When I was small, in preschool, I can remember thinking that Santa Claus
must have come, because I could see these sleigh tracks. Well, the
reason I saw the sleigh tracks was because the Navajos at that point in
time in the wintertime, the snow got deep enough, they put the runners
on their wagons. So in fact I could go out there and I could see
these sleigh tracks, and I knew (laughter) that he'd been there.
But as I say, this was preschool.
I was born in 1935 at Ganado Presbyterian Hospital out there on the reservation. So it's been a while! (laughter) I've enjoyed it. In fact, looking back on it, it's the best part of my life, probably.
I spent the early part of my life living on the reservation, until school age, and then we moved to Gallup, and I went to the Gallup schools, and on to school from there.
[My parents--Harold Springer and Ruth Springer] were operating a trading post, the Sunrise Trading Post. We eventually ended up with--well, progressively we ended up with a total of five, after a period of time--but initially they were operating the Sunrise Trading Post, just west of Ganado…. That's mainly where I grew up, until I was of school age. We stayed there and lived there. Yeah, it was a good time in my life. We enjoyed it. I guess maybe we didn't know any better, but things were simple. Of course we didn't have any electricity, so we worked with kerosene lamps and eventually got around to the point where we had the old wind-charger that generated electricity. Didn't get to town very often, the roads weren't that good, and so we didn't get to town too often. It was a good time….
I guess the thing that stands out, of course we grew up learning to ride bareback, like most of the Navajo children did. We grew up riding bareback. And it's fun to go fast, but the horse would occasionally spook, and he would go one direction and of course we ended up goin' the other direction. And we had quite a few of those. We were young and it didn't make any difference at that point in time. I couldn't do it today, but at that point in time it was a lot of fun, and we enjoyed it….
In the spring when they were buyin' the wool, my sister and I would enjoy
playin' on--they used to stack 'em and they'd get 'em up pretty high,
and that was a lot of fun, playin' on those wool bags. That was
somethin' that was extra fun.
Cole: How did your parents end up in the Southwest?
Well, Dad, when he graduated from school--he graduated during the Depression--and that was one of the few jobs that he could find. So he didn't plan it that way, it was one of those deals where it just worked that way. He worked summers down here, and then as the Depression got worse, he was offered a job down here as a bookkeeper, as an accountant, and took that, because there wasn't much else available at that point in time. So that's how he came to this area…. Came to Gallup. He was originally from the Durango area…..
Cole: How did your parents like the trading life?
They did.... In fact, that was the only job that Dad ever had, was the trading post, and he spoke excellent Navajo and he continued to commute, even after we had started school in Gallup. He continued to commute back and forth--not on a daily--but a weekly basis he'd go out and stay and come to town on the weekends after we'd started to school.
Cole: You mentioned that he had gone to college. Did he graduate?
Yes, he was a graduate of a university. He got a degree in business
administration, so he was with an accounting major, similar to what I
had, or what I did. That was where he first got started, was the
fact that he could keep some records, was the reason that he first got
started with the original owners of those posts--he could keep the records
Cole: When did your father become involved with the United Indian Traders Association?
He was one of the originators way back. I would think--I'm not sure of the actual date that the Traders Association started, but the early forties, I think, or along in there sometime. It was way, way back. He was one of the so-called charter members. He goes way back…. At that point in time, he was just a member. Later on, he worked up as a director and was the president for more than one term. He held that position. I'm not sure about the time involved.
Cole: Do you recall what the initial reason for [forming] the organization was?
Well, originally, it was to combat common problems that all the traders were having. I think probably the biggest thing that the Association did was pool together and hire prominent attorneys and this sort of thing to deal with leases on the reservation, when we dealt with Window Rock as concerned how these leases were going to be handled, and this sort of thing. I think that's probably one of the biggest things that the Association did. Later on, they were in the silver business for a while, and they would buy silver in bulk and then the traders would buy from the Association. And I'm not sure about the term of that. That was early, and I'm not sure about that.
Cole: Do you remember, did the Association accrue quite a bit off that end of their business?
Not really. They sold it, and they invested the proceeds of that sale in AT&T stock. They didn't go out to make money, it's just that AT&T continued to grow and split, and grow and split, and this sort of thing. And then, I forget what year it was, but AT&T split off and spun off all the so-called "baby Bells," and those stocks grew and this sort of thing. So eventually it accrued to quite a sum of money. As a money-maker, it was a small investment at the time. It just, over the course of twenty or thirty years, amounted to quite a bit--eventually--due to circumstances....
