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2/9/04: "Clouds of Doubt" - Part 2

Continued from last weeks mailer... (click here to see what you missed!)

I was still resenting the fact that I had gotten the ticket in the first place - and having to drive a hundred miles out of my way on my only day off that week didn't help. It wasn't until we were leaving the courthouse that day that I saw the silver lining in my cloud of doubt. There was a trading post down the road with a familiar name - one that I had come across many times in my research and writing as a Western and Native American history student in college. I was anxious to see if this was the original trading post - the one I had heard of, or if it was merely another convenience store "guilty by association." At first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than that. Dry goods and other sundries lined the shelves and the interior was dank and dark. Disappointed, my wife and I grabbed a couple of snacks for the road and approached the clerk. I figured I might as well ask about the relation to the other post I had heard of - so I did. As it turned out, we were in the right place after all - but the "magic spot" was in the back, behind the vault door against the right side of the room. After bagging our things and handing me my change, the clerk indicated that we were welcome to "go on back and take a look."

As I walked through the heavy steel doorway, a new room lit up in the various colors of the hundreds of skeins of wool that lined the walls. Beneath them stood vintage display cases filled with old pawn. I immediately recognized the old Bilaganna as the trader of lore. He was conversing with an elderly Navajo women in her native language as easily as if it were his own. He glanced and gave a smiling nod to welcome us. As we approached yet another set of steel doors he called over to us and invited us to make our way into his "rug room." It was beautiful. Some of the finest rugs I have ever seen adorned this restored "trading post" room. The atmosphere brought back a lot of the romantic era of the trading posts with its Mexican tile floor, reclaimed barn-wood walls, and adobe-rock columns and shelves. In this setting the artwork really came to life - the way I had always imagined it: the way it might have been when Thomas Varker Keam was still around - the way I knew it could be.

It wasn't long before we were joined by the gracious, but characteristically appropriate, proprietor. He wore Wranglers and a western shirt accompanied by ropers and a faded old cowboy hat. His watch was set in silver and turquoise - the good stuff. His moustache had hints of gray, which led me to believe he had been at this a while, and after about two hours absorbing everything I could from this wise, old trader, my assumptions were verified. In fact, he was in his fifth decade of trading with the Navajos.

With this I learned an interesting theory, one of the most insightful lessons I've had so far. "You see," he said, "a trader's experience is made up in decades. In the first decade, you mop the floors and scrub the toilets. You put produce on the shelves and haul heavy sacks of flour. You get to be a trader for a while." It made sense to me, since my family started out "trading" produce for furniture in Southern Idaho and Northern Utah, and I had spent my first decade doing many similar tasks. "Then, in your second decade, you start to develop relationships. You get involved on more of a management level. You've got children and financial obligations, so you're motivated more by profit." Having just one child, I thought about the years ahead and wondered if I'd be able to provide for a growing family as well or better than my own folks. "In your third decade, things start to change a little. Some of these people have been coming to you for twenty years. It's just different with them - you treat them different. There's a mutual respect that develops and you realize that you need them as much as they need you." I'm already starting to see that between people like Ron McGee and the artisans who have been coming to see him for so long, and it was his brother Bruce, before him. There's a rich heritage of relationships between the trader and his Indian community.

"In your fourth decade, you're really accepted. You become part of the family. You're working with and encouraging children of some of the people who you knew first - as though they were your own children and grandchildren. You're excited about their accomplishments, and you're there for the family when they need you. You're less and less profit oriented, and you're looking more and more for ways to give back. You're welcomed into their homes on a more informal level and at ceremonies where you might otherwise by prohibited." As he explained this level of intimacy between the trader and "his people," I could only hope that the future holds such rewarding experiences. "And then, by the fifth decade - which is the decade that I am in," he continued, "you're so much 'at one' with the community that the dividing line - the differences - between you and 'them' just disappears. You forget that you're any different from the people that you serve. You're just you, and every other person in your life is just an individual - one with a unique character and a special place in your heart and mind."

When we left that day, I realized that I had just benefited from five decades of wisdom and experience. I wouldn't trade those two hours we spent visiting for all the books that have ever been written on Indian Trading, Traders, and Trading Posts. These were pearls of wisdom given freely from one trader, writing the final chapters of his life, to another, less experienced, with hopes for a successful future and a heart wrapped around the romance of the past. In retrospect, everything happened for a reason. If I hadn't received that ticket on that fateful November day, and if I hadn't decided to go to court, our paths may have never crossed, and I certainly would have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime. Thank God for the Highway Patrol.

The Permanent Rezident

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