NAU billboard near Tuba City.  NAU.PH.99.53.208  Dan Boone  1999. (detail)

1975-1999

Slideshow

Jim Babbitt:

 

Well, it was certainly a far cry from maybe in the 1930s or 1940s when Babbitt Brothers Trading Company owned, in one part or another maybe, more than twenty trading posts, scattered around the reservation.  By the time I became involved, in the early 1980s, the trading post business had evolved a great deal, and was actually really on the way out.  Our stores had reduced from probably more than twenty down to—I think we had four at the time on Navajo and one at Hopi.  Those were Navajo ones:  Tuba City, Red Lake, Cow Springs, and Cedar Ridge.  And then the Hopi one at New Oraibi, or Kykotsmovi.  So by the time I became involved in it, it was really a declining kind of business.
 
And I think the explanation to that is a complicated one, as to why the businesses were sort of on the way out by then.  But certainly part of it had to do with after the Second World War, the Navajos had more wage employment, they had more money, they became more mobile.  At the same time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs throughout the reservation was improving the transportation network.  They were paving and building lots of new roads and bridges, and as the Navajos—and the Hopis, too—began to acquire pickup trucks and cars and so forth, they became mobile, really for the first time.  They could really move around.  At the same time, through maybe the fifties and sixties, all around the reservation, American free enterprise was hard at work, and big stores were being built:  Safeway Stores, and Yellow Front Stores, and eventually the K-Marts and the Wal-Marts.  So once all of that happened, and the Navajos and Hopis, all the Native American people, had a choice, and maybe an opportunity to do a little price comparison—of course they're no different than anybody else.  They could travel and shop and compare and buy where they wanted to.  And these little general stores scattered throughout the reservation could in no way compete on price or selection with larger retailers.
 
And so starting, I would say, in a large way in the 1970s, the old-time trading posts started to close up, and it became really a dying way of life.  So by the time I became involved in our trading operations, it was already becoming a dying part of our family's business.  And from the time I started in the business, we had five trading posts.  Today, 1999, we are down to only two—Tuba City and Red Lake.  We closed down Cedar Ridge Trading Post, we closed down Cow Springs Trading Post, and we sold the little store at Kykotsmovi to the village there, to the village people, and they continued to operate it.  But even with our two remaining stores, I would say we won't be in that business a lot longer.  And those few so-called trading posts that do survive, I think were able to survive only because they were able to develop a new market, and that, of course, is the tourist market.
 
So the surviving so-called trading posts today have some things in common.  They're generally on a main highway, they generally have a motel and a restaurant along with them.  And their business nowadays is overwhelmingly Indian arts and crafts and tourist-related items.  You would be very hard pressed any more to see a Navajo or a Hopi family going to a trading post to do their main shopping.  It just doesn't happen anymore.  At the K-Mart or Wal-Mart in Flagstaff, you will see more Native Americans than you will see in the few surviving little trading post stores on the reservation.

And I would say I remember going to negotiate leases in Window Rock with the Navajo Tribe's Department of Commerce, and they used to have a big map on the wall of the whole reservation, and they would put a little blue pin in the map for every location where they had a trading post lease in force.  And even in the middle 1970s or late 1970s, those little blue pins covered the map.  I mean, they were dense all over the reservation.  But through the seventies and eighties, I would say literally hundreds of little trading stores closed and went out of business.  The pins were removed.  If you look at that map today, it is a far different kind of thing than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
 
And its a sad thing to see, certainly.  Trading as it once existed had its ups and downs, and it had its good aspects and it's not so good aspects, but it was sort of a unique feature of life in the Southwest, where different cultures came together to do commerce, and two cultures kind of interfaced for well over a century.  And I think now that's all going into the pages of history.
 

***
 

Bruce Burnham:

As the Navajo people started going out farther and farther into town to trade, they started not paying their bill, leaving the trader holding the bag.  We still had livestock accounts, and darn, all of a sudden, you saw a truck whizzin' past the front of the store at forty miles an hour with eight bags of wool piled on the back of it.  And I'll just about guarantee you those were eight bags of wool that had already been spent, that needed to be paid on their account in the trading post.  And so they went on by and said, "Well, we need money right now to buy new tires for this truck, so we're gonna go ahead and sell these bags of wool in town to get somethin' we need in town, 'cause we can get it a little cheaper in there."  Well, the long and the short of it is that the trader got stuck for the livestock account, so the traders quit givin' long-term credit on livestock.
 
It worked the same way with rug weavers.  It got to where you weren't sure you were gonna get the rug anymore, so you quit grubstaking the weaver.  You quit lettin' her take an advance against the rug, because her primary objective was to get all she could get for her rug, and that meant that in order to do that, she at least had to shop around.  Not very often does a rug come back from town to the trading post, even if the trader was willing to give as much as she got in town, or even more than she got in town, very seldom do they ever bring it back from town, because they're in town where they want to spend the money, and so it's just easier, more convenient to sell it and do their shoppin' right then.  And more than likely, the rug doesn't come back to the tradin' post because there's $300-$400 owed against it.  It's put the trader in a precarious position of not being able to secure any of the accounts any longer.  They're all open accounts, and with no recourse for collection.
 

***
 

Elijah Blair
 

Well, you have to realize that Thriftway came into effect because the traders were actually forced, because of the new regulations governing them, to sell out or just close up and leave.  So there is really no comparison between Thriftway and the traders, because they're doin' exactly 180 degrees opposite of what you did.  Thriftway is  a convenience store.  You buy the merchandise, you put it on the shelf, and you put a girl up at the checkout stand, and then they buy it, and you add it up and take their money.  There's none of the service that is involved with the traders.  You know, they don't do the pawn, the credit—strictly cash and carry.    All they are is just there—gas, pop, chips, a little groceries, and stuff like that.... That doesn't even compare to the service that the trader gives.

