Joe Danoff

Joe Danoff


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Where I was born? Well, actually, I was born in Los Angeles, California, but only as a convenience to my mother. I was born out there and brought back to Gallup. So I always like to sort of say that I was born and raised in Gallup, because this is where I grew up. From then on, I went to college, went in the Air Force, twice: was in World War II and Korea, and then got out. I came back to Gallup for a while, went down to Phoenix. Down in Phoenix is where I first got into sort of the Indian market, 'cause my father-in-law and his brother-in-law had an Indian store down there-a fellah by the name of Clarence Wheeler. You may have heard his name mentioned. And so they asked me if I'd come down there and learn to buy rugs, from Clarence. We went out on the reservation, all over the reservation, and bought rugs. It was very interesting, and he taught me a lot about rugs, and then I started doin' it on my own, traveled the reservation for, I think, about two years. And then I was recalled during the Korean War and went back in active duty.

When I got out of the service in late 1945, I went back to Phoenix and went to work for Air Research, as an engineer. My brother-in-law asked me if I'd like to go up on the reservation to run one of the stores.

Cole: And who was your brother-in-law?

Danoff: Art Lee. So then I decided, well, that ought to be interesting. So I moved up to Ganado. Ganado had already been in two bankruptcies. Hugh Lee, Ruth's brother, went bankrupt there, and he sold out to J. B. Tanner, which I don't know if you've interviewed him (Cole: Yeah.) and he bellied-up there. So my father-in-law had taken the store back over, and that's when I came in to manage that store.

Ganado was a good store, except it was in a deal where we had competition very close to us, which a lot of the other stores didn't have. We had Roundtop Trading Post just up the road, and then we had.... Let's see, who else was right there? Well, there was Hubbells, of course, and Hubbells had the notoriety and the fame. But of course that didn't count too much with the Indian.

….So anyway, I took over Ganado in 1957, and at that time, the traders were still dealing pretty much in wool, sheep, and of course credit. Credit was the big thing on the reservation. That was the only way you could almost do business with the Navajos on the reservation, was credit. So when I got there, we didn't have the capital or anything that we could really get into the commodities, but we did have a deal-every year we had a deal with either Gross-Kelly or the Gallup Mercantile in Gallup which would advance us capital to buy wool and to buy sheep. And we did that. For several years I bought quite a few sheep, bought wool. I had two stock accounts, or two wool stock accounts, Navajo people. But that was kind of a risky business, especially after the pickup truck came into being on the reservation. The Navajos were takin' a lot of their wool right into Gallup and selling it. My customers, they take two bags into Gallup and bring me one bag. And there was always a balance left on their account, because they just weren't bringin' me all their wool. And the lambs, I didn't deal directly with lambs. Either someone in Gallup backed us, and we bought lambs for them. So that wasn't really a part of our business. It was a help to our business, but it wasn't part of our business.

When I went up to Ganado, I went up to run a business. I didn't know what kind of business we were gonna have, or what we were gonna do, but it was such a diversified store-I mean, you had everything. I got the idea that we ought to open it up as much as possible, because I got tired of runnin' around the counters all the time and grabbing things. So me and Camille Garcia from Chinle, I think he and I were the only ones that finally opened up especially our grocery side of the stores. We put gondolas in, and we had our groceries and made it sort of a self-service deal. Everybody kind of thought, "Boy, these guys are gonna have troubles." You know, they're gonna steal us blind or something. But it really worked out pretty good. I put in a frozen food case, and I had all these things out, sort of like a regular grocery store had. Our dry goods, of course, was still behind the counter, and some of our smaller items. But I tried to modernize as much as I could. And of course our clientele, we depended on state welfare, ADC, there was some government, that is, tribal checks that came in, subsistence checks, and Social Security started coming onto the reservation pretty good. We had people come out there at least once a month to interview for Social Security. And all these things was part of our business, and I encouraged it, because that was all we had. The other part was that we gave credit to those people who had something to pay for it with. And usually it was either the ADC [Aid to Dependent Children] check, or the subsistence they got from the Navajo Tribe, or their Social Security. Most of those checks would come to our store. In fact, I would say 95 percent of 'em did. So we sort of had control of the credit. It was difficult to keep 'em within the limits of the checks, and very seldom ever did. Sooner or later, the trader was gonna lose on that account. We knew it, I knew it, they all knew it. We had trouble in people transferring. They could go and they could change the address on their check to another trading post or anyplace they wanted, and you're sittin' there givin' 'em credit, and you don't know it until the checks come in. And so you're usually out for that. So it was kind of a risky business.

