Utah Navajo strings colorful beads, warm traditions

by KATHRYN JONES

  • See photos of Weasel Tail and his work by clicking his name, below. (Slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode.)

When he was a kid, Harold Garcia — better known as “Weasel Tail,” was never caught, not even once, with his hand in the cookie jar. He says he “kept watch” at the local store while his friends filled their pockets. When they got caught, his pockets remained empty and he was able to weasel his way out of the bad situation.

“Sure, I earned [my name] in the wrong way,” he says, “but it was [originally] given to me by my great-great grandfather. And that’s the most important thing.”

The name stuck.

Today, Weasel works in beadwork at the Native American Trading Post located at 3971 South Redwood Road in West Valley City. The business is owned by Dru and Leslie Drury, who have been friends with Weasel for 10 years.

In 2004, after 21 years in business, the store was moved to a more visible location, Leslie says. Weasel Tail has been working at the new location since then. She describes him with a sense of humor and admits that nobody knows how to bead like he does.

A Navajo and Tewa Pueblo American, Weasel says his bead skills began in pre-school where he strung “Froot Loops, Cheerios and little pieces of paper with holes in it.” Later, he graduated to moccasins as he watched his grandmother, Maria Martinez, assemble them.

“I already had my color co-ordination down,” he says. “Other people would put random colors together, me, I already had my colors separated because I saw my grandmother do the same thing.”

As Weasel grew, so did his craft.

“When I was in school, I’d beadwork the pens,” he says. “By the time that first week of school [was over] each one of my teachers in each one of my classes got a pen.”
The price of each?

Fifteen dollars.

Weasel Tail grew up in Utah, but his home life began in Ohkay Owingeh, a pueblo in New Mexico. Today, he lives in Salt Lake City and spends time in the winter putting together beaded purses, gloves, leggings for men and women, dresses, cradleboards, pipe bags and umbilical cord bags for those who seek out his work and those who sometimes stumble upon it.

“My sister introduced me to Weasel,” says Ardis Bryant, a frequent customer who makes her own jewelry. She not only purchases the mixings for her own creative endeavors; beads, string, and the like, Bryant says she swears by the crystals used in beadwork found at the trading post; they are unlike any she has found elsewhere.

“[Customers] find out there’s a lot more than teepees,” Weasel says. He speaks about the two most popular purchases at the trading post: baby moccasins and umbilical cord bags.

For those who are unfamiliar with the second purchase: The umbilical cord is saved for a reason, Weasel Tail says. The outward representation of what joined mother and child, yet connects mother and child spiritually in life and in death.

Tradition says that the cord is alive, Weasel says. “You will be taken care of because of that little cord.”

His 10 sisters have forbidden him to make cradleboards, however.

They get pregnant.

“So, what are you doing, bewitching us?” they tell him. “We’re all going to get a cradleboard and make it at your house.”

Weasel Tail admits he just likes to make them, and if he can’t do the job for his sisters, there are many customers who will appreciate them. “I’ve got the material,” he says. “Maybe someone else will want the cradleboard.” According to tradition, a cradleboard is not made unless a baby is expected.

Still, many other projects are ready for creation. Weasel’s mirror bag of an elk on a mountain is among his favorites.

“They had lots of different bags in [the 1800s],” he explains. Some were made to hold tools inside a teepee; others held porcupine quills, tobacco or umbilical cords.

When hand mirrors arrived with the trappers, Indians found a new use for the bags, Weasel says. They needed a way to protect the mirrors from getting broken so a new bag was born.

After that, Indian tribes wore mirrors on their clothing, Weasel says. Mirrors reversed bad thoughts. If someone was thinking or saying something negative it would naturally reflect back on them.

Negativity hasn’t always deflected from Weasel and his craft, however.

Even Weasel admits, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched because something may not turn out the way you want it to, or somebody may fall through.”

He is speaking of business. Items he must re-bead because threads have loosened, orders that are made and not picked up; more expensive items that haven’t been purchased yet. Of the last he says, “I’ve learned not to rely on such. Some things I know will sell.”

But even if they don’t, Weasel is holding his head high.

“I see something here and know it will come to life,” he says, pointing to his head. “Whatever I see, whatever I put into it … it’s what I see up here. It’s my creation. Nobody’s going to take that from me.”