuasive. She’s not the kind of woman you say no to, so I let her have it. She’ll be in tomorrow to pick it up.”

I felt Barry was rubbing salt into my wound. He would be gone and I would have to pack up the carving and load it into the woman’s car. When she arrived the following morning to retrieve her purchase, I put on my best sad face and protested that Barry was not authorized to sell my Indian. She, however, was not buying the argument. “Hah,” she said, “the deal is done. That’s not your Indian, it’s mine.” I had to admit, she was one tough customer.

With only one Indian out front, the trading post seemed unbalanced, without hozho, so I knew I had to find a solution. When I explained the situation to Craig, he said, “Duke has three of them. Why don’t you make a deal with him? You can probably get a replacement for half what Barry got for yours. You can get yourself right and might even make a profit.”

Thinking Craig was correct and that I had a chance to out trade the old trader, I packed up my wallet and headed north to talk with Duke. It was too late, however, word of my plight had reached Blanding and Duke was way ahead of me. “Yes”, he said, I will sell you an Indian. Everything is for sale, except Rose of course, but it’s not going to be cheap.” In the end Duke got all our cash, I got my replacement, Twin Rocks Trading Post regained its hozho and Barry promised to never again sell our Indians.

With Warm Regards, Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the Team.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Grand Illusion

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It was a Saturday afternoon and the clouds were rollin' in. Wind swirled about the parking lot, snatching up fine grains of red dirt and sandblasting tourists. People were driving up to Twin Rocks Trading Post and Twin Rocks Cafe, exiting their vehicles and leaning into the wind, forcing their way toward the buildings. To be perfectly honest, we do not disdain days like this because they force visitors to our small pioneer village to slow down, find shelter and stay a while. This type of weather can actually be good for business. Every time the Kokopelli doors at the trading post opened, a new guest was blown in or a recently acquired old friend was drawn out. It was one of those times when a dusty delusion turns into a positive situation.
Navajo A Grand Illusion Basket - Alicia Nelson (#213)
Just after 3:00 the phone rang. Alicia Nelson was calling about a basket. In her always-pleasant voice she asked, "What time do you close tonight?" "Old friend", I replied, "you have known us over 20 years. You know what time we close as well as I do." "I do know," replied Alicia, " and I know you are also closed Sundays. My question was just a nice way of asking if you will stay open until I finish this basket." "Uh huh", was my reply, "and just how long might that take?" Alicia explained that she needed at least three hours to complete the last coil and then another half hour or so to travel from her home near Red Mesa, Arizona to Bluff. I did the math and figured it would be a push for her to get here by closing time. I also reasoned that I had spent many an evening sitting around the store waiting on artists.

While I hate to stereotype, my opinion is that Reservation dwellers are notorious for not paying attention to the clock. They often see time in an altogether different light. Meeting someone in an hour or six is frequently all the same to them. "Can't do it", I said, "supper's waitin' at home and I gotta get to it." "I've heard you sing that tune before,” said Alicia, "but my daughter Caitlin is leaving on a school trip and I need to send traveling money with her." I groaned out loud, raising a curious look from the customer standing by the register attempting to extract sand from his ear and pay for a packet of Serena Supplee note cards. Priscilla moved in to pass him a Q-tip, which we keep around just for such an occasion, and cash him out.

Refocusing on Alicia, I recognized she has struggled since she and Jonathan Black separated. Although it broke my heart to do so, I have turned away a few of her weavings in the past two years because they were not up to her unusually high standards. Alicia recognized my hesitation and seemed to read my mind, saying, "You are going to love this basket. I guarantee it!" Because I am a born skeptic and was also looking forward to visiting with my daughter, Alyssa, who is home from college, I really did not want to wait. "Here's the deal", I told Alicia, "Stay home tonight and take your time finishing the basket. Steve is managing the cafe in the morning, so he will be here to appraise it." Alicia agreed to my proposal, said good-bye and hung up.

As it happened, Steve was roped into working the Saturday night shift, so the Sunday morning opening fell to me. Alicia showed up around 10:00 a.m., and we walked next door to the trading post for the unveiling. I will freely admit that when she handed me her weaving I was blown away. She had woven an extremely intricate and symmetrical illusion basket, one of the hardest designs to make. This masterpiece was easily one of the best baskets I have ever seen her execute. It seems Alicia has found peace and settled back into the mastery of her art. As she drove away, I set her basket on the shelf and stood back to appreciate it. Illusion baskets attempt to fool the eye and trick the mind into seeing subtle movement through complex designs. The patterns need to be placed precisely, and there is no room for error. If it is not properly done, the design fails to create the desired effect. I stared at the basket and in short order the darn thing made me dizzy; it worked perfectly. Not only is Alicia's basket extraordinary, but also a dear friend has regained her balance. In one fell swoop a grand illusion was dispatched and a grander illusion created.

With warm regards, Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny: the team.