Jewell McGee

Jewell McGee

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Listen to Jewell McGee

Well, I worked at--when I first got out of school, I went out to a little ol' place out north.  They called it Tsaile.  I herded sheep and worked in the store.  Then I went from there to Red Mesa--Arizona down here--and I worked there for, oh, I don't know, two years, probably, and then I went over to Red Rock, Arizona.  You know where that is, there (Cole:  Uh-huh.), Lukachukai.  That's where I ended up owning.  I went in with my uncle.  I started to work for him, and then I bought him out and owned it for a long time...

About 1933, along in there, is when I first went there....we raised our family out there, and that was the most enjoyable parts of our lives, bein' out there at that time.  We really enjoyed it, bein' out there with the Indians, and different things.


They lived a very common life.  They just had what we'd call the necessities.  Their homes weren't modern, lived in hogans, and all that stuff.  Of course their transportation was teams and wagons.  I think when I first went out there, there was one Indian that had an old pickup, and that was the car situation.


Cole:  Do you speak Navajo?

Oh, yes.

Cole:  How long did it take you to learn?

Never did get it all learned!  (laughter)  I don't think anybody ever does.  Anybody that really learns to talk fluent Navajo has gotta be raised there.  My kids sometimes shoulda done it.  You’d go in the store, and sure I learned Indian, and I learned the store talk, but when you get out any other places, why, I get lost pretty quick.

Cole:  When you first started at the trading post, were there many Navajos that spoke English at all?

No, very few.

Cole:  So how did you communicate while you were learning the store language?

(points with finger)  By pointing.  (chuckles)  Pretty soon, [if he came in?], he'd say the name of the can of tomatoes, and you had to learn to remember that.  And you just gradually pick it up.

Cole:  Do you have a Navajo nickname?

Yeah, "Hairy Boy."

Cole:  And how did you come about getting that?

That's what they named me--seein' all this hair on my chest and my arms, I'm a hairy boy.

Cole:  How is that said in Navajo?

Es-ki-de-cloy. [phonetic spelling] (Navajo: ’ashkii ditl’o)


Cole:   What characteristics do traders have in common, and maybe what makes a good trader?

Well, I didn't know they had much in common, but I think the good trader was the one that worked with the Indians on the things that he wanted him to do, and helped him.  Some of 'em just went there, and all they was there was for the dollar they get out of him.  Of course, you know, in anything, you have people like that.


I was just a general merchandise store.  Of course, your old coffee and flour and stuff, that's your most popular item.  Levi Strauss overalls.  (laughter)....  bracelets and squash blossoms--and then yard goods, of course, that they made their skirts out of.  Velveteen was their blouse.  That's what they made their blouses out of....

Oh, it changed.  Like the store I was at, why, I remodeled it and made it self-service, enlarged it, and had departments of hardware and dry goods and groceries.


....we had Red Rock.  That, of course, was my main place.  And then I bought in, my brother [Roscoe] and me, we had Dennehotso and Mexican Water and Sweetwater....Red Mesa....


We carried the mail....we didn't have a post office, but we just, out of a box, you know, with different letters on it.  They'd come in, we'd get the mail for 'em.  They just sent their mail in care of Red Rock Trading Post.

Cole:  And then I know over the years there were different things that happened with the Railroad Retirement Board System checks, Social Security checks, things like that.  What kinds of change did that [bring to] the trader and the Navajo customer?

Well, it made lots of changes, 'cause after, you know, we got to shippin' 'em out on the railroad, why, if you get a hundred people workin' on the railroad, and then in comes the retirement checks, why, that's a hundred checks comin' in there at the store.  Made a big difference.... whenever they wanted Indians, they'd call me at the store and say, "Can you get us twenty-five, fifty Indians to come to work?"  And we'd get 'em to go, and take 'em into Farmington here and ship 'em.... they went all over--Denver, all over the United States....  When they was out workin', they sent money home.  When they come home, why then they got retirement money, or whatever you call it.  Unemployment, I guess you'd call it, with the railroad.


Cole:  I'd like to maybe switch gears a little bit here and ask you about the United Indian Traders Association.  When and why did you join?

I joined 'em for survival.  They were just about to kick all the traders off.... it was in the [late thirties], 1936, [early] forties, along in there....  I think there was about 104 uncle that I was in partners with, he was a charter member, Carlos Storer [phonetic spelling], Al Lee, a bunch of those older fellows.... it was mostly just gettin' things worked out with the tribe, about lettin' us stay on there, and about the buildings and--all the different things that would come up, you know, in leasing from somebody....

We generally had a get-together once a year, a big meeting, and talk about problems, and then a big dinner.  We'd have it at Gallup or Farmington, or someplace, and everybody'd go.


Cole:  What are you most proud about, being an Indian trader?

Well, I guess I'm proud of being successful financially, and I'm proud that I helped them in their stock business.  I built some of the best sheepherders on the Reservation.  Like one time I wanted to put out some different kind of bucks for the Indians, and they wouldn't let anybody else do it.  The government told me to "just go ahead and do what you want to.  You made this stock business out here anyway."  So they give me full reign of the rams and bucks and stuff that I put out.


Cole:  [I'd like to ask you] maybe a couple of questions about your family.  How did you meet your spouse, and when and where did that happen?

Well, you know, we come to town weekends some of the time, and I run into her.  (chuckles)....  Down at Kirtland.

Cole:  And how many children do you have?

Seven.... Oh, they liked it out there.  They'd run around--and helped herd sheep.  We used to have to, after a time when we'd lose him [Lavoy], we'd have to go find him--followed some sheep herd off, herdin' it.  (chuckles)  We had one old girl that'd come in there with her sheep, and Lavoy would follow her off every time....

Cole:  If you could change anything about your life or your work, what would you change?

Oh, I'm satisfied with it.  I really enjoyed life on the Reservation.