Elijah Blair

Elijah Blair

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Everything that happened in this community, say, of a radius of twenty miles or so, this was the hub. It all came into the trading post, and everybody met there, things were done. And you dealt, whether or not she had a rug to sell or to barter with, or they had an account already established with the trader previous to you. They would bring in their rugs to pay the account. Or they would sell a cow. You would be in there, and someone would say, "Well, Sam Begay has got a cow out here." So you go out to the corral and you would weigh or buy or look at--different methods of doing it--the cow, and then you would go in and he would take out pawn pay on his account, etc. This happened over and over.... If it was in wool season when they were shearing the sheep, then they would bring the wool in. Or lamb season, they would bring lambs in. Or if they ran out of food, they would bring lamb in to trade for merchandise... they would need flour and things they didn't have, like lard, baking powder, sugar, salt, stuff like this... And any products that they produced, whether it was farm products, livestock they raised, piñon nuts that they [gathered] if there was a piñon crop that year, rugs, saddle blankets, anything that they had... we furnished a market for it. It didn't matter... They met friends there, they made arrangements to have ceremonies or stuff like that. They would lots of time find the medicine man there. So they would hire him. This was the hub... And this was basically what we did, and we was there to take care of anything that they wanted, or if we didn't have it, we could get it.

And the biggest thing that I used to tell, when I hired lots of people like myself at Toadlena, over the past fifty years, and wannabe managers... I always told 'em, I said, "You know, you can get a job anywhere, but this is not just a place to make a living. This is a way of life. If you don't see that this is really a way of life, then don't try to come out here, just to make a living.


(chuckles) When I went from Toadlena, before I'd left Toadlena to Mexican Water, I went back to Kentucky and married Claudia, who was my high school sweetheart--we graduated from high school together. And then we brought her out to Toadlena.... Then Charles Herring's brother-in-law-- another brother-in-law of my brother Raymond--they hired me-- Jewel McGee and Roscoe McGee hired me to go and manage the store at Mexican Water. And Claudia and I, that was when they said, "Well, you know, we're going to pay you $200 a month, but we really expect your wife to work too." (laughter) So we went to [Mexican Water]....

When we got there, the next morning I get up and there's a new wagon sittin' out front. I go to the door and I figure, "Well, that's the store's wagon." But there was an old fellah there, a Navajo fellah that kept coming up and talking to me, and he kept pointin' at that wagon like he had his horse, he wanted to haul it off. And I kept sayin', "Where's the money?" So [I] talked to him, "Where's the money?" So this went on all day long. At noon he'd come back in, wantin' to haul off the wagon. Well, I wouldn't let him have it, 'cause he wouldn't pay me for it.... This went on for about three days, every day, the same thing. And my brother, Brad, was at Red Mesa--he and Carolyn. And Brad and Carolyn came down one night, and this old guy.... See, we always had a guest hogan at the tradin' post, for your customers when they came and they stayed in there. We even furnished coffee and the staples for them to stay in there. So he just camped there. He had his horses, and we put 'em in our corral. So he came down, and Brad had been there about two years longer than I had. He had come, I think, in '45, and so when he saw Brad, boy, he was really happy, 'cause he knew that Brad could speak Navajo. So he got up and he started talkin' to Brad. 

Well, come to find out, he had bought the wagon from the previous owner, and he had already paid for the wagon. (laughs) So I wouldn't let him have it. Then he found that he was just.... You know, a Navajo is the most tolerant person in the world, accepting person in the world, and he finally said, "Your ears are just round and nothing goes in!" (laughter) And that's when they first started calling me Jai or Jai Yazhi. And from then on, later on, they really started calling me either Jai or Jai Yazhi--little ears. A lot of the people called me Jai, and mostly Jai Yazhi. That's where I got my name, and it's been there fifty years later. 


Cole:What do you think separates a good trader from a bad one?

Well, I really think I'd rather talk about who the good trader was. The good trader. (chuckles) ….The good trader was one who went out there and he accepted the Navajo people, their lifestyle, their culture, their religion, their philosophy of life. He tried to understand it, and he tried to work with it, or fit it so that they could live together and understand each other, yet they was 180o opposed to each other in economic philosophy. Now, I think the good trader figured this out. See, he came out there, and he had no preconceived ideals. He wasn't the missionary type. Or he wasn't a social reformer, or whatever. He came, and he thought.... "Hey, you know, we've gotta live with these people. We can't set here and talk about 'em being good, bad, or whatever." We just learned to work with 'em and live with it. 

And then you had, as I said, the more progressive trader as the economy changed, particularly after World War II, which [was] actually when I came in there. As the Navajo were more exposed through the war--a lot of them went into the service, you know, during the war. And a lot of them went to the railroad and worked outside of the reservation, and they saw different things. They saw different things that they needed. So then the more progressive trader tried to have all of these things for them. And whatever they wanted, they tried to get for them. They made the stores larger, they keep growin' with the changes of time. And they treated them just like they would any other person--Anglo or whatever. They didn't treat them different--the same rules applied to a Native American that did to your fellow trader or fellow Anglo. Now, this was the good trader. 

But you had two definite types of traders. You had a trader that came and actually just sold everything. He tried to, you know, just do it as cheaply as he could, and get everything out of the community that he could, whether or not he was.... He bought all the livestock, everything. You think of him as a taker or a giver. The guy that took, he just took everything, this trader did, _________. Then you had the giver, which I've always thought of as a guy who comes out and he worked with the weaver, trying to bring the weaver up, or the livestock up to a level. And here again, we weren't doing it for any altruistic reasons. This trader knew that if he could raise their standard of living, the financial conditions they were in--and he was there for the long haul. See, the other guys, some other traders came and, "Hey, I'm gonna be here ten years and leave," or "I'm gonna be here so long." But the trader who came and stayed, he really was trying to bring them and him up to where there was more money, more everything to come along. To me, this was the good trader, that guy. 


Underhill: What are you most proud of in your career as a trader? 

I don't know, it's maybe the acceptance, the rapport that you had with the people. I think Bruce [Burnham] said the Navajo made us feel ten foot tall. We were so accepted. We were, if you was a good trader... My mom always said, "Hey, you gotta go be somebody." Well, I think we were, we did become somebody. To the Navajo people, see, we were somebody. We were. I guess to bein' accepted and to dealin' with them and living in another culture... See, there's no one has all the answers... The Navajo culture made you realize, "Hey, we have our culture, we have our religion, like Christianity, and they have their Navajo religion." Then think of all the Islamic or all the other religions in the world, and who can say "we're absolute"? 


Underhill: If you were to recall some of the funny incidents, maybe at Dinnebito, what stories stand out in your mind? 

I've talked about Rose Dan a lot, because she was quite a weaver, and she still comes here, and she sells her rugs to “Jahi”, and it doesn't matter what happens. I mean, she comes to sell her rugs to me. And this has been going on thirty-five years. One time she came in the store and she says, "Boy, Jahi, you are no good"--saying all this in Navajo--"you sell me that hay up there. That hay is no good! It killed my horse three times!" (laughter) That's one of 'em. Well, there was a million. There was so many.