Cole: And just so I get the chronology straight, how long did your dad serve as treasurer? What year did he....
Oh, golly! (laughter) I don't know. He held the position a long time. I would say he held it probably twenty years before I assumed the slot. Dad passed away in 1979, so it would have been probably the late fifties, early sixties.
Cole: Did they have to vote you in, or did you just sort of....
Well, they didn't vote me in, I took Dad's duties because he wasn't able to. Late in life, he wasn't able to. So I assumed his duties, and the board agreed with it. I guess after a while they thought I was doin' a good enough job that I was finally elected to the slot.
Cole: Was that a paid position?
No. It was a donated position.
Cole: Did you all invest in AT&T? (laughter)
I wish! No. Looking back on it, hindsight, I wish I had!
I wish I had.
Underhill: What were the annual meetings like?
Well, they were quite a social occasion. We had--originally you had a banquet and you had a dance afterwards, and there was live music. And it was the one time of the year that people from parts of the reservation that you normally didn't get to see came into it. It was quite a social occasion. And of course.... This I never understood. They had their business meetings on Sunday morning, and of course this was after the banquet, and after the dance, and all this sort of stuff, and of course the refreshments were rather (sniffs)--there was a lot of 'em. (laughter) and I never did understand why, on Sunday morning, at eight o'clock, then everybody was supposed to be bushy-tailed and be able to handle all this sort of stuff. Needless to say, the business portion of it didn't last too long.
Cole: So there was no meeting on Saturday at all, except for the social?
No, there wasn't anything on Saturday. That was originally how
it was done. It evolved to less and less and less, until it got
down to a point where it evolved to a business meeting on Saturday, and
then that was it, period.
Underhill: Who, among the traders, stands out in your mind?
Hm. (pause) Oh (sigh), I don't know. The Indian trader was so independent and so much of an individual that it's hard for me to single out an individual that really, to me, stands out. There were a lot of people that were very successful, but by the same token, like any sector business, there were some that weren't, too. And there were always a few that were stirrin' up things that probably would be left better unstirred and this sort of thing. But I can't think of an individual right now that really stands out in my mind.
Underhill: You mentioned being an individual or independent. What other characteristics do traders share in common?
Well, that, to me, is the major quality that I noticed. They didn't
group together unless it was a problem that they couldn't handle as an
individual, and then they were inclined to come together for a cause or
whatever. But I think that's the biggest thing, or the most important
thing that stands out in my mind, is their individualism. That stands
out in my mind more than anything else.
Cole: Could you describe for us, if you don't mind, how the Association disbanded, and how they decided to fund these different projects?
We got to a point where our membership was dwindling, and at that point
in time, as I mentioned before, the AT&T stock, through splits and
through spinoff of the baby Bells and a few other things, had grown substantially,
and we had a pretty sizeable war chest. Since we were a nonprofit
organization, then it was decided that in fact we should do some things
with this money that would perhaps benefit people. This history
of the Association, and the history of some of these traders was at the
top of the list. Beyond that, some donations to universities, hospitals,
museums, and this sort of thing, in various amounts, to dispose of this
war chest that had built up--not through smart investing--it had just
occurred this way, just grew.
Cole: Do you have any favorite stories or memories associated with the Association?
Oh, I don't know. They were.... Early-on, they were kind of a party crew--at least on the annual meetings. (chuckles) They did a lot of good, but early-on, when they were out on the reservation and didn't come to town very much, when they did, they liked to party. At the annual meetings, it was a real party. I think that was my best memories of it.
Cole: What about outside the Association, favorite memories about trading, or different traders?
Oh (sigh), I don't know. We used to get together on occasions way back. We used to, when we were buying these sheep, before the era of the truck, we used to drive 'em to the railheads. And of course there were usually several traders that were doing about the same thing at about the same time, and that was sort of.... A small group would meet and get together and this sort of thing. There might be a few parties, but beyond that.... (laughter) I can't recall anything specific.
Cole: Were those parties along the trail?
No, you usually didn't do any partying until you'd finished up, after you got all the sheep on the boxcars, and you'd settled up with your buyer, whoever he was. Then it was usually time to party a little bit.