Saturday, July 27, 2019

Priscilla and the Apple

Earlier today I was talking with Priscilla Sagg about something that happened a while back. The incident was extremely funny, but will not be directly related in this story because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Since she has been at Twin Rocks Trading Post with me since we opened the doors in the fall of 1989, Priscilla is my Number One Employee and Number One Buddy. We go all the way back to when she and I would open the doors in the morning, clean the showcases, vacuum the floor, and wait the rest of the day for customers who never arrived. Anyway, as a result of the story I told her, she reciprocated with an interesting tale of her own. She said she had been visiting with some tourists who very nicely gave her an apple. After she finished eating it, they asked whether she had ever had one before. Once we all stopped laughing, I began to realize just how complicated the question really was.

The apple-givers obviously assumed a certain lack of availability and a certain lack of development this far out of the mainstream. That really was not such a bad assumption. I have often thought Bluff is located at a cultural crossroad and a cultural divide. I have also concluded it lags approximately 50 years behind the rest of the world. The town is situated just two miles north of the northern boundary of the Navajo Reservation and although it is a small town of approximately 250 people, it has most of the modern conveniences. Just south of the San Juan River, however, many Navajo people still live without the necessities. Some have to haul their water in tanks carried in their pickup trucks or on trailers. They do not have access to electrical lines, so power is obtained by portable generators or batteries. Recently, in relative terms, cell phones have compensated for the lack of telephone lines. I have seen pickup trucks parked close to the window of a home with a cord running in to the television set. The outside culture is being piped directly to the inhabitants through means of a truck battery.

Years ago, Damian Jim worked at Twin Rocks. Damian is a talented artist, graphic designer, and computer technician. After working at the trading post all day maintaining our web site, keeping our computers alive, and doing a variety of other highly technical activities Barry and I couldn't even begin to comprehend, he would go home to his one-room house that did not have water, electricity, or telephone. I often marveled at him carrying his laptop computer out the door, since it was completely incompatible with where he was going, or so I thought. I ultimately came to realize that Damian had been successful in neatly fitting his two worlds together. It is amazing what can be accomplished with a fully charged battery and a gas light. The culture that referred to computers as "the talking metal" was being revolutionized by Damian's generation.

It is these dichotomies that make being at Twin Rocks so interesting. We get to see what remains of a rapidly changing Native American culture on an everyday basis. We also see how that change is impacting the people and how the outside world views this evolution. Questions as simple as, "Do Navajo people sing?" and "Where do we find real Indians?" show deep interest and a compassion for the people, along with a great lack of understanding. The trading post is frequently the interface between the people who want to understand Navajo culture and Navajo people themselves. In a sense, we are a broker of information, a learning institution. Information passes both ways through the post, and we are able to experience both sides of the equation. Barry and I have a window on the events affecting local Navajo people, and it is an interesting position from which to view the progress.

Friday, July 19, 2019


I had a disturbing and thought-provoking encounter last week, and it has been on my mind ever since. I had just been relieved from a morning stint at the cafĂ© and while pushing through the glass doors to exit the building, I ran into an old friend. He was coming up the front steps for lunch. I have known this man and his family for over fifty years and was pleased to see him. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and inquired about the well-being of each other’s families. Saying goodbye and smiling at our friendship, I walked across the iron-stained concrete porches and entered the trading post. I was working in my office writing headers for our new items e-mailer, when I got the page. Miss Frances, our restaurant manager, called on the intercom and asked if I might come back to the cafe for a confab.

Rick was working the floor of the store and Steve was taking a much-needed day off, so I was on call for matters that might include everything from plugged commodes to counseling. I was forewarned that a "Mr. Lewis" was giving the servers a hard time. Walking back through the embossed doors of the cafe caused me to crash headlong into a group of hostiles. Two of our servers and Miss Frances were standing there fuming at what they perceived to be an insult of the highest order. It seems that when our lead server approached "Mr. Lewis" to take his order, he gave it to her in perfectly executed Navajo. Our server is a young Navajo woman, but she is not fluent in her native tongue. When she explained this to the gentleman, he became agitated and said, "You are pitiful! Your grandparents would be embarrassed." Well, you might imagine how that went over. She returned to her manager and related the story.

