Friday, October 30, 2015

Growing up, and Living in Bluff

The rugged landscape of the Four Corners region suffuses its occupants with a unique perspective. Ours is a beautifully harsh world of majestic mesas; vast, vertical canyons; and twisting, swirling sandstone. To those born into it, the land is rich in texture and mystery. This home of the Navajo provides room to expand one's personal space and explore life's unanswered questions.

Picture of Twin Rocks Trading Post
Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff Utah

At Twin Rocks Trading Post Steve and I are often asked, "What are you doing here?" Being of rather smart and caustic natures, we have developed a litany of answers that never adequately addresses the question. It does, however, force the inquisitor to stop and consider what he or she has said. There are those, however, who are sincere in their questioning, those who simply cannot understand why anyone would choose to reside in such an unforgiving environment. They see only heatwaves raising from blistering asphalt and feel the penetrating bite of blowing sand.
Although we face the oppressive sun and stinging soil from time-to-time, we are trained by persevering neighbors to see things through their eyes and to appreciate these circumstances as glimpses into the mythological world. The inherent beauty of the occasion is, however, not always readily apparent. A mirage for example is seen by the Navajo as a window into the land of supernaturals, and spring wind storms are believed to be a side effect of rambunctious Wind Yeis at long last released from their winter containment.
As one might expect, growing up in Bluff was an education in its own right. We learned in the same public school system as the rest of America, same curriculum, same textbooks. We were, however, also introduced to other cultures with strange and unusual beliefs that ran counter to what we were being taught in the classroom. When I look back on our school pictures, I see a minority of white faces surrounded by the happy, mischievous, earth red faces of Navajo and Ute children. To be sure, we were tested in the classroom and on the playground.  As a result, we learned many lasting lessons.  The photographs nevertheless bring back happy memories.

Included in my scrapbook of memories are Navajo women in brightly colored satin blouses adorned with turquoise jewelry and full velveteen skirts, stoic Navajo men wearing tall black hats with rounded crowns flashing silver. We were the wild, liberated children who were frequently left to their own devices. I specifically recall a Navajo man walking down the highway, making time to an unknown destination. He was followed by his wife, who, even though she retained the family wealth and right of discipline, was always in the rear, never leading. As they passed our yard, I fell in behind the tall, stern man and his gaily clad spouse. For my efforts, I earned a harsh, disapproving look from the Hasteen, but received a brilliant welcoming smile from his mate. For a short time I followed in their footsteps, a rag tag boy, imagining an adventurous trek with Native guides. I was all too soon lured away by another distraction, but distinctly remember the woman’s friendly wave of farewell and her husband’s look of acceptance.
The Ute people also taught us many lessons, usually relating to pugilism. It was always interesting to deal with their devil-may-care, fun at all cost, attitude. Their sense of humor frequently had a biting edge, and they always appreciated a well executed gag. We spent many hours sneaking up on these cagey characters, attempting to relieve them of an object of interest and knowing full well that identifying an avenue of hasty retreat was in our best interest. The local deputy once caught us antagonizing his inmate through the outside bars of the holding cell and threatened to provide us similar accommodations if we did not quickly disperse. The thought of being incarcerated with this unruly individual made us scatter and steer clear of the jail house from that point forward. The inmate never let us forget it, and often invited us to, "Come visit."

Bluff was and is a wonderful place. So, if I have to answer the question, "What are you doing here?", I would say, "I am here because this is where I belong, this is my history, my emotion and my heart. Navajo people believe they come from the earth; that Mother Earth gave them life and that she continues to provide for them. They know one day they will return to her. Until that time they choose to remain close to her, and so do I.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Navajo Rug Weaver Mae Yazzie's hands
Navajo Rug Weaver Mae Yazzie's hands

Lately I have been obsessed with a song I heard long ago which goes like this, “Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle, but I’ve come to understand, there was always love in Daddy’s hands.” Although I can recite that part of the tune word-for-word, I cannot remember a single other phrase.

The melody got me thinking about the Ancient Puebloans who occupied this land centuries ago and left beautiful handprints in many of their cliff dwellings. Maybe that was their way of leaving a mark on the world, an eternal signature of sorts. Those personalized pictographs open a window into the past and inspire me to visualize painted pottery, corn, beans, squash and nurturing farmers.

