Saturday, September 21, 2019

Robin and the Snake

The world of Navajo ritual belief is complicated, and it has many twists and turns. As in all world cultures, that which is right for one may be wrong for another. There are general guidelines, however, that help one navigate the landscape. It is with great caution that individuals cross the line between common sense and indiscretion. Those who tempt fate are looked upon with a skeptical eye by their peers. For example, the portrayal of snakes in Navajo art can be either positive or negative, depending upon how the snakes are depicted, and many Navajo people fear those who portray this powerful image in a permanent form. Navajo common sense says leave snakes alone. If you agitate their spirits, for any reason, they may cause you great harm.

Since they are associated with thunder, lightning, and an undying spirit, snakes have plenty of power to adversely affect your well-being. In spite of all this, some artists still take chances by creating images of serpents in their art. These individuals may feel they have protected themselves through ceremonies. Some believe they are promoting the positive, protective, side of the creature, and believe its guardian nature is being advanced; others feel they have already faced all the bad things the world has to offer and there is nothing left to lose. Some also believe that by turning the tables on snakes, refusing to acknowledge the negative power, their situation may improve.

A few years back, Robin Willeto was wandering the banks of the San Juan River near Farmington, New Mexico, and stumbled upon a long, slightly twisted branch from a cottonwood tree. What his artist's eye saw in that crooked piece of wood would have made most traditional Navajos walk away. They would have left mumbling prayers and sprinkling corn pollen, trying to get thoughts of snakes and their dangerous powers out of their head. Robin, however, is not your typical Navajo, not in any way, shape, or form. Being the son of famed Navajo carver, Charlie Willeto, and an accomplished carver in his own right, he grabbed the wood and hauled it home. What he had seen in that big stick was a great yellow snake, and he was intent on releasing it. There was no stopping his creative force. Due to the form of the wood, it did not take long to finish the project.

A few weeks later, Robin wheeled up in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post. I just happened to be standing behind the counter looking out the open doors down onto the parking lot. What we saw was an amazing sight. Although Robin generally visited us in a beat-up Chevy van, this time he was driving a subcompact car. Strapped to the top of his small vehicle was the largest, brightest, yellowest, snake I had ever seen. Nine feet in length (about a foot longer than the car, and growing with each telling of this story), eight inches at its widest point, mouth agape with huge fangs and forked tongue sticking out.

Every Navajo within sight had stopped what they were doing and stood staring, as was everyone else. Both doors flew open and out of the car pushed five large Navajo men. They were all dressed in leather coats, Levi’s, and bandannas around their heads. This was typical of Robin; he rarely traveled without his entourage of thirsty buddies. And it was hot out there, at least ninety degrees. I don't think the car had an air conditioner. By the way those guys exited that car, I was sure of it.

They unlashed the snake, and with Robin holding its head, up the stairs they came. Five hoodlums packing a great yellow snake. The excitement the scene caused was interesting to say the least. People were gawking, pointing, and shaking their heads in amazement. We bought the piece as quickly as possible, just to break up the crowd and quiet things down. We asked Robin what response he had gotten traveling across the reservation with the snake on his roof. He said that because of the hot, crowded conditions in the car he hadn't noticed, and he seemed totally unconcerned about the whole thing. We could just imagine the emotions he had conjured up, rolling across the rez in his snake-mobile. Robin was not much of a talker and when the deal was done, we shook hands, he pocketed the cash, and headed out. The crew piled back into the car and spun out of the driveway on their journey home. We all stood there for quite some time chuckling about the incident. Finally, shaking free of the moment, we went back about our business. We have never forgotten that most unusual event and have often thought, "Just what was he thinking?"