I didn't get much into the artifacts. I bought rugs. The only jewelry I ever worked with was pawn. We did take pawn, and even that I kept to a minimum, because I used to go out to these trading posts, and my God, they had fortunes in their vaults of pawn that they've held for years and years. Well, the old traders did that, they held that pawn forever. And I was too much of a business person to say, "Hey, this is not makin' me any money." So I wanted that pawn to turn over, and I would push that pretty hard. And when it came due and they didn't redeem it, it went out in the showcase and I sold it. I didn't keep any artifacts. We had a few rugs, but they were all stolen here about ten years ago, in this house. We were robbed, but I wasn't much on the artifacts, and I wasn't much on carrying items for tourists. It was strictly a business with the Navajos, that's all we did. They were good people to deal with. I'd have trouble with some of 'em, but most of 'em were good. ….It was an interesting business. You dealt with all these people and you got to know 'em personally, and you wanted to help 'em.

The only troubles that I ever had on the reservation was with either the Health Service or not so much the BIA, but the Navajo Tribe. The Health Service would come out, and they would want us to do certain things, which was fine. But being that we're out in the boondocks more or less, it was hard to comply with these deals that they had. Well, about the time you had one of 'em educated to the fact that, hey, things aren't just as easy as you think they are, he would transfer out and here comes a new one, so we had to go all through this rigmarole again. But Ganado was fortunate in that we had the mission across the road, we had water from them, we had electricity from them, and our sewer system drained into their system. So we were fortunate.

After I'd been in Ganado, I forget, maybe four or five years, I was working at that time for Mr. A. H. Lee, and then I offered him a deal to buy the store. So after about three or four years, I think, I started buying the store. When I bought it, I had to assume his lease-the tribe didn't give me a new lease. I think there was only about fifteen years on his lease. So I didn't think any problems would occur, renewing the lease. They'd been renewed for years, so I wasn't too concerned about it. But it so happened that I should have been, because when my lease was up, the chapter, first of all, was reluctant to even renew the lease. Secondly, when I first was dealing with the bureaucracy at Window Rock, it was with the BIA, and then it kind of swung over to where everything was through the Navajo Tribe, and that's when things started gettin' difficult. So I had trouble gettin' a renewal on my lease. In fact, they were gonna refuse it, but I kept fightin' it, and didn't think they could carry it out.

Anyway, gettin' back to Ganado. After I had gotten there, the post office was on the mission grounds, and the mission didn't want the post office there anymore, so the postal service came and was tryin' to get someone to build a post office. Well, nobody wanted to build it. I finally consented to build a post office right there by our store in Ganado. So I built the post office. I had sort of a miniature trailer park there. We had two houses, besides the house we lived in, which was right next to the store. So we did develop the area quite a bit. So anyway, I stayed out there, we were out there for ten years, and our kids were at the age where we decided we wanted them to be in school in town, so we decided we were gonna move to Gallup, which we did in 1967, I think. And then when we moved to Gallup, I just commuted back and forth. I had a manager out there.

In the meantime, in the interim period, I had bought two more stores on the reservation. I had Low Mountain and Smoke Signal. Those were two stores that my brother-in-law, my father-in-law, and I bought.

Cole: And where were they at?

Danoff: Smoke Signal was on the highway going from Chinle over to Piñon, only you turned off the highway, and it was about eight miles back in the area. There was a flat mountain out there, which was Low Mountain. Smoke Signal was on the east side of the mountain, and Low Mountain was down at the other end. We had bought the Low Mountain store from a Navajo who had started a store there. He never did build a building, he was working out of the chapter house there, and he just couldn't make it, so we bought his lease, and we built the store at Low Mountain. And then at Smoke Signal we built that store as well. So we had managers out there, and I was sort of the general manager lookin' after those two stores as well as Ganado.