Old songs and ancient people started me noticing the hands of our Native artists and the effects rug weaving, basket making or stonecutting has on their extremities. Basket weaver Evelyn Cly may have kicked off my latest mania when she brought a ceremonial basket into the trading post. These weavings are extremely important in Navajo culture, and she seemed to caress the basket while passing it to me for inspection. For the first time, I noticed her fingers are slightly angled from dipping sumac strands into water. Hydrating the splints makes them pliable, less brittle, easier to manipulate. The moisture had apparently swollen her joints, and the strain of stitching fibers into art had raised callouses on her fingers.

What brought my obsession out in full force, however, was a telephone conversation with my friend Gerald. Gerald frequently calls to relate bad jokes and discuss the local business climate. His call reminded me of several years ago when we were talking about his now grown son and Gerald said, “I knew I had lost my little boy when I looked at his hands and there were no more dimples.”  After that conversation, I immediately located Grange and was relieved to find his chubby paws were still dimpled. At almost 16 years of age, Grange has long since lost that particular physical characteristic and is no longer small.  I have, however, not yet lost him.

One thing led to another, and Mae Yazzie, my favorite rug weaver, and Bruce Eckhardt, my favorite bead maker, crept into my thoughts.  Although I have not seen her in many years, I remember Mae’s hands had the patina of seventy-something years.  Mae's skin was paper thin, wrinkled and beautifully brown, her fingers were crooked from decades of tamping wool with a weaving comb. I could never see Mae without wondering if her hands were painful. Although Mae's rugs had become somewhat simple at that stage, many stunning weavings had sprung from her skilled digits.

Bruce is a stonecutter who searches far and wide for suitable materials to make his fabulous necklaces. Barry and I buy Bruce’s jewelry whenever we can and will go a long way to purchase his work. Several years ago I met Bruce in Cortez, Colorado to look at his latest creations.  The arrangements made me feel we were setting up a clandestine operation, and in fact Bruce mentioned one meeting in Gallup, New Mexico where he was buying uncut turquoise and was mistaken for a drug dealer. He and the stone seller had their scales out on the backend of a pickup truck, weighing and measuring. Apparently a passerby concluded they were engaged in an illicit transaction and contacted the police. Officers arrived with lights flashing and sirens wailing, only to discover it was rock, not narcotics, the two were haggling over.

Bruce and I arranged to meet around 9:00 p.m., and as I walked into the restaurant he was sitting at the bar. After a few minutes we moved to a dark corner table and Bruce began telling stories about old miners.  At the appropriate moment he placed a rumpled paper sack on the table and said, “Well, it’s about time we had a look at this stuff.” He then carefully extracted bracelets, pendants and crosses encrusted with stones of deep green and sky blue from the bag and placed them on the table. The lighting was low, so we inspected the jewels using his Bic cigarette lighter. The striker wheel kept getting hot and burning our fingers, so we could only look a short time before stopping to let the cylinder cool. It felt like a scene from a gaslight movie.

As we looked through his treasures, I kept noticing Bruce’s fingers. After years of cutting stones under the perpetual drip of a diamond wheel, his grip had become permanently fixed at an almost 90 degree angle. His love of turquoise had cost him the mobility of his hands. In spite of that, Bruce would not give up cutting; it was his life, he is made to interpret the beauty inherent in those stones.

I have often heard people say eyes are the window to the soul, which makes me wonder whether hands are the portal to the heart.

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mormon, Indian or Outlaw?

WWorking in the Indian arts and crafts business, "for a good number of years”, has left me with a great appreciation for the the local artists and their work.  Southwest Native art often incorporates traditional themes which are used as a vehicle to communicate culture and tradition.  Delving into those legends is an activity I enthusiastically endorse, and anyone who takes time to investigate this history will find a unique and magical society that displays great respect for the wonders of the natural world.


