Friday, May 29, 2015

Twin Rocks Museum

Visitors to Twin Rocks Trading Post often comment that the shop looks like a museum. Although our primary mission is to sell turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and rugs, the statement is still flattering. A few days ago, a woman walked through the Kokopelli doors, took a quick look around and declared, “This place is just like a museum, and I could live here." After I got over my fear of the store becoming a flophouse and stopped wondering what Barry would look like as a fossil, I gave considerable thought to what we do at Twin Rocks.

Many people view museums as a place to view extraordinary objects and, if you are fortunate, have informative conversations with the attendants. I can certainly appreciate that sentiment, since some of my best museum experiences involve looking at displays while talking with staff members. I have even been invited into a few curation rooms and have seen many unusual artifacts. In most cases, the explanations of curators and docents added more to the relic than I could have imagined.

One thing I have realized is that art is primarily about the artist, and the artist is molded by his or her work. When I look at a rug by Eleanor Yazzie, I see her woven into the fibers, I can hear her voice and remember her children and the family’s yellow pickup truck. In a Tommy Jackson bracelet, I envision him pulling into the gravel parking lot on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, eyes shaded by narrow sunglasses. To me it is those memories that make Eleanor's weavings and Tommy's jewelry extraordinary. People are clearly the most important part of our operation, and depending on who is in the store at any particular moment the exhibition can be quite captivating.
Navajo Cross Roads Twin Rocks Collection Weaving - Eleanor Yazzie (#123)

Each visitor to the trading post has his or her own story to tell and distinct attributes to reveal. They have all experienced life on their own terms and are like mobile museums. Their demonstrations include culture from around the world, adventure in countless environments and knowledge about an endless variety of topics.

Yesterday our friend Skip strolled into the trading post after hiking in Cottonwood Wash. That afternoon his focus was on trees. After many years as an architect, Skip decided he was destined to be a fruit grower. As a result, he purchased acreage with a grove of apple trees and begun life anew. As he talked about the land and how it changed his life, a smile spread across his face. Skip described his grandfather, a man who allowed his young grandson to work in the elderly man’s extensive garden. That experience sparked a hunger that had lain dormant over 40 years. Unexpectedly, those seeds recently sprouted and Skip's passion blossomed.

Skip told me how he had once come upon a sandstone drain where several juniper saplings had taken root many decades before. He said the trees were huge, twisted and strikingly beautiful. Then he whispered, "I just went over and gave them a hug." I understood his emotion, since that is how I feel about many of the people who visit our trading post. Being a bit shy, I have most often refrained from embracing our patrons. As I grow older, however, I feel less inhibited.

Skip and I talked about a tree Jana recently purchased from a nursery in Moab. After we completed our transaction, the greenhouse attendant helped me put it in the back of our truck and bid us farewell. Before we drove off, I asked whether the unprotected tree would be all right during the 100-mile journey to Bluff. The assistant responded, "No problem, we have pretty strong winds here in Moab." Watching in the rear view mirror as we drove home, I agonized over every leaf that went skittering down the highway. When we finally pulled over, I saw the damage that had been done.

After I finished relating my story to Skip, he said, "You know Steve, it's going to take a long time, buckets of water and lots fertilizer to make that tree feel good again. It will need love to survive." That is the beauty of the human exhibits on display almost every day at Twin Rocks Museum, you just never know what treasures will be unveiled.

With warm regards Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Lesson Learned

Many years ago, when I was extremely naive about Navajo culture, I did something terrible . . . I twirled Navajo baskets. That's right, and after years of cultural therapy I am free to admit my indiscretion. In hope of cleansing my conscience and putting this matter behind me, I am ready to openly confess. I need to unchain my psyche and allow myself to heal. I know many of you must be thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything?" Some may even ask, "Is he crazy? What's wrong with spinning baskets?"

There may also be those of you who are so surprised and saddened by my disclosure that you turn away in shame. Many may be genuinely disturbed by what has happened. I assure you, however, at the time I was ignorant of the magnitude of distress I was causing, distress to those who had woven the baskets and distress to those who knew there was so much emotion and meaning stitched into those sacred objects.

As hard as it may be to believe, at the time, I viewed those beautiful baskets as nothing more than "things". Some of my earliest memories are of my parents, Duke and Rose, using Navajo baskets to decorate our home. For years, they were nothing more than “baskets” to me. It wasn't until I accepted the mantle of "Indian trader" that I learned the truth about their proper care.