Another thing that I think I'm gonna take credit for, and I know that it was me: Our source of merchandise was either from Gross-Kelly or the Gallup Mercantile right here in Gallup. We got our produce from A & J Produce Company, and things like that. I was really concerned about the prices we were havin' to pay for the commodities we were buying. So I took it on myself to make contact with Associated Grocers, and they talked favorable about it, but they said, "You know, come out there on that reservation, a lot of traveling for just one person." So I personally went out and tried to get clients for them: Camille Garcia at Chinle was one that I got; and I got my competition up the road, Clyde Tease [phonetic spelling] at Roundtop. I think I got four people that were willing to join Associated Grocers, and that took a little. You know, you had to put up a deposit of so much money. But boy, that opened up a big deal for us traders, because we were getting merchandise at really better prices than we were having to pay. So I started this movement, and it grew. When it ended up, Associated Grocers from Phoenix was comin' out on the reservation. And then they had Associated Grocers out of Albuquerque-but it was out of Denver, it was actually Denver's business-but they came out there. So I kind of feel that I had something to do with bringing that on the reservation. It got to the point where they were servicing just a lot of the trading posts out there-mainly the ones on at least good roads. They didn't like to take their big equipment out.... So that was another thing that I think I started, and I'm proud of it, and it helped us, helped the traders, helped the customers, and everybody concerned.


Cole: Did you ever learn to speak Navajo?

Danoff: I spoke it fairly good in the store. Just to set out there and have a conversation, a little bit, I could pick up things, but I couldn't do it. But anything that had to do with the store and merchandise, I pretty well knew about that. I wish I could have carried on-all of Ruth's [Ruth Lee Danoff] family is very fluent in Navajo. But they've been out there for twenty, thirty years, too-they were raised out there.

Cole: Did you ever have a Navajo nickname?

Danoff: Ah, let's see, what did they call me? I can't remember. Yeah, I had a Navajo nickname. (calling to wife) Ruth? I don't know where she is. I can't remember what it was now. No (chuckles) I don't know. (to Ruth) Do you remember what the Navajos used to call me?

Ruth: I'm not sure-the Big Mormon Son-in-law.

Danoff: Something like that.

Ruth: Big Mormon Son-in-law, probably, but I don't know how to say "son-in-law."

Danoff: Yeah, they gave all the traders nicknames, called 'em different things.

Cole: What impact did you see all the government money coming into the Navajos-what impact did that have on their lifestyle?

Danoff: Well, the money coming into the reservation was-other than the government subsidy, the government which gave the tribe, and the tribe in turn gave it to the Indian in a subsidized payment-I forget exactly what they called it-but it was in conjunction with the welfare program. At the time we were out there, there wasn't this housing explosion like there is today out there and everything. And, you know, the Navajo in the hogan really didn't see a lot of this money that was comin' into the tribe. It sort of reminded me like when I was in Korea. The federal government, our government, was pouring money into Korea like mad, but the little guy down in the hut didn't see a thing. On the other hand, the Communists, they took a loaf of bread to that guy in that hut. So who is he gonna be for-us or for the Communists? The Communists, because he got something. And that's the way it was out at.... The Navajo Tribe down at Window Rock was gettin' all these funds in, but it wasn't going out to the little guy settin' out there. Even the chapters today are gettin' fabulous amounts of money. At the time I was out there, chapters didn't have anything. They were just a little organization that was supposed to be governing their little community, but they didn't have any funds to really work with. But they're gettin' 'em now.


Cole: Do you remember who the managers were at the other trading posts you owned?

Danoff: Yeah, there was a fellah by the name of Ernest Wilson out at Low Mountain. His brother, Bevin [phonetic spelling] Wilson was at Smoke Signal with us. They were the two that was with us the longest. We sold Low Mountain to a Navajo woman who was living with an Anglo man. I don't know whatever happened there, but that trading post was finally torn down, there's nothing out there. At Smoke Signal, I sold it to a fellah by the name of Wallace Anderson. Wallace Anderson used to have the trading post in Many Farms. I don't know whether that post is still operating or not….

