Raymond C. Yazzie

Raymond C. Yazzie

 

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My clan is Bit'ahnii, and my dad is Tódík'ózhí, and my grandparents are Kinyaa'áanii and Tsi'naajinii….

I was born in Vanderwagen, I believe. I never really checked into things like that when I was younger. I would say at the PHS here in Gallup, because we lived in the Vanderwagen area, moved around here and there…. It's about, I would say, twelve miles south of Gallup. My dad is from Vanderwagen, and my mother is from a place called right now Skeets Road [phonetic spelling], and it's up in the mountains in the area. My dad's name is Chee Yazzie, and my mom is Elsie.

My dad was a silversmith. He worked in the days when you had to melt your silver and pound it out and roll it out. I guess when he met my mom, it ended up my mom doing silversmithing with him, too. After that, I think my mother ended up doing a lot more of the silversmithing, as I remember. I remember my dad working on the railroad, so we didn't see my dad that often. So it was more of my mother than my dad….

I really don't remember a lot about my childhood years. I remember we lived in a hogan, a one-room hogan, which I still see standing. I remember my brothers and sisters, my mom and my dad. We all lived in the one-room hogan, and there was twelve of us. Actually, there was thirteen-I had a brother that passed away at maybe between three and six months-I don't remember what age they said he passed away. But there was twelve of us all together. I have five other brothers and six sisters, so there's twelve of us. I can remember being in the hogan, which looks like a huge house, me being that small. But now when I see the hogan, which still exists, and wonder how we could have done that, living in that house.

But it didn't bother us to live in the one room with my parents and my brothers and sisters. I think that's probably one of the things that really brought us closer together. To this day, even though we have quarrels about certain things, we manage to get out of those things and be brothers and sisters again. And we support each other all the time.

A lot of my childhood years were spent out there. To a certain age, I can remember. But after that, there was a time, I guess, that my mom could not afford all of us. I ended up living with one of my older brothers, and him and his wife raised me for about five years of my lifetime I spent with them. And he was working, and then his wife was working. When he would come home, he would silversmith, too, as kind of like a side job for him. I eventually started helping him with certain things-maybe soldering here and there, or sanding certain things for him.

My mom and dad got divorced. I think that was probably about the time that I ended up moving in with my brother. We've never seen my dad after the divorce and stuff, and he never came around, so it was always my mom that we looked up to, and always encouraged us to work on something the best way you can, and to finish it the best way you can. That's what I have, and today what I've learned from her I still use through my life-you know, raising my kids and how to treat my wife-all that came from my mother. My dad was an abusive guy and he drank quite a bit. I think our family kind of managed to step away from that, because my mom had to step away from all that. So a lot of the teachings came from my mother. She left us probably about eight years ago now. When you think back about all the things they taught you, I still use all those things that was taught to me from her-even my silversmithing. A lot of it came from her, because she was so encouraging, for us to better ourselves, than what she used to do.

I know back then she used to do dinnerware sets, all different kinds of jewelry and stuff. I can remember helping them sand certain areas of the dinnerware sets and things they used to make-concho belts and all that. And I think that's where a lot of it came from, was that. That was almost like a gift to me. Maybe my mom saw it in me, that we could be potential silversmiths later on. But one of the things that she stressed was education, even though she was uneducated-she never went to school one day in her life-one of the things that she stressed to us was getting an education and maybe going to college some day and finding a better job to take care of ourselves… which she did. You know, she put a couple of my brothers through. Well, one brother actually graduated from BYU and has a nice job. My other brother, Lee, had hip problems, so he had to drop out of college. But he was one of those guys that knew what he really wanted, too, I think. He went into learning how to cut stones, and eventually taught me how to cut stones. And through the years we've always looked up to our mother. My mom was always there for us, certain things that we had to do.

I was brought in, asked to work with Joe Tanner, when I was between ten and eleven years old, to work in the store, to clean up. Joe Tanner, I guess, always worked with my family. He worked with my older sister, Mary; worked with Lee; my other sister Lily; and so the family kind of knew him just like another part of the family. He took us in and he provided jobs for the family. I remember them talking about Joe when I was young. My brothers and sisters would talk about him. That's when I eventually ended up in his shop, was to clean up after my brother, Lee, 'cause he was the first one in there. I guess he was already learning how to cut stones. So the way I got in there was they needed to find somebody that can clean these sticks for him where he mounted turquoise to make havishons [phonetic spelling] and cads [phonetic spelling] and stuff. They had this gob of stuff that was glued on there to hold the stone in place while he worked on it. So once the stone came off, I was the guy they brought in to clean that sticky stuff off the sticks and stuff for him, eventually clean up around after him, and be the cleaning person. It's funny, because when I come in, that's the first thing I do here (laughs), start cleaning, wiping the cases and __________. That was the first thing that I was brought in for, to do, was to clean up after my brother, Lee, and to clean around the shop. And I eventually got interested in wanting to learn how to cut stones. I saw other artisans working there in the shop there of Joe Tanner's, too, so I'd kind of just look over their shoulder and check out, see what they were doing. Things were a little different than what I used to see, or what my mom and dad were doing. I saw a lot more stone cutting, and things that were being made to where there would be inlay pieces and things like that.