Here's the scenario, I am stationed in the trading post, sitting behind the counter and trying to maintain an important air. Remember, I am young and trying to establish my reputation. I have access to dollars, and believe that he who controls the cash is king. Thus, I feel all-powerful. In walks an unsuspecting weaver, who with great ceremony unveils her latest accomplishment. Laying the basket on the counter for my viewing pleasure, the artist begins to explain its meaning. My inexperienced mind is not focused on what she is trying to communicate. Instead, it is focused on trying to get the weaving at the lowest possible price, and wondering whether I might get a date with the fiery girl I have just met.

As I ponder these important issues, I place my index finger upon the center coils of the basket and give it a spin. Beginning negotiations, I am unaware the artist’s focus has shifted from what I am saying to the circular motion of her basket. Her head begins to move in the same fashion, she becomes dizzy with the movement and her stress level increases significantly. Finally she can take the sacrilege no longer and reaches out to grasp the basket with both hands, stopping its rotation. I simply continue with my objective of relieving her of the work and adding it to our inventory, not realizing I was causing so much chaos.
Navajo Double Ceremonial Basket - Kee Bitsinnie (#02)

As time went on, my "spinning" continued until it became an obsession. For me, it seemed a habit, not an addiction. A certain someone from up the road was consuming a great deal of my time, interest and imagination and I needed something to help me focus. I am sure there was a bit of psychology involved, but even now I cannot explain it. I was gradually becoming aware the basket weavers were reacting strangely to my routine and began to test them. When they would reach out and stop the basket mid-spin, I would hesitate for a moment then begin again. I noticed this resulted in a higher level of agitation, which at times pleased me.

Not only is it in my nature to pester others, I reasoned that by spinning the baskets I would cause the weavers to lose focus, thus allowing a break in their concentration and a better negotiating posture. I am not sure how long this went on, but I am confident the Navajo weaving community had lost patience. They must have been ready to bury me in the nearest anthill. It all came to a head one day when I was dealing with a young weaver, spinning her basket and causing great frustration. At the time there just happened to be an older Navajo woman in the store who was paying a great deal of attention to what was happening. The woman's name was Mary Grisham, and I knew her well. She had a bad attitude and was vocal about anything that ticked her off, a true radical. As I wrapped up the purchase, Mary angrily approached me and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Remember, I was young and at that point I had not learned to deal with angry women, so I could only stammer, "What do you mean?" Mary proceeded to inform me that a Navajo basket represents the world, and by spinning it that way I caused serious disruptions. Mary and the weaver stormed out of the trading post, loudly proclaiming my ignorance. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea. I began to investigate, and found books that better explained the meaning behind Navajo basketry. I found the traditional basket was a sacred object used by medicine men to practice healing ceremonies. The interpretation of the weaving is deep, meaningful, and much reverence goes into its production. This was to say nothing of the pictorial baskets I had carelessly spun; they represented chant ways, morality tales and legendary heroes.

My basket spinning had spun a disturbance because it showed disrespect. In effect, it had caused a chaotic reaction in a deeply spiritual sense. Not good, I assure you. I was then, and am still, embarrassed by my lack of understanding. It was a hard lesson, but one I learned well. I have also gained a great deal of humility, and now work hard to recognize what the weavers are trying to communicate through their art. I have gained a great deal more common sense and work hard to understand others. I am more focused on respect for other people.

Although it took seven long years to break through, I eventually married the girl who had distracted me from my calling. My wife has taught me much indeed, and I am more experienced in the ways of women since settling down with her. I still do not understand them, but I am a bit wiser when it comes to interpreting their ways.

Over the years, my habit of purposefully aggravating others has often gotten me into trouble. As a matter of fact I have been blessed with a son and two beautiful daughters who have elevated some of my bad habits to new heights, but I guess what they say is true, "What goes around comes around." I am now paying back for my indiscretions. Needless to say, I no longer spin baskets, and I only rarely antagonize others just to make a profit.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, May 15, 2015

On the Horizon

Bluff, this beautiful little economically challenged town on the northern border of the Navajo reservation, has been my home on and off since the day I first arrived in this earthly realm. As a young man, I roamed the washes, climbed the cliffs and hurled dirt clods at the other children without a care for the financial demands of everyday life. There was of course the occasional need for a dime or two to satisfy my desire for sugary treats, but for the most part money was not a consideration. On occasion Craig, Barry and I were able to sneak into Roy Pearson’s workshop to pinch a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or two, further mitigating our need for cash. We, however, did not need coins jingling in our pockets to make us feel like kings.

