I was born in Columbus, Kansas, in 1926. My parents moved to New Mexico when I was eight. We were part of the Dust Bowl crowd, and we were starving to death in Kansas, so we moved to New Mexico and found out what hunger really was. (laughter) ....
There were no jobs. It was in 1934, right during the Depression.
My dad was very fortunate to find a job. One of the things we always
did, at that time there was a lot of rabbits and a lot of birds, and we
hunted all the time. We had a .22 rifle, and my dad had five sons,
and he gave the five of us a .22 for Christmas. It was a single-shot,
and if you took a bullet, you had to bring something back. (laughter)
Steiger: He gave the five of you one rifle, not five of
No, one rifle for five. And a lot of times, we would catch a rabbit or throw a rock at 'em, because they were quite plentiful, and then we would have an extra .22 shell! But it was a very difficult time. If it wouldn't have been for pinto beans and rabbits, I probably wouldn't be here. (laughs)
And then I went to school at Moriarty. Then I went into the Navy after high school. After [the Navy] I migrated to Gallup. I spent about twenty years in Gallup, and that's where I became interested in the Navajos and the Zunis and all the other tribes. I worked for a bus company in Gallup for several years, runnin' the bus out on the Navajo Reservation. Then I started selling on the reservation for different companies.
I finally wound up working for Henry Hilson in Albuquerque, an old-time wholesale distributor, a very fine firm that for years had the Navajo clothing contract for the school kids--but I never had any connection with that. My job was calling on traders and in-town businesses, selling dry goods to them.
At that time, all the old-time trading posts carried a complete line
of clothing for the entire family. So they had quite an inventory
in the stores, of clothing and other merchandise, to supply all the needs
of the Navajo people. Most of my traveling was on the Navajo Reservation.
At the same time, I sold Pendleton blankets for R.M. Bruchman out of Winslow.
He was a very fine gentleman. I started working for him when he
was about eighty-five. He lived to be a hundred and five.
Cole: So when you went to work for Hilson, about what year
That was about 1963.... I had the entire Navajo Reservation. Actually, I spent about a full four-week period on the reservation, because at that time there were a lot of stores on the reservation. Like in Ganado, there were three stores. At Kayenta there were three stores. Tuba City there were three stores, or maybe even four. Then all the in-between stores: like at Ganado, out west there, you had Greasewood and Sunrise, then on down to Dilkon. Then there was Wide Ruins and Klagetoh, south of Ganado. Over west of Chinle there was Salina and Black Mountain, Smoke Signal, Low Mountain. Then on back to Piñon and Dinnebito. You didn't drive between the stores in just a few minutes. It might take you an hour, hour-and-a-half to get from one store to another one. But the people were very friendly, and most of 'em were very lonesome. And when you got to the store, you had a lot of conversation and catching up on. You never wanted to hit a store at eleven o'clock, because if you only had thirty or forty-five minutes of business, they would always hold you over for lunch, so they could visit with you during lunch. Then there were a lot of stores where I would spend the night. Got just set up on a routine to where you would spend the evening with them, and usually work the store after supper, and then spend the night, and then the next morning get up and go on about your business....
I carried a station wagon full of samples. I would show the samples, and they would pick the merchandise out of the samples, and then ship 'em the merchandise. But a lot of times they wouldn't even look at the samples--they would just tell you what they needed and give you the sizes, and we would pick out the merchandise and send it to 'em. And Mr.Hilson had a knack of knowing the type of clothing to pick out that was very saleable, and the people liked, and was very sturdy. He was a good merchant.
Every month I would make a trip.
When I first started selling, there were only about four different patterns
of Pendleton blankets, for instance. Right now, I think we have
about probably twenty different patterns. But when I first started
selling, we would sell basically just regular very plain merchandise,
like Wrangler jeans and boys' sport shirts and boys' western shirts, and
socks, and maybe a store would carry one style of boys' shoes and one
style of girls' shoes. The people weren't choosy like they are now.
They would accept--well, like we did when we were kids, when our parents
bought us shoes, that's the shoe that we wore. That was pretty much
the way it was originally. But then they started wanting more stylish
clothes, and finally the Navajo clothing contract ran out, because the
kids wanted more styles and wanted to be able to chose their own clothes,
and the kids would no longer accept what the parents gave them, but they
wanted to chose their own clothes. And then the Navajos started
getting pickups and getting more mobile, and they wanted to go into the
supermarkets and buy clothes. That's when the trading posts started
diminishing. The trader needed most of their income in order to
support them. When they took that money off the reservation, that
made it difficult for the trader. The trading posts started vanishing.
