Bruce Burnham

Bruce Burnham

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It [my wedding] was the most meaningful thing that ever happened to me in my lifetime. In a Navajo wedding, the total focus is on the man, not the woman. The woman is coached and everything by her mother and aunts beforehand. The man is brought to the wedding, and then the entire focus of that wedding is on the man, understanding what he's getting himself into. Because she doesn't become part of your family. Your parents don't acquire a daughter-in-law, they only lose a son. Her family gains a son-in-law that is like a worker ant. He becomes obligated to serve that family, because his children will be part of her family, not part of his family. Your children are a part of your wife's family. And so they want to make sure that you understand what your responsibilities are. And probably for me, even more so than most, because they weren't leaving anything to chance in explaining it to me. And it was all done in Navajo, and I thought it was beautiful.

Right at the beginning of the ceremony, the medicine man asked--and he was fluent in English--he says, "Should we do this in English, or in Navajo?" And this Navajo, his name was Bruce Arthur, he was there, and he jumped up and he said, "Hey, do it in Navajo. He's just a white Navajo." (laughter) And I thought that was a compliment. So they did the entire wedding ceremony in Navajo. I think being done in Navajo gave it more meaning, because of the language. The language is so much more beautiful. The Navajo language is a very prayerful, beautiful language. And so I think that I was lucky to have had that ceremonial wedding.


You know... in the early days of trading, it was almost the same out here as it was in the book The Grapes of Wrath. You had a bunch of people that weren't tryin' to make a fortune, they were tryin' to feed their family. And if you looked at some of the old trading posts that were originally built, many of 'em had dirt floors and very crude buildings. I remember the Bisti Trading Post when I was little. We had a wood floor in it, but that was a pretty modern store. The whole house was probably smaller than this room, and yet it was adequate. But everything that we had focused in running the store. We didn't eat all the cheese, because we needed it for our customers. We were very meager in what we ate out of the store, because it was really our inventory we were depleting. We didn't have refrigeration.... And the customer knew that when you went to town to get your supplies different times of the year, how long they had to come in and be able to expect to buy some fresh bacon, instead of salt pork; and how many days there would be cheese available; or how many days there would be bologna available. And so your customers got used to that.... 

By noon Tuesday you were usually out of cheese and out of bologna. Now, if it was in the wintertime when it was cold, then we had a little storage room that was always in the shade and stayed pretty cold, so that time would extend. But the customers always knew what day of the week you butchered, and then there'd be fresh meat that day and half of the next day. That's the longest you could keep it without it spoiling during the summertime. From early spring up until--well, from about January until probably June, was a period of time when they didn't butcher many of their own animals; one, because they were poor; two, because they were lambing. So we would butcher at the store, and so they knew that if they wanted cheese and regular bacon that they would come in sometime between Monday morning and noon Tuesday, and they might get some regular slab bacon, or some cheese or bologna. Then they knew if they came in on Wednesday, up until maybe noon on Thursday, they might be able to buy a piece of fresh mutton. And we ate the same provisions. That was the way it was. 

It was really a deal where you'd hire somebody and they were more concerned about just having shelter over their head and feeding their family. That was the main criteria. It wasn't real lucrative until probably the early sixties it started becoming much more lucrative to own a trading post. And so I guess what I'm trying to say, the early traders came out, they weren't wealthy merchants, they were young people that were trying to make a living, just doing anything they could to feed their family. And I think in doing that, they came to grips with the fact that if they built the community up, that as the community went, so they did also. If they built the community up, improved the livestock or got a better price for the wool or did this or did that, the community would come up. Well, it would also bring the trader up in the process. So the good traders were builders. Just by trial and error, the proof was in the pudding. The successful traders were the traders that stayed in an area a long time. And the reason they stayed in an area a long time was because they were building the community. They were doing something to enhance their position there, and in doing that, it always brought the community up with 'em.... 

You knew there was so much livestock in the area when you went there. Now, to capitalize on your investment of being there, and your time spent there, you knew that you had to develop a better rug-weaving area, in order to capitalize on your being there. So you improved the rugs, you improved the livestock, you gave silver out and had 'em silversmith for you. Anything that you could do that would create extra income greatly enhanced the families that you were dealing with, and it enhanced your position there also. So it was important that a trader have the wisdom to help guide these people along, into a little bit better circumstances. If you had a family that was kind of struggling to eat, you would find a job for the man of the house, maybe. You might send him off to the railroad, or you might find him a job working on a farm, or herding sheep for someone in Mancos, Colorado. And then he would send money home.


Someone referred to me as a mustang the other day, and I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, you're a dying breed." We truly are. And we're just one of many, many businesses in the United States that have made the crossover into the computer age and not survived it. It was more pronounced for us, because we went from seeing our customers riding in a wagon to data processing, in forty years. That's a tremendous change. It hasn't been that long since I've seen Navajos coming into the store in a wagon. And just the other day my wife and I were driving across the reservation, it was about ten o'clock at night, and we were driving along and feeling a little melancholy, I guess, and we were thinking about what it was like to look out there and see a street light at a hogan, with three pickups parked there--no wagon in the yard, and a bright light inside the hogan window... 

She became quite melancholy about it, and reminiscent of days when she would come in from herding sheep all day, and come over the hill into view of the hogan and see a wisp of smoke coming up through the smoke hole at the top of the hogan, and see the warm glow of a kerosene lamp in the window, and just smelling that smoke. She could also, in her mind, smell some ribs cooking over the coals inside the hogan, and the coffee boiling over, and the smell of the fry bread being made.

That's one of the real warm moments I have to remember about my wife, is that recollection of what life was like. Just that simple thing of how she felt when she saw a hogan, and how alarmed she was now to realize when we're driving across the reservation to see all these street lights and satellite dishes. (laughs) That's in a short space of time .... And to think of how that has affected their lifestyle, being caught between those two. The availability of our world, and still caught in the cultural identity of their world. 

So it's been quite a switch... I see the young Navajos today as really being between a rock and a hard spot, so to speak. They've shed their traditional ways, and they're not quite able to fit into this idealistic picture that they've been shown on TV or in school. They've seen that carrot dangling out at the end of the stick. Well, they can't quite get their hand on it.

And in order to get their hand on it, they're going to have to sever ties with the reservation and the culture that they were raised in, in order to compete in that dominant society that has all those candied apples and cotton candy and all the glitz and glamour of modern technology.

So I see the reservation as being two generations away from losing the language right now. When that language is lost, the Navajo people are going to become a generic tribe of Indians. They're going to be part of the "Powwow Indian Group," of just Indians that want to maintain Indian identity... When they lose that--I think that when they lose that cultural identity, that's when we're going to be threatened with the fact that rug weaving is a dying art, because it's the cultural identity that keeps the weaving alive today. It's not a matter of economics. So if it dies, it's gonna die from within... 

My wife remembers going to bed at night to the sound of that (tapping) tap of packing the wool in a loom, and waking up in the morning to that same sound of her mother getting up early and weaving a little bit before her day starts. Those are sounds that make an impact on a child. When that child grows up then, and their earliest memories are that of being strapped in the cradleboard and leaning up against the wall of the hogan and listening to the mother weave, that rhythm of that weave become so ingrained in 'em that it gives 'em an aptitude or inclination to be a weaver when they grow up. When that ceases to exist, they will cease to become weavers. So we could very well be in the last stages of Navajo weaving as we know it today. And it's not because of any other thing than that of the loss of the.... It's not the loss of sheep that's gonna bring it to an end--it'll be the loss of a way of life and a cultural identity that does us in.