So I eventually really wanted to get into wanting to be a silversmith and a lapidarian. So I think Joe kind of saw the potential in what I could do, so he ended up having me promoted into being an apprentice under Lee. And Lee is probably one of the hardest persons to work under, because even back then, I can remember him as being a perfectionist. He wanted certain things the way he wanted them: certain things that he can see how the piece should look from the beginning. And being taught that way, is kind of tough, when you think back at that point. But what he was really getting around to was the future of what you're gonna do for yourself, how you're gonna do things for yourself. Now I can think back and really appreciate how he pushed me, and really wanted me to stress on doing the perfect thing or the right thing at the right time. And I understand now what he was trying to push me towards.

And Joe Tanner was that same way. Joe Tanner had that eye of seeing the pieces certain ways, to where an artist kind of, I would say, if there was an artist that was stuck on something, he would do his best to get it finished. But if you had a person like Joe Tanner, he can see the better part of it, how it should be finished. That was the thing with Joe, was that you can design a lot of things with him, and make a perfect piece of jewelry.

Being there with Lee and Joe Tanner at the same time really, I guess, escalated my designs, cuttings of stones. It would be the same thing as just like going to school, I would think, where you have your professors and all these people teaching you what you need to learn. I think Joe and Lee really put me through that schooling of designing, workmanship, how to develop even more better ideas from your last. And to this day, I would probably be, if I were to say, the most-the people I would appreciate in my lifetime for what they have done for me-would be my mom, Lee, and Joe Tanner. The way I look at my work today, they've given me the gift, and I had to develop it. And I'm really, to this day, pleased with what I can do, and what I can make, what I can design. It gives me pleasure to be working all the time, to come up with the most difficult cuts that I can make-I can do 'em. That's the challenging part of it. And Joe Tanner always loved to give you something challenging, when I used to work with him. And I've caught that, and I've carried it this far: to be challenged with something is something that I love to do. I think any artist would say to be challenged with something brings the best out of you, and that's true. I think Joe Tanner knows that. But see, I grew up with having to learn, and having the knowledge to have to sell things. And then at the same time, I saw a lot of the transaction of what Joe Tanner's trading, dealing days, you know, and I think that kind of has stayed with me, too.

I love the art, what Joe Tanner brought into his store, I've always loved the things that he bought and resold. I know that he's worked with some of the best artisans there [are]. I could…. say he's probably worked with all the best artisans from the early days up 'til now. Some of the old pieces he's accumulated in his collection [are] the most outstanding things that you can think about. I think all that kind of just stayed with me, because I loved the art that he had. And with my own jewelry business, I profit from that, I guess-the years that Joe and I worked together. I think I worked with Joe from the day they brought me in to clean up after Lee, to when I was probably about maybe nineteen or twenty years old.

 

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I got married in 1978, and after that, I guess that's when our departing happened. Maybe a year after I got married, Joe and I had some differences about certain things, and we parted, and I haven't worked with him since then. Those years that I spent with him, I think I've probably made some of my best pieces in those days, when I worked with Joe Tanner. I got my Best of Show when I was fourteen years old, at the Intertribal Ceremonial... We collaborated with another Hopi artist where he did the silverwork, and we did all the inlaying part of it.

Cole: Who was the Hopi artist?

Yazzie: Manuel.... I can't say his last name. Manuel Hokawanee [phonetic spelling]. He was the one that did the belts, the silver part of it-and we inlaid it, and I helped design things like that. That was one of my major pieces back then. That's what really, I guess, people started noticing my work. Then when I was eighteen years old, I took the Best of Show again, with a fourteen-carat gold bracelet. That was all my design and all my inlay and stuff. And so I still say to myself that I did a lot of my best pieces with Joe Tanner, because he knew how a piece should be finished off, or certain designs, how he thought should be made. All my recognitions I think came at that time.

Departing from Joe and going on my own, I started working with other people, other galleries and.... I guess I wasn't the type of person to really develop what I wanted to be from age-after I departed from Joe was like age twenty, until I got married to my second wife, Colina. I think she slowly, slowly developed me to where I brought myself back down to where I could say "Joe Tanner" was there again. She's the person that I think that really redeveloped me in a way to where she brought all the artistic value and all the designs and different things that was being held up in me. She brought all that back to me.

