Friday, February 24, 2017

The Storyteller

The young man stood close to the sales counter, his eyes slightly downcast. With his freshly scrubbed face and in his carefully pressed walking shorts and polo shirt, he was the picture of a well-bred, well-mannered boy. Digging the toe of his river sandaled foot into the carpet, he answered his mother’s inquiry with a determined, “No.” Unfortunately for him, his body language admitted what he would not.

A few minutes earlier as he and his parents entered the trading post, his father had gently, but firmly, instructed him to keep his hands in his pockets and not touch anything. Giving the boy a trickster’s wink, I inquired, “How will we make any money if kids are not allowed to break a thing or two?” The boy’s parents did not overtly express displeasure, but their disappointment was apparent. I imagined them thinking, “Do not listen to that bad man. He will only cause you problems. You can tell from looking at him that he is trouble.”

Barry and I had been preparing to price certain antique jewelry pieces, so a Ray Lovato tab necklace, several bracelets, some earrings and a few brooches were on the counter. Apparently, the young man had not been able to restrain his curiosity, and had reached across the glass to more closely inspect one of the bracelets. As he did so, his inexperienced fingers fumbled and the cuff tumbled to the floor. It was at that moment the young man made a grave error.

Giving him a sharp look, his mother asked, “Did you touch that after we specifically asked you to keep your hands in your pockets?” “No!,” he answered far too quickly, trapping himself before he knew what had happened. At that point the inquisition and lecture ensued. “Sweetheart, don’t you know you should never lie to your parents? What kind of man will you grow up to be if you can’t tell the truth? I am not angry, I just need you to be honest; don’t tell me any stories” When the boy still could not bring himself to admit his mistake, his mother said, “This is the way it starts, with a small, insignificant lie, and the next thing you know, you are stealing cars and going to prison for a very long time. Do you want to go to prison?”

Her last comment startled me. Up to that point I was completely supportive and felt she had been quite compassionate. Stealing cars and going to prison was, however, overstating things a bit. Not that I hadn’t used precisely the same logic on my children when they were young. These parents, however, appeared much better prepared to guide their child in the proper ways of the world than I had been at their age. I have since learned a great deal about parenting, and work hard at not making insupportable statements.

As the couple walked out with their newly minted miscreant in tow, their comments reverberated in my mind. Although I had wanted to intervene in his behalf, out of respect for his parents, and with the hope he would soon redeem himself, I refrained from doing so.

Barry gave me a knowing look and went back to his office. Standing by the cash register, I watched the little family cross the parking lot and get into their car. They were extremely nice, and I regretted seeing the young man in trouble. As their vehicle pulled away, I sat down at the computer to write the next Tied to the Post essay.

When I had finished the story, I asked Barry to let me read it to him. “Did that really happen?” he asked. “Yes,” I said defensively, looking down at the floor and digging my toe into the carpet.

Looking at me with a penetrating stare and a smirk on his face, Barry said, “You shouldn’t tell stories. What kind of man will you grow up to be if you can’t tell the truth? The next thing you know, you will be stealing cars, going to prison for a very long time and getting tattoos.” I couldn’t help thinking, “Tattoos?”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Business, Religion and Pauline

The trading post was fairly busy with tourists, locals and a Mormon missionary couple when I heard the entry chimes go off again. Looking up to see who it was, I winced because I instantly recognized Pauline Deswudt. Pauline weaves very nice hand-spun rugs, and is one of the toughest negotiators in the Indian art world. What I did not need right then was an audience while dealing with Pauline. I knew for a fact that she would use any, and every advantage, to make a deal swing in her favor. I also knew that working out a fair value for the weaving stowed in Pauline’s Blue Bird flower sack was going to take time and concentrated effort. I walked over to Pauline and asked if she would give me a few minutes to help the customers. Pauline smiled and said she would.

