Bill Beaver

Bill Beaver

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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 live with."

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 area.

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 had.

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?

Cole: Uh-huh.

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 in Oklahoma

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 yet?

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 the room?

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 stone axe?

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.

Coody: Right.

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 yes.

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 believe him.

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.