Friday, February 23, 2018

Dead Man Walkin’

The other day I was strolling through Twin Rocks Cafe when I noticed Chris* reclining in booth 4, while she and her mother waited for lunch to arrive. Since there are not many customers during this time of year, Barry and I have the opportunity to do a lot of strolling. That gives us time to contemplate our situation, and although one might conclude all that thinking would eventually result in concrete action, that is not usually the case. For Barry and me, thinking usually just leads to more thinking, and less doing. We suffer from what is commonly labeled Implementation Deficit Disorder or IDD, a malady which runs in the Simpson family. As far as I am aware, there is no known cure or treatment. Fortunately, the ailment is rarely fatal and typically leaves no permanent external scarring. As a result of our handicap, if you want something done around Twin Rocks, Priscilla is your best bet. Unlike Barry and me, she does not suffer from a contemplative personality. For Priscilla, action is the watchword, and you better get out of her way when she fires up. Barry and I often wonder how we would survive without her. We also think about that a lot when we are on our walkabouts. So far, as one might guess, we have not come up with an answer.

Back at the restaurant it was an overcast day, and, as I approached Chris and the exit, I anticipated the chill of a late January afternoon and thought about the hot July and August days that would arrive all too soon. Living in the desert has given me a healthy appreciation for cold weather. During the long, hot summers of Bluff, I frequently yearn for cooler temperatures and a bit of moisture. Although I have no desire to live in snow country, I love the crystal clear December nights when stars sparkle brilliantly and light penetrates the darkness like a laser. I have often driven north from Bluff in the depths of winter; felt the thick, heavy gloom enveloping me; and noticed the illumination of our neighbors to the north reaching out to me.

As I strode towards the exterior door, I realized Chris’ left foot was immobilized by a medical boot strapped onto to her lower leg. “What happened?” I queried. “Work-related injury,” she replied, going on to explain the incident and its aftermath. Corrective surgery culminated in a cadaver tendon being spliced into the damaged limb. That caused me to think of the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. I quickly realized, however, that since Chris is Navajo, this recycling of body parts raised complex issues associated with traditional values. Consequently, I paused, scrunched my nose, and scratched my head. “Yep,” she said, correctly interpreting my concern for Navajo beliefs involving death and dying and how they might affect her situation.

As is often the case, this Navajo story begins with Coyote. The saga goes something like this: One day, a group of Navajo people began debating whether they should live forever or be allowed to die. In order to decide the issue, they elected to place an animal skin on a pool of water. They determined that if it sank, death would become an integral part of their world. If, however, the hide floated on the surface, they would experience eternal life. The people, however, became distracted and failed to closely monitor the situation. As a result, while their backs were turned Coyote threw stones on the skin, causing it to sink. For that reason, death eventually comes to claims us all. Coyote believed that if people did not pass on, all available land would soon become occupied and there would be no place for new arrivals to establish themselves. He therefore preferred death over eternity. Priscilla has echoed these same sentiments, saying that without death people would not appreciate life and that the elderly have to move on so the young can take their place in society. 

Navajo people believe the deceased go to the underworld, and they take great care to ensure the dead do not return to walk among the living. Such postmortem visits are avoided at all costs, and traditionalists are consequently reluctant to view a dead body.  Navajo people exposed to a corpse are required to undergo long and costly purification rituals to cleanse themselves. Additionally, in the past, the decedent’s hogan would be destroyed if he or she expired inside the structure. For these reasons, historic trading post operators often found themselves functioning as caregivers to the dying and undertakers once the final moment arrived. It was not enough to engage in economic activity, the traders became important members of the community and were responsible for tasks such as ministering to the sick and dying. 

