Clark family’s Navajo rug auction has supported CU Museum of Natural History for more than 30 years
Start unraveling the annual 100 Navajo Rugs silent auction, one of the longest-running, most successful fundraisers at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder, and you’ll eventually come to … Pepsi Cola.
It’s quite a yarn.
Back in 1957, Harry Jackson Clark Sr., son of two influential early residents of Durango, Colo., closed his late father’s historic hardware store in response to the closing of the area’s uranium mines. In need of a job, he approached the man who owned the Pepsi distributorship for southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, including a large swath of the Navajo Nation.
“The guy knew my father had grown up with his father (Fred Clark) going out on the Navajo reservation every weekend and camping with traders,” says Harry Jackson Clark II (Jour’73), who goes by his middle name.
Fred Clark got the job. On his first day, he drove more than 100 miles south into the New Mexico desert to collect a past-due account at the Two Grey Hills Trading Post, only to find the store deserted, its shelves all but empty. The trader had no money to pay him, but invited him into the back room for a drink.
Clark found nearly every surface in the room draped with hand-woven wool rugs and blankets, which the trader had been accepting as payment for goods (including Pepsi). Every trader on the reservation seemed to have no money, but plenty of rugs.
“Back in the ‘50s, Navajo rugs weren’t really considered the art forms they are today,” his son says. “But (my father) decided to trade his account receivable for $1,000 worth of rugs.”
People fly in from all over, California, Indiana, Florida, just to come in for the day. The sale also supports many weavers and Navajo traditions. Most weavers are older; many are in their 80s or 90s.”
Clark Sr. took those first rugs — which are not part of the CU Museum’s collection — back home and began selling them to friends to cover the costs of the long-gone Pepsi, and an unusual, if practical, business arrangement was born. When traditional weavers got wind of the arrangement, they started coming to Durango to sell directly to the entrepreneur, and what would become the Toh-Atin Gallery was born (Toh-Atin, meaning “no water” in Navajo, is the name of a panoramic mesa in Arizona).
Fast forward to late-1960s Boulder, where Jackson Clark II was studying at CU-Boulder, the first family member to attend college. Clark II stumbled into journalism and helped start and worked on an alternative paper, the Colorado Student News, which thrived for two years — until the ad manager absconded with all the money.
His parents loved visiting Boulder, and Clark Sr. one day wandered into CU’s Natural History Museum and met anthropologist and southwest native American expert Joe Ben Wheat, the long-time curator of anthropology at the museum. The two men discovered their mutual interest in Navajo weaving. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“Joe smoked a pipe, and he could tell more by looking at a rug than people taking one apart,” Clark II says. “He had traveled to nearly every museum in the world to photograph rugs.”
Clark Sr. began to visit Wheat at his summer research site at the ancient Yellow Jacket Pueblo in far southwestern Colorado. During his quarter-century tenure with the museum, Wheat assembled one of the most renowned collections of Navajo weavings in the world, and the two men remained friends until Wheat’s death in 1997.
In the meantime, Clark II was a ski bum in Aspen, graduated from CU and worked as a sports writer and editor for a Durango newspaper before joining his father in the Navajo rug business. In 1983, the family, including Clark’s sister Antonia and mother, Mary Jane, built a gallery that also featured southwest native American jewelry, baskets and pottery.
As the years passed, Wheat began putting together one of the most complete and deeply researched collections of Navajo textiles in the world. In 1985, while talking to Clark Sr., he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t have enough money to properly preserve, repair and store the growing collection.
“My father said, ‘Well, we’ll do a rug auction for you to raise some money,’” Clark II says. “And for the last 30 years, my father, sister, mom and I have done this auction. … Before my father died, he said, ‘I hope you will keep that deal,’ and I said, ‘Sure, absolutely.’”
Proceeds from the auction each November support an endowment to preserve and protect the collection. The endowment has raised enough money to buy improved storage cabinets and restoration of numerous pieces, including two saddle blankets collected by famed Colorado River explorer and “father of public science” John Wesley Powell.
“Museum records indicate that the blankets were donated to the museum by John Wesley Powell’s great-grandniece in 1973. According to the records, the blankets were probably acquired by Powell in 1870 when he was visiting a number of Navajo groups on a peace-seeking delegation,” says Jen Shannon, assistant professor of anthropology and curator at the museum.
Originally held on the CU-Boulder campus, the silent auction of textiles from the Toh-Atin Gallery is now held in Denver. Supported by dozens of volunteers from the museum, the auction in recent years also has featured free appraisals by a master restorer Ben Leroux and a presentation on the history of Navajo weaving.“People fly in from all over, California, Indiana, Florida, just to come in for the day,” Clark II says. “The sale also supports many weavers and Navajo traditions. Most weavers are older; many are in their 80s or 90s.”
The collection and auction offer CU-Boulder students the opportunity to work with some of the world’s foremost experts in Southwest textiles.
“We are a teaching museum, so we train future generations of museum collections managers and workers. Every year, our students enter the orbit of the Clark family at this annual event and learn what commitment, good humor and common purpose are about,” Shannon says. “We look forward to working with the Clark family well into the future, and passing on the partnership to future curators.”
Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist. For more on the CU Museum of Natural history, click here.