Hank Blair

Hank Blair

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My dad was from Kentucky, and he was one of three brothers who eventually ended up in the trading post business.  The oldest brother, Raymond, who was the first to come to Arizona, was in the Marine Corps in China in the thirties.  And the lady that was to become my Aunt Marilene was the daughter of George Bloomfield at Toadlena Trading Post.  Her sister, as I understand, put her name in a pen pal magazine, and my uncle who was in China, in the Marine Corps, started writing to her, and of course she said, "If you're ever in Toadlena, New Mexico, come see me."  He was discharged, I guess, in California, and he rode a freight train to Gallup and hitchhiked to Toadlena, and when they saw [each other], I guess they just said, "This is it, we'll get married."  And then my dad was in World War II, and he came out after he got out of the service, and my Uncle Raymond's brother-in-law, Roscoe McGee, offered my dad a job at Red Mesa Trading Post, and that's how he ended up out there.  And then Elijah, my younger uncle, is also considered a World War II veteran.  I think he got out in 1946, and the same guy, Roscoe McGee, offered him a job, so the three brothers all ended up in the trading post business.

My mother is from New Britain, Connecticut.  She was a schoolteacher, and she was a teacher at Teec Nos Pos Boarding School--two teachers.  She taught the second grade.  I guess the other lady taught the first--Sophie Prucop [phonetic spelling], she's still alive.

And my dad--at Red Mesa, Teec Nos Pos is fifteen miles away, and that's where they got the mail.  My dad went to the trading post and the guy who was the trader there--I can't remember who he was--but he said, "There's a cute new schoolteacher up at the school."  So that's how my dad and mom met, and that was in 1945 or 1946, somewhere along in there.
 

Underhill:  What are some of your early memories from Red Mesa?
 

Well, for a kid, you know, what I remember, it was just a great life.   I mean, you were out in the middle of nowhere and you had goats and sheep and horses and cows and dogs.  The store was filled with all kinds of strange stuff--saddles, the merchandise and everything.  For a kid, it was the neatest thing in the world.  You could go a hundred miles in any direction and not hit a fence.  I think that scared the hell out of my mother, from New Britain, Connecticut.  She used to tie us on a leash to the clothesline.  She was afraid we'd run away or something.  I mean, if we went, it was just, like I said, forever to go anywhere.  Like I said, for a kid, it was just neat.

My mom taught us at home 'til I went to the second grade.  I lived with my grandmother in Farmington, but then we came back and I think she taught me until I was in the sixth grade.  And my sisters--I have three sisters, and later one brother--much later.  There was no electricity, outdoor plumbing.  We got water from the windmill, and I remember we had a tank and running water, as far as I remember.  And I know that they used to go down to the spring and haul water in a bucket, but there was a windmill there.  And a wood stove.  I remember taking a bath every Wednesday whether you needed it or not.  (chuckles)  I think the stove was half propane--or in those days, it was butane--and half wood.  I remember my mom heatin' up water, and we had a big washtub in the middle of the kitchen.  Either Coleman lanterns or kerosene lanterns, and takin' a bath, like I said, every Wednesday night.  I have a sister that they still do, every Wednesday, whether you need it or not.  (laughs)  They live in town.

Like I said, especially for a kid, I just really have fond memories of it.  You're out there by yourself.  The trading post, you weren't so busy that you were always doin' something.  It wasn't like there was a customer there every day, every hour.  It was kind of a casual, leisurely life.
 
 

Underhill:  And what did you think of the customers when you were small?
 
 

You know, we were fascinated.  I think because my mother and father didn't grow up around here, they were fascinated by the Indians and the culture and everything like that.  They passed that on to us.  It was just a neat life.  We used to go to ceremonies and stuff like that.  Go to squaw dances.  And we'd get to stay with neighboring families when we were little.

It was kind of different at Red Mesa, compared to some other trading posts.  There was no mission, no school, so you were kinda by yourself.  One thing that you didn't see, you didn't have like a family that lived right next to the store or something like that.  You didn't have a mission, so you didn't see the same people.  Most of the other trading posts, there was a mission or a school or something right next to it.  This was kind of isolated by itself.  The windmill actually--it wasn't our well, it belonged to the Navajo Tribe, so that was in your leases, ... you couldn't block it off, you had to provide access to Navajo livestock.  So people came to the store with sheep and goats and my mom was always afraid we'd just go with 'em when they left--and sometimes we did.  I mean, as we got older, we'd just go home with 'em and stuff like that.  As a kid, it was really pretty neat.
 
 

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Underhill:  What makes a good trader?
 

I think you have to be a people person, because any kind of a retail business--I don't know if you've ever gone into any business somewhere, and you can tell that guy ain't very good at it.  If you can't get along with people--people who are of a different culture, don't speak the same language as you--if you're a racist, mean, grouchy guy, your customers know that, and it doesn't....  I think the people that were good traders were good people--people people.  They liked people--didn't matter what color they were, or what language they spoke, or what religion.  The ones that I can think of....

