My dad worked for Bruce Bernard Trading Company. He started to work there in about probably 1927, 1928, and worked there basically all of his life.
I was raised in Shiprock 'til I was about eighteen. Then we moved to Kirtland. So I went to school in Shiprock 'til the eighth grade--one-room schoolhouse and one teacher taught all eight grades. When I was in about the sixth grade, they moved it up to two teachers and two rooms. We learned to read and write, and sometimes that's all that counts.
Cole: Tell us a little bit about the Bruce Bernard Trading
Company. Who was the owner?
The owner was Bruce Bernard. He was a gentleman that'd come out here from back East, back in Kentucky, and liked it. If I remember right, he'd kind of received an inheritance and he bought this trading post at that time. For that area of the reservation, it was probably one of the larger trading posts. He built it up. He did an awful lot for the Navajo people in regards to their sheep. He raised Rambouillets, and they had so much trouble with the Rambouillet rams, of their horns being so close to their head, that they would get worms in their head, and they would lose them. Over a period of years, he bred them to where the horns were three and four inches away from their head. And he had some beautiful, beautiful sheep. If they couldn't afford to buy one, he would just loan 'em rams. It certainly improved the wool off the Navajo sheep in that area of the reservation.
Of course the trading post, he just operated it like any other--bought
livestock. Until after World War II, there wasn't hardly any money,
everything was the barter system. In the spring you bought the wool
and they paid their bills, and in the fall they brought their lambs and
calves and paid the bills again. I can remember my dad telling about
one month, I think it was the month of February, the whole month they
did less than $100 cash business. In today's world, that's a little
It was a large store. I can remember working in there, and they'd walk you to death. Everything was behind the counter, and first they'd want something that was on the north side, and then they'd want something on the south side. All they had to do was walk back and forth across the bull pen. The trader, he had to walk all the way around. And it was kind of a joke with a lot of 'em. They'd walk your legs off. But Navajo people have a sense of humor.
In the early fifties, there still wasn't a whole lot of money, and [we]
didn't have natural gas and those kind of things plumbed around in Shiprock
that they have today. Used to have a big pot-bellied stove that
sat out in the middle of the bull ring, and in the wintertime that thing
would get just white hot. A lot of the Navajo people that lived
close around there, they'd come and just spend the day there, sitting
around the stove and staying warm and spittin' tobacco juice on it.
It was different.
Cole: When you were a kid working in the store, how big
was Shiprock then?
Oh, Shiprock was very small. The safest place in the world.
Probably not any more place in the world safer than Shiprock as I grew
up. I can remember my folks would let us--down by the BIA high school
they had a lot of concrete sidewalks and lawns, and it was nice.
We'd go down there rollerskating ten, eleven o'clock at night, and be
perfectly safe. But it's certainly changed today. There was
probably, let's see, maybe ten or twelve BIA homes. And other than
the trading posts, there was Shiprock Trade, and Bernard's, and Bond and
Bond. That was the extent of the businesses. And... one garage--there
was one garage, one place to buy gas.
Cole: Did the Navajos at that time... what was their transportation
....Cars didn't come in until after World War II, and it was taking a while for them to get there. If I can remember right, I think Dick Atso [phonetic spelling] was the only Navajo man that I knew that owned an automobile in the early forties. So if you couldn't get there on a horse and wagon, you didn't get there--you walked.
I can remember one time a tourist lady come in from back East.
They didn't keep the trading posts like they keep 'em now. I mean,
I guess you'd say they were kinda dirty... and she made a comment about
it. My dad told her, "Lady, if you had to haul your water twenty-five
miles to have a drink or whatever, you wouldn't worry too much about bathing
either." She got offended and left. But you think about it,
they came to the river to get water. And where you only got a team
and a wagon, maybe you could get four barrels at the best, and then you
headed back. So you respected water pretty much. As in our
home, the only water we had was a cistern under the house, and it probably
held maybe 6,000 gallons, and you filled it in the first of October, and
you had no water until maybe the middle of April. And you didn't
waste any water. When you bathed in the old number three bathtub,
you put a little, and then the next one bathed and added a little bit
of warm water, and that's the way you did it. Water, as far as being
into your homes, was very little bit of it.
Cole: Did you have electricity and those kind of conveniences
in the early forties?
