Full Transcript in Text Format
Listen to Bill Beaver
Cole: Bill, we like to start right at the very beginning: when and where
were you born?
Beaver: January 9, 1925, in a Lutheran hospital in Los Angeles,
California. That makes me seventy-five.
Cole: What brought you to the Southwest?
Beaver: My father. His parents and family were in Oklahoma, and
we used to go back and forth, and he loved the area, and likewise I got
into it real good. I'm very hazy on dates. I do remember the Grand Canyon,
being on horseback up there. And I think that was about 1930-31, somewhere
in that neck of the woods. We went over to Hopi country, and then I remember
being back. I remember coming to Wupatki, I think, about 1936 or so, and
there was no road, we just kind of wandered around out in that area. There
was a guy named Davey Jones, who was at Wupatki, and I remember gettin'
some early pictures of that.
Then as a teenager, my first impact I think really got to me was I remember
the Gallup Intertribal Ceremony, and being over there by myself, and some
Navajo guy, some old guy, couldn't speak English--I couldn't speak Navajo--but
he was showin' me around, and then I stayed with a Hopi family who I ended
up spending most of the time with. The reason that I can pinpoint was
because a war broke out. (chuckles) Not while I was there, but shortly
thereafter. So in 1942 I was still too young to go in, and I went up and
stayed at Hopi for a whole summer, herding sheep, helping farm, and stuff
like that, and really thought that was great.
In 1943, somebody pointed the finger and said, "I want you!"
(chuckles) I don't remember his last name, but his first name was Sam.
(laughter) And I got back in 1946 and went up and stayed the summer, and
tried to get into the University of Arizona. They said, "Nah, we
don't want you." Went over to Albuquerque, and University of New
Mexico said, "Any time--start." So I started that summer in
Chaco Canyon. I always point to that time period as this is when I really
saw Navajo pottery. And for some reason, here I'm in a canyon with probably
some of the most beautiful pottery in the Southwest, working for the university
for the first month or so, going to school on the GI Bill the other couple
of months, and I fell in love with this pottery.
…. So that summer I returned back to Hopi. When I was staying up there,
I learned silversmithing from an old Hopi named Washington Talayumptewa.
I could say that was when we first started trading, I started learning
about it, because he would make up silver, we'd go out, and his niece
made boxes--oh, huge boxes, of piki paper bread, you know. And we went
off, always to the east, trading bread, trading peaches, cots, dried cots,
corn meal, and he'd have his silver, and trading with Navajos out through
Greasewood and all the way down in that country, getting sheep, coming
back, putting the sheep in the corral at Shongopovi, and then get started
all over again, and hit the road again. So this [is how] I got to understand
the trading thing.
The family also used to go to the Gallup Intertribal Ceremony and set
up a booth. Gee, I wish there was trading that way today! So they wanted
Hopi pottery to take to the tribal ceremonial for there. So we took sacks
of beans over to First Mesa, Polacca, and it was fascinating. How they
would get their pot is they'd take a bowl, fill it with beans, slice it
off level, pour it in the woman's apron, and then they'd keep the pot.
They were trading beans for pots. (laughs) At today's prices, you could
buy a whole bean farm!
That's where they taught me about how to tell a good piki batter bowl,
that it was all in the rim. The women are always taking the extra dough
off on their hands, by rubbing it on the rim. And if the rim's too sharp,
it gets to the fingers. If it's too rounded, it won't take the dough off.
It's gotta be just right. And they said, "Most of these young people
don't know how to make a good one." And I don't know of anybody today
that uses that criteria, so they probably don't even do it. So the piki
bowls I've seen at that village now are older ones, probably coming from
about that time period. I don't know if there's any new ones. So I learned
all of that.
One time we traded all the way into Laguna. I remember sleeping next to
the truck on the ground with the silversmith, at a village called Paraje,
and those ladies over there piled in to get that piki bread, because they
weren't making much of it there. Then we went clear on into Isleta and
spent the night in Isleta, and I got to know that town pretty well.