As with most things, however, there are both positive and negative aspects associated with Southwest cultures. To me, the fact that Native people of this region have retained such complex beliefs systems is nothing short of amazing. Just slow down long enough to introduce yourself to their world and you will see how really interesting these people can be. Contemporary scholars are discovering just how important it is to the human psyche to incorporate tradition into your everyday life. It seems a well considered historical perspective, combined with an understanding of where you came from, provides the necessary structural support to our inner being.

As children we were exposed to a wide array of people and belief systems. Before she met and married our father, our mother, who was raised in the Catholic faith and educated in parochial schools, was on track to become a nun. Needless to say, we are grateful for the persistence of dear old dad. Without his tenacity, we would not be where we are today. Surely he believed bringing his new bride to this primitive outpost in southern Utah, and quickly establishing a large and active brood of children, provided the best opportunity for sustaining the relationship, and it worked.

It was our mother's intention to raise her children in the church of her youth, so we were baptized at an early age. She did her best to maintain our religious instruction, but in rural Utah that was an ongoing struggle. Priests were available only on a monthly rotation, and since ours was a small rough and tumble congregation it was not unusual for the priest to delay his visits in favor of more productive parishioners. Our mother, preferring not to be exclusively responsible for her developing gang of heathens, chose to attend mass at Saint Christopher's Episcopal Mission. Craig and I soon became altar boys, but that provided only temporary relief.


The Mormon culture has deep roots in Bluff, and our family grew up in close proximity to LDS people, history and beliefs. The original settlers of this community left a deep and indelible stamp on the town, and the descendants of these hearty individuals arrive at Twin Rocks Trading Post on an almost daily basis to discuss the adventures of their ancestors.

The cultures of the Navajo and Ute people were also ever-present, and when we were children it was common for us to witness traditional ceremonies being celebrated.  Squaw dances, pow wows, bear dances and many a Mormon and Navajo fair, complete with all the traditional food, were commonly on the agenda. We still believe the only way to eat fry bread is with salt. Powdered sugar and honey are newcomers to that Navajo delicacy and not to be taken seriously. It was a great way to grow up, and it gave us a better appreciation for what others believed and practiced. If you look closely at our school pictures, you will see a minority of white faces.

Steve and I are constantly quizzed about our relationship to the area. Most people cannot believe we are originally from Bluff. They look at us with skepticism, and wonder about our place in the larger scheme of things. I recently spoke with an elderly couple from Seattle who came to Bluff on a fact finding mission. It was the woman's intention to discover more information about Jens Nielson, her great grandfather. Bishop Nielson was one of Bluff's founding fathers and left a prodigious lineage in his wake. The woman asked the standard questions, "Are you Mormon?" "No, ma’am."  "Are you Indian?" "No, we are not Indian.” The next question generally is, "Then, what are you?" This is characteristically where our sarcastic natures kick in and we become creative with our answers.  This sweet, innocent woman, however, beat us to the punch when she said, “Well, according to the historical record, and the late, great Mormon historian, Albert R. Lyman, there is only one alternative." "What's that?" we jointly inquired, setting ourselves up for her reply. Turning towards the Kokopelli doors, she replied, "Why, outlaws of course!"Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Baffled Mind

Because my editor is out of town and my word prospector has developed a virus in its potatoe chip, I begin this missive with a certain cents of fore-boating. The machanical affliction, I think, may be silicosis, which is directly related to the Trojan strain recently affecting many similarly situated devices and their neophyte operators.

After my machine began acting out, I contacted a local family practitioner to request a penicillin prescription. The doctor informed me that penicillin is an anti-bacterium, not an antivirus, and refused to comply with my request. He said something that made me think I may need a suppository, and concluded by suggesting that I contact Norton. Since I was unable to find Dr. Norton’s number in the telephone book, I am still afflicted.

Even the local medicine man refused to have a look. Therefore, I beg forgiveness in advance for any missteps I may make in writing this story. Any such mistake is directly related to my viral infection and editorial loss, and does not necessarily indicate a mental or emotional deficiency. Now that I have made the appropriate excuses, I am ready to move forward, so let’s begin.

