Baxter's Blog


Posted in Road Trip Stuff by misterroadtripper on June 16, 2010
Time to take a Road Trip down Memory Lane. Here’s an article I wrote back in 1997, all about a visit to see Navajo tattoo artist Running Bear at his home on the reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico.

The Bear.


By Bob Baxter

In order to get to the home turf of renowned Navajo tattoo artist Running Bear, we not only traveled Route 66, but, even more magical and sinister, drove Route 666, the devilish two-laner that heads out of Gallup, New Mexico, aims for the middle of the Badlands and turns a corner at the town called Shiprock.

We followed Bear’s hand-drawn map toward Four Corners and the heart of the Navajo reservation, where the hot restaurant in town is the Chat an’ Chew and everywhere else is “up the road a piece.” But after driving all the way from Albequerque, through the Southwestern moonscape of parched land and futuristic rock formations, the amazing granite monolith dubbed Shiprock and the scattered shacks and storefronts of town were a welcome sight. The directions Running Bear gave us were delivered in casual strokes. “Take 40 west, turn right on 666 and drive to Shiprock. Turn left at the gas station.” That’s it. That’s what Bear told us. “Look for a house on the left.” The whole trip took four hours.

I got a little uneasy when I saw Shiprock, the geologic skyscraper, getting further and further away as we drove to the outskirts. In the photo Bear had shown me a month before, Shiprock was clearly visible from his yard and it looked like we were headed in the wrong direction, but, right on cue, we found his place and pulled into the driveway, parked the van on the snow-covered ground and tumbled out.

Let’s talk about the house a minute. It is huge, with half a dozen hidden bedrooms and sky-high ceilings. The steps to the upstairs are solid, without a handrail, and crossing over the living room is like traversing a rope bridge in the Andes. Everyone living in the house zipped up and down like mountain goats, including Bear’s mom with her hearty handshake, but we had to hold on.

“Bear’s still working on the place,” his wife Jennifer told us, as I glanced over to the bags of concrete leaning by the wall. Originally his uncle’s house, there’s a real family atmosphere to the surroundings, what with the assorted traffic of cats, dogs and kids. The front room with its big central table, serves as the central meeting place and kitchen. The gas stove was warm and cozy as we scanned the rows and rows of well-stocked shelves and gaily decorated reminders that Jennifer is the neighborhood baby sitter and Girl Scout leader. Proudly displayed for all to see is artwork by Bear’s pretty daughters Sierra and Sondra.

Upstairs is Bear’s work area, featuring a huge wooden cabinet stocked with his secret formula hand-made inks and hand-tuned tattoo machines. By the side is the travel case that Bear uses when he visits Europe and points East, West, North and South of this tiny, middle of nowhere, center of the Universe Indian reservation.

When we first arrived, Bear wasted no time asking if we wanted to take a walk in his “backyard.” Of course, we said yes. The sun was out, there was a chill in the air, and the prospect of having him give us a guided tour of this unfamiliar and beautiful territory was very exciting. All of us were wearing hiking shoes as we set out across the barren hilltop and proceeded down the sandy incline to a far away plateau of scrub vegetation and panoramic views. All the while, Skin & Ink photographer, Maurice Pacheco, was keeping up with the leaders, even with a backpack full of cameras. When Maurice is “on assignment,” he never rests. Bruce Litz, the illustrator, was more of a plodder, constantly stopping to sketch away in his drawing pad.

Personally, I kept the pace all right, which wasn’t always easy, as Bear knew the way and I didn’t. Our fourth member, Jesse Tuesday, was an experienced rock climber , so he was used to heading off into the hinterlands. But, for me, it was demanding, clambering over granite rocks and scampering down the side of canyons into dry riverbeds. The downhill part was relatively easy, but uphill was a challenge, as I played follow-the-leader and watched Jesse and Bear disappear over the top of many an embankment.

