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The Finger

The Finger

 

But for a few common phrases, a limited amount of numbers and an expletive or two, we did not speak the same language. That, however, was no impediment to our conversation. This was show-and-tell, not elaborate dialogue. Holding up a single digit, she was confident I would understand. I am no stranger to expressing one’s emotion with a finger or two, nor am I unfamiliar with this particular individual. I have known her more than 20 years and we have never shared a cross word.

Outside it was a blustery early April morning, and the Kokopelli doors were braced against a steady gale that blew in from the west. On spring days like this, Barry, Priscilla and I joke with Twin Rocks Trading Post patrons about not having to visit Monument Valley. Instead, thinking we might wheedle a few bucks out of them, we recommend they sit tight and watch as the formations blow by. “You can see the whole thing from right here”, we advise them. When it blasts particularly hard, we have actually been able to sell the idea. “Just give it a little time,” we admonish our impatient guests, “they will come.”

Navajo Ceremonial Horses Basket - Mary Holiday Black & Granddaughter (#348)


The trading post is a ever evolving kaleidoscope of humanity, and on stormy days the volume increases as people duck in to avoid the wind, rain, snow or cold. Over the course of any given day, we might see shoppers from every corner of the globe and artists from every region of the reservation. Barry and I work to cultivate both groups so the art ebbs in and flows out in a systematic, rhythmic and symbiotic tide. We, however, always seem to invest more than we divest, so the bankers have become our best friends.

As this cycle has developed, Navajo weaver Mary Holiday Black became a mainstay of our enterprise. Twin Rocks Trading Post is probably most well known for contemporary Navajo basketry, and at the store we have oodles and oodles of these woven gems. We also have gobs of people who stop by to investigate the cultural, historical and artistic meaning of these sumac story boards. Barry and I, and sometimes Priscilla too, are eager to decipher their messages. It does not take much to launch us into a discussion about their significance in Navajo folklore. To say we love baskets would be a gross understatement, they are in our blood and we are obsessed.

Mary is surely the most famous Navajo basket weaver ever, and in many ways she and Twin Rocks Trading Post are synonymous. You might say we are interwoven. As Mary’s reputation has soared, Twin Rocks has correspondingly become more widely known. Indeed, Barry and I have grown extremely fond of Mary, and she is considered the matron of our trading post family.

Along with her fame, a callous on her left index finger has ballooned. After scores of baskets, the lump had become greater than half an inch thick, and she has often displayed it to illustrate just how difficult weaving is on her hands, and to convince us we should be more generous in our offers. It is an odd reminder that progress typically comes at significant cost, and that in southeastern Utah fame is an imperfect hedge against hard work.

On this particular day Mary was not negotiating, she was flaunting. She had recently visited her physician and the pernicious barnacle was gone, disappeared, altogether vanished. That is why she stood on the consumer side of the counter holding up her finger. She was proud and wanted us to share in the exorcism of that painful bump. Barry, Priscilla and I each carefully examined her pointer, stroking the smooth surface in admiration. After all these years, was it actually gone for good? She was confident it would trouble her no more.

Having shared her good fortune, Mary proceeded on her way, and we went back to work. The incident must have made an impression on Barry, however, because later that day I overheard him talking with Danny. “Pull this finger”, Barry said, prompting his associate to take action. Danny must have complied, because the request was closely followed by a mysterious “chuff”. Priscilla, who was reorganizing the Navajo rugs, just smiled.

With warm regards from Steve Simpson and the team;
Barry, Priscilla and Danny.

Inspired By the Scenery

Inspired By the Scenery

At least once in their lifetime, everyone should stand upon an exposed rock rim of a high desert mesa and look out over the land. Recently I had a conversation with an attractive, effervescent couple from eastern Tennessee. They were over fifty, lean, fit and healthy looking; as if they were well versed in the lifestyle of the great outdoors. The couple shared tales of hiking the trails of the Great Smokey Mountains, mentioning how green and overgrown the back country is and how they thrilled at turning corners to see what the next leg of a journey had to offer. They, however, felt the vistas were somewhat inhibited because it is unusual to find a spot high and open enough to gain a bird's eye view.
Navajo Mother Earth & Father Sky Rug Set - Luana Tso (#51)


Not to be outdone, and wanting to prove a point about how amazing this part of the world is, I shared a recent experience I had while trekking up the back side of a butte. Upon arriving at the far end of the plain and stepping-out upon the awe-inspiring rim, I looked out upon this place known as southern San Juan County. The sky above was as blue as an alpine lake, with cotton-ball cloud formations scooting across the upper atmosphere on a gentle spring breeze. The only sign of human existence was vapor trails left by monster sky busses passing overhead. The 30 foot face of vertical slick-rock below the toe of my boots bulged-out, a bit like the belly of an ancient Buddha statue I had once seen. The tummy of the carving, as with these humps of stone, was weathered, mineral stained and deeply cracked, much like the sun seasoned faces of Navajo men and women I had known during my youth.