I went back to work, hoping Steve, Priscilla, Rick or Susie would soon return from wherever they had wandered and help me disperse the crowd. I was achieving fairly good success with the customers, helping them fill their wants and needs, then sending them back out into the gorgeous Spring afternoon sunlight. As I worked, I noticed that Pauline and the missionaries were engaged in animated conversation. I groaned inwardly as she unveiled a weaving that her mother-in-law, Julia Deswudt made before she passed in October 2013. We must have bought and sold a hundred of Julia’s rugs before she departed for the Sky World. I wondered why we were now seeing the rug? Pauline caught me spying on her, turned her back on me and reengaged the missionary couple.

Before long, the crowd dwindled down to Pauline, the missionaries and me. I took up a conversation with the missionary couple who were quite pleasant and courteous. The couple assured me that they were just looking and waiting to meet someone, and that I should go ahead and take care of Pauline. "Great," I thought, "they were now on a first name basis with the woman I was preparing to negotiate with." I needed a distraction. Where was my crew? I could tell they were curious how I would treat their new friend. Pauline rolled out Julia's rug, and explained that she did not really want to sell the rug, but needed the money to help the kids participate in an important sporting event. Then, with great humor in her eyes, Pauline loudly quoted a price that was triple what it was worth.

In April 1880, the Mormon settlers first struggled into this unaccommodating river valley and collapsed upon the red sand in frustration and fatigue. This devout group of rugged individuals were on a mission for their church. Simply put, they were sent by Brigham Young to expand the church's horizons, and bring the Book of Mormon to the Lamanites (Native people). The stated philosophy was to be as unobtrusive as possible while proving the value of the Mormon culture. When Brigham Young Jr. finally released the Saints of Bluff from their calling, most of the families moved north to slightly greener pastures in Monticello, then Blanding. Some left the country completely, vowing never to return to such a forlorn and desolate land, leaving Bluff in the hands of the heathens.

The point is that descendants of every Mormon family that ever resided in Bluff, and some that never did, still lay a serious emotional claim to Bluff City. They also accept an enduring social responsibility towards her Native peoples. Pauline, the missionary couple and I were all very familiar with the past, present and future ramifications of what was happening, and one of us was taking advantage of the situation. I had no desire to get "crosswise" with the religious right over a simple rug deal, nor was I in the mood to be the butt of a joke either.

With a tortured smile plastered across my lips, I quietly told Pauline that there was no way in Hell that I was going to pay three times the price for Julia’s rug. I was pleased that she would bring the rug to us and was willing to help but was unwilling to be skinned in the process. Pauline laughed at my uncomfortable predicament, the missionary couple, nonchalantly, moved in closer to better hear the conversation, and I began to sweat. I could see where a misunderstanding could arise. I was probably overreacting, but one can never be too cautious when it comes to political or religious fallout. I had to consider that my darling Mormon bride, a descendent of the original bishop of Bluff, "Brother Jens" no less, might take exception to an ideological misstep on my part. Pauline could see the deer in the headlights look in my eyes, and quickly pressed her advantage. "Please!" she said piteously, "I really need the money!"

The sister missionary had seen and heard enough, she clutched her purse, determined, I am sure, to give Pauline whatever currency was contained therein. The brother restrained his wife and bodily moved her across the store, mumbling something about nonintervention. I was a bit taken aback by his overly generous gesture; Pauline looked surprised as well and slightly guilty. Seeing a way out of the corner I had been painted into, I was about to tell the couple that they were more than welcome to purchase the rug directly from Pauline; it was fine with me! At that moment, a bright-eyed young man in a black suit and a name tag poked his head in the door, located the couple and said, "Sorry we're late, we can go now!" The missionary couple quickly exited the building.