The other day my wife and I were having a lively discussion when she informed me that I have a “baffled mind." Initially I thought it was a reference to Russell Crowe’s movie, A Beautiful Mind. After a time, however, I began to wonder whether my initial assumption was accurate and went for the dictionary. Mr. Webster defines a baffle as, “A device (as a plate, wall, or screen) to deflect, check, or regulate flow (as of a fluid, light, or sound)”. Knowing my wife as I do, I felt comfortable that she was referring to my mental ability to compartmentalize things, thereby baffling them. That set my mind at rest, and I went back to polishing the glass.

My wife and I often discuss weighty subjects, and, although I have studied Ghandi for years, and consider myself a pacifier, the conversations sometimes get a little heated. I can assure you that I generally try hard to understand her point of view, but have begun to believe there may be a great deal of merit to that book she recently asked me to read. The title was something like, Men are from Vesuvius and Woman are from Marianus. I believe the thesis of the book is that men generally blow and spew like a volcano, and women are deep thinkers. That concept certainly has merit when it comes to our relationship.

I have thought a lot about that book, and have recently begun to notice pairs of ravens sitting on the rocks just above the old mission road during my morning runs. They stare down as I jog past, caw at me, and I caw back. Initially they would fly off after our little exchanges, but have apparently concluded that I am harmless and now stay put. Because of my pace, they must have concluded that I am associated with certain marine reptiles, and am therefore too slow to pose any significant threat to their general welfare.

I have often been told that the ravens are monographist; meaning they mate for life. I am a firm believer in monography, and have done extensive research into why men and women choose to live together forever. The ravens, combined with my wife’s kind comment, had once again set my mind at ease, and I felt a wave of contentment wash over me as I plodded down the highway. I figured that if those ravens can stick it out, so can my wife. After all, I have never asked her to eat road kill, or live outside.

Although I was feeling quite comfortable about my wife’s baffling comment, something happened that caused me to question my prior assumptions. That something was the visit of a middle aged woman to the trading post. The woman walked through the door late in the afternoon, and, as is my habit, I struck up a conversation with her by asking where she lived. She very politely answered, “Chicago.” The conversation continued on a congeniable basis for about ten minutes, when I once again said, “So, where ya’ from.” She looked sideways at me and said, “Chicago, still!” Obviously I was taken aback, and began to wonder whether Mr. Webster’s alternative definition, “To defeat or check (as a person) by confusing or puzzling” may have been applicable to my wife’s compliment.

Although Barry and I try to be egalitarian in our treatment of tourists who ask silly questions, we are not always equilateral. We readily excuse our own faults, and chatter instantaneously and incessantly about theirs. This woman’s comment forcefully reminded me of that specific shortcoming in my personality. It also started me thinking about my ambitions, and opportunities for long term employment at the trading post.

When I was young, I just knew I would set the world on fire; then I’d stand back with a smug look on my face as the praise poured in. I wasn’t sure how or why, but I was sure. As I have approached middle age, however, I have come to realize that I may not even spark.

In those earlier days, the trading post seemed a good opportunity to shine. When we opened its doors, everything was sparkling and new. I had a feeling that this was going to be really great, and it has been. My shining however has been generally restricted to Windex and the showcases.

As a result of our work at the trading post, Barry and I have even been compared to Lorenzo Hubbell, which is a huge indictment; but I wanted Moore. The other day, Cally, one of our trading post friends and trusted advisor, sent me an e-mail with one of those winky things ; ) in the text. I had frequently seen the smiley thing : ), but this was something new to me. All of the sudden I knew that I had missed the boat. I began to question why I hadn’t invented that winky thing? For the last 13 years, I have been trying to convince the people visiting our business that I am truly sublime, rather than just keylime. All that time, I could have been inventing winky things, a truly Nobel calling.

Now I am in a quandary. I don’t know whether to move to the Florida Keys, like Jimmy Buffet, and start a new career inventing those fabulous symbols, or stay here at the trading post. I am convinced that if I can come up with just one winky like thing, I will be a rousing success. I might even have it placed on my headstone when I die, and people will walk by and say, “Oh, that’s the grave of Steve Simpson. He invented that winky like thing. What a visionary he was.”

On second thought, since I have requested cremation and therefore will not even have a gravestone, I may just stay here. Barry probably can’t keep the glass clean without me anyway, and that virulent virus affects my ability to create.

With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team.