High School Government, Economics, and United States History Lesson on Navajo Traders after WWII

David Nicoletti
Sinagua High School teacher
Flagstaff, Arizona

Coconino High School teacher Jon Edwards contributed to the initial lesson design during a Teaching American History Grant Summer Academy, hosted by the Page Unified School District and Northern Arizona University in July 2004. Sinagua High School students completed the lesson; their work added to the final product. NAU history professor Linda Sargent Wood edited and offered suggestions throughout the project.


This high school lesson uses the Northern Arizona University Cline Library Archival Exhibition Traders:  Voices from the Trading Post to solve a "historical puzzle."  It highlights research and analytical thinking skills.  The lesson may be used in U.S. history, economics, or government classes.  Students research oral histories and an actual court case to discover changing trends in the relationships between the government, trading posts and the Navajo people.

Teacher's Background Information:

After the Navajo signed a treaty with the U.S. Government in 1868 and resettled on a large reservation that eventually spanned parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, their needs were subject to federal regulations.  Licensed traders established trading posts to exchange goods and provide some services.  These trading posts were the primary contact with the industrialized market for most Navajos.  Relationships that the Navajos had with Anglo trading post owners and officials from the BIA were shaped by Navajo culture, the environment and climate of the Southwest, and Anglo-American cultural viewpoints and products. 

Conditions prior to WWII on the Navajo Reservation were dismal compared to the rest of the nation.  Subsistence farming and herding was the main occupation for Navajos.  Barter was the means of exchange.  Pawn items and livestock were the major sources of income in most Navajo families.  There were few jobs and only a basic education was offered at regional boarding schools.  Navajos were treated like second class citizens on their own land.  Traders controlled their access to the national market through the determining of credit lines to families, offering limited brand names in their stores, and overseeing the sales of traditional handmade goods and livestock animals.

The social, economic, and political factors that led to the changes in trading relations were complex and diverse.   World War II was a catalyst for alterations in social values and tastes.  Navajos, just like other Americans returning from war or war-related work, had greater expectations.  New job opportunities opened on the reservation and areas around it.  The effects of the civil rights movement were beginning to be felt nationwide.  Society became more mobile as more cars were purchased and new highways were built.  More people, tourists and collectors, desired indigenous products from silver buckles to rugs.  Economically, consumer groups demanded government rules on the market.  This impacted public disclosure regulations on lending laws, truth in loan applications and changes to credit.  In addition, government policies encouraged tribal governments to make economic deals and use more funding strategies.  Tribes became more financially independent as well as politically more democratic.  All of this led to the end of the traditional barter system and a greater integration of the Navajo nation into the national economy. Trading posts and the barter system became a symbol of the past.

The "Traders: Voices from the Trading Post Teacher's Guide" should be consulted to prepare for this lesson.  You may also want to view a map of the Navajo reservation which may be found on the NAU Cline Library Special Collection web site or the Navajo treaty of 1868.


The purpose of this student-centered activity is to confront the students with a "historical puzzle."  How did relationships change between the Navajos and the Trading Posts after World War II?  The discovery method of using online archival oral histories and primary source documents will help the students understand the historian's process of using various sources to grasp a complex situation. The amount of data also forces the students to read for "useful" information. This historical puzzle should go beyond just comprehension of historical trends. It can also lead students to analyze and evaluate U.S. policies and regulations.

The question of changing trade practices and relations among the Navajos opens several pathways of research, and it fits into various high school social studies curriculum.  The events and social changes that occurred after World War II make it possible to use this material in a U.S. History class.  When the activity was originally designed it was for an economics class.  The changes in barter/pawn, Navajo economic progress, and new federal economic regulations make this a great lesson for students to explore complex economic causes and effects.  The material can also be applied to study the effects of federal policy.  In an American Government class, this activity can connect federal policy and tribal relations in Arizona. It could also be used as an example of the social and economic effects resulting from the policies and regulations of the various levels of our government.

Arizona State Standards


1SS-P2. Demonstrate knowledge of research sources and apply appropriate research methods, including framing open-ended questions, gathering pertinent information, and evaluating the evidence and point of view contained within primary and secondary sources.

PO 1. Identify community resources that preserve historical information--such as libraries, museums, historical societies, a courthouse, the worldwide web, family records, elders—and explain how to access this knowledge
PO 2. Identify an author's argument, viewpoint, or perspective in an historical Account
PO 3. Distinguish "facts" from author's opinions, and evaluate an author's implicit and explicit philosophical assumptions, beliefs, or biases about a subject
PO 4. Compare and contrast different accounts of the same event, including hypothesizing reasons for differences and similarities, authors' use of evidence, and distinctions between sound generalizations and misleading oversimplifications

4SS-P3. Describe how households and firms are interdependent and how their relationship is affected by trade, exchange, money, and banking, with emphasis on: 

PO 1. why voluntary exchange occurs only when all participating parties expect to gain from the exchange
PO 2. the role and interdependence of households, firms, and government in the circular flow model of economic activity
PO 3. the role of entrepreneurs in market economy and how profit is an incentive that leads entrepreneurs to accept the risks of business failure
PO 4. the role of financial institutions and securities markets


1SS-P12. Analyze the development of the American West and specifically Arizona, with emphasis on:

PO 3. the effects of development on American Indians and Mexican Americans, including Indian Wars, establishment of reservations, and land displacement

1SS-P16. Analyze the impact of World War II and the Cold War on United States foreign policy, with emphasis on:

