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Traveling the Rez or Point of Reference

Traveling the Rez or Point of Reference

I had an opportunity to travel across Dinetah this weekend. I wanted to attend a trade show in Phoenix so I talked my wife into going with me. There are those that do not enjoy traveling the reservation, but I do. For me it brings the myth and legend to life. Here at the Trading Post we hear the cultural tales, as represented through the art. It is a special treat to see that which inspires the artists in person. Trips such as this allow me the opportunity to take in the high desert scenery and consider the People's interpretation of mountains, mesas and monuments.

On Friday we left the house before dawn. Before departing we said a little prayer to the Great Spirit, geared-up and sped on down the highway. As we traveled across the upper mesa, the Moon was full and bright which lit-up outstanding elements of the countryside with a blue/white fluorescence that charmed us with its winsome elegance. Surfaces perpendicular to the night sky, such as stubble fields and stock ponds, radiated in the magic of moon glow. On the other hand elements back-lit by the orb of night, such as upright Cedar pole fences, lone Juniper trees, out buildings and even a crooked windmill, took on darker, shadowed tones. The bearer of the Moon is considered to be a man of age and wisdom. The Man of the Moon is someone who is calm, collected and compassionate; someone we should all endeavor to emulate.
Navajo Monument Valley or Bust Basket - Lorraine Black (#232)

Before long we passed through Bluff and over the bridge spanning the San Juan river. The San Juan is also considered to be a male, a long and lean antiquarian individual with hair of white foam, who guards and protects Navajoland from hostile invaders. As we thumped and bumped our way across the bridge, I prodded Laurie, "It's a good thing you are not in a contentious mood this morning ", I paused a moment to test her reaction. Seeing none, I trespassed further; "or we would have never made it across the bridge." She inhaled noisily, paused, breathed-out easily and said, "Be a Man like the Moon, be not sarcastic!" She is getting much more difficult to provoke these days, no fair, no fun.

As we gained ground on reservation lands the monuments there offered- up strange and cumbersome shapes. We knew them to be representations of strength and power where supernatural spirits dwell. Navajo people often leave medicine bundles or gifts of precious stones at the base of some of the most unique of these monoliths. They strive to gain blessings similar to those attributed to the deities upon the rocks. I contemplated stopping and contributing some offering of my own, after all remittances of might and magic could prove beneficial. I opted out though because, after that last comment, I thought Laurie might take advantage of any short absence and leave me behind. And truly, as our good friend Kent said, speaking of spirituality and/or cultural beliefs: "You are either in, I mean all the way in or it does you no good--you must believe." So, since I am but a spectator in the ceremonial ritual of the Navajo, I decided against it.

Laurie and I traveled along the southern or backside of Monument Valley, through Kayenta, Tsegi Canyon and Long Squaw Valley. To me the landscape is impressive and varied, to look into those magnificent canyons reminded me of a conversation I had with Robert S. McPherson. Bob is a scholar of Navajo history and The People themselves. He has written several books on these subjects, give him a Google and read his books, you will learn much. Anyway, Bob and I were speaking of how Kit Carson impacted the Navajo and, more specifically, how the U.S. Army motivated the Ute people to impact the Navajo. Much of Bob's interpretation of history was gathered from interviews with individuals with close personal ties to the subject matter. His commentary concerning campaign's and skirmishes rattled around in my head as we passed through the country near where the interactions occurred. Looking at the landscape, I doubt it has changed much.

Before long Laurie and I stopped at a large convenience store in Tuba City. Anyone recall Leroy Van Dyke's, 'Who's gonna run the Truck Stop in Tuba City when I'm gone ...?' Sorry, I digress. Most of you wouldn't remember it anyway, the song is ... old. We stopped-in for a refreshment break, it was Pepsi time! Just as we drove-up the Rez dogs appeared. If you have traveled the reservation you know of what I speak. Emaciated canines that hang around anyplace where they might be favored with a scrap of anything. It is a sad situation at best. As with the landscape, all things have their place in Navajo cultural tales, including animals.

