Friday, June 29, 2018

Deesdoi (It's Hot!")

As I drove to Bluff early Tuesday morning to open the Cafe, I noticed a pink blush extending across the entire eastern skyline. It was as if the Sun was taunting me, playing a game of illusional hide and seek or threatening to rise as a band of light rather than a big yellow orb. Working with the Navajo people has caused me to think of the Sun as a sentient being, rather than a ball of hot gas.

I rolled down the window and thrust my hand outside to touch the sweet coolness of the morning. Inhaling deeply, I caught the smell of burnt wood in the air, and assumed both the aura and aroma I witnessed were caused by the terrible fire ravaging the woodlands near Durango, Colorado. What I witnessed made me think of Fire God, the Navajo deity credited with cleansing the Earth of ugliness by fire. Leave it to Navajo culture to explain how natural occurrences, such as wildfires, has a definitively positive effect which contributes to harmony and balance.

I arrived in Bluff just after sunrise and joined our fabulous staff in slinging hash and cleaning tables. It wasn't until late morning that I emerged from the Cafe and realized how hot it was outside. As I stood on the porch looking out onto the parched landscape, a bead of sweat formed at my temple and rolled down my jaw line. Shaking my head and wiping my chin, I walked across the porch and into the refrigerated air circulating through the Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Entering my office, I pulled David Carpenter's master’s thesis from my bookshelf and began reviewing the life and times of Jens Nelson, the first Mormon Bishop and an original settler of our small hamlet. Viewing the pictures of early Bluff, I marveled at the hardship those hardy settlers endured while attempting to settle this desolate outpost, evade federal marshals looking for polygamists, and pacifying the Native neighbors they had displaced. I looked out of the picture windows at the heat waves dancing off the hard-packed earth and imagined living and working out in 100-plus-degree heat for two months each year.

The Navajo and Ute people were mobile; when it got hot, they pulled up stakes and headed to the high country. Not so with the settlers. Bluff was established as a self-sustaining community. This meant that every citizen dug in, stayed put, and did everything in their power to help the others survive. They attempted to manage an unmanageable river, raise cows and sheep on short grass, and grow crops in an alkaline soil that had a bad habit of locking up tighter than a wedge. No Bull!

When the temperature soars into triple digits in Bluff, things get hot and stay hot. The rock houses of that period, along with the surrounding cliffs, absorb heat all day, until they match the surrounding heat index. The nice thing about the high desert is that the temperature can drop 30 degrees during the night. Not so with the super-heated red rocks; they radiate stored energy late into the night. Uninsulated as those homes were, they simply became ovens.

Trees were scarce; shade was a rare commodity. I would venture to guess that more than one feud broke out based on crossing boundaries as the sun tracked one direction and shade the other. The lack of indoor plumbing; labor intensive, exhaustive days; uncomfortable, restless nights; and struggling to keep more than one family happy must have caused many a rugged pioneer to suffer the effects of heat stroke in more ways than one. Life was definitely much harder then than now.

Modern day Bluff still provides its inhabitants with plenty of hard work and sacrifice. The river no longer attempts to flush us down stream at every opportunity. We manage the heat with refrigeration and cold drinks and get plenty of rest and relaxation. The Native Americans have accepted us to the extent of aiding and benefiting our business and I have only one sweet, gentle creature keeping me lined out and working towards the common good. Iina ei nizhoni (Life is good/beautiful!)

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Language and Music Tutorial

Almost from the first hour we opened the Kokopelli doors at Twin Rocks Trading Post, Priscilla has been with us, helping buy, sell, and trade art of the Southwest, turquoise jewelry, Navajo rugs and baskets, folk art and other collectibles. As we developed commerce with the local craftsmen and women, she was right by our side, counseling, advising, and, at times, laughing out loud at our mistakes. 

Whether you are talking about personal or business relationships, most visitors to the trading post have no idea how difficult it is to navigate the intricacies of Native cultures. Looking in from the outside, their glass is opaque, often impenetrable, and at best hazy, vague, and unclear. Their heritage is ancient and deep, with lots of blind alleys in which to trap the uninitiated. To call it a maze would be a gross understatement. As I explained to one keenly interested visitor the other day, “It’s a minefield, and sooner or later you’re gonna lose a limb; sometimes two or three. Best case scenario, you only lose a few digits.” While Priscilla has so far been able to help us avoid an all-out implosion, mishaps are common. I often question when the next disaster will arrive, and what the emotional or financial cost will be. Fear of a cultural catastrophe is my constant companion.