In my youth I did make note of the Navajo women who looked regal in their velveteen blouses adorned with dimes, quarters and the occasional John Kennedy half dollar. Although I knew those coins could buy enough candy and red soda to make me hurl something besides stones, I do not remember ever conspiring to relieve the ladies of their adornments. I must have felt the silver served a higher purpose accenting Navajo clothing than it would have purchasing pop.

When I returned to this pink sandstone paradise after many years in Northern California, money was a more pressing concern. I had left my secure job at the age of 30 and was beginning to feel my financial ship had sailed. In fact, I wondered whether I had bought a first class ticket on the Titanic. My future appeared to be taking on water.
Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Ut

A few years later something arrived on my desk that made me reconsider my fiscal fate. No, it was not the death of a rich uncle leaving me a cornucopia of cash, they were already gone with no indication of inheritance. The thing that made me reconsider my monetary misgivings was a book, a thesis actually.

Barry generally avoids the chaos of my office unless there are serious matters to be addressed. There he was, however, peeking around the door frame with something green and rectangular in his hand. “What’s that?” I asked, in my most congenial voice, since he seemed to hold the object in high regard. “A book”, he said. “I know it’s a book”, I replied, “what kind?” He handed me the explanatory note that came with his newly acquired treasure.

The missive indicated our friend Kay had sent us a copy of her son’s master’s thesis; which was entitled Jens Nielson, Bishop of Bluff. “Oh,” I said, still trying to sound pleasant, “let me see.” Since I had obviously fooled him with my kindness, I am sure Barry thought I would immediately return his jewel. He was, however, sadly disappointed. I kept the manuscript and carefully studied its contents so long Barry began to worry he might never get it back.

As indicated by its title, the monograph focuses on Mormon bishop Jens Nielson. The background and history relating to the colonization and development of Bluff is, however, what captured my attention. The writing details challenges the settlers had just getting to this remote location, and outlines the problems associated with taming the San Juan River, raising crops and dealing with local tribes. It describes Bluff as, “[T]he back eddy of empires”, and quotes Parley Butt, one of the early pioneers, saying, “When God finished makin’ the world he had a lot of rocks left over an’ he threw them down here in a pile in Utah.” Those two statements accurately illustrate our small town.

As the pioneers attempted to gain a foothold in this difficult land, the river all too often destroyed their hopes for an abundant harvest. The wind blew red dust into every crack and crevice of their log homes, covering the settlers and their belongings with a continuous ruby film. Skirmishes between the Mormon pioneers and Navajo, Ute and Paiute people sometimes turned deadly. Like me, the settlers began to believe their economic transport would never turn up. Through hard work, faith and perseverance, however, they eventually succeeded.

Although we have always survived the raiding parties of our contemporary Navajo basket and rug weaving adversaries, Barry and I know we are in for a scalping when the Holidays, Blacks or Rocks arrive at Twin Rocks Trading Post. Generally, the skirmishes involve lots of gesticulation, protestations and haggling; sometimes even coin tossing and arm wrestling. When the deal is done, however, everyone is still healthy and generally happy. The weavers almost always seem more content than Barry and I, but we have become accustomed to that outcome.

Like Bluff’s settlers, Barry and I have a strong faith we will eventually prosper if we persevere. Way out on the horizon we think we see the sails of success, so we have asked Priscilla to help us send up smoke signals to guide the vessel through waters that are as treacherous as the Bermuda Triangle. The pioneers believed there was a higher purpose to their establishment of Bluff, and Barry and I feel the same. We just don’t yet know what that may be.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Mother Earth and Me

For many years the Navajo people we know through Twin Rocks Trading Post have been working to teach Steve and me the ways of Mother Earth. In Navajo culture, Mother Earth, who is also known as Changing Woman, is reborn each spring, ages gradually throughout the year and expires during the winter months in an enduring and eternal cycle. She is considered a compassionate deity who has been watching over her people since they first arrived in this realm.

It is not that we are unfamiliar with this divine being. Indeed, as kids Steve and I were in constant contact with her. Just after school let out each summer, our own mother shaved our heads and set us loose to rampage around Bluff. In order to rebuild the thick calluses on the bottoms of our feet, which had softened while we attended class, we also jettisoned our shoes. In the rough and rocky terrain we inhabited toes were more effective than rubber soles.