The earliest ancestors of the poor mongrels we saw here are represented in a Navajo Chantway myth. This particular legend revolves around the creation of dogs by the Holy People. The animals were sent out among the Earth Surface People to test whether they could live with humans, or not. Some hounds were treated well and others were abused, which caused dogs, as a whole, to be highly skeptical of humans and in many cases altogether apathetic. "You know", said Laurie as we emerged from the rest stop, hesitating a step to toss a handful of Bugles in the direction of one of the cur's, "It often depends on how you treat others that decides your fate." "Uh-huh", I considered, "point made."

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

In a Hundred Years

In a Hundred Years

 

The other day Elsie Holiday was in the trading post with her latest wonderment. The basket was, as always, a stunning work of art. Although Elsie, Barry and I have been collaborating almost 25 years, her work continues to dazzle us. Over that period we have come to know each other well, and frequently tease about things that might otherwise be uncomfortable. Our banter would certainly make many of the politically correct crowd howl and cause the conservative congregation to blush.

Elsie Holiday with her Feather Basket


Once Elsie has her greenbacks tucked safely in her trousers, we at times joke about going to K&C Store for a twelve, twenty-four of thirty-six pack and sitting under the Cottonwood Wash bridge for a binge. The size of the suggested haul being dependent on how trying the day has been so far. I always suggest we get Budweiser or other inexpensive brand, and that she pay the tab. With a loud “Bah” and a twisted face, she consistently informs me she does not drink the cheap stuff and that it’s my turn to pay anyway. We have a good laugh, she leaves with a smile and I am left wondering why we all cannot simply enjoy each other on our own terms. Why do we worry so much about what others think is right or wrong?

When we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post, there was a local Navajo folk artist whose work Barry and I enjoyed. It also sold well, so that made things even better. In the early stages of the business relationship, his severe alcoholism made our transactions tense. One of his favorite drinking locations was under the bridge, so that is why Elsie and I tease about going down to the wash.

On hot summer days our associate and his buddies would often be found beneath the abutments, enjoying an icy cold brew. With the ambition of missionaries, Barry and I tried to convince him he was on the wrong track. He, however, would not budge. Once we realized he was what he wanted to be and had no intention of changing, we were forced to accept him on his own terms. It was at that point Barry and I concluded we were not cut out to be saviors. It was also at that point we began to find the true beauty in him and his work. From that day forward we have stuck to selling turquoise, silver and fry bread, abstaining from evangelism.

At the trading post we are often asked or opinion on professional sports teams using Native themes as their mascots, what we think about using the term “Ancient Puebleon” instead of “Anasazi” to identify the ancient ones of this region and what should be done about white folks commandeering Native themes. Barry is a little more cautious, but for me, I think we think a too much. My friend Gerald always asks, “Will it make any difference in 100 years?” In all too many cases the answer is a resounding, “No!”

Several years ago, I received a call from an obviously agitated woman who informed me Bruce Eckhardt, an Anglo artist, had no right to make “Native American beads” and that it was an outrage he was doing so. I happened to be setting in front of my computer, so, using the magic of Google, it did not take long to discover that such beads have been made for thousands of years, long before there were Native Americans. “So”, I asked, “who are we to tell Bruce what he can and cannot make?” And, “Why”, I inquired, “did she feel beads were the exclusive jurisdiction of Native American artists?” As one might guess, she did not have a solid answer.

Recently, one of our best friends was at Twin Rocks expressing agitation about pop stars wearing, “Native” headdresses. “Cultural appropriation”, he called it, and indicated Native Americans should be compensated for such usage. “What about us”, I asked, “we sell Native art all day long. Isn’t that also cultural piracy?” “No”, he argued, “because you pay for it.” “Okay”, I said, taking the easy way out. I still, however, felt uncomfortable about his thesis. So, after he left I once again called upon my best friend Google, and ascertained that feather headdresses were in fact used by Myan, African, Aztec and, you guessed it, countless other cultures around the world.

Having lived more than half a century, I have concluded the best things in life are affected by a great many external factors. At Twin Rocks Trading Post we often see art incorporating Oriental Optical Art themes, Art Deco elements, Hopi motifs, Apache designs, Anglo ingredients and a variety of other influences. In fact, Barry and I view Twin Rocks Trading Post as a confluence of such diverse ideas.

Like the people who make it, we believe art is an amalgam of individual experience. Barry and I have, therefore, developed the opinion that we, whatever our color, should be free to express ourselves openly, with no concern for what is politically correct; without having to consider whether some other group claims an exclusive right to the idea’s origin. After all, in a hundred years will it really matter?