By some stroke of luck, after almost 30 years of comings and goings, Priscilla remains. While she sometimes threatens to retire and go home to her nine grand-babies, horses, dogs, goats, and 16 new lambs, she is still at it, organizing, pricing, displaying, guiding, explaining, and doing almost any other project or thing necessary to keep the Twin Rocks wheels turning. While the grandkids howl about spending more time with her, the dogs bark for more scratching behind the ears, the sheep bleat for additional feed, and the goats do whatever it is goats do, we have hung on to her. We would be lost without her. Indeed, at times we are lost with her, but that’s another story.

Despite the commonly held perception that Priscilla is Wonder Woman, Superwoman, or Bat Woman, or all three rolled into one, it is not always peaches and cream around Twin Rocks Trading Post. There are a few wrinkles. The most persistent rub, for me at least, concerns language—Navajo language to be precise. One of my early requests was that when there were no customers in the store Priscilla speak to me in Navajo, and only Navajo. This, I thought, given adequate time, would force me to learn, thereby allowing me to communicate directly, candidly and effectively with artists, suppliers, and elderly Navajo people with interesting tales to tell. I am envious of traders like Bruce Burnham, Hank Blair, and Bill Malone, who are capable of both humorous and serious conversation, and can even engage in honest and thoughtful negotiations in Priscilla’s native tongue. Surely, I reasoned, this would give me an advantage over other linguistically challenged trading post operators. And, just as surely, I reckoned, would permit me to gather great stories to pass on to our customers, visitors, anthropologists, and authors.

My inaptitude for language and Priscilla's impatience with my slooooow progress, however, combined to spoil my plan. While she was able to teach me numbers, greetings, pleasantries, and a few perfectly serviceable swear words, I never became fluent. Much to Priscilla and Barry’s chagrin, when properly provoked, I can, however, curse effectively and at length.

When Kira and Grange were singing Navajo songs and performing Navajo dances during their primary years at Bluff Elementary School, I had to sit mutely by, wondering what it all meant. The best I had to offer was a “Yeego,” which loosely translates into “Cool,” “Nice job,” or “Get on with it,” depending on the circumstances. The Native kids often looked at me with pity, while asking if Kira and Grange were in fact Navajo. This, despite Kira and Grange having red hair, highly freckled skin, and two conspicuously pale parents.

Recently, I was reminded of the time our friend John Huling “offered" to teach me the Native American flute. At the time, John had been writing and playing music over 40 years and was heralded as one of the originators of the Native American–influenced sound. Television networks such as ABC, BBC, CBS, NBC, PBS, OIC, The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, the Olympics, and the Travel Channel had all used his music in their productions. And, he had sold more than 1.5 million albums, the rough equivalent of three gold records. So, he had every reason to be confident, or overly confident, as it turned out. “No thanks,” I protested, “I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Not a carpal, metacarpal, or even a phalange. Nothing, zero!” “Nuts,” he responded, “I can teach anyone, and I mean anyone!" After recording so many award-winning albums, he was confident even I could be taught. As one might guess, John is without question a Type A personality. He had not, however, ever met anyone like me.

Trying to dissuade him from his obvious folly, I told him of the time I purchased a saxophone from our friend Perry’s Provo, Utah, pawn shop and began teaching myself to play. I wanted in the worst way to claim some, even the most basic, musical talent. Growing up in Bluff had left me less worldly and more insecure than I liked, so my emotional resume needed to be expanded. Nothing but piercing squawks and squeaks ever emerged from that sax. As a result, I took it back to Perry and demanded a refund. “Nothing wrong with this instrument,” he assured me, concluding the problem was with the player, not the equipment. “Operator error,” Perry concluded.

No matter how hard I argued against it, John was undeterred, and I finally began to think he might be right. So, during his next visit to Bluff, he sat me down and applied his best, most-proven techniques. “We’ll have you playing in less than half an hour,” he boasted as we commenced the session. Two hours later, he got up from the couch on which we were seated and declared, “Well Steve, I guess you were right. Not even a metatarsal! I give up.” And that, as they say, was the end of our musical adventure. 

Since my language skills are underdeveloped, when Priscilla is out of town, I have to make deals with Navajo artists using sign language, grunts, gestures, and lip pointing. Rick, Susie, and even Barry are not much help. Barry can’t swear as well as I, but he is substantially better with numbers. Rick and Susie, well, they just look forlorn. There are times when it is effective to simply count out the offer in cash and put it on the counter. That most often gets the deal done, but it is a crude solution that can leave sellers confused and unsatisfied with the experience. And, at Twin Rocks, we are all about the experience, whether or not we can properly express it in any language.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Remember This!