You know, they always talk about traders being characters.  Well, they had to be.  If you could be workin' in the post office in Aztec, New Mexico, with health benefits and goin' home to your house every evening, why would you want to move to Sheep Snot, Arizona, or somethin' like that, and live in a tent with outdoor plumbin', no electricity, and haul your water from a spring?  A guy had to be a little bit of an adventurer. It's not the safest life.  I think especially in the old days, if there was a safety concern, you were out there by yourself.  You couldn't call a policeman or anything like that.  So I think they had to be a little different.
 

Underhill:  And why do you think a lot of folks stuck with it?
 

A lot of it, I think people our age don't realize that comin' out of  the Depression--and even before that I don't think times were that great--that havin' a job or makin' a livin' was a big thing.  And I remember my mom thought, being grateful....  You know, after the war, a lot of young couples, the guys got out of the service, they were married, and she was grateful that they had a trading post to themselves.  There were a lot of places where people were working at the store just for a place to stay and something to eat....  I remember my uncles and people would say, "I worked at the trading post for a month before I knew whether I was even gettin' paid.  I was just happy to have a job.  I didn't know how much I was makin'.  I figured they probably would pay me at the end of the deal."  So they were happy to....  Times were a little tougher, so they were happy to be employed and be able to eat.  One of my older uncles used to tell us, I guess where he worked you couldn't eat anything out of the store.  There were chickens, and you could eat all the eggs you wanted, and kill one chicken a week.  That was your board.  You got paid room and board, and my uncle wouldn't eat an egg for--'cause that's all they ate was eggs.  So I think times were different.  They were happy to have a job.
 
 

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Underhill:  Well, what do you think Anglo folks should understand about Navajo culture?  You've lived it your entire life.
 

That it's a really rich culture....My kids have benefitted from my wife being a Navajo.  And Navajo culture, I was talking to my mom the other day about my son had a real good--he's socialized, I guess, very good.  When we were kids, like I said, when we went to Farmington from the trading post, we were social bozos, I guess.  But Navajos teach--you know, my son shakes hands with everyone--all my kids do.  They know how to introduce themselves, which is a big part of Navajo culture.  They know who they are, they know who they are in relationship to their family, their cousins, their grandmas.  They know their clans.  I was telling my mom, because of Vicki and her family, my kids have learned.  They get along real well.  My son can go anywhere, because of being raised in both cultures....  I think his Navajo culture has really....  All my kids know how to introduce themselves in Navajo.  They know their clans, they know....  And that gives you a place, that gives you a starting point or a foundation.  That's real good.
 

Underhill:  Well, what do you think you've learned over all these years?
 

You asked whether I speak Navajo or not.  I tell people I know enough to get into trouble, and not enough to get out.  I think I still learn, you're still learnin'.  When I was a kid, we wanted to be Indians so bad, because that was, for us, the dominant culture.  I wanted to go to school in Brigham City, I wanted to get on that truck with my big trunk and go to school.  In a way, it's been hard, because I'm never gonna be, I can't be a Navajo.  And I can't be an Anglo, I can't be a white guy either, 'cause I'm not.  I'm sorta stuck in the middle.

One time a friend of mine came down from Utah.  We traded horses and we went to a ropin'.  It was in Tuba City, and there was probably a hundred people there.  He said, "You know, we're the only white people here."  I said, "There's two of us!  I've been the only white guy all my life."  I've struggled with that.  Like I said, you want to be a Navajo....    You know, you don't belong here, to a certain extent.  You've had to deal with that your whole life.  Like I said, I can't vote.  Ask me what's goin' on in tribal government--I can't vote. Someone asked me the other day who the governor of Arizona was, and I....  The only reason I know who it is, is because she used to teach school at Chinle--Mrs.Hull, and she's the governor of Arizona.  I don't belong there either....
 

Underhill:  What do you think you've given back to the communities of Kayenta and Lukachukai?
 

Like I said about being at Red Mesa, I don't think you even think about that, but I think just by bein' a good [person]--just like you do anywhere, whether you're a good person, or a trustworthy person, a helpful person--especially in the Navajo culture, if you help people out....  You have certain responsibilities....  If you're a Navajo, you're only an in-law to the people that you're in-laws to, but if you're a white guy married to a Navajo, you are related to every Navajo that ever lived or everything--and it's whether you've been a good in-law.

I know that when my dad died in 1983 and they had the funeral at Monument Valley--my dad's buried in the cemetery at Monument Valley--there was I don't know how many people there, but 90 percent of 'em were Navajos....  It was just overwhelming, there was a lot of people there.  And I don't think my dad ever did anything because it was gonna have a big crowd at his funeral or anything like that.  But he was a good person. "He helped me out with my sheep when I needed a sheep.  He let me buy a ram."  People will come up and say that to me.  I think it's the same in any community.  If you're a productive part of that community, that's how you'll be remembered.

I was over there at the college giving a speech, a little lecture on something, and one of the kids was there, and it made me feel pretty damned old, because this girl said she's gettin' her master's degree, and she said "Mr.Blair used to give me a dollar for every 'A' that I had on my report card when I was in elementary school."  I still do that.  Kids bring in their report cards, and I give 'em a dollar for every "A."  I'll have to watch, because sometimes they'll bring the same report card in!--different kid with the same report card.  But you know, little things like that.... The girl's gettin' her master's degree and she said, "And Mr.Blair used to give me a dollar for every 'A.'"