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Blame it on Barry

Blame it on Barry

This morning Fannie King stopped by Twin Rocks Trading Post with a beautiful basket, one might rightly say another beautiful basket. Fannie was born and raised in Monument Valley, a member of the Bitsinnie clan. Early on, however, she married a Paiute man and moved to Navajo Mountain to live among his people. Likely due to her relocation, she weaves in the Paiute style, rounded coils, flat bottom, interesting shapes, tight stitching and such. Barry, Priscilla and I unanimously admire her work. Indeed, Jana and I have some of her pieces in our own home, and I recommend Fanny's work to all serious collectors of contemporary Navajo basketry.

Fanny’s baskets are traditional by nature, which is a departure from the innovative geometric and pictorial Navajo baskets Twin Rocks has become known for. For several years Barry and I have speculated just how many traditional ceremonial baskets one might collect before discovering he or she had an adequate supply. One, two, three, maybe as many as five we estimated. After wondering for such a long time, we finally decided to stop questioning and take action Accepting the challenge, we began encouraging local Navajo weavers to make what are commonly referred to as ceremonial basket variations. It wasn’t long before the artists began flooding in with their creations. Our goal was to fill the space above the trading post’s large picture windows, which, depending on their size, we estimated would require 60 to 80 baskets. We believed the project might take at least five years to complete. Two years and almost 100 specimens later, however, we already have more than enough baskets to satisfy our original ambitions and are wondering, “What do we do now?"
Feather Modified Ceremonial-Part of Twin Rocks Basket Collection

We have kitty baskets, goat baskets, eclipse baskets, sunflower baskets, positive baskets, negative baskets, positive-negative baskets, kinaalda baskets, old baskets, new baskets, placing the stars baskets, feather baskets, needlepoint baskets, emergence baskets, and some we cannot even describe. The creativity shown by the weavers has been, well, revolutionary. Fannie’s latest was an old style ceremonial, so I decided it should be added to the evolving collection. As I rummaged around the store for a hammer to nail our new acquisition to the wall, a habit that drives museum curators absolutely crazy, I could not locate the necessary implement. Priscilla, who is usually in charge of such tools, had no insight into the hammer's whereabouts, so I was stumped. “Probably Barry’s fault”, I muttered, echoing my common refrain when something goes haywire at the trading post. “Barry has been gone almost two months”, Priscilla reminded me, “maybe it was you this time."

When Rose and Duke recently decided it was time to retire from Blue Mountain Trading Post and RV Park, they shanghaied Barry and me into taking over their holdings. Consequently, Barry was reassigned to Blanding and given the title, “Tyrant of Turquoise Trading and Top Man of Travel Trailers”. Although he received an impressive title, and argued he should receive combat pay for having to survive Duke and Rose, there was no raise in salary associated with his new responsibilities. He now lords over that entire empire and only consults Priscilla and me when there is a crisis. That of course means we are in constant contact. That also means Priscilla and I are forever in the stew, since we only have each other to blame when things go wrong.

For all too long, when we couldn't find the loop to scrutinize a turquoise specimen, we knew Barry must have misplaced it. If the checkbook was empty, we were sure Barry had spent the cash. If reports were not timely filed, that was probably Barry. Tools gone missing, surely Barry. The door left open overnight, likely Barry. Anything else Priscilla and I did not want to accept responsibility for, Barry was fingered. Now don’t get me wrong, Priscilla is astute enough to play both sides of this game, so when I was gone or out of earshot, all those things became my fault and Barry readily agreed. Correspondingly, when Priscilla was out of sight . . . well you get the picture. At the end of the day, everyone got his or her turn in the barrel and nobody felt left out, except Danny.

Now that Priscilla and I only have each other to blame for the infinite number of things that go wrong around this joint, we are in desperate need of a scapegoat. Our trading post tapestry has come unraveled. Not knowing exactly what to do, we have begun soliciting applications for a full-time patsy. Since there is no shortage of blame to assign, the pay is pretty good. Necessary skills include, broad shoulders, forgiving nature, easy-going character and patience, lots of patience.