Although, it was better than nothin' when the traders all left.  At least they took up some of the slack.  At least they could buy—rather than drivin' seventy-five miles to get a loaf of bread, they could go down here and get a loaf of bread a little bit closer, if they had the money to pay for it.  At least they do serve a purpose, now that the traders are gone.  See, the trader isn't gonna go back there.  This'll never happen again.  And the Thriftway store, as far as I'm concerned, was priced comparably to what the tradin' post charged—they still are.  Their mark-up is about what ours was.  The only difference is, you pay for it—you didn't trade your lamb or whatever.

Well, to me, the future of trading—the trading has already gone.  Okay?  See, there's no future as a trader, what we have been talkin' about all day.  This is the next era.  You know, I said the trading, actually it's the end of an era.... But then you have the tradin' families, like myself.  And there's quite a few of 'em.  There's some of 'em still even out there on the reservation that do a little bit of the convenience store—Hank, for instance, he does a convenience store, also arts and crafts.  You know, kind of a combination.... you have families like me who have good rapport and acceptance with the Navajo people.  And we love what we're doin'.  See, we do this because we like it, and because we can still do it.  And we also know that there is a demand for Indian art.  And we like it, so then we come to do a gallery. …The gallery is part of it, and I think people who, families who appreciate and want to deal with Native Americans....  See, like I told someone one time....  He said, "What are you doin' out there?  What do you do that for?"  I said, "Hey, guy, I could make a livin' somewhere else.  I like what I'm doin'."
 

***

 

Paul Begay:

 

Underhill:  What did you think the first time you saw an Anglo trader at Dinnebito, do you remember?
 

Begay: .... Over the counter is the first thing that I remember.  I remember going to this Dinnebito Trading Post, and that was our store.  A full day's travel there and back.  I remember this man....  Well, I know him pretty well today, but not back in those days.  I was just one of those regular Indian people that went over there, I guess.  And there was a big gap after probably the age of eight or nine, where I didn't see this man again, because of my education life, I went to school in Utah, and for a long time I didn't see this person until I was probably a teenager, and then I saw this man again.  And he's still there.  But I've never really talked to him, never really got to know this man, until I became a man again.  I was over twenty, I was nearing thirty.  I ran into this guy again, he has a store here in the big city of Page.  And so one day I talked to him, I said, "I remember going to your store as a young child.  And I remember selling the sheep, helping my grandma and my grandfather loading the sheep and tying them down, making sure that the sheep doesn't kick free.  I remember selling the wool.  I remember selling the sheepskin, the dried sheepskins.  I remember going into the store."  All these stuff I was telling him about, and the memories came back.  I said, "Oh, yeah, that's the man!"  He changed quite a bit, now he's all white.  See, he's all gray, but the man is still the same.

This was Elijah Blair.  I remember him talking.  You have to make an Indian person very comfortable in order to win his trust, because in the Navajo way, you're told you don't talk about your culture, your language, your history, your tradition, your taboos—especially your religion—to a non-Navajo.  It's very hard for a Navajo person to do that.  So the trader had to break through this and win the trust of the Navajo.  And the way they did it probably what I'm thinking is, they first have to learn the language.  He tells me he came to the Reservation among the Indian people when he was nineteen.  Didn't know nothing about the language or the culture.

Now today, after forty-some odd years, close to fifty years, this man is fluent in the Navajo language.  He knows the way of the teasing, the tradition, how to act as being a Navajo, how a Navajo should act, how you tease.  Now, if he spoke the Navajo language to a Navajo, you make that Navajo feel comfortable, you begin to win this Navajo's trust.  And so this man is loved by a lot of Navajo people.  He knows, talking to him, a lot about the tradition, a lot about the culture, and he's the only man that I know that speaks fluent Navajo in Kentuckian accent.  (laughs)  ….  And so this was the way to win the hearts of the Navajo—learn their language, learn their lifestyle, learn their way of teasing.  Teasing is a big thing among the Navajo people each day.  I would see this Jaiyazhi, Elijah Blair, teasing with the Navajos, grabbing at each other's clothes.  It's a way to interact with the natives.  And he got accepted in this way.

And people, I don't think, after a while, when transportation became more convenient, people did not actually go to the trading post mainly to buy something or to get supplies—they went to see Jaiyazhi.  (laughs)  I remember in my group of clans, or in my group of family, our hogan, the men talk about Jaiyazhi.  The women, on the other side, of course, in their own teasing ways, "Ah!, forget about that white man!  He's no good, he doesn't know nothing about the Navajo."  But the man, they stood up for this man Jaiyazhi.  "I will go over there and talk with him, shaadaaní, our in-law," they call him.  This is a way of, when you say "in-law" to a white man, you're basically saying, "Oh, he's good enough, so I wish he could be my in-law."  This is what they're actually saying.  It's not going to become, but it's just a way of teasing among the Navajo people.  And so when they say "my in-law," they're grabbing at his clothes, and he's doing the same thing to the Navajo.  Maybe he's grabbing this Navajo's clothing because he owns a lot of jewelry and has got a big concho belt.  "Huge!  Looks like a wealthy Navajo.  I want him as my in-law."  And so this is the way to build a good rapport, a good relationship between the trader and the Navajo, to win the hearts of the Navajo.  And he's mastered that, that type of life.
 
 
 

***
 

Lavoy McGee:

 

Cole:  Do you see much difference between the trading posts on the Reservation, versus the ones in the border towns?

Lavoy:  Oh, yeah!  You know, on the Reservation, like I said, we called our place a "meat and potatoes" store.  We sold the basics.  When they'd get off the Reservation....  Well, there were some of those kind off the Reservation, too.  But a lot of the places that were called "trading posts" per se, they become little curio shops and tourist places and novelties, as opposed to regular meat and potatoes stores like ours.

[We]sold out in 1984.  And by that time my family was pretty big, and the wife was livin' in town, and the kids were growin' up, and we just felt like it was time for our family and things to make the move.
And tradin' wasn't the same as it used to be.  Things were changin' drastically out there.  People weren't as loyal to you, and as reliable, and things were just changin' so fast that it wasn't like the good ol' days used to be.  And we weren't able to make the changes—I don't know.  With the highways and cars and more of a cash economy, and the superstores in town—maybe our need was just fadin' away a little bit.