PO 5. Arizona's industrial development, movement to the suburbs, and growth in the "Sunbelt"

1SS-P18. Apply the skills of historical analysis to current social, political, geographic, and economic issues facing the United States, with emphasis on:

PO 1. impact of changing technology on America's living patterns, popular culture, and the environment, including the impact of automobiles, dams, and air-conditioning to Arizona's development


2SS-P7. Analyze the division and sharing of power within the federal system of government, with emphasis on:

PO 2. state sovereignty, the reserved powers, and the resulting conflicts between federal, state, and local governments (The Federalist Number 45)
PO 4. The sovereignty of tribal governments


1st Day:
Introduce the topic and research with a few comments on the effects of policy on society.  Students can come up with examples.  Start, for example, with the current Spotted Owl preservation rules on timber sales and the closing of lumber mills around Flagstaff.  After the students have a copy of the assignment I would begin with reading a paper copy or an overhead from the Trader's Teacher's Guide (p. 63):

During the early part of the twentieth century, a barter economy was in place on the Navajo Reservation.  Credit accounts at the trading post were paid with pawned items such as jewelry, rugs, or sheep. When trading post customers needed cash, the trader often furnished it against the pledge of personal property the customer brought in to pawn. Traders gained favor among their communities when they kept pawn after it was declared "dead" (forfeited for nonpayment). Some pieces of pawn remained in the pawn safe at the trading post even after repayment; it was safer there than in a remote unguarded hogan.                  

Read, or have a student read, this section aloud.  Discuss the terms pawn and dead pawn.  Pose the historic puzzle and describe how historians must research and analyze data to propose possible solutions to such issues.  Groups of three would be assigned.  Discuss how the five assigned questions are to guide their research and help them formulate a response to the "puzzle."  Then go to the computer lab.  Each student could be given a part the research:  One doing the Pawn/Credit section, another the Looking Back section, and the third the documents. In the lab the class would work online or with a packet of the documents.

2nd Day:
Discuss what social conditions changed in the U.S. after WWII and what changes occurred in Arizona after WWII.  The teacher background from the Traders' Exhibit may help guide this discussion or students can "brainstorm" possible shifts.  Then return to the lab for more historical work.

3rd Day:
Review the five questions and discuss the framework for the essay.  Tie the lesson to the relevant curriculum:  economics, government, or history.  The federal policies of increased tribal sovereignty and customer protection can be discussed in the government class.  The events/laws and social changes could be detailed for a U.S. history class and the economic changes of job opportunity and Navajo Nation credit programs could be discussed in an economics class.   Deadline for the essay in two to three days.

Pawn/Credit Trends on the Navajo Reservation


Write a five-paragraph essay on the following question after completing the guided research on the topic.  Describe the changes in trading relations among the Navajo and Trading Posts after World War II.  Include the changes in pawn/credit relations, the laws, and social conditions.

Directions: Research and answer the five questions in groups of three using

  1. Traders: Oral History. We will use the sections on Trade Goods and Services; Pawn/Credit and Looking Back; 1950-1975.
  2. Three documents from the NAU Special Collections:

Questions for Research

  1. Why did Navajos use barter and pawn?
  2. What were the problems Navajos felt over pawn?
  3. Prior to World War II, what was the Navajo economy like?
  4. In the 1940s and 1950s, what changes began to affect the Navajo economy?
  5. What were other social and economic trends in America that would affect the Navajos and the Trading Posts after World War II?

Rubric for Grading Five Paragraph Essays

Aligned to the AIMS Expository and Persuasive Writing Applications and Six Trait Analytic Writing Rubric, found online at the Arizona Department of Education web site:


Introduces topic and issues. Gives historical background: 1  point
States provable thesis: 6 points
Provides proof statements (3 generalized items): 1 point
Total Possible Introduction Points = 8


  • Contains three paragraphs
  • Begins each paragraph with topic sentence that includes restatement of the generalized proof statement
1 point per paragraph
Uses relevant information that is;
  • historically accurate
  • supports the proof statement with logical evidence
    (includes when possible documents and outside information)
3 points per paragraph
Total possible Body (for all 3 paragraphs) points = 12


Reviews/generalizes the three proofs
Presents any final observations
Total Possible Conclusion Points =  8

Writing Style:

Uses proper grammatical conventions for writing
Has sentence fluency within paragraphs and between major ideas
Maintains clear focus of content and ideas
Makes good word choice
Follows organizational format provided
Maintains and academic and logical voice  throughout
Total Possible Writing Style Points = 8

            Total Possible Points Overall = 36



"Traders: Voices from the Trading Post," Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona.  Online. Accessed August 2004.

"The Lending Program of the Navajo Tribe," Raymond Blair Collection, Series 2, Box 3, NAU Special Collections.

"Proposed Code of Fair Trade Practices," Raymond Blair Collection, Series 2, Box 3, NAU Special Collections.

Lola Bedoni and Madelaine Bedoni V Virginia Lee Smith and Oljato Trading Post 1973 United Indian Traders Association.


Iverson, Peter.  Diné:  A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

McNitt, Frank.  The Indian Traders.  Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Powers, Willow Roberts.  Navajo Trading:  The End of an Era.  Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

Supplemental Information:

"Native American History and Culture," Smithsonian Institution. Online. Accessed October 15, 2004.

National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. Online. Accessed October 17, 2004.

Navajo History TimelineOnline. Accessed October 17, 2004.