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Too Close for Comfort

As a result of our many years in the trading post business, Steve and I have developed a few hard and fast rules to live by. One is, when purchasing items from a Native American artist, never show an emotional attachment to the art before you own it, because there is never a hard and fast value on any particular piece of art and it is up to us to make a fair deal for the artist, the customer, and ourselves. The Navajo people are very much in tune with the subtleties of life, and they notice body language and emotional nuances that others easily miss. Value often fluctuates in direct proportion to our level of excitement and interest.

Steve and I strive for a relaxed demeanor and poker faces when dealing with Navajo sellers; otherwise values can quickly be blown out of reasonable proportion. Exclamations of delight are best left out of the equation until ownership has been firmly established. After that. let the festivities begin.

Secondly, do not become too emotionally attached to any particular artist or their work. Such a relationship can cost you in more ways than you can imagine. One such example is why Elsie Holiday asks for Steve, and Steve alone, when she comes into the trading post. My brother is so fond of Elsie’s art that he cannot contain his excitement when she brings in a basket. Consequentially, he is a soft touch for her.

Our usual rule of thumb is to avoid any attempts at being adopted as a family member, especially the "blood brother" option. I know a number of Anglo people who have been adopted into the world of the Navajo in such a manner and are quite pleased with those associations. These adoptees, however, do not come into such close emotional and financial contact with the characters we deal with on a daily basis. We experience firsthand what a commitment these relationships can be, and recognize the amount of time, effort, and emotional stamina it takes to be a "brother."

A few years ago, Lorraine Yazzie Black brought in a beautifully woven basket, which she carefully unwrapped and handed to me for inspection. As the transfer was made from her hand to mine, a good-size sliver of Sumac forced its way into my finger. I set the weaving on the counter and focused on removing the painful intrusion. Although Steve tried to catch my attention, I was intent on relieving my suffering and neglected his warning. As I drew the sticker from my appendage, a tiny drop of blood emerged from the wound and fell onto the basket. Steve's "uh oh," and the meaning behind it, began to work its way across my conscious mind. I looked up into Lorraine’s smiling face and had an inkling of what was coming. Before I could interject, Lorraine cornered me with her statement, "I must have poked myself and spilled my own blood on that basket a dozen times. Because yours has joined mine, we are now brother and sister."

I did my darnedest to talk my way out of the situation by pointing out my many faults. Much to my chagrin, Steve readily agreed with each and every point and reminded me of a few I had missed. He later stated that he was just trying to help me out of the predicament, but the smile behind his eyes made me wonder. Lorraine was having none of it; she knew she had me just where she wanted me and was not letting my neck out of the noose. I fussed and fumed, cleaned the basket thoroughly, and claimed ignorance to her customs and the responsibilities they demanded. Lorraine just shook her head, frowned at me, and said, "We are family. Get used to it!"

Both Steve and I have known Lorraine for at least forty years, and we like her a great deal. We just don't want to be directly related to her! Lorraine’s own family calls her Ma’ai (Coyote), which relates directly to chaos! The woman is a wonderful, outrageous, high-maintenance, out-of-control individual. I have enough people in my life with those very same traits---why would I want another? My stress increased as I noticed Steve nonchalantly moving out of harm's way in an effort to disassociate himself from the occurrence. So much for brotherly intervention.

I began negotiations on the basket, and the relationship. Steve had disappeared completely, so I felt no remorse in sacrificing him. I worked out a deal that provided her with a higher price than she would have normally received for her weaving. The other side of the compromise provided Lorraine with two blood brothers for the price of one. Same parents, same blood! Steve and I would share responsibility for our new sister on the basis of "catch us if you can." When Steve finally returned and discovered the terms of the contract, he complained bitterly but knew that Lorraine would hold him to our agreement. As far as I was concerned, it served him right for leaving the scene of an accident.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Real Thing

After years of searching for my essential elements, I have finally realized that one thing I need in my life is texture. I am like a child who explores everything by touching it, smelling it, and occasionally even putting it in his or her mouth. At Twin Rocks Trading Post, I am constantly running my hand over rugs hanging on the walls. I close my eyes, walk down the hall leading to the back door, and let my fingers wander across the fibers, feeling pattern changes, exploring irregularities, and imagining weavers working the wool.