We used to buy a lot of livestock out there.  In the recent years, we'd hardly buy any.  We used to run lambs out of there by the semi-load.  I think the year I left, we couldn't even buy enough lambs to fill one semi-load.  And one reason was is that people just weren't tendin' sheep anymore.  You know, the kids were goin' to school and not herdin' sheep, and the parents were gettin' older and not wantin' to, or they were wantin' to qualify for a welfare check, so they had to get rid of resources so they'd qualify.  And there's just not the livestock there anymore.  A lot of people go into cattle, and it's harder to credit cattle than it was sheep and wool.

Cole:  Why is that?

Lavoy:  Well, I think cattle is somethin' they could sell any time of the year, and every time they needed a few dollars, they'd go sell a cow—or had to make a pickup payment, they'd go sell a cow.  So a cow got to be something you couldn't rely on for credit, whereas wool and lambs, that's pretty much a seasonal thing, and when it was time to sell them, you sold a whole bunch at one time, and they could satisfy their debts and things.

Cole:  Do you think the potential is still there for rejuvenation of the sheep business on the Reservation?

Lavoy:  Well, it looks to me like that there's been so much overgrazing for so many years, that there's just not the carrying capacity out there that there must have been at one time.  So I think there's just not the range for it, forage for it.
 
 Cole:  Why did you stay in the business?

Jewel:  Didn't know anything else, did you?

Lavoy:  Well, we enjoyed it and had a vested interest in it.  Sometimes you can't walk off and leave things.  But we didn't want to, either.  You know, it was fun, we enjoyed it, it was makin' us a livin', and it was ours, and we enjoyed what we were doin'.

Cole:  What do you do now?

Lavoy:  I have a little pet supply store here in Farmington—probably one of the bigger places in town, or the biggest place.  We sell a lot of dog food and cat food, all the supplies that go with that industry.  There's a lot of money spent on pets in our society anymore, and we're quite enjoying it, and we have lots of Indian customers.  A lot of Indian customers come there.  A lot of my old customers from out to the store come by and say hello—I get hugs every week.

Cole:  (facetiously) Do you run any credit or pawn at your store?

Lavoy:  No credit!  (laughter)  You know, as I look back, I don't see how we made any money out there on the Reservation.  We did so many things, and did so many things that probably weren't sound business-wise.  Now we're in a store, and it's a cash business, if we haven't sold it, it's on the shelf.  If we have sold it, the money's in the drawer, and it's just a lot simpler.  The trading post business was a complicated business, with all the things that we did.
 

 

***
 

Carolyn Blair:

 

Do you want to know who my kids are?  There's five.  You've met Bradley Henry, who is Hank, and he's still in the trading business out of Lukachukai.  He's married to a Navajo lady, and they have four children.  Nancy  married King Mike, Jr., and they teach at Dine´  College at Tsaile .  She teaches physical education and he is the financial vice-president of the college.  Lucinda is married to Robert Nash and she teaches at Monument Valley High.  She's taught there for twenty-five years.  She's been married for twenty-five years, and Hank's been married for twenty-five years to the same person.  Then there's Roxanne, and she's married and lives up in Washington State.  And then there is Fred, and he's out at Kayenta and he's the Ferrell Gas man, propane.  The ones that live on the reservation are married to Navajos.


The two oldest graduated from Farmington High, but the other three graduated from Monument Valley High School.  And they're still out there, and that's their life, they enjoy it.

Underhill:  What do you think an Anglo person should understand about Navajo culture?

Blair:  Well, they should be taught that there are different ways of thinking of things:  their religion, their customs ... and their relatives....  but we've got good relatives.... that wall hanging was a gift from one of my in-laws.  It's all handmade, and the name of it is "The Storyteller."  It was a gift....

I had good neighbors out there.  (pause)  And all my grandchildren have dark hair!  (laughter)
 

***

 

Hank Blair:
 

Underhill:  When did you acquire Lukachukai?

Blair:  In 1984.... my wife and I, the opportunity came to come over here, and it wasn't that simple, but we ended up with the store.  There'd been about five guys here in four years, and gone broke.  This was built by Vernon Jack in 1962.  He'd been a long-time trader, off and on, over probably thirty or forty years.  He'd been at Greasewood, right down the road from here.  And he had heart trouble, and his son came out here to run it, and his son didn't really like it.  He moved to Kayenta and got a job with the coal company over there.  I asked him one time why he left the trading post, and he said, "I thought it was about time I got a real job."  And to me, I was scared.  I had quit my job over there at Kayenta and looked around and everything.  I was afraid I was gonna have to get a real job.  That's the last thing I wanted to do, was get a real job.  I wanted to be in the tradin' post.  He said, "I thought it was about time I got a real job."  So he just basically walked off and left this.  He sold it to somebody, but they didn't last very long.  So we've been here since 1984, fourteen years.

[We] had no lease.  There was hardly anything in the store.  The only reason the store hadn't been burned down was because the post office was here.  They kinda kept the door open to keep the post office goin'.  The first time I came over here to look at it, it was probably the first of the month or somethin', and the parking lot was full of cars, and I thought, "Man! these guys are doin' some kind of business!"  And I came in the store, and there was not—you could have starved to death in a day.  There was not enough to eat.  I mean, there was nothin' in the store.  Everybody was here to come in the post office.

Another time while we were looking at it, I came over, and it happened to be some check or something was paid—everybody was here—and there was absolutely nothin' in the store, very little.  And I thought, "Man, if that many people come to the store, I can make a living doing this.  This is neat."

But you couldn't borrow any money.  The banker, everybody said, "Gees, there's five guys [who have] gone broke in there."  And everybody owed everybody.  You would call up and want to get something, and you'd call up and say, "Hi, this is Hank Blair from Totsoh Trading Post," and the lady would go, "Herb, get the gun, it's Totsoh Trading Post!"  (laughter)  I mean, the guy that was here just before us, I think he wrote like $40,000 worth of bad checks....  They owed everybody.  It was a mess.