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



At 10:00 a.m. it was already hot. Summer had finally arrived in Bluff, and that combined with the effects of global warming had pushed temperatures into the extreme range. Even the lizards were scared. As I ambled across the porch to Twin Rocks Cafe in search of my second iced tea of the young morning he sat stoically at a metal table situated just outside the entry door. Looking southeast towards the old Jones hay farm, he didn’t say anything as I approached, did not even acknowledge my advance. “Hey, Bud”, I said, startling him, “how 'bout a soda to cool you off? I’m buyin'.” “Iced tea would be fine,” he replied with a barely perceptible smile. He seemed surprised I had spoken to him at all, let alone offered a free drink. He was obviously expecting a less congenial reception. His response made me think of all the stories I have read and been told about Native people being treated badly in border towns. Bluff is not like that and Twin Rocks is definitely not.

Going inside to retrieve our drinks, I encountered the cashier and manager who advised me, “We think he’s drunk.” “Any problem”, I asked. “No”, they responded, “He’s just waiting for a ride." As I put the to-go cup, straw and sugar caddy in front of him, he said, “Sit down.” “Got a lot to do”, I countered, beginning to turn away. “Sit down”, he reiterated, gently, but firmly. “Allrighty then,” I acquiesced and pulled up a chair, curious what this encounter might bring. If Twin Rocks is anything, it is interesting, and one never knows what to expect. “Another adventure”, I counseled myself.

He was a past middle age Navajo man, tall, maybe 6’2”, strongly built, still somewhat handsome, although a difficult life had clearly exacted its toll. He wore a black three-button golf shirt and blue denim jeans. Functional cowboy boots covered his feet and a worn, sweat-stained cowboy hat sporting a woven horsetail band sat nearby. His eyes were weary, and, as the staff had speculated, a tad bleary. I guessed he might have seen things most of us studiously avoid. “I’m a veteran, Marines”, he said. “Vietnam?” I probed, noting his age. “Yea.” “How many tours?” “One. Sometimes it makes me sad”, he said, tears welling up. Quickly controlling his emotions, he continued, “My name is Lee.” No last name, just Lee. “Where you from Lee?” “Monument Valley. I know those basket weavers, the Blacks. They’re my cousin sisters."

Having known my share of Vietnam veterans, I felt a special affinity for this world-worn stranger. Politics aside, those who served in that conflict deserve special consideration from the rest of us who were spared the trauma. Because I fear they may not grasp the significance of the 1960s, I often speak with Kira and Grange about the events of that era, including the war. For most young people their age, the 1960s are insignificant, too far gone to be meaningful, ancient history. Like the old men of my youth who wanted to ensure I understood WWII, I worry Kira and Grange may not grasp the enormity of those years and how they continue to impact our lives.

After a time he said, “I know you, I read those stories you write.” Surprised, embarrassed and flattered all at the same time, I gave him a startled look. “Yeah, they make me feel like home”, he continued, “You have a lot of Navajo brothers and sisters, don’t you?” “Yeah, guess I do”, I acknowledged, looking around at the Navajo staff I consider my extended family. At that point he began regaling me with stories of the Bluff he knew from his early years. “That place was an ice cream shop”, he said pointing to a small shack across the street. Indicating the Historic Loop, he said, “That was the old highway, before the new one was built. I rode my horse from Montrose, Colorado to Monument Valley one time. Deputy Dufur threatened to shoot me when I got here. I didn’t pay any attention to him, so he turned on his lights and escorted me out of town. Kept me safe. Looked after me.”

“My grandfather taught me that you talk with your eyes”, he said, looking directly at me. “That’s how you get lots of girlfriends” he joked. “Be kind with your eyes,” he advised. I couldn’t help thinking that if someone had taught me that lesson 40 years earlier I might have been awash in adolescent dates. "Too late for girlfriends now, but maybe I can try it on my wife”, I said, "test your theory, pass it on to my teenage son if it works." Kindness did seem like an exceptionally good idea. “Maybe if we were all nice to each other we wouldn’t need wars”, he said. “It makes me sad”, he said, repeating his earlier comment, his tired eyes watering once again.

“Gotta go get my son at White Mesa”, I said, "wanna ride?" “Sure”, he nodded, so I walked over to my old red pickup truck, fired it up, drove to the cafe steps and shouted, “Saddle up cowboy.” He climbed into the cab and fell silent. As we crested Cow Canyon heading north he asked, “You want poetry, Navajo poetry?” “Sure”, I said. “I’ll bring it to you”, he assured me, “bring it to you at Twin Rocks." At that point it struck me that I could have easily passed up my encounter with this exceptional man. All too often, we move past, circumnavigate, avoid those who seem different, those we don’t immediately comprehend and those who look like a problem waiting to consume our time. In the right light, however, these unusual individuals are opportunities rather than difficulties. As it turned out, that was the case with Lee. “Sit down”, he said, so I had and was all the better for having done so. Strange how you never know.