When we are faced with issues such as this, Barry and often feel we are operating at the intersection of traditional Navajo convictions and contemporary ideals. Bluff, which sits immediately north of the Navajo reservation, functions as a veritable crossroad of cultures. Here, age-old beliefs mix with modern values to create a complicated spiritual concoction. Not far from Twin Rocks Trading Post, many Navajo elders live in much the same way people existed 100 years ago: no live water, no electricity, burning wood for heat, and without telephone or other modern conveniences. Traditional ways weave in and out of our daily lives, and we often don't know whether to respond to a situation in traditional fashion or with present-day strategies. For that reason, we at times refer to ourselves as “traders on the edge,”—on the edge of a rapidly changing life way, on the edge of a civilization that may not exist at the time of our own deaths, and on the edge of massive cultural changes.

When I asked Chris how her traditional family members were adjusting to the implant, she said it took a long time for her to build the courage to discuss it with them. When she did, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “We can do prayers!” Even Coyote would be comfortable with that solution.

*In this story, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Looking from the Inside Out

In a recent conversation with Navajo basket weaver Peggy Black, I asked about the Yeibichai she sometimes weaves into her creations. The Yei are powerful beings gifted to the Navajo by First Man and First Woman to help stave off sickness, disease, and other complications caused by unbalanced forces of nature. The Yei act as a buffer between the real and spirit worlds, and are a catalyst for positive change. They are the epitome of supernatural healing power, are not to be trifled with or summoned unnecessarily, and generally do not have a sense of humor when it comes to nonsensical human misconduct.

As we talked, Peggy began to open up about her cultural beliefs. She spoke of being raised traditionally and of the spiritual comfort she found in those traditions. Peggy feels that by respectfully weaving the Yeibichai into her baskets, she can capture their benevolent presence and the blessings they bestow. We also discussed the sacred masks of the Yei.

Ancient Navajo legends speak of how the Gods often find favor in an Earth Surface Person of low standing. They present him the tools, knowledge, and understanding to raise himself up and walk with them in their sacred world. Coyote always appears to provide a little chaotic mayhem, but this too is overcome. Before the Hero is allowed to live among the Gods, he must first return to earth and accomplish a specific task. He must then teach his brothers the hard-won knowledge he has accumulated, and instruct them in the ceremonies he has acquired. In the case of the Yeibichai, the instruction often involves use of sacred masks.

These masks were created to empower Navajo participants with the ability to transform, to metamorphose into the Yeibichai. What captured my attention, and stimulated my imagination, was a reference Peggy made to "looking through the mask." As I understand it, Peggy was attending a Yeibichai ceremony when the people in the hogan were granted the opportunity to don a mask and view the world through sacred eyes. It seems that to look upon the Yei, to see them for what they truly are and avoid harmful consequences, one must first look from the inside out.

Without first taking the proper precautions, associating with the power of the Yei can cause blindness, or even attract the sickness and disease they are said to cure. If one is not familiar and harmoniously in tune with these positive forces, protection from harm is not assured. To truly know the Yeibichai, one has to see them from the inside.

I felt privileged that Peggy would share this interaction with me. Bits and pieces of personal information such as this bring me closer to understanding the people who inhabit this mysterious and strikingly beautiful landscape. One day, I hope to clearly see through their eyes.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, February 2, 2018


Although I am often referred to as “untrainable,” my wife Laurie has, with patience and practice, brought me around to a profound appreciation of family reunions. On an annual basis her side of the blood line consistently make the effort to reestablish family ties. When I first married Laurie and she suggested we attend her family reunion, I have to admit that I was dubious. I was skeptical because my family worked together on a daily basis and when the opportunity arose to get away from it and them all, we did just that. No harm, no foul. It was simply a survival thing. To be sure, Laurie’s family are wonderful people and gracious at accepting outlaws as in-laws, which made it easy for me to assimilate. As time went on and many of the younger people grew and generated families of their own, these gatherings have morphed. Clem and Donna’s children, Laurie’s siblings, have become matriarchs and patriarchs in their own right and began subdividing into separate clans. Thus, Laurie and I thought it was time to attempt reunions of our own.