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

A Coyote Tale

A Coyote Tale

The other morning before dawn I found myself driving south to open Twin Rocks Cafe. The air was crisp, registering 26 degrees on the car thermometer, and the sky was dazzling. Since I was slightly ahead of schedule and wanted to prolong the experience, I pulled the car to the shoulder of the road and killed the engine. Looking to the moonless vault of the sky dome, I observed the deep blue/black, almost velvety, background of heaven. Upon that three-dimensional backdrop was a star scape so bright and crystalline the sight drew me in. It was a visual utopia, and I was captivated.

My car rested on the asphalt highway along the bench just above Bluff. To the east, the undulating mesa was slightly backlit with the promise of sunrise. Wispy, striated clouds waited patiently on the horizon for the Sun God to paint them with tones of rose and tangerine. Sagebrush, Navajo tea and rabbit brush appeared skeletal and menacing upon what I knew to be rusty red hillocks of compacted blow sand. A dusting of frost accentuated by starlight crystallized the roadway, the surrounding terrain and the stunted vegetation.

Standing there for a while, I took in the beauty of my surroundings and watched as the cliff tops slowly began to take their hump-backed shape in the first blush of approaching dawn. Realizing my staff would be waiting for me to turn the key, I re-seated myself in the car, started her up and switched on the headlights. On my right, something caught my attention as I pulled onto the roadway. Squinting into the darkness, I again saw movement. I could see something low to the ground, of a dark amber color, trotting fluidly in my direction. In an instant I realized it was a large coyote, an old dog looking to box me in. I have associated with our Navajo neighbors long enough to know that, if you can help it, you do not allow a coyote to cross in front of you. If you do or it does, you are stuck in place until four vehicles pass by and clear the path. You then have to sprinkle corn pollen and pray to the four directions. If you ignore this customary wisdom, all sorts of bad and ugly things may befall you. Coyote is a chaotic creature, and it is best not to upset his, which becomes your, unstable balance.
Navajo Star-light Star-bright Basket Set - Elsie Holiday (#084)

The cussed canine was ignoring me, the noise of the car and the bright lights, acting as if I were of no consequence. I realized that if he crossed my path I would have to make an offering and wait until other travelers obliterated his tracks, making it safe to continue. If that chaotic creature crossed me, I would be sorry-out-of-luck, and way late for work. The only offerings I had were corn chips, pinion nuts, hummus, and cranberry juice. My bag of corn pollen was . . . well . . . nonexistent. The chances of four vehicles traveling from the north in the next half hour was unlikely, and I could not, would not be late for work. Our lead cook, Jenelia, gets a kick out of arriving earlier than anyone else. If she does, she will sit there in her giant white Dodge Ram pick-up truck with the red hand print on the right rear fender and tsk tsk tsk, while shaking her head. "You should just give me the key,” she says every time. "Not a chance,” I tell her, "then you will want to be the boss." "I already am,” she says, "you just haven't figured that out yet."

All that was incentive to hit the gas, honk the horn and flash the lights in order to cut Hasteen Coyote off at the pass. The coyote was still 30' off the road when he decided to let me go ahead. Instead of turning tail and running however, that old dog just sat back on his hairy haunches and watched me proceed. That surprised me, because coyotes are generally skittish when it comes to humans and their mechanical wonders, they usually skedaddle at the first sign of anyone or anything that might present a threat. Not this old boy, he rested there on the frosted sand and watched as I eased on down the road. When I realized he was settling in for the show, I slowed down and coasted on in. I popped open the bag of corn chips and fingered the right passenger side window to the down position.

Reaching deeply into the bag of chips, I withdrew a large handful. As I drove by, I looked directly into his citrine colored eyes and tossed my offering in his direction. I had the distinct impression the coyote was thinking, "Doo 'aha'shjaa'i" (How stupid). Something Jenelia might say if I told her about this encounter. Not a chance! I moved past the coyote and glanced into the rearview mirror where I saw him in the red glow of my taillights. He moved to the edge of the highway and paused. Maybe Ma,'ii had accepted my offering, forgiving my awkward approach. I should have been pleased with my successful avoidance of being jinxed by that bad boy beastie, but I just felt a little silly. When I finally made my way down Cow Canyon and rounded the corner to Twin Rocks Cafe, I saw Jenelia waiting. Our own chaotic character stood at the door, impatiently tapping her foot, awaiting my arrival. She was not, however, going to get any of my snacks, I had already offered-up enough.