Underhill:  How has your business changed since 1984?

Blair:  Well, even just in this short time, you're doin' business, to start, with a lot of older people, livestock people, and stuff like that, and your older customers are just dyin' off.  Your old-time Navajos.... are dyin' off.  It's evolved more into a convenience-type business, a grocery store rather than a trading post.  We don't buy livestock anymore, we don't buy wool and mohair anymore.  We don't buy lambs anymore.  Part of that [is] people don't have as much livestock as they used to.  They just don't have it.  It's changed.  But like I said, you're still the bank.  The electricity goes off in Lukachukai, nobody calls the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority—they call the trading post.  And it's your job to call.  You're still doin' all that kind of stuff.  You're the center of the community.

I have a friend of mine, a Navajo guy, Roy Begay—he was a councilman at Klagetoh.  And the Klagetoh store closed down, and he tried to get me to open it up.  He said, "If the store goes, there's no community, because that's why that community was there, basically, was the store."  That's where the identity of the community comes from, is from the store.  Finally they got somebody to open it up.  The store is the center of the community.  This is where you come and sit down and sit out in front of the store and talk to people.  That's the way it's always been.  They camped, and we had the whole front of the store with benches, and people would just sit out there all day long—come to town.

For the older people, that was their social life, goin' to the store.  I mean, other than goin' to ceremonies and stuff like that.  You go get to see people.  And it's still that way to a great extent.  But that was their community.  At Red Mesa, before they built the chapter house, they had the chapter meetings right on the porch of the trading post.  Our mom has movies of Paul Jones, who was the chairman of the Navajo Tribe, having a meeting on the front porch of the trading post.  My sister and I used to sell Kool-Aid and lemonade up there, a penny a little cup, at the chapter meeting.  You know, it was a chapter meeting on the porch of the trading post.
 

***

 

Jim Babbitt:


Cole:  What do you think the future of business with Native Americans will be?

Babbitt:  Well, it more and more will become their own future, their own business.  They will become the entrepreneurs in whatever kinds of business might develop out there.  It won't be owned by outsiders off the reservation anymore.  And the types of business—certainly the Indian trading business, the way it was as we have discussed, almost entirely a thing of the past.  But I think you will see, eventually, more and more Navajo-owned enterprise out there, Navajo entrepreneurs, and more and more commerce out there.

Now, as much as Indian trading is fading away, I would tell you something else.  Maybe this is a little more controversial, but it's something that I really believe, at least with respect to the Navajo.  I think they will undergo increasingly a lot of pressure to change their own lifestyles....  And I do believe that their livestock-based economy, that is dependent on sheep and cattle and horses and stuff, will become a thing of the past.  I likewise kind of see another trend out there.  Because their life was based on sheep and the land out there was so poor, and they needed these large, large tracts of land to graze sheep, their lifestyle or their way of living, they lived in a very dispersed pattern, over large areas of land, separated from one another by a long ways—unlike the Hopis who are all in little pueblos or villages.  I think that as that livestock-based lifestyle of the Navajo goes away, I think that settlement pattern will likewise go away, and with the Navajo you will see more and more congregation into town living.  And I think the old Navajo way of life is not long at all for the future.  And I think you see that change going on right now.

Cole:  What about the arts and crafts industry?  Do you see that waning too?

Babbitt:  I do, yeah, I sure do, for a variety of reasons.  In the jewelry business, of course, it's the knockoffs and the imitations and the stuff that is produced overseas.  It's just killing the silversmithing and the jewelry business—other than at the real high end.  There will be jewelers and silversmiths still producing good work at the real high end, the real expensive and kind of creative level.  But as far as just kind of the mass production of silver jewelry and so forth, that's rapidly, if not already, kind of a thing of the past.  Weaving?  You know, there's maybe another generation or so in which Navajo women might be content to sit at home for days on end in the wintertime, weaving a rug, and then sell it for—you know what they sell it for.  But those days are numbered, clearly, in my mind, as the Navajos kind of change their way of life, and as they become more dependent on wage labor, just like us.  I think eventually you're going to see that fading out.  And I'm sorry to say that, but that's just kind of what I see in the future.
 
 

***
 

Ed Foutz:

 

Cole:  As a child working for your uncle, did you have time to play, and did you have playmates?

Foutz:  Yes!  I had a group of cousins.  My Uncle Bob and Aunt Helen had kids, as Russell did too, and I played with all that group, yes.  Really, most of 'em, because of my age, they were my cousins up there, but kids here in Shiprock I got to know real well.... Yeah, some of the good friends I have are Indian people, are from out here.  And they were great times, but really from the time I was, I would say, twelve or thirteen, I really didn't take a lot of time to play.  I think I was more interested in working and staying busy.  And once I started with Russell, it was pretty well work most days.  Now, to me, that was playing, I enjoyed that.  I don't look back on it as I missed anything.  We'd play in the evenings, and I certainly had those times when we'd enjoy long weekends and that, but still we were pretty busy during the day.

Cole:  Would you say that—I'm sort of curious—Navajo kids your age, were they also pretty busy, they had things to do?

Foutz:  Well, at that time most of them—I'll qualify that—were not living in big areas, so they were living on small farms.  So they had things to do.  They had livestock to look after, they had responsibilities, and they were expected to take care of those responsibilities—whether it was tend to the sheep or the livestock or help with the hay in the garden, and things like this.  And the girls were to help with the weaving and cooking and things like this, and they were brought along.  And so it was very interesting, because during that era, they were nomadic and spread away from each other, and you can't help but notice as you come into Shiprock, as the people have built these housing projects, through both the tribe and the government, and then just the people--because jobs around here--will look for places, and they built places here.  But slowly as these people have come together, the young people don't have things to do anymore, they don't have the responsibility, and they have extra time on their hands.  And so for the very first time, as these kids came together, we started to have problems with groups, you might say, at night.  As kids got together, they started looking for things to do, and some of those things were maybe looking for trouble—or they ended up in trouble.  No different than we were, but it was interesting, because you could definitely see the shift happening.  And it's even still happening, on more of an accelerated basis.

