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3/20/04: The Little Things

I'm fortunate to be married to a woman who accepts my chosen profession and is willing to support me in my modern crusade - even if it is somewhat akin to that of my boyhood hero, Indiana Jones. All romantic notions aside, the Southwest, and Indian country in particular, is really an adventuresome place. After having only spent a couple years living here as a permanent resident (no pun intended), I've come to realize that there is more and more to be appreciated about this wide-open place. Of course Arizona is known as the Grand Canyon State, and then there are other major points of geographic and historical interest like Monument Valley, Canyon De Chelly, and the well-known Hubbell Trading Post.

It's the lesser known sights however, that really make living in Arizona magical. When my wife first joined me here, I was anxious to show her the "majors," but it wasn't long before we felt like we'd been there, done that. A lifetime of adventure and exploration seemed to be exhausted within a matter of months. Then one afternoon while visiting with one of our Pahana friends, who also lives here on the reservation, we were turned onto some archaeological areas that have remained largely a secret to the casual visitors of this desert country.

It was like a light came on inside our heads, and from that time on we started looking for the "out of the way" experiences. Some of them have turned out to be a little disappointing, while others truly have been special experiences. However, one would never know what they're missing if they didn't make an effort to find out - and it's this process of discovery that makes the individual and the area share a certain sense of oneness. Today, instead of plotting our course from point A to point B, we deliberately look for as many detours as possible along the way - usually relegating point B to the bottom of our priority list, even if it means only arriving in time to get a room, and then when morning comes, we're off again.

An example that hits literally close to home is the fact that very few visitors know the unique history of Keams Canyon, its namesake and the important role he played in bridging the gap between his Hopi and Navajo neighbors. Thomas Varker Keam first experienced Indian Country as a young volunteer enlisted in Kit Carson's brigade assigned to round up the Navajos and escort them on the long walk to Bosque Redondo in Southeastern New Mexico. It was summer in the late 1860s when Colonel Carson and his men camped in what was then known as Peach Orchard Spring. His brigade left their indelible mark on the sandstone wall of the canyon which remains a little known fact but interesting draw for many history buffs who visit the area. I'm always surprised at how surprised many of our visitors are to learn a little of the background of the Canyon.

While the traditional villages of Walpi and Oraibi are still among the major areas of interest to most visitors (and kachina dances, when open to visitors), there is a unique and fascinating part of living history that takes place every day here in Keams Canyon. Thomas Keam and his younger brother established the trading post in 1875, but when his sibling fell ill, Thomas took on the responsibility of running the post full-time, leaving behind other enterprises near Fort Defiance on the Navajo reservation. The decades that he spent here were certainly some of the most influential pertaining to the development of arts and crafts as an economic alternative to subsistence farming. Westerners were bringing goods of great desire among the Natives, and the Hopi wanted to share in the spoils (albeit some of what was introduced would arguably have been better left behind). Thomas Keam worked with local leaders - both Hopi and Navajo - to establish amicable relations between them and their new Western neighbors, and other American authorities. He was a diplomat, a storekeeper, and a friend. His hope was to bring himself a better life while also maintaining a positive way of life for his Native counterparts - one that would preserve their special heritage and traditions. His work with the noted anthropologist and ethnologist Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian was perhaps the impetus for the redevelopment of Hopi pottery as an art form. Their efforts helped spark the great Nampeyo renaissance, and resulted in an awareness of and appreciation for pueblo pottery that had heretofore been nonexistent. By helping create a market for his patron's crafts, he supported a system of exchange that enabled local Hopi and Navajo people to trade their wares for items of daily necessity. On top of this, his role as a storekeeper included messenger and postmaster, creditor, banker, and translator.

The trading post continues to operate as one of the only bona fide trading posts in existence. While there are many that have been recreated, and those which operate as galleries under a "trading post" façade, there are few that continue to provide the goods and services vital to a modern reservation economy, while still maintaining a reverence and respect for the traditions and heritage of their hosts.

As a side note, I've started to realize a parallel between these experiences and the nature of our own character. It's not the big things that really define a person - but the little things. As Robert Louis Stevenson is quoted to have said, how do you measure success? To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics, and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a redeemed social condition, or a job well done; to know that even one other life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

In this respect, Thomas Keam was a success, and I hope that the same could someday be said for us all.

The Permanent Rezident

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