Between twenty years old and I would say for about eight years, I drank a lot. You know, the depression of marriage and all this. It came back around to where I was so well-known, and the fame of it I guess kind of really didn't help me at the time. Leaving Joe Tanner at that time of my life, I thought I could do it on my own the rest of my life. But it ended up, you know, my first wife and I were drinking too much-down to rock bottom, down to where I'd make a piece and these middle guys give you the least they can give you for your piece of jewelry. It was an advantage point for them then. But I can always say I still had the advantage over all of 'em, because I never did my best pieces for them. I did my pieces to where I got money from them-fast pieces, just the bread-and-butter kind of pieces.

But after my wife [Colina] kept telling me, "You're not getting any younger. You need to go do something for yourself. You worked for all these people all these years, and you don't have nothin' to show for it. You need to get yourself into Indian Market." That was one of the things that I couldn't really put myself up to, was to get myself into the Indian Market, because I always thought to myself that you had to be a good artist to get into Indian Market, so I never really tried. And so I just kind of stayed away from Indian Market, because I knew I wasn't ready for it. I think what I thought all those years, when I left Joe Tanner, that I could do things on my own. One of the things I really thought about back then was getting into Indian Market. That would hold me over. But eventually I ended up having to find somebody that I could trust to try to do the same thing Joe could do for me-but I couldn't. (laughs) So it just went from person to person.

Steiger: I'm a little lost. When you say Indian Market, is that not the Ceremonial?

Yazzie: That's the Santa Fe Indian Market. It's held after Intertribal Ceremonial, and it's held up in Santa Fe. Now there, you have to apply for it. You send in five slides and they judge you on what you make. So you have to be invited to actually get a booth. And the booth they assign you is like you get your own prices and there's no commission to anybody-what you sell there is all yours. From there on, it was like four years ago that I first applied for the Indian Market, and I got accepted the first time I applied for it.

But at that time we weren't really financially ready for that, because at that same time it was like, "Well, we're starting the business. " My wife had to leave her Hubbell job to come into Gallup and resettle here. And we had started the business [Yazzie Trading Co.] and we had the youngest one coming. And she knew, I think, at that time, that something had to be done. She was the one that really pushed me to get into Indian Market. If it wasn't for her, I probably still wouldn't have been in Indian Market. She told me, "You have pieces in your shop that are laying around that have been in there since I've married you." (chuckles) And I had those before I even came into this second marriage. It was because I didn't want to do it for anybody, because I knew I wouldn't get much out of 'em. So I told myself, one day I would probably do this for myself. And so I just kept holding onto 'em. So when I got accepted, she told me, "You need to go in there and start working, get some of those things done." So that's what I did.

The first year of Indian Market I got two major pieces put together. All these years that I've been silversmithing, dealt with traders or the middle man, I can always price things that cost, sell to them at cost. But I could never retail any of my own pieces. And I think the only person that really knew the value of what I was making was Bill Malone at Hubbell's Trading Post. Any time I took a piece to him, I said, "I want this much for it." And he was the other way around, which surprised me. Instead of paying me the least amount for my pieces, he was telling me, "You're giving these things away, Ray." He was telling me, "This isn't worth what you're asking for it." So he started giving me what [it] was really worth. He was the only person that actually paid me more than…. what I was asking for…. Instead of giving me the least, he gave me more than what I was asking for.

So I eventually started from there-he started selling through Hubbell's. Customers, when they were starting to come to Hubbell's, where he was starting to sell my pieces. So most of my pieces really went-the larger pieces really went to Bill Malone at Hubbell's, because I knew if there was a special piece that I was proud of, I would sell it to him, because I knew he would really give me what it was really worth. So he was one of the main persons, too, that really helped me to reestablish myself, price-wise.

And then after the first Indian Market, it was like I finished these two major pieces, and then I had seven smaller pieces. And it came down to pricing them. It was really hard for me to price something. The first piece was a sun-face bracelet. I thought top price maybe $8,500, and my wife said, "No, we're gonna mark this at $11,000." And then the second piece was another bracelet, it was Morenci turquoise and had a lot of inlay in it. And I thought tops on that one maybe $7,500. And she goes, "No, we're gonna mark this one $9,500." So she marked my two biggest pieces, one at $9,500 and one at $11,000, and they were like silver bracelets, but the workmanship was in the stones. And she priced all the other things. We were driving up to Santa Fe and it was like, "What if I end up bringing these things back? What if I don't sell 'em? We need money." Because, see, she had to take care of us from December on, all the way until August. So she had to do all kinds of things to keep the bills paid, because there was no income for me that first year of Indian Market.

At that time, we were starting the business, so she kind of went to different people and sold things to them. Bill Malone came in again at that time. We told him the situation, that this was my first year of Indian Market, and we need to sell some things. It was kind of like every two to three months he would buy a large amount of stuff from us, just to keep us going. And then she would go down to Sedona and to Flagstaff and take an inventory of stuff and sell. She really did good.

