Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Irony of Ignorance

As I look back on the early days of Twin Rocks Trading Post, I am reminded what Orson Welles said shortly after the release of his cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane. When asked what allowed him to write, produce, direct, and star in Kane, the 26-year-old novice filmmaker commented that ignorance was perhaps his greatest asset. Welles candidly admitted, “I didn’t know what you couldn’t do. I didn’t deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, why not? There is a great gift ignorance brings to anything. That was the gift I brought to Kane . . . ignorance.”

If Wells was correct, and ignorance is indeed a gift, then for the longest time it must have seemed like eternal Christmas at Twin Rocks Trading Post. As we later learned, for several years after the Kokopelli doors swung open it was abundantly clear to people visiting the post that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Although Priscilla brought a certain stability, maturity, and Native expertise to the operation, guests, artists, visitors, and patrons soon recognized there was much we had not fully grasped. Our guiding philosophy was, “Full speed ahead." Standard business principles did not apply, and cultural awareness was in short supply. As a result of our shortcomings, many activities we engaged in violated well-established norms. Clearly things were not as they should or might have been given more maturity, wisdom, or better training. Having said that, at times we greatly benefited from the confidence of our ignorance.

Citizen Kane blazed countless new trails. The cinematography, storytelling, special effects, and soundtrack were groundbreaking, and the youthful director wove them all into an artistic treasure. Because we were also unencumbered by qualifications or experience, Twin Rocks was able to create its own unique tapestry. Not knowing what was possible or proscribed, we were inspired to ask the somewhat naive question, “Can you . . . “, which frequently resulted in the reply, “Yeah, I think so.” As a consequence, artists opened their creative floodgates and never-before-seen basket, jewelry, folk art, and rug designs poured into the post.

Memories of our formative years came flooding back last week as Rick and I thumbed through Weaving a Revolution, A Celebration of Contemporary Navajo Baskets, a publication released by the Natural History Museum of Utah in 2013. One of our customers was interested in commissioning a Chris Johnson basket, so Rick and I were reviewing his early work. Chris, the son of Betty Rock Johnson and sibling of Joann Johnson, is an unsung hero in the contemporary Navajo basketry movement. Since he only weaves a few baskets a year, and because his weavings sell almost immediately, many people have never seen Chris' work. He has, however, won the prestigious Best of Basketry ribbon at the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial two years running and also contended for Best of Show in 2018 and 2019.

Looking through the collection of weavings displayed in the Natural History Museum catalog helped me realize it took years of interacting with local Navajo artists, elders, and teachers to understand the cultural complications associated with our work. When it came to Navajo baskets, we eventually learned there were countless taboos applied to each weaving. Undoubtedly, we tripped over the restrictions almost daily. To name just a few of the proscriptions we failed to comprehend: If the weaver neglects to put in the weaver’s pathway, he/she will lose his/her mind or go blind; one must never spin a basket or it will unwind the world; one must never place a basket on a one’s head or that person will stop growing; and, finally, and most importantly, only well established, traditional motifs can be replicated.

Because of these strict constraints, during the initial stages of what would become a seismic artistic and social shift, medicine men frequently cautioned makers against experimenting with new concepts and methods that were being promoted, explored, and bought and sold at the trading post. “Like the Anasazi, we will go extinct if you disregard tradition,” the healers advised. Since we did not realize this directive was being dispensed, we continued to spin baskets, place them on our heads like hats, and ask for unique patterns and techniques.

All traditional Navajo baskets have a line extending from the beginning of the weaving to the outer edge. Applying a loose translation for the Navajo term used to describe this design element, the opening is commonly referred to as a spirit line or weaver’s pathway. “Pathway" in Navajo can be translated as a “way out” or “road” and in art allows weavers to separate themselves from their work once it is finished. It may have been this concept that liberated weavers from the conventional strictures, and also helped overcome our cultural confusion. Using ceremonies such as the Beautyway, which cleansed, protected, and rebalanced them, artists found a passage through the uncertainty. That allowed basket makers to explore, innovate, and expand their art, and correspondingly enhance their economic opportunities.