And here in Shiprock.... You maybe saw the area that all those little houses out there were built for the Fairchild Semiconductor Plant.  I almost say that that was like putting together, once the jobs left, that, to me, as I watched families come in there, and the kids have nothing to do, that you might say that in a small way, that was like building a ghetto, in that the same things happen.  The kids didn't have anything to do when they got there, and all of a sudden they were looking for things to do, and boy, we really had some hard things going on in town, as we still do today.  Not just because of that, but it was just an interesting thing to [note], as you look back now—that you don't get to see capsuled, finite things like that happen in many communities, like you did out here.  So things have really changed, it's changed a great deal, as the cash flow....  The roads, of course, came along—the area of transportation changed.  And with that, the demands of the people changed.

And then I think the really big change came about with the advent of communication:  Your radio and your Navajo Hours that were aimed and beamed almost straight at the Navajo people in the way of advertising and things.  And it used to be at the old trading post that fashion lagged maybe two or three or four years behind the fashion, let's say, in the country.  If pointed tennis shoes were in, somewhere maybe three or four years later, they would be in demand on the Reservation.  With the advent of radio, and especially with TV, the young people, as well as all of  'em, were brought into the world today.  So if chocolate Cocoa Pops were popular as a cereal, that's what you'd better stock in your store, because that's what the kids would be coming in and telling their parents they wanted to buy.  And so things changed pretty radically.  You couldn't carry just the good old standard things that we used to in the early days in trading posts.  Their demands, like everybody else's, started to change and widen....
 

***

 

Evelyn Jensen:

 

Underhill:  How did you come to be here at Oljato as the owner of the Oljato Trading Post?

Jensen:  (chuckling)  Hm, I keep asking myself that!  (laughter)  I should be so lucky!  No, I worked for the bank.  I was manager of the bank in Kayenta for several years, and for some reason I always kind of—maybe it had something to do with my upbringing and going to a trading post, and how romantic I thought it was, you know, to have a trading post in some remote area, with a potbelly stove, and with a blue coffee pot, and just having people come in and visiting and having a cup of coffee.  I always kind of—that was my dream.  And so back in 1991, November of '91, Winona, who is the daughter of Virginia and Ed Smith, contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in operating Oljato Trading Post.  And before I really thought about it, I said, "Sure!" you know.  (laughter)  "That sounds like I'd be interested."

So within a week, they had a chapter meeting here at the Oljato Chapter House, and I had to go before the chapter and do my spiel on how I want to be a trader and all that.  Before I realized it, I had a trading post to operate, because they didn't want the trading post to close down.  I actually didn't have the lease yet, but they didn't want the trading post to close down, so lo and behold (laughs) I was here.

Underhill:  How does leasing work now?  What steps did you have to go through to get a lease?

Jensen:  Well, the first important thing, I guess, is going before the chapter house, having a resolution drawn up, and then of course you have to get the majority vote of the people.  Then it goes from there to Window Rock through the long, long paperwork process.  Well, believe it or not, I still don't have a lease yet!  (laughter)  I've been operating this trading post going almost on eight years now, and I still don't have a lease from the tribe.

Underhill:  And do you pay a percentage of your profit to the tribe?

Jensen:  Yes, you pay royalties to the tribe.

Underhill:  So who are your customers now since 1991?

Jensen:  When I started, I was really kinda doin' a booming business because I offered credit, which when I went before the chapter house, the local people, especially the most traditional people, they wanted me to offer credit, so this is what I did.  And if I knew what I know now (chuckles), I know I wouldn't have done that.  But we had a booming business here as far as trade and credit.  I did very well, and it was mostly the local community or the people that call Oljato their home.  And maybe two years, three years down the line, people would start drifting off and not come back and pay their credit.  So in the end, it hurt me.

Underhill:  Was their credit based on trade goods like a rug?  Or was it based on pawn?  Or both?

Jensen:  No, it was just their signature or their word.  Some of them would still get—you know, if they had Social Security coming in, they would have their Social Security checks come here, so they had to come here to cash their checks and pay off their credit.  But little by little, they started drifting off.  You know, they had other addresses.  That was a lot of learning on my part there.  I did trust a lot of people, I guess.  (laughter)

Underhill:  Do you still offer credit?

Jensen:  I offer credit, but to very—I mean, it wouldn't even go past maybe—less than fifteen.  And I have to set a limit.  It has to be on a monthly basis.

Underhill:  What other services do you offer as a trader to people?

Jensen:  That is just here and then maybe a little bit of being a communication center.  But that's about it.  The role of the old trader I think is long gone.  And aside from being here as a trader—I mean, I have to do something else other than the trading post.  Otherwise, I'd probably be starving to death.  No—(laughs)  I do horseback rides, wagon rides, to supplement the trading post business.  And we've been working on getting....  I mean, Oljato, I guess, has always been on the map, but not too many people know where it is, because it's at the end of the road, this is it.  So we've had signs put out on the highway to mark where Oljato Trading Post is, and we've been trying to promote it.  So we're gettin' a little bit more of the tourist traffic, and basically, I think that's what it's gonna take to keep this goin', is tourist money, not local—not local money.

Underhill:  Are you still buying rugs?

Jensen:  Yes, I am.

Underhill:  Are you selling those wholesale to other dealers, too?  Some in the store?

Jensen:  No, mainly retail to the tourists.  And I try to buy everything that's locally made, like the pottery and the baskets.  I don't go to Gallup to trade for any of their goods there.  I try to buy everything local, because someone has to buy the local stuff.
 