I love picking up Navajo baskets to feel the roundness of their coils and the firmness of their weave. At times, it almost seems my fingertips can decipher the pattern without help from my eyes. I visualize the basket makers out in washes harvesting sumac and imagine them preparing and dying the splits, envisioning the evolving design spiraling out from the center.

Turquoise also fascinates me. I enjoy the coolness of the stones on warm summer days. As temperatures soar, the stones remain temperate, soothing. With our cooler struggling to alleviate the heat inside the buildings, I often rub the pieces on my forehead to ease my troubles and wear away my worries.

When we lived in the home above the trading post, my son Grange often asked me to make him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He, like his dad, was, and still is, capable of living exclusively on peanut butter and jelly. To this day, his mother prefers the smooth variety. I, however, want texture and opt for extra crunchy. When it came to making sandwiches for Grange, I would always say, "Hey buddy, do you want the super-extra-crunchy-yummy-delicious peanut butter? Or the smooth?" You can guess his response. I was easing him into a world of texture.

One thing Barry and I most enjoy about the trading post is the fabric of its people. The art is beautiful, sometimes sublime, but what makes it really interesting is the underlying culture and its texture. When you look at a weaving and realize there are generations of tradition woven into its warp and weft, when you can feel the connection to the land in the creation, and when you see tradition in its construction, you know you are dealing with something really, totally real.

The other day, as I was mulling over a newly arrived weaving, caressing it, and wondering whether I needed to, like a child, get it into my mouth to really understand its fiber, John, an Anglo who works on the Navajo Reservation, came striding through the front doors with his Navajo husband in tow. As John and I talked about things on the reservation, the receding culture, the loss of language, the rapidly diminishing crafts, John turned toward his spouse and, with a jerk of his thumb, said, "Well, I am more Navajo than he is."

What John meant, of course, was that he believed he has a better grasp of Navajo language and traditions than his partner, a full-blooded Navajo. John felt strongly about his statement and also firmly believed it was true, even though he is not a “real" Navajo. John has spent enough time living among the Navajo, learning the language, and trying to understand the nuances of the people that he certainly knew more about Navajo history than his companion.

A few days later, one of the old-time traders called and said he wanted to bring some friends to the store. It was Sunday evening and we had closed. I could not, however, pass up the opportunity to see him, so I agreed to meet them for a visit. When they arrived, we talked about Navajo rugs and jewelry. After a while he shrugged his shoulders, gave out a deep sigh, and said, "You know, there just aren't many real, old-time traders like us left." I was flattered to be included in the pantheon of "old-time traders," and smiled broadly, but my mind jumped back to John's comment about his Navajo partner. At that point, I could not help thinking about trading post texture.

The "real" both men were referring to is a person's texture, the interwoven fiber of the individual. The strings that come together as a result of living in a certain environment many years. I could tell that John's spouse had been raised on the reservation; he had real, red sand between the soles of his feet and the pads of his sandals. He had watched Grandma herd sheep and spin wool; he was real. Navajo was in his soul, in his mind, in his heart, and pulsing through his veins. Never mind that the blood was flowing a little slower due to all that fry bread he had eaten, despite John’s commentary, it was genuine Navajo.

I was much more confused by why we had been included within the definition of old-time traders. We were not from an old-time trader family, and not that old. In fact, we are, for the most part, Johnny-come-latelies. While rolling the thought around in my mind several days, I finally decided the answer had to be . . . texture. After so many years of doing what we do, we have been woven into the trader tapestry. We might, however, be more like pound rugs, with lots of dirt ground into our weft threads to make us seem more substantial. In any case, our fibers, the very molecules of our beings, are comprised of the same material that makes up old-timers: a love of the people, a passion for the art, and a strong connection to this red land in which we live.