Summer was a time to search out and explore all aspects of our surroundings, and few adventures were overlooked. Craig, Steve and I were masters of our small universe. We dug forts deep into the red clay; lay in the cool, moist sand under shaded culverts; and scaled the sheer cliffs which give Bluff its name. It was an idyllic childhood, one that offered great freedom and independence. To this day, as I stroll the dirt streets of Bluff I often come across reminders that open windows onto the past. On those occasions, it is as if for a moment I return to that time long ago and become an unrestrained youth exploding onto the landscape.
Mother Earth

Recently a brief thunderstorm struck Bluff as Steve and I worked at straightening up the trading post. He is Mr. Clean, and gets wound up when the dust gets thick and fingerprints obscure our glass display cases. I, however, am Hasteen Casually Cluttered and not easily offended by a messy desk or disorganized back counter. We do our best to accept each other’s idiosyncrasies and always collaborate to get the work done.

As the storm erupted I walked out onto the porch to enjoy the rain. The smell of moist earth and feel of static electricity grabbed my attention. As I absorbed the scene with all my senses, I noticed a car pull up in front of Twin Rocks Cafe. It rolled to a stop and out scampered a woman I had first met over three decades earlier. She flashed a bright smile, waved energetically and disappeared into the restaurant.

Turning my gaze southwest towards the old Bluff City Trading Post location I could distinguish only a small part of the building through the wet leaves of an ancient cottonwood tree, the driving rain and a tangle of swaying branches. In an instant I was transported back almost 35 years to a similarly wet morning. On that particular day in history, when the clouds opened up I had just completed my daily chores of cleaning glass, sweeping concrete floors and arranging displays.

My older sister Susan and I ran Bluff City together, alternating opening in the morning and working together during afternoons and evenings. I clearly remember being imminently proud of myself for doing such a fine job and maintaining the spotless standard Susan demanded. As I admired the results of my domestic skills, I began to worry about setting such a high mark, wondering how that might affect future projects.

Hearing a vehicle come to a halt in the gravel parking lot outside, I walked from behind the counter to the open door and immediately recognized Archie Jones. He was approaching with a small cluster of his numerous children. Archie was a bit of an antique at that point, tall, thin and stooped. On his bony chin sprouted a dozen or so quarter inch long wispy white whiskers. He always smelled of earth and juniper smoke, a somewhat pleasant perfume once you acclimated to it.

Archie was a real character; he had a bright, happy smile and a gleam in his large, sleepy brown eyes. It was rumored he had three wives and a boatload of kids. I knew he was always short of cash. That was why he frequented our establishment. We ran a pawn business, which made modest cash loans, secured by turquoise jewelry, saddles, rifles and various other easily stored items. Archie's word was solid gold, so we never hesitated to provide funds to tide him over until the next check arrived.

His family literally flooded into my newly scrubbed and mopped store. I gave them a frustrated look as they shook the moisture from their clothing and tracked mud throughout the facility. It didn’t take long to figure out what I would be doing for the next several hours. Archie noticed my consternation and shrugged it off with a smile. The fact that precipitation had come to our mostly dry climate was too important to let small matters adversely affect his mood. I guess he thought an explanation was in order, because he walked up to me and began articulating his thoughts.

Archie spoke little English, and my Navajo was mostly unintelligible. No matter, his young daughter, the same one I had just noticed darting into Twin Rocks Cafe, stepped forward. As if on cue, she began deciphering her father's words. His nearness, aromatic scent, sincere look and tone of voice demanded attention. I could tell by his attitude he wanted me to appreciate what he was saying, and that the message meant a great deal to him. Touching his weather worn face, he stated, "My skin is red like the earth. I was born through her, she is my mother." I listened intently, focusing on his animated face, fascinated by what he said. He continued, "All things come from her. Be good to her and she will be good to you." His young daughter scrupulously interpreted, and his message, spoken through a shy child's soft voice, had a definite effect on me. I wanted to know more. Archie, satisfied he had made his point, stepped back and ended the conversation. I finalized Archie’s pawn transaction and the small tribe exited into the waning storm.

My mind switched back to the present, from the scent of Archie to the fragrance of the now falling rain and static energy flashing. Mine has been an interesting journey into the traditions and culture of the Navajo people. I find their message as motivating and thoughtful as any belief system I have encountered. Theirs is a unique perspective, their eyes see through a different lens and their hearts feel deep emotions. I embrace their ancient view, which treats the earth as a living, breathing and giving entity. Respect for the natural world is vital for its survival, and for ours as well. When I am in close contact with the soil I feel more at ease and draw strength from Mother Earth’s natural beauty. So when our customers find a little red sand sifting from their packages, we hope they realize we are just sharing the secret to our quiet, calm, genteel world; the secret of our mother the Earth.

With warm regards from Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve Priscilla and Danny.