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Southern Utah News Front Page: June 22, 2016

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Rich interwoven with Navajo history

John Rich poses in front of some Navajo woven blankets at Jacob Lake Inn.


By Dixie Brunner

To say this man is ‘Rich’ in area history would be an understatement. As a third generation member of the Herald and Nina Nixon Bowman family, who started the Jacob Lake Inn in 1923, John Rich’s heritage in the northern Arizona/southern Utah area runs deep.

The Bowmans (Heritage House in Kanab), were great-grandparents on the maternal side, and operated a couple of businesses in Kanab, primarily in freighting. They wisely saw the potential for a tourist business on the Kaibab. The business started out in a tent by Jacob Lake. The first year they sold homemade root beer and sandwiches.

“People were still traveling by buggies or old time cars back then,” explained John Rich Jr. “Both needed water by the time they got up here!”

Jacob Lake Inn was a success, and the family moved its business to the current location in 1929. It continues to be successful, and a famous stopover for travelers to the Kaibab National Forest and the Grand Canyon North Rim. And, it still is a family owned and operated business. John Rich, along with his six natural brothers and sisters, are now the third generation of their family to operate Jacob Lake. “We’d live in Salt Lake in the winter when there was no travel here, and here in the summer,” said Rich.

Jacob Lake became famous for the great food, wonderful baked goods and shakes, fine quality paintings, silver and souvenirs and ... did I mention ... Navajo rugs?

“That’s where I come in,” said Rich. “Forty years ago, my dad thought I should run the gift shop. I told him I didn’t know how to do that, and he said, ‘you’ll figure it out.’ ”

The Navajo culture became an important element to the Rich family in those early years, when they adopted a young Navajo girl, Bonnie Howard. Her mom had been working at the Inn, and came on hard times. She became a cherished member of the family, and the relationship enriched their lives as well.

“It was a big deal to have a Navajo sister. I was put in charge of drumming at a couple of powwows,” said Rich. “Even years later, I remember sitting on a flat Hopi rooftop (she is part Hopi) watching a Katsinas dance. Ever since, I can remember I’ve always had Native American friends.”

Rich’s main focus with the gift shop was Navajo rugs. “That was part of the deal. As long as I can remember, we always had the rugs. They used to be stacked to the ceiling in the front lobby. I’d push them out of the way and crawl behind and read a book or take a nap! The early ones used to still smell like sheep, I grew up with the smell.”

According to Rich, rugs are a critical component of the Native American culture, and Navajos are a tremendous part of our western heritage. The Navajo traders, mostly women, would weave the rugs throughout the winter, and then he would buy them to sell to the tourists when Jacob Lake Inn opened in the spring.

There were always a limited number of Navajo weavers, and some who passed on the cherished tradition. But weaving a rug was time-consuming. In the earlier years (hand spun yarn), it could take as many as 400 hours to weave a three foot by five foot rug.

There came a time in the late 60s, when Indians on the far flung reservations began getting more mobile, just as our people did with paved roads and four-wheel drives vehicles, that the weavers began to diminish.

“One spring a woman named Shirley Dougi told me that these were the last rugs you’ll get from me,” recalled Rich. “I figured I had committed some kind of cultural faux pas, and asked her what I had said or done. She told me it wasn’t anything like that. They could make three times as much money holding up a road construction sign than weaving. One of my friends lost 30 percent of his weavers in the 70s.”

Simply put, it didn’t pay for the Native Americans to weave rugs anymore. But Rich credits some who valued the rugs as a tradition. He cited a Page schoolteacher who kept on weaving, and trying to teach younger people the craft. “She told me, ‘I’m weaving because I’m Native American.’ ”

Fortunately, numerous other weavers felt the same! Rich has built a good personal relationship with numerous native artists through the years, paying them a good price for the beautiful creations. His sources include one woman who comes 250 miles one way to sell weaving to him!

As a rug buyer for over 40 years, John Rich has a great knowledge of the artisans. He said that when purchasing, he considers market value, who the weaver is, what contests they may have won, or what publication their work appeared in. (95 percent of the weavers are women.)

Due to the high degree of time, labor and creativity, the Native American rugs command a serious price based on the above. Nellie Curry, of Kaibeto, has rugs that sell for $5000 apiece!

“I bought one of her rugs last Thursday and sold it on Sunday,” said Rich. “One gentleman came in just after I sold it, and said that was why he had driven back. He wanted me to put him on the list for the next one she makes! I bought seven from her two years ago, the longest any one of them lasted at the Inn was seven days!”

John Rich’s understanding has led him to a desire to teach and share with others the beauty of the Native American people. He has taught in many situations from small groups to guest speaker at the university level. In fact, he usually gives a talk three times a week in the summer at Jacob Lake Inn. His presentations concern the people he and his family have known, worked with, and loved for generations.

Rich’s relationship with the Native American weavers has helped him develop a greater love for their history, culture and art. “The reason my family and I do this is we think it’s a responsible part of being in this community.”

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