We cherish our children and have learned that to gain and hold their attention for any amount of time, it is wise to distance them from their friends and obligations. This allows us time to move forward with our familial bonding. Laurie hates to plan trips; the details make her crazy, so the job has trickled down to me. I communicate with the kids, find a time where we can all participate, settle on a destination and basic itinerary, and then begin to do the research. I quiz our own friends, relations, and trading post visitors, explore the World Wide Web ferreting-out appropriate lodging and reservations. I research food, fun, and festivities and then present a plan to Laurie. She rearranges everything to best suit everyone and then I nail it down. It sounds a little contrary and contradictory but hey, it works for us.

This year’s outing was a train trip to Denver and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The first part of the trip was intended to be a slow and graceful track through the snowy vistas and grander of the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains. We desert dwellers seem to be drawn to high, verdant regions. Unfortunately, there was no snow, but the mountains would still be lofty and majestic. Our lodging was located on the edge of downtown Denver in order for us to witness the sights and sounds of the big city. Union Station is the hub of the Mile High City where public transportation of several varieties is easily accessible to all available venues. We also intended to do a lot of walking to obtain a more up-close and personal perspective of the interurban lifestyle.

Spenser, Alyssa, and McKale were supposed to leave Provo on Wednesday, January 3, at 4:00 a.m., where upon Laurie and I would join them at Green River at 8:00. We were scheduled to arrive in Denver around 2 in the afternoon, which would give us plenty of time to explore the metropolitan landscape before sunset. Yeah right! I don’t intend for this to be a rant on the railroad, but seriously! Amtrak’s California Zephyr proved to be “off the pace” from the very beginning. By the time the train arrived in Green River, Laurie and I had toured the tiny town on the upside, downside, inside, and out. Without the summer watermelons they are so famous for, there are not many highlights to this quaint community, at least not before breakfast.

We finally met up with the trolley, its unapologetic crew, and our children around noon. We settled into the observation car to look upon the undulating grey desert and towering, rock-strewn abutments of the Book Cliffs, playing cards as we ground our way toward Grand Junction. Being with our kids eased my frustration and we soon forgave the train’s apathetic assemblage and made Denver at 8:30 p.m., a good six hours behind the posted arrival time. Our schedule was totally out of whack, and because the sun goes down early in the mountains, we missed much of the scenery. Ah well, in Denver, there are many bright lights and interesting sights after sunset.  

After a few days in the metropolitan area, enjoying family discussions, the Denver Mint, butterfly museums, and shopping, we slipped on over the hill to Glenwood Springs to enjoy what they had to offer. Again, our train was hours late which cost us time standing in line and an extra day at the motel to allow for a place to stash our luggage and use as a base camp for adventure. On this leg of the train trip, we were able to see more of the mountain scenery and a little of the local wildlife. Glenwood Springs is a scenic little city that is well worth exploring. We did a lot of walking and ground-level sightseeing along the river bike/running path. We also enjoyed the soothing mineral waters of the hot springs, discovered a great little Bavarian bakery, boutiques, and relished a meal at an eastern Indian eatery.

Previous planning put us all home at a reasonable hour on Saturday night, but that was not to be. We did not even leave Glenwood Springs until 8:15 in the evening, which got us to Green River near midnight, another six hours in arrears. We said our sad, sleepy goodbyes to our children, leaving them on the train, fired up the old, cold Honda van and headed for home. Laurie and I made it back to Blanding around 3:00 a.m., while the kids arrived in Provo around 4:00. Even though our schedule was totally twisted the entire trip with the belching contests, swearing fests, rude noises, caustic comments, and outrageous discussions on religion and politics going on around us were, mostly unacceptable, we had a good time. Being with Laurie, Spens, Lyss, and Mic was a treasured event and I will mark it in my memory as a successful and enjoyable family reunion. I am definitely looking forward to another one next year. As Laurie is fond of saying, with an accusing look in my direction. “Despite our influence, our children have turned out well.” For now it is back to my Twin Rocks family and their mostly unacceptable belching contests, swearing fests, rude noises, caustic comments, and outrageous discussions on religion and politics.