Underhill: What are some of your favorite memories from
all the time that you spent out there?
Oh, I think a couple of funny things that happened to me while I was driving the bus, 'cause that's where you really get acquainted with the people. One of my favorite stories is I had this very attractive Navajo lady, and she always dressed in traditional. She had about four or five little kids, and they were always dressed traditional--always so clean and bright and shiny--they just shone. And they would get on the bus and she would pay their bill and then when they started to get off the bus, here would go this little dog. And they rode the bus for years, and I never did find out how they got the dog on the bus. (laughter) And I didn't care about the dog, because it was a nice little dog, and they would just laugh at me, and they thought it was so funny 'cause I couldn't figure out how they got the dog on the bus. And I never did figure it out. And I'd watch 'em when they got on the bus. I never did figure out how she got the dog on the bus.
Then another time, the trader at Hubbell's at Ganado--I don't even remember
his name--but I also hauled laundry and dry cleaning, and he had this
Stetson hat, and it was real dirty, and he asked me one day if I could
get it cleaned for him. I said, "Sure, I could get it cleaned."
So I took it and I put it on the bus, and I put it way back in the corner
and blocked it off. So I get to Gallup and unload all of my passengers
and my mail and take my laundry out, and the hat's gone. And he
told me before I picked the hat up that he'd won the hat at a rodeo and
it was worth $40. Forty dollars was a bunch of money in the fifties,
and I had a family and I didn't know how I was gonna pay for that hat.
So I figured out on the bus there were only four passengers that day.
I didn't go back and tell him I'd lost the hat, because I didn't have
forty dollars. About three days later, two of these ladies that
had ridden on the bus got back on the bus. So I told 'em, "Well,
I can't put your luggage up front, I'll have to put it in the back."
So I put the luggage in the back and opened it up, and here was my hat.
They had put clothing around the hat so it wouldn't get crushed or anything.
So I took the hat out and put the clothing back. Then for years
those ladies rode the bus and they'd get on there and they'd look at me,
and they would just laugh, and I would laugh. (laughter) They
were always pullin' jokes like that on me when I drove the bus, because
they're very friendly, and it was always a great big joke with them.
If they pulled a trick on you, they expected you to get even with 'em
some way. (laughter) But I sure was glad to get my hat back.
I went down to Nazlini-- it's out south of Chinle and north of Ganado, down in the bottom of the valley. I got out there one day, and this trader was just furious because he was buyin' wool. He suddenly realized that this funny-lookin' gunny sack full of wool had come back by him three or four times that day. So he watched it, and the guy that was in the back room was supposed to be packin' the wool, he would just pitch a sack out and one of his friends would bring it back out and sell it again. So he was buyin' the same wool over and over again. (laughter) They had all kinds of tricks that they could pull on you.
Of course, the trader, he was pretty smart, too. I don't think
they really cheated the Indians, they just had to adjust the price to
make up for all that sand and rocks and stuff that went by 'em.
You can't buy too much sand and stay in business. (laughter)
--He was buying the same wool over and over....
I think one of the funniest stories I heard, there was a trader out at Inscription House, and when I first knew him, he was an elderly man, and he'd been on the reservation all of his life--Stokes Carson--you've probably heard of him. He told me one time, a long time before I knew him, that this person brought in a sack of wool, and of course a trader, you can look and see a sack of wool, and you know approximately what it should weigh. If a sack of wool should weigh 250 pounds, and they threw it on the scales and it weighed 350, they knew they were buying something they didn't want. So he said they took the wool, and they always took it in the back and dumped it to see what it was, and then they would adjust the bill accordingly. And they dumped out the wool, and there was a differential for a Model "T" Ford in that sack of wool. (laughter) So he said he just settled up with the old man, and he just left that part of the car there in the back room. He said the next spring that guy come in and he wanted to buy a sack of seed corn. So he just went back in the back room and he dumped out half of the seed corn and put that rear end back in it and filled it back up with corn. And he sold it to the guy and he said the guy would always come in and just laugh and laugh and laugh because they'd gotten even with each other and nobody was angry! (laughter)
The Navajos have really quite a sense of humor, and you have to really get up early in the morning to get ahead of 'em.