National Geographic : 1958 Dec
Trading Post. Tom, then in his late thirties, had worked at silversmithing for 18 years. He spoke no English, but we got along well through sign lan guage, with occasional interpreting by trader Malin Cousins. Before I realized that Tom was going blind with trachoma, an eye disease that afflicts many Indians, I asked him to make me a silver buckle for my wife. I stressed that it should be in his spare time; Tom took on odd jobs for the Santa Fe railroad. He agreed, and said he would cast it, pouring the molten silver directly into a rocky mold. It sounded simple. It wasn't. To get the proper substance for the mold, we drove some 30 miles south of Tom's home over a sandy trail to an outcropping of chalk-like material. It turned out to be volcanic tuff, or hard ened ash, finely compacted and unlay ered, easy to work with small tools. Tom axed out several large hunks. Back at his home, Tom settled down to the task, while I photographed suc cessive stages shown in the pictures on pages 826-7. Altogether, Tom devoted most of a week to making the buckle. But when he finished, there lay in the palm of his hand a thing of delicate beauty that Tiffany's would have been proud to dis play. In his home Tom showed me many superb casts he had produced as time and his eyes permitted: bracelets, ear rings, buckles, ketohs, or wrist guards, rings, pins. From such labors he earned about $1,000 a year. Tom's was the modern method of smithing practiced on the reservation today. Though the results are hand some, they are by no means in such de mand as the rugged antiques known as "old pawn." These collectors' items are family heirlooms passed down among Navajo families for generations; they wind up sometimes in the hands of traders as security for a cash loan. They tend to remain in the display cases of the post long after the loan falls due, for most traders realize that the Indian really wants to hang onto the piece but hasn't been able to dig up the cash to redeem it. Museum and private collectors may water at the mouth, yet the old pawn generally stays put. 835 Helmeted, long-haired Navajo repairs his jack hammer in a Monument Valley uranium mine. Maze of valves regulates the flow of a helium-bearing natural gas well. These Navajos check wellhead pres sure below Ship Rock, a butte in New Mexico.