We got to Indian Market and the next morning-I always read about how people come around at five o'clock in the morning, 5:30 in the morning, they start walking around. And I did see people walking around, but they weren't coming to me. (chuckles) It was like I was getting afraid, and around about eight, 7:30, seven o'clock, around there, people started coming around, and they were saying they saw these pieces at preview night, and by ten o'clock I sold my $9,500 piece. That made my morning. About eleven o'clock, a couple came and bought my $11,000 bracelet. I brought one piece back that first year, and the rest I sold. By Sunday afternoon I was down to my last piece, and that's when we decided, "We'll just go look around."

So Santa Fe's been a real big help in my part. To me, I always thought about Santa Fe Indian Market as being one of the best artists to be in there. So the first year I did that, I put two of my best pieces together. And now, I have to reapply every year, so every year I have to try to make something very special for that show. And that way I'll always tell myself, "I'll probably get reaccepted for next year again." So that's the challenging part of it, it comes around again. I learned that from Joe and Lee, so it stays in my mind….

Cole: Well, when you worked for Joe, did he pay you just as a wage earner, or a commission on the piece, or....

Yazzie: Well, the years that I worked in the shop, I clocked in and clocked out, and that's how I worked. Towards the end of us working together, which was maybe the last three or four years, he paid me the wages, plus the commission on the piece. So it worked out, I was satisfied with what was there. But my first wife wasn't satisfied with what was there. She thought I was being robbed. But what I thought, the way things were, she didn't agree with. All of my recognitions came from Joe Tanner. He was the one that brought in his collectors, and he was the one that advertised and did these shows and stuff. So I would say that was pretty fair. I was satisfied with what was coming in from him. I would probably say I was treated right back then. But after I left him, it wasn't all the same. I would say there's certain pieces that I wish I would have got more for. But I just had to let go. I guess that's where a lot of the trading part of it comes around. I've seen the other end of what a trader can do, because I've dealt with people that paid the least amount for something that you spent so much time for. And being in the business here, it's very hard for us, because you see a lot of artists, and you see a lot of stores. You see people going from store to store, selling their product. But when it comes to us, it's really hard to say, "I can't pay you that much for it," because you already know that they've been down the street and they've got nothin' for it, for what they've been asking for. Sometimes we take things off, but sometimes we just have to pay them, because we know it's worth what they're asking for. The only thing we tell them is, "We're gonna have a problem, because we're gonna have the same product as somebody down the street, and ours is gonna be a little higher than what they see down that way. But it's worth what you're asking for." That's the biggest problem that we have here, having the store right on the corner here.

 

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Cole: When your mom was doing silversmithing, was she working for somebody, or did she just sell it?

Yazzie: I think when my mom was working, back in the early years, I can remember sanding things for her. I remember some of the trading companies that used to be here on the north side. I remember when Tobe Turpen was on the north side. I remember another store, which I was calling my brother to see what the man's name was, but he says he can only remember the last name: he was called Shirmantees or Shirmiyez or something like that. He couldn't really remember the name [either]. The only way we remember the guy is they had a Navajo name for him, and they used to call him Nishin [phonetic spelling] because I guess he was Italian, or a trader and stuff. And I can always remember going into his store, because he always gave us candy. We used to love to go over there. We did the same thing with Tobe Turpen's. Tobe Turpen was a real nice trader, too, and my mom used to work for them, too. Anytime she finished something, she would take us, and the trader there would give us candy. That's one of the things we went for.

And one of the things I can always remember was that during Christmastime, our parents would take us to the different stores, the trading companies, and they would give us little hard candy, a bag with maybe an apple or an orange in there. We would go to all of the trading companies and get our treats for the year. (laughter) And that was one special year, that time of the month, because you never get those kind of things through the year. Maybe your mom or dad sells something and they brought fruits and things back. Watermelon was the biggest treat for all of us.

I guess when you've dealt with trading companies, that kind of sticks with you-just because of the personality that they had, or the kindness that they had. You want to treat people the same way, too. A lot of people have bad feelings about trading companies, or these traders and stuff. But to me, there was a lot of goodness in them, the way I think about them, because it fed a lot of families, no matter what they were doing. To me, it's like when you think back about the traders, who else would have done those things? They couldn't go out and sell it on their own. And eventually, there were probably a few greedy traders that started coming in, and that's probably what ruined it for the older traders, where it was like, "I'll pay you this much for it. You're asking too much for it." And that's when it kind of really, really hurts a lot of people, to hate the traders.