So those are sort of my basic trading days. Later--I can't remember the
exact date--1949 somehow sticks in my head--I went to work at Walnut Canyon
as a summer temporary ranger. That's 'cause you had to have a degree,
and I did. I used to always say, "With this degree and fifty cents,
I could get coffee anywhere." Today I'd need a dollar, wouldn't I?
Okay, well I got the same degree. If you ever go to Walnut Canyon, go
to the old museum. You'll see a beautiful sandstone patio thing out at
the overlook. Well, I helped set that. There was a guy named Harper, he
was from Klagetoh, a Navajo guy. We hauled sandstone from Ash Fork up
there, and he showed me how to set that. We did some of the stairs down.
And for that, I got paid twice as much as I did being a dude herder in
a Smokey Bear hat. (laughter) So that's when I really got onto stonework.
From there, I met Mildred Heflin. Well, I went to work for the museum
up here for the second annual Navajo Show. The first one, Katherine Bartlett,
was trying to do it all on her own. She couldn't do it, because she had
to be at the museum and she had to be out in the field. So I went out
in the field at that time. The show was called the Western Navajo--not
the Navajo Show [that occurs today]--and we went to the western stores,
starting here with Black Falls, Cameron, and on up that way, up to Oljato,
and brought stuff back to the museum. And that's when I ran into Navajo
pottery on this side, at Shonto, and I got to know the Heflins.
And Mildred, after the show, wanted to know if I'd go to work. So I finished
the work at Walnut Canyon, so I went to Shonto. That was my first so-called
trading post. Did a heavy wool season up there in those days. Shonto was
big sheep families. We were gettin' 'em down from Navajo Mountain, Inscription
House. She was Stokes Carson's daughter, and they were really into sheep.
Cleaned the shelves one time. Mildred came out there and said, "Well,
how's it goin'?" I said, "All that wool stacked out there, I
got nothin' to sell." And then she wanted me to take the boards down
and start selling the lumber! (laughter)
So anyway, while I was there, I also did--there was a guy up at Inscription
House, Walt Scribner. I relieved him while I took time off, so I got to
know a little bit about the Inscription House. Totally different atmosphere,
totally different situation at that store than there is at Shonto. And
I always thought I liked the little stores, but I left Shonto because
a friend of mine in New Mexico got a deal over there on surplus commodities
and welfare and stuff. The state started taking over from the feds, and
he wanted me to come back to New Mexico and work for him, and I told him
I really didn't want to. So he said, "Well, I'm on my way to Phoenix.
Maybe we can get Arizona to pick you up." I said, "This I could
So originally we were supposed to set up in Keams Canyon; I quit Shonto,
moved to Keams Canyon; they weren't there; and then a phone call said,
"Move to Phoenix." I spent five years in Phoenix, with my territory
up here on the reservation. So I got lots of per diem, driving back and
forth. Some days my per diem checks were bigger than my paychecks. But
the beauty part of that was I got to hit every trading post or supervisor's
office on the Arizona part of the reservation, and went into New Mexico
because a lot of times we'd have to stay in Gallup to catch 'em on that
border between the two states; or we'd stay at Shiprock to catch that
Four Corners area. So while I wasn't working there, I would get to know
a lot of that border area. And of course I knew something about the Chaco
Cole: You were working for the State?
Beaver: Yeah, State of Arizona. That came under the Navajo-Hopi
Rehabilitation Act, which was ninety-eight cents on the dollar was federal
funds. And it was a real good deal, and I heard a lot of people gripe
about it. I said, "Look, Arizona puts up two pennies, and somebody
else puts up the ninety-eight pennies, and the whole dollar is spent here
in Arizona. You can't beat that, unless you got a stick in your hand!"
(laughter) So why are they bitchin'? And that included the administrative
costs: my salary, the gasoline, and all of this, because we were driving
State vehicles. This was beautiful. We just had aid to dependent children,
old age, and blind. Child welfare and all that kind of stuff, BIA still
I remember at Shiprock, there was a guy up there--doesn't matter what
his name is--and he was the government worker. We drove out through the
Sweetwater area. We had to go through the Four Corners to get to Arizona.