A nice couple from Chicago walked in through the Kokopelli doors today looking for information. On his phone, the man had an image of a Bruce Hathale memory painting and wanted to know what we knew about Bruce and his brother Dennis. The couple was in their seventies and dressed for summer vacation. He was in the vicinity of 5'5" tall—pleasingly portly, had a ruddy, somewhat mottled complexion and an outgoing, gregarious nature. His blue eyes sparkled happily from behind black, wire-rimmed spectacles. The little man was clad in blue, khaki shorts that hit him at his knobby knees and was tightly encased in a darker blue t-shirt with a nautical theme, an anchor, upon the left chest. A pair of brown leather, Romanesque, sandals swaddled his ankles and stodgy toes. She was a good two inches taller than he and looked to be of Scandinavian descent. Her complexion was pale, her bobbed hair flaxen, and her eyes a pretty blue/green. The lanky lady’s temperament seemed calm and collected; there was a look of peace about her. Her figure was tall, lean, and slightly bent. Her color choice of preference was earthy. She wore tan, khaki hiker shorts with a ribbed, off-white, short-sleeved top and minimal brown sandals on her lengthy, manicured tootsies. 

Memory aides were paintings on buckskin. These aides originated as a means of memorizing the multitude of ceremonies a medicine man must learn to practice the healing arts. The hides were rolled out and used as a foundation or stencil when a particular ceremony was performed. As time went on, medicine men decided it was best to commit the ceremonies completely to memory, so the aides began to disappear. With the old-style memory aides in mind, Roger Hathale, father of Bruce and Dennis, recreated on muslin (bedsheets stained with the local, red dirt to give them the impression of being painted on sand) ceremonies he was attempting to learn in order to become a practicing medicine man. Roger’s muslin recreations introduced drawings of the healing sand paintings to his two boys. When they matured, Bruce and Dennis began producing these “memory paintings” as folk art to help them make a living. 

The man and his wife were on a quest to learn more about a memory painting they had acquired in Santa Fe 20 years earlier and the artist it sprang from. At the time, Bruce and Dennis lived in Blanding, the town 26 miles north of Bluff. Steve and I had bought and sold hundreds of their memory paintings over the years. We are also in possession of the same reference books the boys used as inspiration for their work. Because of the image on their cell, it was easy to discover which painting they had and the ceremony it referred to. After going over the facts of their painting, I noticed that the frumpy old feller was paying close attention to Priscilla, a little too close. His wife noticed his scrutiny, as well, but was doing a good job of playing it cool. That’s about the time things began to go wrong for the dear fellow.

As I spoke with the man’s wife, Priscilla was showing him Nellie’s “Everything Cream,” the pinyon salve provided us by Nellie Tsosie that Nellie claims “will cure everything that ails you and make you more beautiful in the process!” As Priscilla laughingly explained Nellie’s assertions to the man, he asked if she used it. Dear, unsuspecting Priscilla said that she did, indeed. “I put it on cuts, bruises, my face, hands, and feet to alleviate chapped skin.” Lost in his attraction, the elderly Casanova smiled brightly, winked at our sisterly associate, and casually commented, “Well, you are quite lovely, AND, maybe with this cream my wife can look as good as you.” “Oh Dang!” I thought to myself as I snuck a side-long glance at the lady in waiting. Our neglected sweetheart now bore a severe look of warning in her flashing blue/green eyes. Even I, a master of marital missteps, would not, could not have gotten myself in this much of a muddled mess.

A look of distaste flashed across Priscilla’s face as she stepped back and away from the cad. That silly man must have recognized that his casual compliment had gone very wrong. My look of pity, Priscilla’s of contempt, and his lovely lady’s—of disgust—stopped him in his tracks. His dishonored damsel turned on her heels and headed for the exit, stage left. The poor man gave us a look of regret and quickly followed. We heard him exclaim as he passed back through the Kokopelli doors, “I am so sorry darling. There was no malice intended!” “Yah, well,” she retorted, “You should think before you speak!”

“Filters.” I said to Priscilla, as we watched them go. “What are you talking about?” Priscilla snapped back, still aggravated from the disagreeable discourse. “The older we get,” I calmly explained, “the more likely it is that our mental filters break down. This causes us to say things that should have been more carefully considered and perfected before becoming the spoken word. As you just witnessed, such thoughtless discourse can easily cause chaos.”

Priscilla thought about my comment before she spoke. “Well, that is certainly true with you and Steve, especially Steve, but THAT was over the top. A nice lady like that deserves more respect. He should paint To Love, Honor, Cherish, and Steer Clear of Stupid on muslin, frame it, and hang that memory aide on his wall!”