The jumble of wrecked rocks on the talus slope below constituted a ragged and jagged exhibit of fragmented sandstone. This rocky ramp was populated with tenacious juniper trees of unusual character, and clumps of dry, yellow grass. Because of the precarious footing and lack of moisture, the gnarled trees seem to have no business growing there. Somehow, as with most undaunted life forms in this region of the world, they find a way to sustain themselves. Looking across the raw and furrowed landscape, I saw sun bleached outcroppings of rock scattered about the countryside. These were interspersed with undulating mounds of red sand spotted with limited stands of sage, rabbit brush and Mormon tea.

Way off in the distance I saw a squiggly line of light green plant life making its way through the low-lying portion of the landscape. I realized a stream bed waited patiently for any precipitation the heavens might offer-up. Near what looked like a deeper impression in the landscape I saw where there must be just enough moisture captured below ground for a small group of cottonwood trees to eek out a meager existence. The foliage was more verdant there. It takes a great deluge for any amount of water to make the trip all the way to the San Juan River. The land is far too parched and porous to let any sip of refreshment escape.

As I explained to my new friends, the beauty of southern San Juan County is best viewed from on high. It is easier to see the fabric of the land from above and at a distance. The texture of what lies below makes me long to reach-out and touch it, to caress it with the tips of my fingers. When I stood on the edge of the mesa it was mid-day, light from the sun shone straight down upon the land and it was strikingly graphic. I know though that refracted light from different angles or shadow from cloud color cause a completely different impression. This is to say nothing of how moon-glow illuminates the scene. When it comes to this land of monument, mesa and canyon, an early morning, late afternoon or midnight visit to the same spot provides a completely different visual perspective.

As I spoke of our homeland and tried to explain its singular beauty, the couple seemed to comprehend, and they wanted to see it from a similar vantage point. I mentioned Cedar Mesa and told them to find their own mesa top. "In this part of the country there is no screen of tall trees, nor overgrown vegetation", I told them. "There is something exciting about the open nature of this land, the exposure that stimulates your heart and frees your emotions." "I am ready ", said the woman to the man, slapping him on the tush, "lets go!" As the woman headed out the Kokopelli doors, the man grinned as if he had just been let in on a secret. He looked after his spouse and said, "Thanks, thank you very much!" "For what?" I wondered as they bounded down the front steps hand-in-hand, hopped in their Jeep Cherokee and quickly drove away.

With warm regards from Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

From Linear to Pink and Beyond

From Linear to Pink and Beyond

Each morning when I drop into Bluff a funny thing happens. My trips from Blanding have always proven interesting, and I never tire of the drive. When I arrive at the head of Cow Canyon and begin to drop into Bluff however, my mind kicks into overdrive, and memories come flooding back. Along with my own family experience recollections of what I have learned about the ancient and historical past frolic through my head. For instance, when I see the canyon walls closing in on me I remember a time when my brothers and I huddled in the back of an old Dodge pick-up truck headed north up Cow Canyon; dad driving, while mom, Susan and Cindy rode next to him in the cab. I recall a picnicking adventure near ancient ruins, where we received an up-close glimpse of pot shards and flint arrow points, and I relive the wonder of those first people who made a life here in the sand and sage of southern San Juan County.
Cow Canyon


My mind has a habit of frisking through its catalog of memories, with no particular attention to a historical timeline. For whatever reason, whether it is recognition through sight, sound or smell, I am drawn to images of speeding down the canyon with Steve on our road bikes, blowing by the hanging tree with a big rig on our tails. I see myself scootering down the paved road with my three young children, their screams of delight ringing in my ears as we zip past Ball Room Cave. The old rock-faced gas station at the east entrance of town brings back more fond memories; our father, Duke, and a Navajo helper built the rocky station for Rusty and Lillie Musselman. Rusty salvaged building stones from a dilapidated pioneer home across from the newly renovated Bluff Fort, which now stands as a tribute to the brave individuals who settled the town in 1880. When construction of the filling station was complete, dad rented the place and traded gas and oil for rugs, baskets and jewelry. Every time I drive past that place I imagine my father out there pumping gas and bartering for a weaving, the rug lying over the hood of a rusted-out Buick.

When I look upon the water well at the base of the Twin Rocks, near the Ancient Puebloan ruin, I get a youthful glimpse of my brothers Craig and Steve roping a semi-wild horse, providing Craig the shortest and most dramatic bronc-busting ride of his life. A drive to visit my sister and brother-in-law at the Desert Rose Inn causes me flashbacks at every back road, intersection, bridge and building. As children we pretty much had our run of the town, and we took advantage of it to probe and prospect. I bear witness to all of the true-blue Bluffoons in this town that there was not one unprotected pioneer home my brothers and I were not familiar with. It was a great way to become introduced to the history of the LDS church.

Many years ago, when I was reading everything in sight on the subject of Navajo culture, I asked a Navajo neighbor why "The People" did not care or even concentrate on a correct timeline of events. I told him I was reading an interpretation of the cultural tales by a prominent medicine man. The storyteller recounted early adventures of Navajo gods, which included the Hero Twins, and then, oddly enough, led into the birth of those same coordinate companions. In another reading I learned of Changing Woman, and how she is a representation of the earth and its life-giving, life-sustaining and life-producing qualities. The next thing I know, the author related the birth of Mother Earth to First Boy, who represents thought, and First Girl, who represents speech. " What the heck is going on here?" I asked, "Can't you guys get things straight?"

