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.