A Lesson Learned

Many years ago, when I was extremely naive about Navajo culture, I did something terrible . . . I twirled Navajo baskets. That's right, and after years of cultural therapy I am free to admit my indiscretion. In hope of cleansing my conscience and putting this matter behind me, I am ready to openly confess. I need to unchain my psyche and allow myself to heal. I know many of you must be thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything?" Some may even ask, "Is he crazy? What's wrong with spinning baskets?"

There may also be those of you who are so surprised and saddened by my disclosure that you turn away in shame. Many may be genuinely disturbed by what has happened. I assure you, however, at the time I was ignorant of the magnitude of distress I was causing, distress to those who had woven the baskets and distress to those who knew there was so much emotion and meaning stitched into those sacred objects.

As hard as it may be to believe, at the time, I viewed those beautiful baskets as nothing more than "things". Some of my earliest memories are of my parents, Duke and Rose, using Navajo baskets to decorate our home. For years, they were nothing more than “baskets” to me. It wasn't until I accepted the mantle of "Indian trader" that I learned the truth about their proper care.

Here's the scenario, I am stationed in the trading post, sitting behind the counter and trying to maintain an important air. Remember, I am young and trying to establish my reputation. I have access to dollars, and believe that he who controls the cash is king. Thus, I feel all-powerful. In walks an unsuspecting weaver, who with great ceremony unveils her latest accomplishment. Laying the basket on the counter for my viewing pleasure, the artist begins to explain its meaning. My inexperienced mind is not focused on what she is trying to communicate. Instead, it is focused on trying to get the weaving at the lowest possible price, and wondering whether I might get a date with the fiery girl I have just met.

As I ponder these important issues, I place my index finger upon the center coils of the basket and give it a spin. Beginning negotiations, I am unaware the artist’s focus has shifted from what I am saying to the circular motion of her basket. Her head begins to move in the same fashion, she becomes dizzy with the movement and her stress level increases significantly. Finally she can take the sacrilege no longer and reaches out to grasp the basket with both hands, stopping its rotation. I simply continue with my objective of relieving her of the work and adding it to our inventory, not realizing I was causing so much chaos.
Navajo Double Ceremonial Basket - Kee Bitsinnie (#02)

As time went on, my "spinning" continued until it became an obsession. For me, it seemed a habit, not an addiction. A certain someone from up the road was consuming a great deal of my time, interest and imagination and I needed something to help me focus. I am sure there was a bit of psychology involved, but even now I cannot explain it. I was gradually becoming aware the basket weavers were reacting strangely to my routine and began to test them. When they would reach out and stop the basket mid-spin, I would hesitate for a moment then begin again. I noticed this resulted in a higher level of agitation, which at times pleased me.

Not only is it in my nature to pester others, I reasoned that by spinning the baskets I would cause the weavers to lose focus, thus allowing a break in their concentration and a better negotiating posture. I am not sure how long this went on, but I am confident the Navajo weaving community had lost patience. They must have been ready to bury me in the nearest anthill. It all came to a head one day when I was dealing with a young weaver, spinning her basket and causing great frustration. At the time there just happened to be an older Navajo woman in the store who was paying a great deal of attention to what was happening. The woman's name was Mary Grisham, and I knew her well. She had a bad attitude and was vocal about anything that ticked her off, a true radical. As I wrapped up the purchase, Mary angrily approached me and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Remember, I was young and at that point I had not learned to deal with angry women, so I could only stammer, "What do you mean?" Mary proceeded to inform me that a Navajo basket represents the world, and by spinning it that way I caused serious disruptions. Mary and the weaver stormed out of the trading post, loudly proclaiming my ignorance. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea. I began to investigate, and found books that better explained the meaning behind Navajo basketry. I found the traditional basket was a sacred object used by medicine men to practice healing ceremonies. The interpretation of the weaving is deep, meaningful, and much reverence goes into its production. This was to say nothing of the pictorial baskets I had carelessly spun; they represented chant ways, morality tales and legendary heroes.

My basket spinning had spun a disturbance because it showed disrespect. In effect, it had caused a chaotic reaction in a deeply spiritual sense. Not good, I assure you. I was then, and am still, embarrassed by my lack of understanding. It was a hard lesson, but one I learned well. I have also gained a great deal of humility, and now work hard to recognize what the weavers are trying to communicate through their art. I have gained a great deal more common sense and work hard to understand others. I am more focused on respect for other people.

Although it took seven long years to break through, I eventually married the girl who had distracted me from my calling. My wife has taught me much indeed, and I am more experienced in the ways of women since settling down with her. I still do not understand them, but I am a bit wiser when it comes to interpreting their ways.

Over the years, my habit of purposefully aggravating others has often gotten me into trouble. As a matter of fact I have been blessed with a son and two beautiful daughters who have elevated some of my bad habits to new heights, but I guess what they say is true, "What goes around comes around." I am now paying back for my indiscretions. Needless to say, I no longer spin baskets, and I only rarely antagonize others just to make a profit.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.