His interpreter wasn't workin' that day, so the two of us went and we
got down there. This old man came up, and we were sittin' in the vehicle,
and he talked to me, and I listened to him, I asked him a few questions,
and then I turned to this--oh, Everett, Everett was his first name--I
said, "This is one of your cases, probably general assistance."
So he said, "Well, what's the guy's name?" And I said, "He
said it was in the book." (laughter) That was all. You asked him,
"Oh, it's in the book." The guy said, "Open the book up,
find their case numbers and stuff." So I was surprised. "Everett,
how long have you been out here?" "Fifteen years." "And
you still don't know how to ask the man his name?" "No."
"Okay, I'll interpret for you. And that just shows you, you have
faith, 'cause I could tell you anything." (laughter) Always remember
that when you're working with an interpreter--they can make or break you.
I remember being around Shiprock because of that. A lot of the records
I needed to check out and stuff, because Shiprock, some agency came in.
The feds weren't worried about state lines, we had to be. So that was
great, I really got to see an awful lot of country, and got to travel
a lot. This is when I met Art Lee up at Salina Springs. So a lot of those
traders I remember kept telling me, "Anytime you want to quit that,
you can come to work for me."
Well, politics always changes everything in this state, so BIA said, "We
want you at Fort Defiance." And I hated living in Phoenix, so I said,
"All right, I'm your boy." I checked into Gallup and they said,
"No, there's been a change. You gotta go to Crownpoint, New Mexico."
So I went to Crownpoint, New Mexico, and that was my introduction to what
they call the checkerboard area. Are you familiar with the checkerboard?
Beaver: Okay. It was so messed up over there, because there was
state land, federal land, which would be, say, Indian Service land, and
then Bureau of Land Management. And there were some sections that were
Santa Fe Railroad. And the jurisdiction thing was enough to send you up
a tree. If you found a dead body out there, you had to bring in a surveyor
to find out what cop you called. (laughter) "Well, his head's here,
and his feet...." (laughter)
I think the most fun was tracking down--they have what they called the
individual Indian money accounts. This was when the leases were getting
real hot and heavy out in there--coal, uranium, and stuff--and these companies
would want to lease ground, and BIA would say, "Well, let's see,
we've got an allotment in there," or "we've got a block of allotments,
and the money will have to go to the heirs." Well, the ridiculous
thing is, because it was federal, we had to go bilateral. We had to go
down through the father's side and the mother's side. And the Navajo always
figured on the mother's side, and we were havin' all sorts of problems
there, because you'd say, "Well, we got these kids, and we go to
auntie and their orphans." "Well, their mother was my sister,
blah, blah, blah." "Well, who's the father?" "He was
from somewhere over that way, up toward Shiprock. And after she died,
he moved somewhere else." And they don't keep track of that side
of the family.
And then we had some cases where BIA had not probated the estates, going
back into the twenties. Now, we had to pick up a trail in the twenties
and try and sort it out. It got real devastating. I wasn't involved in
the money, per se--I was just trying to find out who was who, because
a lot of Navajos were living on allotted ground that wasn't theirs--they
lived on somebody else's. And that family was many, many miles over the
other way, living on somebody else's allotment. But they could care less.
In the earlier days, they just, "Well, we've been movin' around all
this time." So we ended up with many allotments that were totally
fractured. We had quite a lot of descendants, and they were getting like
one-fortieth of the proceeds.
And then I had three girls who were orphans, and tracing out on their
father's side, there was a lot of allotments going from their father into
the grandfather. Same thing on the mother's side. And those gals were
gettin' about--they were drawing off of several allotments, and each girl
was getting around $35,000-$40,000 a year, and they're just schoolkids.
So what the superintendent over there was doing was putting the money
into government bonds and holding for them. And they were in boarding
school since they were orphans, so we'd cut checks off for like clothing
allotments and things like that. I never did see 'em, but that was very
interesting how they ended up with a piece of pie. Seemed like every allotment
that there was some shirttail relative had oil on it.(laughs) And these
other guys, on some allotments they'd strike oil and on other allotments
they'd drill a dry hole, called a "duster". So I found that
pretty neat, but I found workin' for the government impossible.
Cole: How did that work when it came to leasing? Would the people
having the allotment have any say as to whether they were going to allow
'em to drill for oil or not? Or was that a federal decision?