Since we were accomplices to numerous ethnographic misdemeanors during the evolution of the contemporary Navajo basketry movement, we are convinced some of the resulting craziness got passed on to us, by attribution, osmosis, or maybe even direct transfer. Despite Mr. Welles’ assertions, we have been advised by competent counsel that ignorance is not a viable defense. Therefore, if we are ever indicted on conspiracy to commit cultural change, inciting Indigenous innovation, stoking a red rock revolution, or any other Crime Against Indigene, we plan to plead insanity as our alibi. If that argument doesn’t work, however, you can visit us at Hooghan Tso, aka The Big House. No appointment necessary.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur. The first time I heard the word was during a college business class, and I was certain it indicated something associated with the back half of a bovine. To this day, I am required to consult a dictionary to assure proper spelling of the term and am often reminded of the old joke about the self-employed man who said, "Last week I couldn't even spell entrepreneur, and now I is one." Had I known how profoundly the term, and all it implies, would affect my life, I may have paid more attention to the instructor.

Once I realized entrepreneurs usually have little to do with manure, and that I had in fact been one since the age of seven, I began to envision the concept as a vehicle to take me exotic places, where I would meet wildly interesting people and make gobs of money. I thought of entrepreneurship as a hot rod, with fiery flames scorching its fenders and blasting out its tailpipes, or as a long black Cadillac, with fashionable tail fins, easing with extraordinary class down the freeway of life. Little did I realize my entrepreneurial vehicle would be more like the Datsun pickup I drove during school.

That old yellow truck was once accused of single-handedly polluting the entire Sacramento valley with its belching smoke. Although that was a bit of an exaggeration, there was a grain of truth in the accusation. With all the petroleum products that Datsun consumed, it may have been primarily responsible for keeping the Saudi royal family in positive cash flow throughout the early 1980s. The California Highway Patrol once attempted to eject me and my truck from the state, but since it sported Utah license plates, there was nothing they could do to exorcise me from their jurisdiction.

Whenever I took my truck to the garage to have its annual inspection, my mechanic would just shake his head and paste the new sticker on the window, knowing full well he would be held liable if the truck went wrong and killed or maimed some innocent traveler due to a defective part. My bank representative often reminds me of that mechanic. When I ask the banker for additional financing to fuel my entrepreneurial tank, he shrugs his shoulders, wags his finger at me, and eventually gives in to my request. He, like the mechanic, knows there is a very real possibility he will be held responsible if a catastrophe occurs.

In spite of its immense desire for oil, my old yellow transport took me places a country bumpkin could only imagine and provided experiences that made me what I am today. I learned some very important lessons about life and love lying in the bed of that truck in the Nevada desert, watching as the stars cascaded across the night sky, alone, nursing a broken heart. I explored the California coast and the immense redwoods, feeling the richness of this earth and beginning to understand the beauty of our natural environment.

While driving that truck, I learned the law of the land and the land of the law. I met people who still inhabit the various chambers of my heart. I began to appreciate, rather than fear, differences in individuals, and was saddened when the pickup was retired to a farm in Northern California.

Like that old truck, Twin Rocks Trading Post has become my vehicle for education and new experiences. There is an old African proverb that says, "It takes a village to raise a child." I believe it also takes a village to raise a business. Our trading post community is comprised of numerous artists who produce beautiful creations which are then cast upon the waters for our customers to enjoy. If we, as intermediary between artist and collector, do our jobs correctly, we become a catalyst for change---the fertilizer that brings the soil to a rich, loamy state, suitable for growing and nurturing crops planted by the artists to sate the collectors' hunger for Native beauty. If not, we begin to resemble the entrepreneur pile I originally envisioned during business class.

Twin Rocks has brought me many rich relationships and has given me a window into a rapidly changing culture, one that I worry may not be able to sustain itself many generations into the future. I have seen local artists create weavings I worry my grandchildren will never see replicated. Through those creations I have been exposed to the mythology, sociology, and anthropology of an enduring people.

This trading post has been responsible for teaching me more about living in harmony with divergent people and difficult environments than I could have imagined. It has polished me like a river stone, wearing off many, but certainly not all, of my rough edges as I tumble along. In return, I keep buffing and burnishing that entrepreneurial vehicle, hoping it will one day turn into the comfortable Cadillac or fiery hot rod I once envisioned.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Heart Marries Us

Hoping to be more engaging and informative to those visiting Twin Rocks Trading Post in the future, I have determined to gather additional information about our local Indigenous cultures. Specifically, I hope to better understand and relate to the Navajo people, their culture, and this red-rock land we share.