Focusing back on Pauline I said; "Darn your twisted sense of humor, you could have had me black balled from Bluff." "I know," laughed Pauline, "that's what makes it so funny!" Pauline must have felt sorry for me after that, because, without further debate, she quoted a fair price for Julia’s rug. I wrote her a check and she departed, still chuckling to herself at the joke she had pulled off at my expense. From that day forth, I have made a personal promise of never mixing business with religion and Pauline.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Graffiti or Cultural Treasure

After climbing over a fence and trudging up a sand dune, Jan and I stood in front of a large petroglyph panel. Studying the symbols, we speculated what may have motivated the ancient artists to peck those images onto the stone wall. Looking carefully at the drawings, and considering all the Latino tagging associated with her native Los Angeles, Jan said, “So, is it just ancient graffiti?” Although I have been asked similar questions and have often wondered myself, Jan’s query raised a larger issue for me.

Like the distinction between insanity and genius, the line between cultural treasure and historical irrelevance is often difficult for me to draw. I often think Barry is crazy. He, on the other hand, believes he is inspired. Experience tells me that in many cases time is the crucial element necessary to determine the appropriate answer. Given enough years, what initially appears to be unfortunate ramblings may ultimately become a significant window into the past.

My inquiry, although related, was more personal than Jan’s. It goes something like this, “In creating their art, when are Native Americans improperly ‘selling their culture’, and, as Anglo traders, when are Barry and I inappropriately facilitating the prostitution of those traditions?” The issue arises from a series of e-mails we had in response to video interviews Barry did with Navajo sandpainter Daniel Smith, also known as Hosteen Etsitty.

The e-mails accuse Daniel of trading on his Navajo heritage to generate income. To which I must respond, “Yeah, and your point is?” Having watched the video several times, I have developed a greater appreciation for sandpaintings. I also find I more fully understand the meaning behind Daniel’s work and have developed a new fondness for him. To me, the fact he was so forthcoming about his personal history is especially endearing.

Quite often comments like those made in the e-mails cause me to think of the 1976 movie Network. In that film, news anchorman Howard Beale galvanizes the nation when he says, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” My personal mania results from Anglo paternalism relative to Native Americans in general, and the militant anger directed at Indian traders specifically. Apparently those e-mailing individuals have not paused long enough to consider that Native Americans have every right to provide for their families and improve their station in life; that Native American culture and traditions are an important part of who these artists are and what they create; and that those traditions are naturally reflected in their work.

Additionally, don’t they realize Barry and I are traders because we enjoy, even love, the people, their art and their culture? We feel strongly we are engaged in an endeavor that preserves and enhances a significant portion of that culture; not one that destroys or demeans it. Is it possible the e-mailers are right? Since Barry and I are never wrong, that is truly inconceivable.

Some time ago Barry and I were at a function for the Utah Museum of Natural History. In explaining a beautiful dance costume he had made, a Native American artist pointed to black and white beadwork on the breastplate and said something to the effect that those colors related to an earlier time; a time when everything was either right or wrong, not gray as it is today. Frankly, I long for the day my life has such certainty. I do, however, realize I will never find it.

Can it be argued Daniel Smith is compromising his culture by creating sandpaintings and speaking so candidly about his experiences? Sure. It can also be said that in speaking so freely and giving so openly he has brought many of us closer to his people and given us a newfound respect for them.

Might it also be said that Barry and I are trading illegitimately on the traditions of the local tribes? Again, sure. If, however, our patrons take time to properly investigate, they may realize the issue is more complicated than they believe. After a patina like that affecting the petroglyphs Jan and I were inspecting has settled over Daniel’s actions, we may know whether he is right or wrong. Until then, however, we must do our best to give the artists freedom to be who they must be and to create what their heart tells them to produce.

With warm regards, Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, February 3, 2017


In the last two weeks Bluff has been getting a fair proportion of our annual rainfall. We generally receive a mere six inches a year, so an inch or more in a short period of time can saturate the ground and cause a bog in low-lying areas. Such was the case last Saturday when Rick Bell and I stood at the large picture windows of Twin Rocks Trading Post, watching the clouds roll in then roll away again. The shifting patterns of sunlight and shadow were fascinating because the scenery beyond the glass morphed with each passing moment.

