by Steve Simpson
When we first opened the trading post, I was constantly amazed by what our customers said and did.
If it wasn’t the tourists, it was our Navajo patrons doing things that made me shake my head in wonder. Often, as I relived the day’s events later that evening, I laughed out loud or mumbled to myself about the comedy or humanity of what had occurred that day.
Had anybody witnessed these evening episodes, I may have been subject to commitment in the big white house with large lawns and nicely-padded guest rooms.
In the early days, we did a small pawn business, so there were more elderly Navajo people in the store.
Pawn has, for many decades, been an important part of the trading post tradition. Many of the older Navajo people use it as a means of safeguarding their valuable possessions from marauding children or grandchildren, or to ensure access to small amounts of quick cash.
As our arts and crafts business grew, however, pawn became more and more complicated.
It wasn’t that the revenue was bad; the problem was more practical than anything. Because pawning guns is a substantial part of the business, I began noticing the customers becoming more and more nervous as someone carrying a rifle climbed the stairs to the trading post.
For many of our patrons, the obvious conclusion was that an armed robbery was in progress and their lives were in danger.
When the customers realized they were not in harm’s way, they became immensely curious and wanted to know what was happening.
As these events unfolded, their interest in rugs, baskets and jewelry quickly dissipated, and any possibility of a sale disappeared. So we finally decided pawn was no longer worth the effort and closed that part of our operation.
One disadvantage of ending our pawn business is that many older Navajo people stopped coming to see us. Initially, when we told them we were no longer pawning, they would wink and say, “Well, just for me, okay?” Eventually we stopped altogether and the grandmas and grandpas faded away.
The other day something happened that reminded me of the older Navajos we used to see all the time; people like Espee Jones, Wooeyboy’s Son, Nellie Greyeyes and many more.
A Navajo woman was browsing through the shop inventory when she spotted the arrowheads we have in the display cases. This particular item is made by Homer Etherton, a man in his late eighties.
After I put the basket containing them on the counter, the woman picked up a few points, inspected them closely, and, admiring their craftsmanship, turned them over and over in her hand. After carefully scrutinizing them, she asked, “Are these man-made?”
The first time I heard that question, I was completely baffled, and almost blurted out, “Of course they are man-made. What else would they be?”
My long tenure in retail and the gentle demeanor of the man, however, told me I needed to be more cautious, so I asked, “What do you mean?”
The elderly Navajo gentleman quietly said, “Are they made by Horned Toad?”
At that point, I explained that the arrowheads were produced by Homer, which seemed to satisfy him, but left me with several burning questions.
Our cultural differences, and my desire to avoid looking overly foolish, stopped me from pursuing the matter further, so my inquisitor walked out the door without satisfying my curiosity.
Not long after that incident, a younger Navajo man came in, bought one of Homer’s arrowheads, inhaled four times, patted his chest with the point and seemed to whisper a prayer. He then placed the item in a small leather bag that hung around his neck.
Since we were contemporaries, I felt comfortable asking him what it all meant. He explained that Navajo people believe horned toads chip arrowheads with their breath and that the points are protection against evil spirits.
The brief ceremony allowed him to breathe in the protective essence of the arrowhead before placing the talisman in his medicine bag.
He explained further that it is the “non-man-made” points; those from the ancient Puebloan culture, that are most powerful and offer the most protection from evil.
Unfortunately, incidents like those are more and more rare. Navajo culture is rapidly changing, and many of the old ways are no longer observed by the young people of the tribe.
A few days ago, a biologist for the state of Utah wandered into the store.
Her department is conducting a study of the local vegetation to determine how it compares to their baseline study from the 1970s.
She said their findings indicate that the more substantial bunch grasses like Indian rice grass and buffalo grass had, to a large extent, given way to cheat grass.
I could not help thinking this was very much like Navajo culture; the strong traditions are being replaced by television, backwards baseball caps and baggy pants. It makes one long for more “non man-made” items.