“How long you gonna wear those?” Jana asked when she noticed I had recently begun wearing three strands of cedar-berry beads around my neck. “I’m not sure,” I responded, knowing full well the look on her face was one of uneasiness, possibly fear. It was obvious she was concerned this seemingly slight change in apparel might signal a deeper issue. A reversion to the freewheeling 1960s was clearly, "Weighing heavy on her mind." Priscilla hesitantly acknowledged she also had concerns.
We had been mucking out the spaces under the counters, when I discovered the necklaces that had been stashed away several years. Jana and Priscilla were wondering whether the beads indicated some kind of sea-change, but were hoping it was just another attempt to get attention. The '60s be damned; psychedelic posters, love beads and lava lamps had no place in the trading post as far as they were concerned. That was too far from traditional trading for them to accept
Now, in all fairness, having been deposited on this Earth in late 1959, I was too young to have felt the full impact of the '60s. When the Simpson family moved to the Bay Area of California in 1967, the Summer of Love, I learned of San Francisco, Height-Ashbury and wearing flowers in your hair. For the most part, however, that decade passed me by without so much as a moment of turmoil. To me, free love meant getting a hug from mom, and getting high involved climbing trees or scampering up Bluff's sandstone cliffs.
The cedar-berry necklaces I had discovered are variously known as ghost beads, sweet dream beads or, as I recently learned, balance beads. The traditional Navajo thought is that they chase away bad dreams and let you sleep in peace. One newly developed theory is that they lend a certain equilibrium to one's life. As with many Navajo beliefs, the stories are constantly evolving.
Although they do in some ways resemble the love beads of the ‘60s, cedar-berry beads have a deeper meaning. Older Navajos would often put cedar-berries in their mouths while walking at night. They were believed to ward off the bad spirits that skulk about in the darkness. Today, a few local Navajo people make their living stringing and selling the beads to traders and tourists. But like many things in this business, there are fewer and fewer artists engaged in that creative process. The necklaces are extremely simple in construction, just strands of colored seed beads interspersed with cedar-berries. We bought the necklaces for years to give as gifts to children who wander through the store. Because of a short supply, however, instead of necklaces, we have recently begun giving kids newly made arrowheads we get from Texas.
Several years ago a progressive young Navajo man named Alfonzo James strode into the trading post with a slightly different, more simple design. Instead of the standard double strand with a tassel on the bottom, Alfonzo and his mother decided a single strand of beads was more pleasing, cut production and labor costs in half and still garnered the same revenue stream. Their simplified design is a testament to Navajo ingenuity and confirmation of the concept that simple is best.
A broad-minded and driven young man, Alfonzo, while trying to convince me to purchase his entire inventory of about 400 sets, explained that his mother, with his assistance, made the beads to support his desire to obtain a degree in international business. He had recently returned from a trip to China and was eager to generate the cash flow necessary to finance his next trip.
Alfonzo expressed a desire to expand his travel plans and eventually transfer to a larger university where he could finalize his degree. Selling the beads was an integral part of his overall business plan. As we talked about his most recent trip, Momma Rose walked into the store, overheard the conversation and began sharing her own China experiences with Alfonzo. “Did you go to Tiananmen Square? Did you see the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Shaanxi Province? Did you eat Peking duck? Did you visit the Forbidden City?” For the next half hour Rose and Alfonzo stood toe-to-toe, excitedly firing questions at each other. As fellow travelers, both were in a heightened state of adventure, reliving their shared exploits.
It was then I realized Alfonzo’s beads represented a powerful connection between our Anglo and Navajo cultures, a bridge allowing Alfonzo to experience the world on his own terms and a means for us to help him realize his dreams. It was also then we began referring to the necklaces as bridge beads, a vehicle for change.
In spite of Priscilla and Jana’s concerns about my attire, and its potential effects on the trading business, there is no immediate crisis on the horizon. The psychedelic '60s are safely stowed away, although, I am pretty sure Grange and Kira still have the lava lamps Jana gave them for Christmas a few years back.