As we admired the ever-changing vista Rick and I swapped sarcastic humor, each attempting to creatively outdo the other. As we bantered, a small white Toyota SUV took a hard left at the intersection of Highway 191 and came blasting through our graveled parking lot at a breakneck rate of speed. We both noticed the vehicle's direction of travel would take it past us and into the red dirt parking area south of the towering Twin Rocks. “Don’t do it!” I said aloud. In actuality, however, I hoped they would. “There’s no stopping them now,” chuckled Rick. “This should prove entertaining!”

Could the driver not see the tracks of the last knucklehead that ventured in there and the three to four inches of standing water within the ruts he left behind? Our best guess is the occupants of the runaway rover were looking up at our giant hoodoos and not in the direction of the loblolly into which they were launching themselves. The Toyota hit the marshy morass and hydroplaned across the thick gruel until its forward momentum was checked, about one hundred feet past the point of no return.

As the vehicle came to a sliding stop, the driver slammed it in reverse and backed the spinning SUV halfway around and up the hill several feet, actually gaining a slight advantage. I thought if the driver goosed the 4x4 and swung it back into the ruts that had just been created there might be a chance the vehicle could re-emerge from the boondoggle. Alas, it was not to be! As Rick and I gazed in amazement, the driver punched the gas and sped straight downhill, right into the heart of the bog.

“Well, that otta do it”, quipped Rick as the SUV settled upon its axels and began spinning again. Sure enough, the misguided reproach and the turning tires were digging the now red Toyota into the deep, dark depths of the mud hole. Just then the local savant we often refer to as “Bishop”, drove-up in his newly washed Ford Expedition and climbed the steps of the porch. Upon entering the trading post he saw us standing there and, as usual, made a wisecrack about how every time he comes around he finds us standing about doing nothing butt scratching our backsides.

Ignoring the Reverend’s caustic comment, we pointed out the side show going on in the swamp to the west. As we watched and made bad jokes, three young people, two male and one female, emerged from the vehicle and lit their smokes. After what looked like much contemplation and significant inhalation, the girl hopped into the driver’s seat. She put the SUV in gear and gunned it while the boys leaned a little harder on the fender. The car settled deeper into the quagmire.

Rick and I suggested that our local Moses should climb into his buffed-up Ford and lead the threesome back to the Promised Land. He would have none of it. “I already have several service projects on tap”, was his reply. He continued, “those waters will not easily be parted.” The Bishop pointed out that no one was in immediate danger and no incurable harm would likely come their way. He suggested Rick and I wade out there and do some service of our own, directing us to, “lift them from their dire straits.”

As the Bishop departed our company, Rick and I sprang into action. I went outside to appraise the situation further. Rick watched the shop and began looking up phone numbers for nearby towing services or locals who might prove helpful. I approached the mellow youths and their mired beast of burden to see what might be done. The situation looked more serious up close than from afar. “No worries man”, they reassured me, “we have a tow truck coming from Cortez and it will arrive in four hours.”

Not being one to give in easily, and desiring to impress our local holy man, I brought lumber to build a bridge, but the SUV was buried far too deep. We connected a small cable I had in my pick-up truck, but that snapped instantly. After several failed attempts and adding multiple layers of mud to the soles of my shoes, the kids waved me off. “No worries brother, the truck will arrive soon; we are going to wait it out and have lunch.” I acquiesced, “it is your call and I am out of options.”

Right on time a giant Kenworth flatbed tow truck arrived to extract the kids from their muddy morass. As we watched, the truck driver attach a long line and the Bishop returned from his mission, joining us on the porch of the trading post. The wayward youth were soon freed of their predicament and continued on their way, smoke billowing from the open windows of their mud-red rover.  As they departed, Rick, the Bishop and I waved goodbye. 

Never being one to miss an opportunity to speak from the soapbox or neglect a chance to share an obvious moral metaphor, the thoughtful Bishop called after the departing youth, “Four Corners Towing and the Colorado recovery professionals would like to thank the recreational marijuana industry for making this opportunity possible and their careers much more secure.”

“Amen,” Rick and I said in unison.