My native friend looked upon me patiently and said, "Oh, you pink people, you are always looking for a direct line." "Pink people", I queried, "who you calling pink?" My associate waved off this comment as insignificant and got back on point. "Look at your fingertips", he told me, "do they not swirl about and twist back on themselves?" I looked at my fingerprints and nodded, waiting for his impending analogy. It came soon enough. "Our People embrace the legend in the manner of the fingerprint, the timing is insignificant, the meaning and message of the story is what matters. The anecdote is a gift for us to contemplate and attempt to discover the metaphor." Clyde studied my eyes and let the thought sink in. "Open your mind, let it ebb and flow, you may discover a greater understanding." "Pink?" I called after him as he exited through the Kokopelli doors, "What do you mean by pink?"

Maybe it is the energy vortex spiraling overhead, or simply that Bluff is my hometown and the majority of my memories were formed here. Whatever the case, the place sets my mind free. My friend Clyde helped me to get past my exact longitudinal layout hang-up by suggesting that, like the Navajo people, I open my mind and do my best to interpret the stories therein. As far as the "pink" thing goes, I guess we Simpsons, as with most Anglo-American people, are pinker than white, or in the case of Steve, red, in a burnt offerings sort of way.

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve, Priscilla, and Danny.

Red Skin

Red Skin

 

Earlier this week Jana loaded me into her SUV and hauled me off to the Durango dermatologist. “You are getting the blue light treatment”, she informed me a few days prior to our scheduled departure. The only blue light I had previously known was at K-Mart, so her comment intrigued me. “Maybe I was being put on special”, I thought, “who knows here this might lead. As Jana is aware, I am always up for the next grand adventure, so off we went.

As it turns out, blue light treatment involves using special drugs and intense light to treat pre-cancerous skin cells. Photosensitizing agents are applied to your face, and after about an hour the drugs are activated using strong lights. The mutant cells don’t have a chance. Because her skin is fair, Jana has had many similar therapies. Since I have darker skin, however, this was my maiden voyage. When the dermatologist finally released us late in the afternoon, we were cautioned to avoid direct exposure to the sun for 48 hours and given sunscreen and disposable hats to fend off harmful rays.

Looking into the rearview mirror as we exited the parking lot, I was astonished to see how fiery red my face had become and was reminded of something I read during my stint in Northern California during the 1980s. A middle-aged white man living in Texas, who wanted to experience life as an African-American wrote the book, entitled Black Like Me, in 1961. To do so, he took the radical step of undergoing medical treatment to temporarily change his physical appearance. It worked, and his life as a black man began.

 
Having spent several months on the opposite side of the color divide, the author untimely concluded conditions for Southern blacks were appalling, their communities mostly dilapidated and their populations defeated. In time he even noticed a look of hopelessness had became affixed to his own face. After many interviews about his experiences, to protect his family from angry threats directed toward them, he was forced to leave his childhood home. Before he moved, fearing there would be an explosion of violence if nothing were done, he issued a plea for tolerance and understanding between the races. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was not that I expected to have my own Black Like Me experience after seeing my brightly colored face. Instead, I was reminded how interesting and enjoyable it is to be with the staff of Twin Rocks, most of whom are Native. Indeed, I have often marveled at the friendly, informative conversations I have had with them. Sure, I often blunder into areas that might be uncomfortable if we didn’t respect and care deeply for each other as individuals. In this process, however, I have learned a great deal about Native American and Navajo culture, race relations and just plain old human nature. In the end I have concluded that skin color does not define an individual, it is character that matters.

When I got back to the office the next day, I was, however, reminded how unkind people can be, and how they at times use racism as a tool to further their own personal agendas. In an Internet review of Twin Rocks Cafe on the web site Yelp.com, a writer posted, “Here’s the best part: it’s owned by rich white people from out of state and they hire strictly navajo natives to serve and cook their ‘authentic’ southwest cuisine. If you like . . . being exposed to active racism, come check them out.” Needless to say, I was furious with this person’s intentional ignorance. Not just because it was blatantly false and an insult to Barry and me, but because it was also a slap in the face to all the people who make their living working along side us.

Once again, I was reminded of the funny, talented, independent people who frequent or work at Twin Rocks Trading Post and Twin Rocks Cafe. Apparently this reviewer did not believe they had enough education, training or self-worth to direct their own lives. Instead, she wanted to believe, and wanted the public to believe as well, they were slaves to the, “white people” who exploit them at every turn.

At times like these, I am reminded of a Maya Angelou saying that goes something like this, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” No matter what our skin tone, temporary or permanent, we should strive to raise each other up, to make each other happier and to support each other. Racism and active, intentional ignorance should have no place in our lives.

With warm regards from Steve Simpson and the team;
Barry, Priscilla and Danny.
 

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