Cole: Were you still at Ganado when the whole FTC hearings on pawn occurred?

Danoff: Yes.

Cole: What are your memories of that?

Danoff: There again, they didn't really get the stories, you know. They took a lot of stories from a lot of Navajos, but they never did really get our side of the story. And it all came out bad, because the people they talked to, were the people that were griped about something or other. They really made a bad impression on the general public, and we weren't guilty of all those things. So there again, I and all traders were perturbed about it, and really, we did hire a law firm. Seems like we hired this outfit out of Farmington to intercede for us, say, "Hey! let's get our side of the story." And I can't recall exactly what came out, but the publicity that was originally out on it was bad-bad for the traders. We looked like a bunch of crooks and bohunks. Never did come out.... You know, we had some bad traders on the reservation, sure-you've got some bad merchants in town everywhere. But generally speaking, the traders were out there for a purpose-but not only for a purpose-we were advisors, we looked after their sick when they had to get to a doctor. You know, we did all these things that generally speaking you don't do in a business. And people don't realize what was entailed in our businesses on the reservation. It wasn't just a business, it was a way of life. And like I say, I was in on the back end of it, really. But some of these traders that lived out there for years, my father-in-law, he even had to bury the dead. You know, it was quite an involved deal-it wasn't just cut and dry, "Here's a can of coffee, and I'll get paid when your sheep are sheared," or something like that.

So it was an involved life, it was interesting, but it was hard work. And us living right next to the trading post, our business went on all night long. We'd get calls, they'd knock on the door, and they'd need to be given gas because their grandmother died or something. You know, it was always something. And that was part of your business. You did it, you accepted it.

Cole: When the business was running over those ten or fifteen years, was it a profitable business?

Danoff: Absolutely. I wouldn't have been out there.... Like I say, I probably didn't-I was a new guy on the block and I didn't do business like the old traders did. I merchandised, I dealt in turnover. My profit was in the turnover. I turned merchandise over twenty-five times a year. Well, that's where my profit came in. It wasn't high profit here and just set there, but I kept turning stuff over, and that's the way I did business out there. And you bet we made money, it was a good business.


Cole: How many rugs would you buy on your trips?

Danoff: I don't think I ever had more than twenty rugs at one time. And there again, I don't know why I didn't. I just wasn't that into it-jewelry or rugs or anything like that-to really put this aside and say, "Hey, this is a nice rug, I'm gonna keep it." If I was gonna do that, the best time I had to do that was when I had the Indian store down in Phoenix. That's when, you know, I was out there on the reservation and bought beautiful rugs, saddle blankets. We had a store in Phoenix, we had a store that was about thirty feet long and probably thirty feet wide. We had the walls, from the floor to the ceiling, all the way around that, with saddle blankets, nothing but saddle blankets. In fact, we had so many saddle blankets that I took this one-ton panel truck and went to Texas one time, made every rodeo I could, opened up the back end, was selling double saddle blankets for ten dollars, single saddle blankets for five-and I mean good blankets. I went to California the same way. We just had to get rid of 'em, we had so damned many. And now, I wish I had (laughs) just half of 'em! It'd be worth a fortune. They're not saddle blankets anymore, they're rugs. One I looked at just the other day was $175, and I would have classed that as a second. It wasn't a very good weaved saddle blanket. The rug business has really gone.... I can't believe it, the way it's gone, but that's fine, you know. There is another thing that one of these days we aren't even going to see those rugs anymore.


Cole: What exactly is the DNA?

Danoff: Well, that was the legal.... See, the government hired lawyers out there, and these people could come to 'em about the car dealers in Gallup or anything. And these guys out there, hell, they'd take you to court-nothing to them. But that was always a threat. Some of my Navajos, you know, if you sold their pawn, they'd come in, "Well, I'm goin' to the DNA!" "So go to the DNA!" You know? You'll always get those threats. So you had those things to contend with.
There's a lot of things that a business person on the reservation had to contend with, that they don't have to contend with in a community like Gallup. However, there's a lot of things these guys in Gallup have to contend with, that we didn't have to out there, too. So it sort of works both ways. But we were always under the gun one way or another-someone was lookin' at you.