Beaver: I never knew how the releases were negotiated--probably
through a multitude of lawyers. You can be sure of that. (laughs) The
oil company's lawyers, the government lawyers, the tribal lawyers. Somewhere
in there, the people are supposed to get the benefit. Just how they determine
how much money was coming in, I always wondered about, too. I never saw
anybody out there checking to see how much oil those clowns were pumpin'--how
many thousand barrels. "Oh, we'll pay you on these last ten."
I mean, I'm not saying it happened, but I never saw anybody go making
checks on that.
….On my father's side, the only thing having to do with Indians, the
oldest brother told me that when he was a young whippersnapper there in
Oklahoma, they rounded up the last of the wild buffalo out on the panhandle
country and drove 'em into Concho, Oklahoma, on the Cheyenne Arapaho Reservation.
And then he said he also worked on one of the censuses down there, taking
census for Comanche and Kiowa--but I don't know if he ever spoke any of
that language. They definitely were not in the trading business there
I was the first one that drifted into this. Like I said, sometimes I never
quite think of myself as a trader. I know Navajo pottery was the one thing
that I really latched onto, and it was pretty well dead when I went to
Shonto. And when I was working that welfare thing, I chased it around.
I went to Chaco Canyon--those ladies were dead, there was no pottery around,
I don't know whatever happened to it. I don't know where that Glenn guy
ever went to. Up near Cove, I ran into a little old lady that made pottery.
She made probably the last of the painted pottery. I remember the date,
1955, and not being very flush with money, I bought like six pieces, and
I sold three of 'em to the Southwest Museum in L.A. for the total cost
of all six, so I got three of 'em free. I went back for some more, and
she had died, and her son said she used to sell down in Shiprock, but
I had no idea where it was. They didn't have any layin' around. And I'd
heard about Tule Bia's [phonetic spelling] mother in Del Muerto. So the
next time I had a chance at Chinle, I found him. He worked for the Park
Service, and he said his mother had died a couple of years before. So
traditional painted Navajo pottery, which is not this--this is not traditional
Navajo pottery, painted. That comes in later, tourist item.
And so he told me where to go down to their farmstead, where she had fired
her pottery, and I picked up a bunch of sherds, which are now in the Arizona
State Museum. Made it legal. And so that just left the Shonto people,
and I started buyin' pottery up there. Well, have you talked to Mildred
Cole: Yes, we have.
Beaver: Okay. She was interested in it, and said that they had
some there at the store. But I bought quite a few pieces of it. And her
husband wasn't happy, he didn't think we should be in the pottery business.
So I said, "All right, Ruben, I'll tell you what. Take it out of
my salary. I'll take all of these pots, and I want about three or four
days off." And he said, "Okay." I drove straight to Tucson,
went in and saw Mark Bahti's father, Tom Bahti. Have you heard of him?
Cole: Yeah, heard of him through Tom Woodard.
Beaver: Yeah. Well, Mark has done a lot of publications. Anyway,
I walked in to see ol' Tom and I said, "I've got about three cabbage
crates full of Navajo pottery outside. Are you interested?" And he
said, "I'll buy it all. Now let's go look at it." I thought
"This is the way I like to deal!" But he did. And that told
me that it could sell, there was a possible market out there for it.
Navajo pottery's always been very kind to me. I had built up a sizeable
Navajo pottery collection, which now resides in the Arizona State Museum.
I started collecting even before I had a store. And I don't know why,
certain pieces grabbed me and I put it in my collection. And I had this
humongous collection, and I had it in that back stone house, and I always
worried about it. I knew the collection was safe, because nobody knew
about it. But then people started getting to know about it, because I
had various guys from the university helping me here. And so one day I
went back there, and here was a jar (swish) fell off--pieces all over
the floor. Then I realized I worry about this. We were also thinking of
nailing chicken wire up, but I don't know, somehow you can't get to it.
So I called up this museum and.... Well, first of all, I talked with the
wife, and I had a Paiute basket collection, I had a Navajo pottery collection,
I had a doll collection. I was dealing with three tribes all the time.