But to me, to my experience, I've never seen Joe [Tanner] give anybody a bad deal, from my point of view. I've never seen my mom complain about Tobe Turpen. I've never seen my mom complain about Turney's [phonetic spelling]. I think Turney's, Keith and Earl Wallace, I think they were probably one of the main buyers for my mom. They bought everything she made and kept her busy through the years. I think being a grandma, they just treated her as one of their grandma's, too. And Keith and Earl I think have a very generous heart towards Navajo people, because they keep a lot of artisans busy through the years. I know, because he keeps all of my sisters busy, and tries to help out here and there. Sometimes when they don't need it, they still buy it. So I know there's traders out there, still, that have compassion in them, they still have the kindness in them. That certain person that speaks up, and people listen, that makes a trader go bad. But if artists would just realize who really took care of them during the bad part of their years, they can understand that he was the one. So not all traders are bad, the way people talk about 'em.

Just like my wife was saying, we went through that when we started out with Yazzie Trading Company. People comment, "You're as bad as the other traders." (laughs) I mean, I don't have nothin' against traders, because I grew up with them. They fed me, they fed our family, they took care of Mom and Dad so they could take care of us. I can't see it to where people would really talk bad about them, because there's some goodness that came out of it. I think a lot of the badness came around when the pawn business started booming back in the seventies. That was the Indian jewelry boom, back in the seventies. So you started having these people from overseas coming, wanting to buy jewelry. They knew what the potential market was here, so they started moving here. So we have a lot of foreign people that own these jewelry stores now. And my personal view of it, I don't like it, but they're in it for the money-aren't in it for the beauty of the art. It's just what more can they get, and what more can they sell it for is what it is now. But the older traders will always buy for the beauty of what's being made, and finding pieces for collectors, so there's good and bad in the business.

To me, I would love to just hold onto our business and keep it going, and work with the artisans and promote some of the younger ones, and not make it to where we pay the least amount for what they're trying to do-more of a reasonable price is what I would say, because I see a lot of young potential artisans that can become as good as I can. But it takes that one certain person to really uplift them and to encourage them and to really bring their potential desires out, to build things, and to make things the right way, instead of having them to make it to where they need money. Because I went through all that stuff. I tell 'em that, too. Some artisans visit me, and they want to know how they can become like me. I told 'em it takes sacrifice, it takes learning. Every day is a learning experience. You can't just think that one day you're gonna be a jeweler and you're gonna get fame. That takes years. And it takes almost somebody to help you do it. Some people are lucky. It's like given to them on a gold platter. (laughs) I don't know, it's just the right time when they hit the market. I think that's it, something a little bit different than what everybody's doing-to hit it right, and it's fame, just like overnight to them.

I know one artist like that. His name is Vernon Haskey [phonetic spelling] and he's out of Lukachukai. This guy is like a workaholic, working twelve to sixteen hours a day, and wants to get things done, wants to get an inventory. And he's done it, he's making the money like he wants to. I mean, that's what I mean, it was handed to you on a gold platter. But I always tell the artisans that come to visit me, with me, it was different. It was an obstacle course for me. You know, you got fame once, and you're at the bottom once, and now you're more wiser than what you did back in your earlier life. And now it's like everything is given back to you slowly. You develop yourself slowly, and money comes in slowly, and it's given to you in lump sums as you go along in life. And with me, it's like that.

Starting the business, my wife always said, "Let's not borrow money from a bank or anybody." That's one thing that we never did. And that was the wisest thing that we ever did. We buy whatever we can with what I make, what she resells, and we put it back into the store. The last couple of years, everything I make from the Indian Market went back into inventory, where it kind of redevelops itself. So she's a very wise investor. That's why I tell people-they congratulate me, for starting the store, and I say, "No, my wife is the one that really put the store together the way it needs to be. I'm just kind of like the employee," I tell people. (laughter) That's one thing, I love the business of having the store and having to do my own work, because I always wanted to carry my own pieces, and now I can do it in our own store. I can never say to myself that I could have done all of this by myself. It had to take her to redevelop me into being the artist that I was. Now, the last time I spoke to Joe Tanner, I told him that I found my Joe Tanner-"Joe Tanner" stands right here by me all the time. And he was so happy about it. So I always tell people that she's my helper in designing a lot of these pieces. The same way with our store. If it was one of us, we wouldn't have gone this far, I think. We probably would have got stuck in one of the streets that we've been trying to come down on. (laughs) But five years is not that long of a time to be in the spot that we picked out.

For some reason, my wife always drove out here and said, "One day, that store is gonna be here. This is the spot," she says. And I never believed that. To me, that was a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting that store. (laughs) And we were at the side street and this became available, and she talked to the landlord and she said, "You guys are my first choice," and we eventually ended up where she wanted to be. I think one of the reasons why is because we always look to our religion. She was raised being a Mormon. She went on the placement program and that's what we use. And one of the things was that my mom always stressed church-no matter if she was a traditional lady or not-she used to make us go to church on Sundays. And one of the things that she really liked about the church was that she had missionaries that came to her house, and they knew how to speak Navajo, and she could understand them. So my mom really enjoyed them coming around, so she eventually wanted us to go to church, so she sent us to church, and we were raised as being Mormons. My brother Lee is a bishop of the Tohatchi Branch. So it's been in our family.