***
 

Bruce Burnham:

 

The other big thing that's affected Indian trading is the conversion to cash, and that's the Triftway Markets.  I think that it's something that has evolved in time.... Jerry Clayton will go down in history as having affected more change on the reservation than any other trader in history.  That probably includes Lorenzo Hubbell, or J. B. Moore, or any of the famous Indian traders.  And it's simply because he was in a position to convert the reservation to this flashy-lookin' convenience market operation where in today's society, probably the most important purchase that Navajo makes now is the gasoline for that pickup truck.  And so they converted not just to the flashy-lookin' service station, but fast food, and potato chips and pop.  They don't carry stock groceries like the necessities—the flour and coffee and sugar and all the necessities.  They have been replaced by islands of every kind of candy and everything from sunflower seeds to potato chips.

But, he's something to be reckoned with.  He's pretty much taken charge of the reservation, as far as the type of business goes....  So it just grew, and the Navajos liked it.  But what it did, it took enough of the trader's business away, that it started to get to the point to where the trader was havin' a hard time makin' a livin'.  But you have to understand, the trader had just come off of this period of time in Indian trading that was the most profitable of any time, and that was the sixties when everything was so profitable.  Now, the shift is kind of settling back somewhere to the middle.  But the trader is seeing a downsizing in business as the convenience market sees more.  And so this trader's sittin' here, and he doesn't know how to scale back down again.  Even a trading post today would be so much more lucrative than a trading post was in the early fifties.  But it's not anything like the heyday of the seventies.  So it's just not attractive to the traders any longer, because they don't want to scale back to where they're back in a barter system again, and back into really havin' to be creative to do business.  It's some of the changes we've gone through.
 

***

 

Edith Kennedy:

 

Cole:  What do you think you've learned from the Navajo during your years on
the reservation?

Kennedy:  Oh, land! I learned patience!  (laughter)  And slow moving.  I really think that they're so slow moving, you can't hurry them-­you could never hurry them for any amount of anything.  You just had to be patient and wait for them.  I think I learned not to raise my voice too loudly (laughs) if I got angry, because they're very low-speaking people.  They don't speak loud.  And you had to have patience in order to work with them, and not speak loudly. … you speak very softly and just wait for them to make the move most of the time.  That's why you had to have patience.  I really learned patience and compassion, because if they liked you, they loved you to death.  They'd do anything for you, they really would, when they liked you.  Most of the old ones were that way.  The young ones that were growing up during the last few years we had the store, very few could get credit, because they thought it was smart to beat us out of it.  They weren't like the old ones when we went there, how good they were.  Like I say, if they liked you, they couldn't do enough for you.  They were there to help you, as well as you were to help them.  It just was a slow-moving game, it really was.

They didn't hug and kiss on their children, but they loved them.  They had a way of telling stories.  The old grandfathers would sit around and tell the children all of the old stories of the old days.  And that's so great for an older person to tell their family.  That's why I say, my father-in-law, I should have done that.  I didn't get any information from him.  He came here as an orphan.  We knew at one time he did have parents, but they died off when he was very young, and he came here with a Baptist minister.  We knew that much, but we didn't sit down and ask him.  Where the Indians, the old grandfather would sit around in the hogan with the kids gathered around him, and the family, and they would tell stories.  And they did that at night for entertainment.  So their stories and legends have been handed down to the younger generation.  I don't know about now, what's going on.  I doubt if any of that goes on much now, but in those days, when we first went out there, they would.  And you know, I've always thought of that picture at the end of the trail, the man on the horse.  You would see a flock of sheep out on the prairie between Shiprock and our trading post, and there would be a Navajo just sitting there, up on a little knoll, slumped over in his saddle, looked like he was asleep­just a beautiful picture sitting there.  Peaceful, quiet, you know, and the sheep out there grazing.  And I'd think, "Oh, that's a peaceful picture.  They would go out like that and take their sheep and just sit and sit.  They were content, it didn't bother them, they weren't restless.  But now, it's a different story all together-­they're a restless people.
 

***

 

Evelyn Jensen:

 

Underhill:  What other things have you learned in this businesses as a trader in the last seven years?

Jensen:  Not to trust everyone, I guess....  Another thing is just that the grandmothers and the grandfathers, the grassroots people, this is the last of 'em, unless I go and put on traditional attire and be like the grandmas, this is the last of 'em.  I think that's why I consider myself lucky to be amongst them, because once they're gone, that's it.  And it's so sad, maybe to see a grandmother out there that maybe their grandkids are being not very nice to them, or being rude to them.  It makes you want to cry.  And sometimes you have some older men—this is in their seventies, you know, their late seventies—they come in the trading post and they exchange jokes.  You know how they grab each other.  I just feel like crying, because you don't see that anymore.  (laughs)  I think I learned to value that, that these people are the last of it and you won't see any more.  And I think this is the only place here, too, that you will see Grandpa or Grandma riding a horse and hitching their horse outside, or maybe chasing their sheep across there.  You don't see that very much anywhere else.  It's an era that is fast going, and I'm just glad to be a part of it, I guess—a very small part of it.

Underhill:  Why do you think those changes are happening, where young people are not as interested in traditions, and maybe not being respectful of their elders the way previous generations have been?

Jensen:  I think a lot of it just has to do with the previous generation:  they're not teaching it and they're not enforcing it upon the new generation.  With the grandmas and grandpas, they had a hard life and they had to do things every day—they had to get up early and they had to go tend to their livestock.  And nowadays you don't see the kids doing that, they don't have responsibilities.  They go to school, of course, and they come back and watch TV.  There's a lot of loose time on their part, I guess.  And that's why I think they don't learn to be respectful.  There's just really nothing for them to do.

 

***

 

Jack Manning:

 

Cole:  What would you say you're most proud of as a trader?