Let's see, maybe I was nine, ten, when we first had electricity, so that
would be the early forties, yeah, 1941. But prior to that we had
kerosene lamps and Coleman lanterns, and that type. The Bernard's
Store there, they had a generator that they run. They had like one
little meat box, and then some lights, and they run that off of that gas
generator. But in our homes, no. We had coal stoves and kerosene
There at Bernard's they used to buy an awful lot of alfalfa hay that
was raised up and down there on the river. They'd bring the hay
in, in wagons. They didn't have balers that went into the fields
like they have today. Bernard's had a big stationary baler with
the poke-type that you pushed the wires through and fed the hay in with
a pitch fork. And they would start lining up like six o'clock in
the morning with wagonloads of hay to bring in there to bale. Then
they would sell it to Bernard's, and then they would buy it back during
the winter, which to a lot of people, that didn't make any sense.
So they'd been asked by some of the BIA officials, "Why are you selling
your hay to Bernard's for 50¢ and then buying it back five months
later for 65¢ or 70¢?!" And one of the gentlemen I remember
one time telling us, "If I take the hay home, when I need it for my stock,
I don't have any, because my brother comes from Red Rock, and he wants
ten bales, and my wife's sister comes from somewhere, and they want ten,"
and they can't say no. They've never been able to say no.
So when it come time he needed to feed his horses and cows, he didn't
have any hay, he'd given it all away. Bernard had a huge barn and
then stacked it outside even. Bought lots of corn, lots of Indian
corn. He had a big stationary sheller and would shell the corn.
It was kind of the same process. They would buy the corn, and then
during the winter they'd sell it back.
Working trading posts, you don't make big wages. I remember I started
at $27.50 a week. That was whatever it took. I mean, you didn't
worry about forty hours, it was sixty and seventy hours, but that's what
you made. So we bought out Chuck Dickens who I had worked with for
years at Bernard's, and then he went and built, started a business, and
then he wanted to move, and so we bought that thinking that Dad was gonna
quit. Because the Navajo people have a great loyalty to a particular
trading post. Bruce Bernard had the customers they had, Shiprock
Trade had theirs, and there was a great loyalty there, but as far as the
Navajo people, basically, my dad was Bruce Bernard. Then after we
bought it and it came right down to it, my dad couldn't quit, he wouldn't
leave. Well, the business didn't leave either, and so that left
my brother and I down there. We worked a lot of hours 'til we got
that trading post paid for. We'd be to work at 7:30 in the morning,
and by the time we got the trading post cleaned up, and we had a self-service
laundry and got it cleaned up, we were coming home anywhere from twelve
to one o'clock in the morning. We did that for five years.
Cole: What would you say you're most proud of as a trader?
I guess of the trust that a lot of Navajo people have in me, and that I've never been dishonest with 'em. I probably have--not probably, I do have-- more Navajo friends than I have Anglo friends, because I've spent my life with 'em. They're a good people. They've adopted, I guess, some of our ways, and some of 'em haven't been good. But the older people, I think their word was their bond. What they told you was what it was. Maybe we all do. Race has nothing to do with it.
I think as a country, we've become more dishonest people--"don't hurt to lie about it a little," you know. That's just maybe a bad lifestyle that we've got into.
I enjoy seeing my Navajo friends. I'm not involved at the pawn shop as much as I was--our daughter runs it, and she's worked with us for probably twelve years or fourteen years. But when I am down there, I go down on the first of the month to help, I see 'em come in, we have a good time. We visit and we do it in English--we don't do much in Navajo. I've forgot most of the Navajo that I ever did know. But it is getting to the point where I wanted.... I was down there maybe two months ago and a gentleman came in and I asked him, "What can I do for you?" He said, "Ach, I don't want to deal with you, I want to deal with your daughter, she knows what's going on." I said, "I finally got this thing where I want it!"
In the early times I used to get so upset. They'd come in and they'd want to do business with my dad, and they just wouldn't let Chuck or I do it. I mean, they'd wait all day. My dad would get--he said, you know, "Do something in here! I've got 'em backed up." I said, "They won't let me. I've asked 'em, and they just want to do business with [you]." It was kind of that way as my daughter first started comin' in with us--they wouldn't let her wait on 'em, and I'd have to tell 'em, "She knows what she's doin', she's my daughter, she's okay." Then when I got that, "I don't want to do business with you, I want to do it with your daughter," we're gettin' where we need to be.