Looking back as he climbed out of the truck, he said, “Maybe you’ll write a story about me.” “Yeah” I said, “maybe.”

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

Twin Rocks Museum

Twin Rocks Museum

Visitors to Twin Rocks Trading Post often comment that the shop looks like a museum. Although our primary mission is to sell turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and rugs, the statement is still flattering. A few days ago, a woman walked through the Kokopelli doors, took a quick look around and declared, “This place is just like a museum, and I could live here." After I got over my fear of the store becoming a flophouse and stopped wondering what Barry would look like as a fossil, I gave considerable thought to what we do at Twin Rocks.

Many people view museums as a place to view extraordinary objects and, if you are fortunate, have informative conversations with the attendants. I can certainly appreciate that sentiment, since some of my best museum experiences involve looking at displays while talking with staff members. I have even been invited into a few curation rooms and have seen many unusual artifacts. In most cases, the explanations of curators and docents added more to the relic than I could have imagined.

One thing I have realized is that art is primarily about the artist, and the artist is molded by his or her work. When I look at a rug by Eleanor Yazzie, I see her woven into the fibers, I can hear her voice and remember her children and the family’s yellow pickup truck. In a Tommy Jackson bracelet, I envision him pulling into the gravel parking lot on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, eyes shaded by narrow sunglasses. To me it is those memories that make Eleanor's weavings and Tommy's jewelry extraordinary. People are clearly the most important part of our operation, and depending on who is in the store at any particular moment the exhibition can be quite captivating.
Navajo Cross Roads Twin Rocks Collection Weaving - Eleanor Yazzie (#123)

Each visitor to the trading post has his or her own story to tell and distinct attributes to reveal. They have all experienced life on their own terms and are like mobile museums. Their demonstrations include culture from around the world, adventure in countless environments and knowledge about an endless variety of topics.

Yesterday our friend Skip strolled into the trading post after hiking in Cottonwood Wash. That afternoon his focus was on trees. After many years as an architect, Skip decided he was destined to be a fruit grower. As a result, he purchased acreage with a grove of apple trees and begun life anew. As he talked about the land and how it changed his life, a smile spread across his face. Skip described his grandfather, a man who allowed his young grandson to work in the elderly man’s extensive garden. That experience sparked a hunger that had lain dormant over 40 years. Unexpectedly, those seeds recently sprouted and Skip's passion blossomed.

Skip told me how he had once come upon a sandstone drain where several juniper saplings had taken root many decades before. He said the trees were huge, twisted and strikingly beautiful. Then he whispered, "I just went over and gave them a hug." I understood his emotion, since that is how I feel about many of the people who visit our trading post. Being a bit shy, I have most often refrained from embracing our patrons. As I grow older, however, I feel less inhibited.

Skip and I talked about a tree Jana recently purchased from a nursery in Moab. After we completed our transaction, the greenhouse attendant helped me put it in the back of our truck and bid us farewell. Before we drove off, I asked whether the unprotected tree would be all right during the 100-mile journey to Bluff. The assistant responded, "No problem, we have pretty strong winds here in Moab." Watching in the rear view mirror as we drove home, I agonized over every leaf that went skittering down the highway. When we finally pulled over, I saw the damage that had been done.

After I finished relating my story to Skip, he said, "You know Steve, it's going to take a long time, buckets of water and lots fertilizer to make that tree feel good again. It will need love to survive." That is the beauty of the human exhibits on display almost every day at Twin Rocks Museum, you just never know what treasures will be unveiled.

With warm regards Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

A Lesson Learned

A Lesson Learned

Many years ago, when I was extremely naive about Navajo culture, I did something terrible . . . I twirled Navajo baskets. That's right, and after years of cultural therapy I am free to admit my indiscretion. In hope of cleansing my conscience and putting this matter behind me, I am ready to openly confess. I need to unchain my psyche and allow myself to heal. I know many of you must be thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything?" Some may even ask, "Is he crazy? What's wrong with spinning baskets?"

There may also be those of you who are so surprised and saddened by my disclosure that you turn away in shame. Many may be genuinely disturbed by what has happened. I assure you, however, at the time I was ignorant of the magnitude of distress I was causing, distress to those who had woven the baskets and distress to those who knew there was so much emotion and meaning stitched into those sacred objects.