Miss Frances is not the shy type, not in any way, shape, or form. If she perceives a threat or insult to her restaurant family, the gloves come off. When I heard the story and learned that this was not the first time "Mr. Lewis" had verbally assaulted one of our staff, I knew it was time to discover the reason behind the offensive behavior. I walked around the corner toward the booth and the customer in question and came face to face with my old friend. I stutter stepped in confusion but was bumped from behind by my charging manager and pushed into the line of fire.

I sat down at the booth across from this man and asked if he had, indeed, insulted the young woman. Frances was right there, scooching in next to me on the Naugahyde seat, ready to go to war for her kids. I tapped her on the arm to calm her and give the man time to speak. He did not duck the issue, confirmed his comment, and folded his hands upon the small stack of reading material, which just happened to include a study guide to the Bible. "Why?" I asked. "Why would you say such a thing?" He told us that he was incredibly proud of his native language and culture, he was frustrated, and hurt that it was dissipating because of another, more dominant society. He commented, "I did not come here on the Mayflower, nor do I claim that heritage. "

I was confused. This man was known to me as a respected elder statesman, an educator, and a bridge between cultures. He was respected in all communities. I understood his concern, but wondered at his approach. I asked if he thought that intimidation, criticism, sarcasm, and anger would help him get the attention of the youth and force them to amend their cultural losses. "It might," he said, "I intend to try." To be honest, I was flabbergasted! I saw the approach as counter-productive and disrespectful. It had, certainly, never worked for me or on me. I could see the passion in his eyes though and hear it in his voice. I realized that this was the approach he had devised and he seemed determined to implement. It saddened me, but I felt certain that it could not be tolerated at our place of business and I knew for certain that Steve or Miss Frances would have none of it either.

I explained that I believed it would be extremely difficult to change someone’s approach to life through harsh intimidation, probably impossible. We are extremely proud of the young people that work here. We attempt to support their hopes and dreams in every way possible and do what we can to pick them up when they fall, if they request it. At our businesses, Steve and I feel that respect begets respect, tolerance is the key, and no one, customer or associate alike, should feel disrespected or mistreated. I told the gentleman, "The young Native people that work here may not measure up to your standards and ideals but they are, each and every one, unique and wonderful human beings. So . . . we would love for you to frequent our restaurant and it would be great to serve you, but you would need to show tolerance, compassion, and respect to our employees."

Frances and I then sat back and awaited his decision. I hoped it would be one we both could live with, in harmony. The man sighed, gathered his books together, and said, "It’s not something I can do and the table has already been dirtied." He got up from the booth, went out the door, down the steps, and drove away. I have to say that the whole experience broke my heart in so many ways.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Tesla and the T

The story is often told of Oen Edwin Noland, who in the 1880s, decided to start a trading business on the lower section of the San Juan River. His idea was to trade with both Navajo and Ute customers, and his chosen location was not far from the present-day Four Corners Monument. Being down on his luck, Oen saddled up his pony and proceeded to the newly formed mining town of Durango, Colorado. There he was introduced to Ed and Pete Schifferer, co-owners of a successful general merchandise store. Upon entering their enterprise and announcing himself to Ed and Pete, Oen made a declaration. "I want $10,000.00 worth of merchandise, but I'm broke." At that point, the brothers began to wonder whether Oen was crazy or just a little unwell. Having determined he was in fact sane, they made a proposal; they would give Oen the goods if he took out a life insurance policy in the amount of $35,000.00, naming them beneficiaries. The policy would insure Oen's earthly existence and remain in effect until his financial obligations were fully satisfied. "Deal," Oen replied, and he promptly set about obtaining the necessary documentation. Apparently, the shrewd businessmen considered it pretty good odds Oen would not last long enough to satisfy the debt and their investment would therefore return a handsome profit.

Oen's post opened in 1884 or 1885. At that time, Ute and Navajo people were not necessarily congenial to white folks or to each other, and Ed and Pete must have concluded Oen would meet his maker sooner rather than later. To them, the return was surely worth the risk. With a lesser man, the Schifferers might have collected on the policy, but Oen was not one to panic in the face of danger and always managed to maintain good trading relationships. In fact, due to his unwavering courage and eternal fairness, Oen became so deeply respected by local tribesmen that Navajo people called him Ba’dani, son-in-law. The debt was duly paid.