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

Duke

Duke

For years I have struggled to adequately thank my father for the support and direction he provided during my youth. Like most sons of my generation, and all generations that have gone before, I am paternally challenged. Although I have tried in many ways to tell my dad I appreciate everything he has done for me, it never seems to come out right, or at all. If I start to jot down my thoughts, my pen and brain seem to simultaneously stall, creating a practical and emotional logjam. If I try to tell him, I just cannot seem to get the words out. After many failed attempts, I have decided to give it one more try, before one of us leaves this world. This then is mea culpa; my thoughts and confessions about my pop.

Over the past several years I have realized the more I try to differentiate myself from him, the more I become like my father. The more I experience in life, the more I understand what he encountered trying to raise five children in such a challenging environment. After one recent occurrence, I found myself responding in precisely the same way he would have 25 years earlier. My friend Dave always jokes that he frequently looks in the mirror and gasps, “Dad?” I am beginning to feel the same.

As a child growing up in this small town, the two things I remember most are unrestrained freedom and my father working a great deal. My dad, William Woodrow “Duke” Simpson, always seemed to be up early for work, returning home late in the evening. I imagine he must have felt like the mother birds that nest in the eaves of the Twin Rocks Trading Post porch. These mommas are never able to keep up with the needs of their hatchlings. While Duke was scrambling to meet our demands, mother Rose attempted to keep us out of harm’s way and prevent our long-term incarceration.

Duke had a saying that went something like, “Rose, those kids could break an anvil,” which was generally true. As a means of preventing us from destroying what he was trying to build, Duke always managed to keep us busy. If he had been a religious man he may have said something like, “Busy hands are happy hands,” or “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Instead, he would simply say, “Don’t you have anything to do?” If the answer was “No”, he had little trouble finding projects to keep us engaged. Initially he put us to work as attendants at a small filling station he rented on the south side of Blanding.

When we were at school, Rose and Duke took over. It was not an easy time for any of us. Although I resented the restriction the job placed on my free time, I was happy to have a little folding money in my wallet. I felt like a king when there were a few bucks in my pocket. Duke paid pretty well; a dollar an hour. It was not until much later I realized what those years of running the business taught me.

The filling station was probably the start of our venture into the trading post business, although there are many other influences that may have been the true catalyst. The local Navajo people frequently wanted to exchange turquoise and silver for gas and oil, and that ultimately resulted in the construction of Blue Mountain Trading Post.

I cannot remember how old I was when Duke began taking us on buying trips; possibly nine or ten. What I do recall is that he was always ready to pack up and head out on a new adventure. Sometimes it was a trip to a Colorado auction and sometimes it was a journey to the Phoenix flea market. No matter where we went, we universally had an interesting time. Duke was happy just to be on the road, and we were glad to see new places.

During one of those trips Duke purchased the entire inventory of a defunct shoe store. When he returned home, we had a yard sale that resulted in the shoeing of the entire town, for years. On another occasion he brought home a trailer full of western hats, shirts and jeans. The Blanding clothing market was nearly devastated.

These trips also allowed Duke to introduce us to the pleasures of the wider world. On one excursion to Colorado, Duke and I were driving through Moab when he asked if I wanted a beer. A short time later I was sitting straight up in the cab of the pickup truck with any icy brew in my hand. I could barely contain myself as I popped open the bottle. After one gulp, my excitement was extinguished. The taste was so bitter on my inexperienced tongue that my thirst for beer was permanently quenched. I think Duke knew what would happen, since a similar situation occurred when I acquired an interest in cigarettes.

As I graduated high school and college, I determined to leave Utah and never return. I had had enough of this state and my father’s business, so I left for the bright lights of the big city. I was convinced Duke was not quite as smart as he thought, and not nearly as bright as I. Surely he sees the irony in my coming back to the land, the people and the business he loves. I only hope he sees how much I appreciate the man he is, and the man he has helped me become.

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

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