“Come on,” Bear called back to me, laughing. “The ruins are just up ahead.” That really spurred me on. I don’t get much of a chance to see Indian ruins back in Pasadena. Yes, the climb was steep but, when we finally walked out onto the huge rock face hundreds of feet above the canyon floor and were enveloped by the magnificence of the red rocks and endless horizons, it was well worth the huffing and puffing.

Adhering ourselves to the curve of the outcropping only by the friction of our rubber-soled shoes, we carefully padded around, taking in the scenery and the clear, crisp skies.

“Look there,” pointed Bear and, up the side of a rather treacherous looking rock wall was a horizontal outcropping that formed a roof. Stacked neatly at the opening, to make it smaller, like a cave, was a wall of perfect, rectangular bricks.”

“It’s several hundred years old.”

“What a view to wake up to every morning!” said Bruce, sketching as he talked.

We all played for awhile on the lip of the ledge with different people posing for pictures in various combinations, all under the infinite ceiling of clouds that framed the moment. This was really something special, there on the edge of Bear’s backyard.

I was getting cold. I left my heavy P-jacket back on a rock somewhere and the chill was getting to me. Plus, I wanted to try out a bit of woodsmanship that my father had taught me when I was a boy. I wanted to see if I could read the signs and get back to the cabin by myself. Not as easy as I thought. The terrain looked pretty much the same when I reached each fork in the road, and finding footprints on the hard rock surface was not always possible. But, most of the time, the sandy soil showed the way and I was able to find the tracks after two or three tries. This was no piece of cake, even to a “master woodsman” like myself (my dad taught me how snare a rabbit when I was eight).

After about a half mile, I saw a familiar landmark. I knew we had come down the steeply slanted, rubble covered ledge leading up from the riverbed, but, after climbing up three or four hundred feet, I was faced with a perplexing problem. Our old footprints led up to the base of a sheer rock wall that was about 20 feet high. There seemed to be no access. I saw no shortcuts, no places to step, yet it was clear that the footprints were ours.

“Oh, I remember,” I said to myself. “We had slid on our backsides down this rock face.” I never thought I’d have to go back up the same way!

It took me about five tries over a period of a half hour. First I attempted the go-back-and-walk-along-the-right side-of-the-rock-face mthod. No luck. The cliff was too steep and I was only perched on a 10-inch ledge to begin with. If I slipped, I’d probably miss the footing and plummet to the rocks, four hundred feet below.

Going left, around the rock didn’t work either. There was noting to hold onto or grab. It was like I was standing on the end of a diving board. So, I did what any self-respecting person would do when faced with an impossible situation like this: I looked for help. No such luck. The only sound was wind whistling through the canyon and my heart thumping under my flannel shirt.

I didn’t want to be stuck there, so I said to myself, “What would an experienced rock climber do?” That’s when I saw a vertical crease in the granite, right where a car-sized boulder met the cliff face. Up about 15 feet was a small crease, just big enough for a finger hold. I went for it. Pressing my chest against the rock, shuffling on my knees and counting on gravity to hold me without slipping, I inched up the smooth rock and stabbed, successfully, for the handhold. With one arm, I pulled myself up, put my knee where my hand had been and latched onto the uppermost edge. I felt like a fly on a backdoor screen, but I gathered myself and muscled up the face. When I finally crawled over the edge, I didn’t even look back. It was too terrifying. Instead, I stood on the summit and gave a Sylvester Stallone in Rocky dance and moved as far away from that precipice as possible.

“How the hell does Bear do it?” I thought. “He must be some kind of Navajo Superman to climb up that son-of-a-bitch.”

“You’re supposed to come back another way,” he said, when the three of them arrived at the house an hour later. “The way you came is too hard.” You might guess. In this unfamiliar environment, my resources were in sharp contrast to of Bear’s calm, pragmatic approach to everything, “You have to use your head to get what you want,” he said. “If you’re not smart, you die.”

Knowing I just had a harrowing experience up on the rock face, Bear then launched into detailed stories of his adventures and misadventures of when he was younger. I quickly learned that the backyards of Venice, California had been even more challenging to Bear than his backyard in Shiprock, New Mexico was to me.