Manning:  I guess of the trust that a lot of Navajo people have in me, and that I've never been dishonest with 'em.  I probably have—not probably, I do have— more Navajo friends than I have Anglo friends, because I've spent my life with 'em.  They're a good people.  They've adopted, I guess, some of our ways, and some of 'em haven't been good.  But the older people, I think their word was their bond.  What they told you was what it was.  Maybe we all do.  Race has nothing to do with it.  I think as a country, we've become more dishonest people—"don't hurt to lie about it a little," you know.  That's just maybe a bad lifestyle that we've got into.  I enjoy seeing my Navajo friends.  I'm not involved at the pawn shop as much as I was—our daughter runs it, and she's worked with us for probably twelve years or fourteen years.  But when I am down there, I go down on the first of the month to help, I see 'em come in, we have a good time.  We visit and we do it in English—we don't do much in Navajo.  I've forgot most of the Navajo that I ever did know.  But it is getting to the point where I wanted....  I was down there maybe two months ago and a gentleman came in and I asked him, "What can I do for you?"  He said, "Ach, I don't want to deal with you, I want to deal with your daughter, she knows what's going on."  I said, "I finally got this thing where I want it!"
 
In the early times I used to get so upset.  They'd come in and they'd want to do business with my dad, and they just wouldn't let Chuck or I do it.  I mean, they'd wait all day.  My dad would get—he said, you know, "Do something in here!  I've got 'em backed up."  I said, "They won't let me.  I've asked 'em, and they just want to do business with [you]."  It was kind of that way as my daughter first started comin' in with us—they wouldn't let her wait on 'em, and I'd have to tell 'em, "She knows what she's doin', she's my daughter, she's okay."  Then when I got that, "I don't want to do business with you, I want to do it with your daughter," we're gettin' where we need to be.
 

***

 

Bruce Burnahm:

 

You know, in making a closing statement here, I would tell you that traders, in my opinion, deal by decades.  The first ten years of your career you spend learning how to be a trader and learning how to turn a maximum profit on every deal you make.  The second ten years you're on the reservation or in the area, you begin to lighten up a little and see the broader picture.  You're not quite as motivated by profit as you used to be.  You're getting to where you're a little bit more concerned with the community and the members of the community.  Well, by the third [decade], you've got a lot of kids that are calling you grandpa and you're a respected member of the community.  And so more and more of the liability of that falls on your shoulders.  It becomes a liability at a certain point.  And so you even begin to pay less attention to the bottom line, and more into just what's good for all of us.
 
The fourth decade—that's forty years—by then, you're locked into it, you're at home, you're right where you feel at home.  Most of your customers you've helped raise, everybody refers to you as being Grandfather or Grandpa—you're the community's grandpa.  By then you're starting to give back some of the treasure that you amassed, you're starting to feed it back into the community, just as a humanitarian interest you have in those people that you've become such a part of.  And then there's the trader that stays five decades.  In that fifth decade he gives it all back, he dies broke, but he's happy because he had a great life where he was at, enjoyed his affiliation with all those people, and had no qualms about feeding it all right back into the community again.
 
That might be quite a bit exaggerated, but I think you could apply that to almost every trader.  And you could find the trader, like old Jim McJunkins [phonetic spelling] that spent fifty-some years on the reservation.  Very successful trader, but at different levels.  His success was measured differently.  And when he finally left, he didn't have anything.  He didn't leave, he died while he was there.  I tried to buy his store one time.  We got down to the bank to close the deal, and he got up, nervous, and walked around, and came back and he said, "Bruce, I can't sell it to you.  I've got no place to go.  There's no other place for me to go.  I've been there fifty years and I've got no place to go.  That's home to me.  I'm sorry.  If I owe you something for your discomfort or for the trouble you went to, I'll pay you, but I can't leave."  And his wife had Parkinson's disease, and they had no desire to be anywhere else.  So that's when I came to realize....  And he'd spent all of his career at that one place.  So you can imagine what a part he was of that community.
 
And it's kind of a sobering thought, to think of it in those terms, but basically, that's what it is.  If you see a trader that was in an area twenty years, he was pretty successful and left with a pocketful of money.  One that was thirty years, he was real successful and he still had a pocketful of money.  But when you start seeing the traders that stayed in an area forty and fifty years, you started seeing traders like Jim McJunkins or the Smouses out at Borrego Pass.  They just end up staying so long that it all just finally just turned in on itself and funnelled right back to whence it came.  And that's always intrigued me about traders, of how some of 'em got out there and got caught up in what they were doing, and unbeknownst to them, they just really became Navajos in every aspect of the word....

 

Someone referred to me as a mustang the other day, and I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, you're a dying breed." We truly are. And we're just one of many, many businesses in the United States that have made the crossover into the computer age and not survived it. It was more pronounced for us, because we went from seeing our customers riding in a wagon to data processing, in forty years. That's a tremendous change. It hasn't been that long since I've seen Navajos coming into the store in a wagon. And just the other day my wife and I were driving across the reservation, it was about ten o'clock at night, and we were driving along and feeling a little melancholy, I guess, and we were thinking about what it was like to look out there and see a street light at a hogan, with three pickups parked there--no wagon in the yard, and a bright light inside the hogan window... 

She became quite melancholy about it, and reminiscent of days when she would come in from herding sheep all day, and come over the hill into view of the hogan and see a wisp of smoke coming up through the smoke hole at the top of the hogan, and see the warm glow of a kerosene lamp in the window, and just smelling that smoke. She could also, in her mind, smell some ribs cooking over the coals inside the hogan, and the coffee boiling over, and the smell of the fry bread being made.

That's one of the real warm moments I have to remember about my wife, is that recollection of what life was like. Just that simple thing of how she felt when she saw a hogan, and how alarmed she was now to realize when we're driving across the reservation to see all these street lights and satellite dishes. (laughs) That's in a short space of time .... And to think of how that has affected their lifestyle, being caught between those two. The availability of our world, and still caught in the cultural identity of their world. 

So it's been quite a switch... I see the young Navajos today as really being between a rock and a hard spot, so to speak. They've shed their traditional ways, and they're not quite able to fit into this idealistic picture that they've been shown on TV or in school. They've seen that carrot dangling out at the end of the stick. Well, they can't quite get their hand on it.