One of the things about it is that I don't put my traditional background aside, just because there's church to go to. I will always use my traditional ways of life. I'm using the medicine man and different things, you know. That I will never put aside, because I have a lot of respect for my dad, even though he left us, being a medicine man. My dad was a medicine man, and he did a lot of sings. I still have a lot of respect for him, for being a medicine man. But for leaving our family, I.... I just don't have respect in that part. To me, I would never do that to my family, my kids, to where we all grew up without a father. My mom was the father and the mother, and she did, I think, the greatest job in the world, for us, even though she couldn't speak English or anything. To have a mother like that, and raise twelve kids on her own, I think she's the most encouraging thing-memory of her really helps me, I think, to go through this.

 

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This was one of the biggest decisions we had to make, was should we move or stay on the side street. My wife knew she could do it on this street. See, and there it goes again, she knew it. Me, I'm kind of hesitant about things. It takes me a while to take it in. I have to see it first. (laughs) So we took the plunge and we moved in right before Christmas. The first day we moved in, a lady walks in, and she made our day, bought over $1,500 worth of stuff. So there was my answer. (laughs) So it's our prayers. That's one thing that we can't shut off to the other world; prayer really does come and answer later on. It might not be the next day; it might not be next week or next month; but it gradually comes through the years. As we grow older, and the time comes when the good Lord says, "You guys are ready for this, here it is. This is what you prayed for." So that's one thing that I think really helps us-this time around, for me. Before then, I really wasn't into church.

If I would have probably done these things when I left Joe Tanner, I probably would have been a different person and maybe had a lot more in life, instead of hitting rock bottom. But after I left Joe, it was like maybe the first maybe three or four years was okay. The next four years was down to nothin'. Ended up getting a divorce and coming home with my clothes and my tools, and start all over again.


And when I met [Colina], I was going through the divorce and stuff, and even back then, she was encouraging me. She says, "You don't need to fight about anything. Just let her have what she wants and you can always accumulate more than what you want."

 


***

 

Cole: When your mom was doing silversmithing, was she working for somebody, or did she just sell it?

Yazzie: I think when my mom was working, back in the early years, I can remember sanding things for her. I remember some of the trading companies that used to be here on the north side. I remember when Tobe Turpen was on the north side. I remember another store, which I was calling my brother to see what the man's name was, but he says he can only remember the last name: he was called Shirmantees or Shirmiyez or something like that. He couldn't really remember the name [either]. The only way we remember the guy is they had a Navajo name for him, and they used to call him Nishin [phonetic spelling] because I guess he was Italian, or a trader and stuff. And I can always remember going into his store, because he always gave us candy. We used to love to go over there. We did the same thing with Tobe Turpen's. Tobe Turpen was a real nice trader, too, and my mom used to work for them, too. Anytime she finished something, she would take us, and the trader there would give us candy. That's one of the things we went for.

And one of the things I can always remember was that during Christmastime, our parents would take us to the different stores, the trading companies, and they would give us little hard candy, a bag with maybe an apple or an orange in there. We would go to all of the trading companies and get our treats for the year. (laughter) And that was one special year, that time of the month, because you never get those kind of things through the year. Maybe your mom or dad sells something and they brought fruits and things back. Watermelon was the biggest treat for all of us.

I guess when you've dealt with trading companies, that kind of sticks with you-just because of the personality that they had, or the kindness that they had. You want to treat people the same way, too. A lot of people have bad feelings about trading companies, or these traders and stuff. But to me, there was a lot of goodness in them, the way I think about them, because it fed a lot of families, no matter what they were doing. To me, it's like when you think back about the traders, who else would have done those things? They couldn't go out and sell it on their own. And eventually, there were probably a few greedy traders that started coming in, and that's probably what ruined it for the older traders, where it was like, "I'll pay you this much for it. You're asking too much for it." And that's when it kind of really, really hurts a lot of people, to hate the traders….

But to me, to my experience, I've never seen Joe [Tanner] give anybody a bad deal, from my point of view. I've never seen my mom complain about Tobe Turpen. I've never seen my mom complain about Turney's [phonetic spelling]. I think Turney's, Keith and Earl Wallace, I think they were probably one of the main buyers for my mom. They bought everything she made and kept her busy through the years. I think being a grandma, they just treated her as one of their grandma's, too. And Keith and Earl I think have a very generous heart towards Navajo people, because they keep a lot of artisans busy through the years. I know, because he keeps all of my sisters busy, and tries to help out here and there. Sometimes when they don't need it, they still buy it. So I know there's traders out there, still, that have compassion in them, they still have the kindness in them. That certain person that speaks up, and people listen, that makes a trader go bad. But if artists would just realize who really took care of them during the bad part of their years, they can understand that he was the one. So not all traders are bad, the way people talk about 'em.