The other day I was peddling my bicycle south towards Bluff when I arrived at Mile Post 31. This marker is just before the rolling hills that indicate I am only five miles from home. As I approached the uprising, a Model T crested the knoll and made a quick turn back towards town. A few days earlier, Jamie Olson, artist extraordinaire, had been talking about launching his Jon Boat downriver to find the remains of Noland's store. As a result, during my ride that evening I had been considering Oen and his involvement in the history of southeastern Utah trading posts. Within seconds of the T turning immediately in front of me, a brand spanking new Tesla Model X sped by going north. Grange is fascinated by Elon Musk, Tesla's founder, so I have closely followed the company’s development. The Tesla was quiet as a ghost; the T, not so much. The old Ford chugged and burped along, and despite only being on a bicycle, I almost caught up to it. There, right before my sweat-encrusted eyes were two symbols that exemplified the automobile industry’s evolution over the past century.

The confluence of Oen's history and the appearance of the distinctly different cars started me thinking about trading posts, in general, and the future prospects for Twin Rocks Trading Post, specifically. William W. "Duke" Simpson, our father, acquired the Twin Rocks real property in the mid-1980s and subsequently declared that he, like Oen almost 100 years earlier, desired to establish a trading post on the banks of the San Juan River. As with the Schifferer brothers and Oen, many wondered whether Duke was crazy or just a little unwell. Like Oen, Duke was indisputably sane. Thirty years after the Kokopelli doors swung open for business, most of those questioning Duke's sanity have had to admit he was fully competent. Notwithstanding that conclusion, there are times Barry and I still debate Duke's logic. We have, however, come to accept our fate as individuals charged with seeing the vision through to completion.

Early trading posts generally provided food, livestock supplies, clothing, tobacco, coffee, cooking utensils, and other necessities to the Native populations they served. That economy was primarily barter and travel was difficult. In time, hard currency and reliable transportation arrived on the reservations and most of the early posts went broke, closed, or evolved into convenience stores or art galleries. Few historic locations still exist. When Twin Rocks Trading Post opened in the fall of 1989, there was serious discussion about its mission. Like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Twin Rocks is 100% family owned and operated---and argued over from its inception.

Jana's father, John Kennedy, an old "Indian trader" himself, lived to 103 and saw the world change from horse and wagon to space exploration and the Internet. John was in Zuni early on, trading with the well-known entrepreneur C. G. Wallace. While he came through much later, and only lived to age 85, Duke took a similar path. Both men experienced massive, structural changes to this industry. They lived through the boom times of the 1970s, when anything Native American was in high demand. They even participated in the creation of trading's modern era, and also witnessed the Great Recession of 2008. That economic collapse had devastating effects on Southwestern artists and Native art, indelibly changing the business.

Barry and I often consider Duke's trading legacy and attempt to evaluate how it affects our decision-making processes. Sometimes, Bishop Marx Powell comes by to participate in the discussions. Marx isn't a real bishop. He is, however, Mormon and has good advice from time to time. Consequently, Barry awarded him the honor. Not that Barry has authority to entitle Marx, but it makes the two of them happy and that seems to be the most important consideration. My experience is that Marx's recommendations are generally viable only when it comes to heavy equipment, construction, or excavation, otherwise, I remain skeptical. Marx's dad was also an Indian trader, working on the Navajo reservation at Black Hat and Yah-ta-hey. So, if Marx is involved in the conversations, we have generations of hard-luck tales to consider.

When the discussion turns to Twin Rocks Trading Post, we know that, in all too many ways, Barry and I hew to the obsolete Model T business model. Lately, however, we aspire to be a Tesla. Consequently, we have decided to make ourselves into the "Trading Post of the 21st Century." We just don't yet know what that means or how to achieve the goal, so we schedule regular convocations to explore the possibilities. During one of our recent conclaves, a family from New Zealand came by to visit. The father, a tall, powerful man clad in expeditionary garb, explained that his GPS had gone rogue and directed his team to our location. Priscilla thought that might be a viable long-term strategy; if we can only get enough devices to glitch, we might find ourselves in the pink. She suggested we call the Russians for advice. No one seems to have their telephone number, so we tabled that approach for the time being. We have to admit that at present we have more confusion than conclusion.

Marx recently reminded us that the most dangerous time to be a pedestrian on the streets of New York was when the city transitioned from horse and carriage to automobile. Many lost their lives, and others were permanently injured or seriously maimed during the transformation. "We must be careful not to endanger our customers," Priscilla has cautioned. In this age of acceleration, however, we can't risk being left behind. Change is never easy, so buckle up. This may be a bumpy ride.