Kira and Grange have been on their own for some time now, and Jana generally leaves the house early and returns late from her job teaching art at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek. So, especially during the long winter months when things are slow in Bluff, I am often left to my own devices. That, as those of us at Twin Rocks Trading Post and Cafe have learned, is a problem. As Donna Summer said in her 1978 hit song Last Dance, “[W]hen I’m bad, I’m so, so bad.” To bring the matter closer to home, as Jana likes to say, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Consequently, those empty hours must be filled, and, at least for now, books about Four Corners art, culture, and history are keeping me from long-term incarceration.

In order to improve domestic relations at the old L.H. Redd Jr. house and get crackin' on my goal, I have elected to start with Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space, Jana’s 2003 publication on Navajo basketry. In the intervening years since Jana published her research, Twin Rocks Trading Post has become widely known for carrying work by the Monument Valley basket makers, including the Black family, the Bitsinni crew, and the Rock-Johnson clan. In fact, the post is the epicenter of the contemporary Navajo basket-weaving movement. My knowledge of Navajo ceremony and the usage of baskets in these rites, however, can use some work. As a result, I am studiously plowing through Jana's findings.

The book is chock full of interesting material about the evolution, construction, meaning, and people behind these weavings, which has greatly added to my fluency on the topic. I found one of the most useful nuggets in a chapter discussing the power vested in these sacred objects. In that particular section, Jana quotes widely-respected, and now deceased, medicine man John Holiday. During his interview, John informed Jana that, “Like us, the basket has two spirits. We are both male and female, and our heart marries us.” John’s words relate to the Navajo view that we are all composed of both male and female ingredients: the right side being the male or warrior component and the left being female and compassionate. These disparate parts are joined by the kindness, empathy, and understanding thumping in our chests.

As John Holiday pointed out, traditional Navajo people believe there is duality in all things. It is not just the male/female dichotomy that rings true; what really captivates me is the teaching that all of us are inherently good and bad, positive and negative, right and wrong, cold and hot, darkness and light, and that this multifaceted composition is essential to our existence and growth as individuals. It is that experience which makes us whole, and also gets me off the hook when I go wrong.

When we recently discussed this Navajo custom, Priscilla related the story of the shoe game, a competition that is responsible for our days being half day and half night, half dark and half light. According to her, the story goes something like this: Long ago the Day Animals and the Night Animals played a moccasin game that lasted four days. The Night Animals and Night Birds had Owl as their leader. The Day Animals and Day Birds had Coyote as their captain. Both sides independently determined the game must result in a tie, because if one side won, it would be either all night or all day for everyone ever after, and no one wanted that result. So, a small stone was hidden in one of the four moccasins used in the game. Nighthawk took first guess, and won. Then Big Squirrel won. Then Small Owl. Then Martin. Then Bat. Then Gray Squirrel. Then Prairie Dog. Then, the stone got lost. Gopher and Locust looked underground for it, but they could not find the stone. Then Red Bird struck Owl’s hand and the rock, which Owl had been hiding, dropped out. At that point the game ended in a tie. And that is why we have equal allocations of day and night.

During his recent visit home from the University of Utah where he studies biomedical engineering, Grange’s high school friend Nizhoni invited him to a shoe game that was held on the reservation. As he scooted out the door, I noticed him carrying a Ziplock bag full of shiny new quarters. Upon checking my piggy bank, I noticed it had been relieved of its newly minted coinage. Grange had apparently determined he needed a stake to get involved in the ceremony and the porker got pillaged. During his tenure at Bluff Elementary School, Grange learned the rules of the game during Native Culture class. Consequently, he must have concluded he would return with even more cash and could replace the “borrowed” coins before I noticed they had gone missing.

When I discussed this with Priscilla, she said, “Well, that just proves John Holiday was right. There you have the Navajo and the Anglo; the old tradition and the new coins; the day and the night ceremony; the boy and the girl; the win and the lose. And, they are all together in your heart.” Leave it to Priscilla to sort that one out.