“I used to get so loaded that I’d fall asleep in the middle of a tattoo. I’d black out. Once, I remember doing this really complex piece and, when I came to, I found myself tattooing stick figures on the guy’s back. I was really in deep trouble.” Because of that and other uncountable episodes of living on park benches and staying alive with only a tattoo machine and his wits, Bear doesn’t drink or use anymore.

“It doesn’t work when you have kids. I’ve got responsibilities and want to make a contribution to my people. I need to be clean and sober to accomplish the goals I have in mind.”

The two days of our visit went by far too fast. We had to pack a lot into a little time. Yet, as rushed as our visit was, it was an honor to be welcomed into Bear’s world, to be treated to his amazing stories, his infectious laughter and to meet, first-hand, the Navajo friends and family who live and work in and around the reservation. As we drove from place to place, home to home, lining up models for the tattoo photographs featured on these pages, we bounced down many dusty roads, past look-alike houses and tar paper storage sheds. The living spaces were mostly constructed by the government and, as Bear pointed out, “The powers that be didn’t even consider us. Our people traditionally have their front doors face the path of the sun and the agency pointed the houses in whatever direction they wanted. They didn’t consider our sacred beliefs at all.”

But, even as the three of us out-of-towners pulled up in front of a typical small house situated in the middle of a dusty driveway, we were warmly welcomed. Within minutes everyone joined an impromptu game of H-O-R-S-E at the basketball hoop by the sweat lodge. The ever-present basketball hoop, I might add. Maurice kidded that every yard on the reservation has a basketball hoop. “Maybe the only way an Indian thinks he can get off the reservation is to become a basketball star,” he said, sardonically. The fact is, getting off the reservation by playing professional basketball is perhaps as remote as the other options presented to today’s Navajo community.

“I want to open my own tattoo shop in Shiprock,” said Bear, “so I can teach tattooing to other Indians on the reservation. Give them the opportunity to accomplish what I have.”

Far out! Running Bear having a shop on Route 666! It’s sounds like X Files, but it’s all true. And this dedicated, powerful artist might well show the way. In Amsterdam and Berlin, they line up to get his work. He’s flying on airplanes from city to city with the likes of Hanky Panky, Tin Tin and Permanent Mark. Over there, he’s a downright celebrity! Perhaps, as his dream for a shop becomes a reality, tattoos by our singular American Indian tattoo artist¾the only other one Bear ever heard of was a guy named “Tattoo Harry” back in the 40s¾will be in such demand that part of any serious collector’s experience will be to drive the four hours from Albuquerque to get a backpiece. Let’s face it, it’s closer than driving to Amsterdam!

Perhaps the highlight of the Shiprock trip, besides his great stores of derring-do punctuated with that bear-like laugh of his, was our amazing sojourn over rut-filled roads to the very base of the famous Shiprock itself.

“I’m convinced it was a corral for dinosaurs,” Bear told us as we stepped out of the car, just off the paved road, a mile or two from the monolith. And he was right. Along the left side of the road was a lengthy hundred foot wall of neatly stacked, granite blocks. “Flying saucer people put them there, that’s the only possible answer,” he said, as we all joined in.

“Looks like aliens to me,” said Maurice.”

“Galactoids,” I added.

There’s a lot that we talked about with Bear, his family and his people, but I didn’t want to make this a story of disenchantment and broken promises. Instead, following the lead of the man himself, we let the climate of poverty caused by the destructive attitude of an unsympathetic government become hidden for a brief moment by Bear’s personal dream of hope. The dream of opening his very own tattoo shop on Highway 666. Perhaps his decision was inspired by the monument itself and the transcendent spirit that eternally casts its protective shadow over the reservation and its people. The magnificent rock the Navajo call Tse’-Bi’tai, “Rock with Wings.”

Photos by Maurice Pacheco.

One Response

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  1. native ent magazine said, on December 28, 2010 at 10:39 am


    Enjoyed your article. We’re trying to get a hold of Running Bear – a little hard at this point. Maybe you could help us out? We’re doing a Tattoo Issue. Thanks.


    Native Entertainment Magazine

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