And in order to get their hand on it, they're going to have to sever ties with the reservation and the culture that they were raised in, in order to compete in that dominant society that has all those candied apples and cotton candy and all the glitz and glamour of modern technology.

So I see the reservation as being two generations away from losing the language right now. When that language is lost, the Navajo people are going to become a generic tribe of Indians. They're going to be part of the "Powwow Indian Group," of just Indians that want to maintain Indian identity... When they lose that--I think that when they lose that cultural identity, that's when we're going to be threatened with the fact that rug weaving is a dying art, because it's the cultural identity that keeps the weaving alive today. It's not a matter of economics. So if it dies, it's gonna die from within... 

My wife remembers going to bed at night to the sound of that (tapping) tap of packing the wool in a loom, and waking up in the morning to that same sound of her mother getting up early and weaving a little bit before her day starts. Those are sounds that make an impact on a child. When that child grows up then, and their earliest memories are that of being strapped in the cradleboard and leaning up against the wall of the hogan and listening to the mother weave, that rhythm of that weave become so ingrained in 'em that it gives 'em an aptitude or inclination to be a weaver when they grow up. When that ceases to exist, they will cease to become weavers. So we could very well be in the last stages of Navajo weaving as we know it today. And it's not because of any other thing than that of the loss of the.... It's not the loss of sheep that's gonna bring it to an end--it'll be the loss of a way of life and a cultural identity that does us in.


 

***

Bud Tansey:
 
 

Tansey:  Well, I think the Indian Traders Association really has become defunct, because it doesn't serve a purpose anymore.  Trading has changed so much.  And at one time we changed the name of the United Indian Traders Association to Navajo Business Association.

Foutz:  That's right, Navajo Business Association.

Cole:  Indian Country Business.

Foutz:  Yes, okay, that's right.

Tansey:  And then we changed it back to United Indian Traders.  I was not the instigator of that change, and I can't remember who was.  But the reason that that was made was because the traders were beginning to lose interest in it, and they thought they could get other business people besides traditional traders as members, and thought they could get some Navajo as members.  And there were some Navajos who were beginning to get trading posts, and they were getting in businesses and all.  I think everybody wanted to see the Traders Association go on, and they could just see that it just wasn't.  And probably because of changes in regulations, changes of operations, and changes of travel and communications, it just is something that has seen its time, and its time has kind of passed.  There's not the same reason for it that there was, even ten or fifteen years ago.  I wouldn't see that that situation is going to go back to the way it was, or ever be the same at all.  I don't think you can keep an Indian Traders Association really going anymore.

 

***
 

Colina Yazzie:


Our first business location was up on Hill Street, which is just about four blocks south of where we're at now. We started slowly. We just only had a few, maybe one showcase of jewelry and some rugs that were on consignment from different places. We didn't get many customers, it was very slow there. But we traveled to a lot of different shows and we met people and found out during the year when business was slow, they still called us and wanted things. So if it weren't for them, we wouldn't be in business right now.

And Bill Malone really helped us out a lot, too. Every time we needed assistance, needed to sell something, we always went to him and he was very kind to help us, and always purchased something from us.

And then later I worked.... Since the business was very slow, then I worked with the Richardsons, just down the street from here, for about maybe a couple of years. That was a part-time job for me, and we still had the business and still sent things out through the mail. About last year was when we really-you know, the kids were a little bit older, and they really didn't need a lot of the attention they needed when they were smaller. So we decided we were going to try to do it full-time, and it turned out we still needed to do shows, and still needed to go and take care of the kids. And so the business, our family came first. If we had to close to go for appointments or go travel somewhere to sell something, or do shows, we'd just close the store and went. And every year has been a little bit better, a little bit better, business has been building.

So this year, since we moved here, changing our name from "Yazzie Trading Company", to "Yazzie's Indian Art", and then moving to this location where we've always wanted to be, we expect business to be even better. So we're thinking about opening full-time, and the kids can come in and run the business with us, now that they're a little bit bigger and don't need a lot of attention. They can just kind of be here when we're here. It works out for us. [I get] a lot of support from my husband, because he's the one that when I first told him that I would like to have a store, he said, "Well, let's just do it!" And I'm really glad that we did, and we hope to have a successful business and things continue to get even better, as they have within the last five years….

Cole: If you could tell an Anglo about what they should understand about Navajos, what would you tell them?

Yazzie: About Navajos?

Cole: Yeah, just about your culture, your religion.

Yazzie: It's very hard from my point of view. The only time I try to describe or either tell about-if they've run into certain situations where they have questions about what the person was trying to do or say, or the way they were treated, then I try to explain to them how the Navajo culture is. Growing up at the time that I did, I'm able to understand the more modern ways of life. And then at the [same] time, I also remember the traditional ways of life….

Traditional way of life, a lot of things are not brought out into the open. For instance, there were some missionaries who came (chuckles) and visited a Navajo family, and these missionaries came there and they came to visit us. We were asking about their experience, having to go to these Navajo homes. This one missionary talked about how much he enjoyed being around the people and being invited to their traditional ceremonies. And one of the things that really stood out in his mind was, he was invited to a baby's first laugh. And when he got there, he said he was invited to come and butcher sheep, and he did. He said it was interesting how the whole thing is done. The family was very traditional, and they did the first laugh party. But not everybody is open to doing things like that. For instance, there are probably other people who wouldn't, if they were asked to help butcher a sheep, they wouldn't do it. They would just maybe leave, or really wouldn't want to be there. So there's people who accept the traditional ways of life, and then there are others who don't want to get involved….

Cole: If you could change your life in any way, would you?

Yazzie: If I were to change my life in any way?

Cole: Uh-huh.

Yazzie: The first thing that comes to my mind is if I could, I would like for my children to speak Navajo. I would like to have them speak Navajo and learn more about the traditions. Because of the way I grew up, it was very hard for me to teach them the traditional ways, and to even teach them to speak their own language. They know very little. They know some words, but they don't know how to speak their own native language.

I really wouldn't change a lot, because so far I've really enjoyed my life, just the way it's been.