And so we decided to sell the Paiute collection first. It was the smallest
one, the least amount of money. I said, "No matter how smart we think
we are, we're gonna make a mistake somewhere down the line. So let's put
this least one up." And sure enough, we made a mistake. That collection
is now in Osaka, Japan. Some guy in Tucson bought it. And then I talked
with that Turner guy, and he said, "God! I wish you'd told me about
it! I'd have given you double for it." "Oh, no!" Get some
smart pills out.
….So anyway, when I found it went to Japan, I still have mixed feelings
about that, 'cause I was down in Tucson, I used to go in and see Emil
Haury. He was a great ol' guy. I walked in, the wife and I were talkin'
to him, and he said, "Well, what have you been up to?" I said,
"Well, I just got rid of a Paiute collection." He said, "I
never saw it, but if I know you, it was a good collection. I wish you'd
let us have first shot at it." And I said, "Well, I talked to
the Museum of Northern Arizona, and they said they didn't have enough
money to buy one, much less the collection." So he said, "Why
didn't you approach us?" "Well, I didn't know you'd go for it."
He sounded pretty unhappy. And I said, "Well, I'll tell you what
I'm going to do, Emil. I'm going to go back and I'm going to put another
one together." And I did, and it was really a neat collection, but
there were still missing parts of the first collection, because some of
the individuals had died of old age, and you can't put it together.
So when the Navajo pottery collection, we decided to sell it, I did, I
offered it to the State Museum, they were interested. They said they would
get the funds, and where they got it from, I don't know. But they sent
two people up here to take a look, and both of 'em said, "Go for
it." So when we finished the deal, I said, "Well, it's your
collection, come and get it." (laughs) They said, "No, you bring
it down." And I said, "Fair deal." "And stick around
for about four or five days." What they wanted to do, was they wanted
to do what we're doing now, except we didn't have the video part--we had
the audio part--was to go over the collection.
There was a woman, Jan Bell, and boy, what a good interrogator. She got
stuff out of me I'd forgotten! We arranged those pots, we had a big room,
as big as this, with long tables, and I arranged the collection serially
by when I got 'em. So we had the older stuff at this end, the newer stuff
at that end. I'd go down and we'd talk about it. They'd already had their
numbers on 'em, so we'd talk about pot number such and such, and it could
be identified. The oldest one in there--and I think it's a stroke of luck--at
Shongopovi there was gonna be a marriage in this family, and they had
a little cubby hole on the side of one of the walls in the older part
of town, and it was sort of a crawlway/closet. The woman said,
"Well, that's sand bottom. Let's clean that room out." We started
toting sand out of there, until we got to the original room floor, which
was probably about two-and-a-half to three feet into the mesa top. So
this is gonna be one of the oldest rooms. And I got in there and it just
blew me away. The beams had been cut by a stone axe, and on three sides
of the walls in there were big old storage pots. And the lady said, "Well,
since you guys worked so good, take what you want." Of course, the
whole thing would be fine! (laughter) But I didn't.
[But] this pot that we took out of this house was probably about that
high. What's that? Three feet, two-and-a-half, somewhere in that neighborhood.
Very pointed bottom, grey, and it was extremely light. The walls on that
vessel were thinner than any of the Hopi pots. It was in there inverted,
upside down, because you couldn't stand it on its pointed base. And I
saw that and I said, "Can I have that one?" I got that one and
one other one, which was a typical Hopi culinary with the thick coil around
the rim stuff. This had a zigzag around the rim of the Navajo vessel,
which fit right in, there was a break in the pattern and stuff. That had
to be the oldest one in the collection. One of my best Navajo pottery
makers, we went over it, and she said, "You know, I can't remember
ever seeing anything like this. My mother taught me, and I remember my
grandmother, but they weren't making pottery like this. I never knew Navajos
made 'em this big and this thin." And I said, "Well, I haven't
seen any other than this one either. I've seen stuff in museums that were
dug up." So I always considered that a crown in the collection.
Cole: What age were you when you found [it]?
Beaver: This would have been probably around--could have been 1948,
1949, which isn't too long ago, unless you weren't born by then.