Just like my wife was saying, we went through that when we started out with Yazzie Trading Company. People comment, "You're as bad as the other traders." (laughs) I mean, I don't have nothin' against traders, because I grew up with them. They fed me, they fed our family, they took care of Mom and Dad so they could take care of us. I can't see it to where people would really talk bad about them, because there's some goodness that came out of it. I think a lot of the badness came around when the pawn business started booming back in the seventies. That was the Indian jewelry boom, back in the seventies. So you started having these people from overseas coming, wanting to buy jewelry. They knew what the potential market was here, so they started moving here. So we have a lot of foreign people that own these jewelry stores now. And my personal view of it, I don't like it, but they're in it for the money-aren't in it for the beauty of the art. It's just what more can they get, and what more can they sell it for is what it is now. But the older traders will always buy for the beauty of what's being made, and finding pieces for collectors, so there's good and bad in the business.

To me, I would love to just hold onto our business and keep it going, and work with the artisans and promote some of the younger ones, and not make it to where we pay the least amount for what they're trying to do-more of a reasonable price is what I would say, because I see a lot of young potential artisans that can become as good as I can. But it takes that one certain person to really uplift them and to encourage them and to really bring their potential desires out, to build things, and to make things the right way, instead of having them to make it to where they need money. Because I went through all that stuff. I tell 'em that, too. Some artisans visit me, and they want to know how they can become like me. I told 'em it takes sacrifice, it takes learning. Every day is a learning experience. You can't just think that one day you're gonna be a jeweler and you're gonna get fame. That takes years. And it takes almost somebody to help you do it. Some people are lucky. It's like given to them on a gold platter. (laughs) I don't know, it's just the right time when they hit the market. I think that's it, something a little bit different than what everybody's doing-to hit it right, and it's fame, just like overnight to them.

I know one artist like that. His name is Vernon Haskey [phonetic spelling] and he's out of Lukachukai. This guy is like a workaholic, working twelve to sixteen hours a day, and wants to get things done, wants to get an inventory. And he's done it, he's making the money like he wants to. I mean, that's what I mean, it was handed to you on a gold platter. But I always tell the artisans that come to visit me, with me, it was different. It was an obstacle course for me. You know, you got fame once, and you're at the bottom once, and now you're more wiser than what you did back in your earlier life. And now it's like everything is given back to you slowly. You develop yourself slowly, and money comes in slowly, and it's given to you in lump sums as you go along in life. And with me, it's like that.

Starting the business, my wife always said, "Let's not borrow money from a bank or anybody." That's one thing that we never did. And that was the wisest thing that we ever did. We buy whatever we can with what I make, what she resells, and we put it back into the store. The last couple of years, everything I make from the Indian Market went back into inventory, where it kind of redevelops itself. So she's a very wise investor. That's why I tell people-they congratulate me, for starting the store, and I say, "No, my wife is the one that really put the store together the way it needs to be. I'm just kind of like the employee," I tell people. (laughter) That's one thing, I love the business of having the store and having to do my own work, because I always wanted to carry my own pieces, and now I can do it in our own store. I can never say to myself that I could have done all of this by myself. It had to take her to redevelop me into being the artist that I was. Now, the last time I spoke to Joe Tanner, I told him that I found my Joe Tanner-"Joe Tanner" stands right here by me all the time. And he was so happy about it. So I always tell people that she's my helper in designing a lot of these pieces. The same way with our store. If it was one of us, we wouldn't have gone this far, I think. We probably would have got stuck in one of the streets that we've been trying to come down on. (laughs) But five years is not that long of a time to be in the spot that we picked out.

For some reason, my wife always drove out here and said, "One day, that store is gonna be here. This is the spot," she says. And I never believed that. To me, that was a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting that store. (laughs) And we were at the side street and this became available, and she talked to the landlord and she said, "You guys are my first choice," and we eventually ended up where she wanted to be. I think one of the reasons why is because we always look to our religion. She was raised being a Mormon. She went on the placement program and that's what we use. And one of the things was that my mom always stressed church-no matter if she was a traditional lady or not-she used to make us go to church on Sundays. And one of the things that she really liked about the church was that she had missionaries that came to her house, and they knew how to speak Navajo, and she could understand them. So my mom really enjoyed them coming around, so she eventually wanted us to go to church, so she sent us to church, and we were raised as being Mormons. My brother Lee is a bishop of the Tohatchi Branch. So it's been in our family.