Cole: Did you quit taking pawn after the whole FTC deal?

Danoff: Well, yes, more or less when they come out with these new pawn regulations and things, we did. I still took some, but we didn't call it pawn-we just called it collateral for a debt. And you know, there again, the feds or whoever, did a disservice to the Navajo, because you forced them to come into Gallup to do their pawn. We used to be-you know, they'd bring, in the springtime they'd pawn their shawls. Well, it was just a safe place to keep 'em. They didn't need 'em in the summer, so you'd keep 'em for 'em in the vault until they wanted to take 'em out. Same way with a lot of jewelry. You know, I kept a lot of jewelry-I know I just kept it for safekeeping for these people, because they didn't want it stolen or anything, so they'd bring it in and pawn it. And they figured that was a safe place for 'em. But when they put those deals on pawn and everything, yeah, most of the traders out there, I think they went out of the pawn business.

Cole: What did the average Navajo person think about that? Did they understand what was going on?

Danoff: Well, I don't think they understood it. It was so hard to explain to them why you had to do these things. And I'm not sure that they.... The Navajo people are very acceptable to changes. They don't get all uptight about things. You know, they're very even-tempered sort of people. So they accept changes with very little emotional attitude or anything. I don't know, they were just different, and you kinda look at it, and you hate to see it change, but it is changing, and it's changing rapidly now. The people are getting more educated, the young people are more educated. I belong to Rotary here, and every month we have Senior of the Month come and talk to us at Rotary, and I would say 50 percent of those seniors that come and talk to us are Navajos, and pretty darned sharp kids. You know, they've got a goal in mind, they want to go to college, and it's really very enlightening, and I'm proud of 'em, because the other part, the other side of that I hate to see, is, like I say, their artwork is gonna be gone one of these days, and it's rapidly going now. Rug weaving: they're not weaving like they used to. Indian jewelry: we're havin' a fight now, they're makin' so many imitations comin' in. And I guess that comes with progress. The old things die out, new things come in. But I'm afraid the reservation will probably be out there a long time. I don't think the tribal government would want to see it disappear.

Cole: Anything else, Lew?

Steiger: Sounds like you don't think that's so good. Sounds like you don't think that highly of the reservation system.

Danoff: I'll tell you what: I think.... You know, I don't know how many years back we made these treaties with these Indians, but those were made so many years back, and all those people are all gone and dead, and I just don't feel like we should still be tied to a treaty that is outdated and everything, in a changing environment. It just don't seem like it's the thing to do. And they press on this idea, and I guess I can't blame 'em, because it's a good deal for 'em. But some day, it's gonna hafta all end, and these people are gonna hafta, unfortunately, do like all the rest of us do, and make their way.

You know, I think that reservation would develop if they would just give the people-turn 'em loose! But the way they are now, they'll never develop out there. I've told people over and over, I wouldn't go out there for $2 million today. If they offered me $2 million to go out there and set up a business, I'd tell 'em, "No way!" because they just make it so difficult for people to come out there and do any business at all. And that's why they don't have big companies out there. They don't want to go out there. Look at the mines out here, they're gonna shut down one of these days, say, "To heck with it!" because the tribe's just pressin' 'em so hard. And they don't realize that hey, how many people are they hiring out there? And they're making good wages out there. But they're gonna run 'em out.

The only outfit I know of-and they're no longer-they used to be General Dynamics, and I don't know who they are today, but this plant out here at Fort Defiance, they're the only ones I know of that have been out there on the reservation for, I imagine, goin' on thirty years, and haven't had any trouble, they've done business, they've expanded, and they've done well.

But everybody else, out in Shiprock, had Fairchild up there-they were run out of there. Just too hard to do business on the reservation. And they've got, you know, I can see a lot of opportunity out there for large businesses. They've got a fabulous pool for employment. I mean, the Navajo is very artistic, and he can do minute work. He'd be ideal for computers and microchips and all that. They're very precise. But nobody'll come out here.

Cole: Is there anything else you'd like to add, Joe?

Danoff: God, that's about all I know! (laughter)

Cole: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

Danoff: Well, I hope it does some good, and goes down in history.