A lot of you know that my father was a Pepsi Cola dealer in Durango and got into the Navajo Rug business by trading Pepsi accounts for rugs with the trading posts. One of the jobs that I had before I got out of college was driving a Pepsi delivery truck and a couple of my routes were on the Northern Navajo reservation. I now know that sugar drinks are not good and that I probably contributed to a lot of bad teeth and health problems. But back then, we didn’t. In fact, driving a truck out on the reservation without air conditioning was a hot job and to make it bearable, I would take a cooler full of Pepsi and Doctor Pepper with me! Water? Never! I’m lucky to be alive.
Anyway, a couple of years later when I was working in the jewelry and Navajo rug business (our office was still in the Pepsi plant) I noticed that the dock at the bottling company where they got deliveries was lined with old Pepsi Cola coolers. These were the big box type that you used to see in small stores that had a lid that lifted and tracks inside where the Pepsi bottles would slide down to a coin mechanism. You would put a dime in and pulled the bottle out.Pepsi was getting rid of these as no one made a coin mechanism that would take dimes anymore.
I asked my Dad what he was going to do with the boxes, and he said they had to be junked.“Do you mind if I take one?” I asked.He looked at me over the top of his glasses with that funny look he had and said, “Sure.” He didn’t ask why.
At the time, we were working with a great guy who lived in Zuni by the name of Kay Tinnin. Kay had worked for the Vanderwagon Trading Company as a buyer for years. In the ‘70s, he got his own license to buy jewelry in Zuni and began to sell to us and the Godber family in Scottsdale. I used to go with him on his trips around the village to meet the artists and learn what I could. And he had a lot to share!
One couple we visited, and I got to know pretty well, was Robert and Bernice Leekya. Robert was the son of Leekya Deyuse, the famous fetish carver. Robert always claimed that his dad tried to teach him to carve but he didn’t want to get that much dust on himself. Bernice was the daughter of silversmiths Warren and Doris Ondelacy.
Bernice and Robert Leekya
Robert made beautiful, heavy silver and turquoise nugget watch bracelets. I loved them and just had to have one. Every time I visited them, he promised that he would make me one. But every time he made one, someone showed up and bought it. Then I noticed something. Robert was always drinking Pepsi and he always had a couple of cases in his workshop.That is where Dad’s old Pepsi machines came in. I put the “pop box”, as we called them, in the back of the van I drove to travel and sell rugs. Then I loaded up ten cases of Pepsi. These were the old heavy bottles that came in wooden crates. And I drove to Zuni.I stopped and picked up Kay at the house and headed over to Leekya’s place.
Robert was surprised to see me as I had just been there the week before.“I don’t have your watch bracelet yet,” he said.“It’s ok, Robert. I want to make you a deal. Let me show you something.” I walked out to the van with him following and Kay standing to the side laughing to himself. I opened the back of the van. He looked at the pop box and the Pepsi and then at me with a questioning look.“I want to give you this, but only if I get to buy the next watch bracelet,” I said with a smile.He and Bernice started to laugh and he said, “That is a deal!”
The three of us unloaded the box and two weeks later, Kay brought the watch bracelet to Durango for me. Forty-five years later and I still wear it! Robert died last year and when I heard about his passing, I immediately remembered the “Pepsi Box.”
Over the years, I have bought and sold a lot of his jewelry, but that bracelet was special.Robert Leekya made jewelry into his 80s and his work is highly valued. We are lucky to have three large rings and a bracelet that we are sharing on this newsletter today. They are all set with beautiful turquoise,
I believe it is Kingman, although I can’t prove it, but whatever it is, it’s nice. The pieces are all signed, “RLB.”The Pepsi didn’t kill him, and I still like Dr. Pepper!