One of the things about it is that I don't put my traditional background aside, just because there's church to go to. I will always use my traditional ways of life. I'm using the medicine man and different things, you know. That I will never put aside, because I have a lot of respect for my dad, even though he left us, being a medicine man. My dad was a medicine man, and he did a lot of sings. I still have a lot of respect for him, for being a medicine man. But for leaving our family, I.... I just don't have respect in that part. To me, I would never do that to my family, my kids, to where we all grew up without a father. My mom was the father and the mother, and she did, I think, the greatest job in the world, for us, even though she couldn't speak English or anything. To have a mother like that, and raise twelve kids on her own, I think she's the most encouraging thing-memory of her really helps me, I think, to go through this.

 

***

 

Cole: Would you say that Navajos have a different perspective about economics when it comes to a business like this, than an Anglo person?

Yazzie: I think Navajos just think of you as being rich when you end up in a store like this, because I think a lot of people know it takes a lot of money to actually open a store. So in their view, it's like you're rich. (chuckles) They don't understand the business part, so you just kind of have to explain that you invest a lot of your own personal money, but you have to make it grow, you have to make your inventory grow. We don't look rich, but the store might look rich. That's because the store has brought itself this far, through what it sells and what it rebuys and replenishes itself. But it takes a smart person to do that, too. Any person can sell something, use up all the money, and they forgot their inventory. I think sometimes we end up doing that. We sell a big piece and we pay the bills. We forgot to buy some things back. So eventually we make up for it, I sell a piece and all that goes back into inventory again. So the store takes care of us, and we end up taking care of the store again with my income.

Cole: Are you beginning to see more artists and Navajos open their own businesses, or are you unusual in that?

Yazzie: It's unusual in this area here. But if you go to different shows in different areas, you'll see a lot more artisans going out themselves to sell their own product. You see a lot of shows down in Scottsdale; you're starting to see places like in Las Vegas, down towards California; a lot of shows towards the east. A lot of artisans are starting to drive to these different areas to do their own shows. Around here, Gallup has always been, I guess, a wholesale place, never a retail. That's what Bill Malone kept telling us. He said that Gallup is a bad spot to open a store, because it's a wholesale place, not a retail.

But people are always looking for old pieces, so that's one of the things that we try to find, is some of the older pieces. So when we get a chance to go to a different state and a different city, we always try to look around and see what we can find to bring back over here. Most people buy things to take out. We go to different places and we look around, we try to bring things back here. So it's something that just goes around, I guess. We sell things here, it goes to another state, another country, and that's kind of like from the local artists. We go out and try to find the old pieces and bring those things back, because we don't get much business from the Navajos or any of the tribes around this area. We get a lot of business from people that are coming from out of state or from another country and stuff. We even manage to work with three galleries from Japan. So it's been a well worth thing to start. You get to know a lot of people.

Cole: You mentioned that you still have kind of a reverence for your traditions. Do those traditions influence your art at all?

Yazzie: There's times when you feel like you really can't seem to work. When you're actually working, it seems like you're really not accomplishing anything. And then there's times that you just don't even want to step into your workshop, because of the workload that you have. Those times, you know you feel like you need a blessing or a ceremonial done for you. So that's the time when it has to step in. You have to go out and find a medicine man and do some prayers for you. After that, you feel refreshed. And I think when you live with the traditional way of life, you hear songs and you hear certain things that you really want to hear again. I think that's the time that you feel down about things, because you've forgotten the things you were supposed to do for yourself. And it kind of reminds you.... Because my mom always used to say that what you work with, like the turquoise, the coral, the jet and all these other things, the medicine men use those as offerings to different things. She used to tell us in our history, the turquoise and the shells and the jet and all this-those were given to us through life. They have a prayer with it, and you're supposed to say a prayer for it. But sometimes when you get so caught up in the fast lane of life, you forget all these things, and the only way for it to remind you is that you kind of don't like to work anymore, or you're not accomplishing anything, even though you're working. It's like it reminds you you need some prayers done for yourself. So that's when we do have prayers done and ceremonials done.

 

***


Cole: I was going to ask you, too, are there any young silversmiths in your family, do you think?


Yazzie: So far the only ones, my sisters don't really have anybody to carry on, and my brother doesn't really have anybody.


Cole: What about your kids?


Yazzie: My kids, my boy is interested in it, but he's only four years old. He loves to come in and pick up turquoise or coral. He can actually hold it up against a spinning grinder, a diamond wheel. I keep telling him, "Don't touch the wheel, because it's gonna cut you." So he kind of knows how to move the stones around. He's got a lot of potential. I let him do what he wants to, if he wants to turn a machine on and play with stones and stuff. I think he's got some potential.