Cole: What brought you to the place where you were cleaning out
Beaver: Well, they were going to have a wedding there, and we were
getting the house cleaned up for it, and I was staying at the village
at that time. Sometimes I'd end up staying there for a week or two weeks.
I couldn't handle the outside world, and this was a great refuge for me,
shall we say.
Steiger: And how could you tell that the beams were cut with a
Beaver: Well, because a metal axe leaves a real clean cleavage.
The stone axe looks like some rodents had gnawed away at it. It doesn't
give you a nice clean cut.
Steiger: And so what age would that have put that at?
Beaver: Well, they moved to that location after the 1680 Pueblo
revolt. The village was down below the mesa, they moved up on top after
1680. Now, they could have been cut then. I don't imagine the Hopis had
a hell of a lot of steel axes in 1680. They could have been cut with a
stone axe at that time, or any time, ten years later or not. Or they had
pirated beams from the old village. They were dismantling the houses down
there and bringing the beams up for the new houses. So it could have come
out of that sector. They didn't have pickup trucks, and I don't think
they had any wagons, so getting your roof beams is a problem. So if they
stole 'em from down below, I can understand that.
Then the kachina doll collection…. I started with the kachina dolls way
back. I've been adding and adding. There was a gap in there. I was selling
an awful lot of dolls out of here. I knew I could get this from that carver;
and get that from that carver. So there was blank spaces in the collection.
And there was one old guy who was born and raised, he could remember the
breakup of Oraibi. When was that? In 1906.
Beaver: Yeah, he had said he was about ten years old when it broke
up. So he was making me dolls, and his dolls, I saved a lot of them. Now,
they were really, I don't know, I don't want to call them crude. They
were funky. He wasn't one of the great carvers like we have now, but I
wanted his dolls because here's a guy that I could say, "Have you
ever danced this, or have you ever seen this?" and the answer was
Now, these kids say, "Well, it's in the book. I copied this out of
such and such a book." Now, some of the books are wrong, but they're
right now, because if you repeat a mistake often enough, it becomes correct,
it's no longer a mistake. And this is what's happening in copying out
of the book, because so many gallery guys.... I had one call me and say,
"You sold me a doll of such and such, but he's not in the book!"
(laughter) I said, "What's that got to do with-who's book?!"
You know? And it hadn't dawned on him that there are a lot of kachinas
that aren't in the book, and maybe we should make a book of the kachinas
that ain't in the book. (laughter)
And then of course now, there's a lot of just made-up kachinas--there's
just no two ways about it. They're creating some, simply because there's
always a demand. A gallery owner will phone up Mr. Gotbucks and say, "Oh,
I've got this terrific doll in. It's the greatest thing." Because
you've always got to feed into what they want. I'd heard--some guy in
Tucson told me--he had seen an avocado kachina. How's that grab ya'? I
So some of the ways collecting is, I don't know, maybe there should be
a shutoff date. (chuckles) It's getting absolutely impossible. But the
doll collecting is still going on, because I do know that I had holes
in the collection, because I wasn't concentrating. But I never considered
it as close to the edge as Navajo pottery was when I started; nor as close
to the edge as I knew Paiute stuff was going. I knew that was gonna go
downhill, and there was no reversing the situation: First of all, because
the potters can turn out so much stuff, compared to a basket weaver. Now,
I've sat down with some of my potters and just in an afternoon, BS-ing,
these gals would shape maybe five or six very nice pots. I don't mean
little tiny ones--about that size--and they can, once the clay.... They
spend more time digging the clay, preparing the clay, but once you got
a tub of clay ready to go, they can put something together real fast.
The same thing with the carvers. I know some of my best carvers that turn
out dolls like that, because they know what they're doin', they don't
make a lot of false starts, they don't make a lot of mistakes, and they
can do it. Now, a basket weaver just can't weave that fast. It's a slow
process. And the same thing with rugs. And then the production of individuals,
like doll carvers usually have a certain repertoire of dolls that he knows.
And if they're honest with you, they'll say, "Oh, that belongs to
this village over there. I don't know that one." So there's no carver
that's going to be able to do the whole thing. So there again, collecting,
you could spend more time trying to find this stuff.