As hard as it may be to believe, at the time, I viewed those beautiful baskets as nothing more than "things". Some of my earliest memories are of my parents, Duke and Rose, using Navajo baskets to decorate our home. For years, they were nothing more than “baskets” to me. It wasn't until I accepted the mantle of "Indian trader" that I learned the truth about their proper care.

Here's the scenario, I am stationed in the trading post, sitting behind the counter and trying to maintain an important air. Remember, I am young and trying to establish my reputation. I have access to dollars, and believe that he who controls the cash is king. Thus, I feel all-powerful. In walks an unsuspecting weaver, who with great ceremony unveils her latest accomplishment. Laying the basket on the counter for my viewing pleasure, the artist begins to explain its meaning. My inexperienced mind is not focused on what she is trying to communicate. Instead, it is focused on trying to get the weaving at the lowest possible price, and wondering whether I might get a date with the fiery girl I have just met.

As I ponder these important issues, I place my index finger upon the center coils of the basket and give it a spin. Beginning negotiations, I am unaware the artist’s focus has shifted from what I am saying to the circular motion of her basket. Her head begins to move in the same fashion, she becomes dizzy with the movement and her stress level increases significantly. Finally she can take the sacrilege no longer and reaches out to grasp the basket with both hands, stopping its rotation. I simply continue with my objective of relieving her of the work and adding it to our inventory, not realizing I was causing so much chaos.
Navajo Double Ceremonial Basket - Kee Bitsinnie (#02)

As time went on, my "spinning" continued until it became an obsession. For me, it seemed a habit, not an addiction. A certain someone from up the road was consuming a great deal of my time, interest and imagination and I needed something to help me focus. I am sure there was a bit of psychology involved, but even now I cannot explain it. I was gradually becoming aware the basket weavers were reacting strangely to my routine and began to test them. When they would reach out and stop the basket mid-spin, I would hesitate for a moment then begin again. I noticed this resulted in a higher level of agitation, which at times pleased me.

Not only is it in my nature to pester others, I reasoned that by spinning the baskets I would cause the weavers to lose focus, thus allowing a break in their concentration and a better negotiating posture. I am not sure how long this went on, but I am confident the Navajo weaving community had lost patience. They must have been ready to bury me in the nearest anthill. It all came to a head one day when I was dealing with a young weaver, spinning her basket and causing great frustration. At the time there just happened to be an older Navajo woman in the store who was paying a great deal of attention to what was happening. The woman's name was Mary Grisham, and I knew her well. She had a bad attitude and was vocal about anything that ticked her off, a true radical. As I wrapped up the purchase, Mary angrily approached me and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Remember, I was young and at that point I had not learned to deal with angry women, so I could only stammer, "What do you mean?" Mary proceeded to inform me that a Navajo basket represents the world, and by spinning it that way I caused serious disruptions. Mary and the weaver stormed out of the trading post, loudly proclaiming my ignorance. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea. I began to investigate, and found books that better explained the meaning behind Navajo basketry. I found the traditional basket was a sacred object used by medicine men to practice healing ceremonies. The interpretation of the weaving is deep, meaningful, and much reverence goes into its production. This was to say nothing of the pictorial baskets I had carelessly spun; they represented chant ways, morality tales and legendary heroes.

My basket spinning had spun a disturbance because it showed disrespect. In effect, it had caused a chaotic reaction in a deeply spiritual sense. Not good, I assure you. I was then, and am still, embarrassed by my lack of understanding. It was a hard lesson, but one I learned well. I have also gained a great deal of humility, and now work hard to recognize what the weavers are trying to communicate through their art. I have gained a great deal more common sense and work hard to understand others. I am more focused on respect for other people.

Although it took seven long years to break through, I eventually married the girl who had distracted me from my calling. My wife has taught me much indeed, and I am more experienced in the ways of women since settling down with her. I still do not understand them, but I am a bit wiser when it comes to interpreting their ways.

Over the years, my habit of purposefully aggravating others has often gotten me into trouble. As a matter of fact I have been blessed with a son and two beautiful daughters who have elevated some of my bad habits to new heights, but I guess what they say is true, "What goes around comes around." I am now paying back for my indiscretions. Needless to say, I no longer spin baskets, and I only rarely antagonize others just to make a profit.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.


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