Joe Tanner

Joe Tanner
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I was born August 14, 1938, at Farmington, New Mexico. I'm a great-grandson of Seth Tanner, one of the earliest, if not the earliest of at least the Mormon pioneers, as they came into the Indian country. Seth was quite a pioneer, and what a jewel to have in your family history. I've spent a lifetime just chasing Anglo stories and Indian stories about him. And then my grandfather was Joseph Baldwin Tanner. My mother and dad are Rulel Lehi Tanner and Stella McGee Tanner. They had eight children, and I'm child number five in the play of things. (chuckles) I was primarily raised at Kirtland, New Mexico, and Durango, Colorado.

Cole: You mentioned a little bit about Seth. Was he an Indian trader at all?

Tanner: Oh, I'll tell you a little. Let's just start with him. I love his spirit and I just had a great thirst all of my life to find out any and everything I could about him and my grandpa Joe. Seth [Tanner] was born in Bolton, New York. His father was converted to the Mormon Church, and then Seth. So he was completely involved in the whole Mormon migration and experience, from the very beginning. He was born in 1829 in Bolton. His father was a really important man, but I won't go into him, because Seth is the first trader among the American Indians from our family.

As he came west with the whole family, he became a reliable of Brigham Young. He was a great fisher, great hunter, great scout, pathfinder, and Brigham relied on him a lot--as he did on everybody. I'm not trying to say that Seth was one of Brigham's favorites, because Brigham certainly needed and relied on everybody.

But Seth-- best as I can figure out-- learned real early, as he went among the Indians, about them, and began to understand them, and began to understand the Indian's reverence for all of nature and all of nature's characters. And Seth figured out at some juncture of time in his early life, he figured out if he became the bear, that would award him safe passage among the Indians….

Well, Seth became the bear, and his whole history, as I talked to all of the Indian community that knew bits and pieces of him, he was "Mr. Bear," Hosteen Shash. He was the bear….he was a big man and a sound man.

He was about six-foot-two, and in our family that's big. (laughs) Tall. Loved to ride a mule. When he was among the Utes, he would wrestle with 'em, growl like a bear, fight like a bear, and that's his whole secret --not everybody who showed up in the West could peacefully coexist with the Indians. Well, Seth could.

He had no fear, because of this great secret that he had….I can just close my eyes and think about Seth as he was in situations, all across the frontier, getting out of situations because of being "the bear," and being able to convey that to the Indian people that he was among.

He was somewhat of a loner. He felt completely comfortable being anywhere in the West by himself. So the Tanner Trail down into Grand Canyon, the Tanner Crossing on the Little Colorado, the Tanner Springs was one of his homesteads, are all named after him. And what that tells me, even though he didn't keep notes and keep records, those things wouldn't have been called after him--the Tanner Wash, and Tanner Mesa--there's a lot of things that have his name attached to it. So that means to me old Tanner was there first. (chuckles)

He did some mining down in Grand Canyon, and he and my grandfather did several mining operations, chasing their needs, and trying to find silver, trying to find.... And I don't know all of exactly what they tried to mine in each of the different places in those really early years. I know quite a bit about what my grandfather did--Grandfather Joseph Baldwin. But I'll get into him a little later. Seth and his brother, after the Mormons got to Salt Lake, left pretty early and went to Barstow to mine coal. And this was in the 1850s. Seth was so familiar with that Outlaw Trail where they'd bring the horses--I think he knew a lot about it, and used that an awful lot.




My Grandpa Joe was the greatest guy. He could understand and talk most of the [region's].... he could speak something to communicate with everyone he met. He spoke English, of course. He spoke this language of the Tewa. ….I always thought he could speak Hopi, and I always thought he could speak Zuni. And one of my most important early silversmiths that I worked with was a guy by the name of Sol Ondolasi, and I was talking to Sol one day, and I told Sol, "I'm really wantin' to find out my grandfather's trading among the Zunis." "Oh, yes, my family," Sol said, "was very involved in making things for Joe Tanner." I said, "Well, he spoke Zuni." "Oh, no, he spoke the language of the Tewa." So as I have researched what I have on Chee Dodge and what I have on Seth, and what I have on Grandpa Joe, the languages that they were most familiar with--my mom tells a story about when Chee Dodge used to come out and spend a week with her and my father at Tsaya, early in their marriage, and with my Grandpa Joe, whose homestead was really close by. She said my dad would get so pissed at Chee Dodge and Grandpa Joe because they wouldn't talk either Navajo--which he understood and could talk--or English." And he'd [say], "Why the hell those two won't talk so I can understand 'em, I don't know…."

My Grandpa Joe--Joseph Baldwin Tanner--when.... I'm equal parts Tanner--my Grandpa Joe's wife was Foutz--and so I'm equal parts Tanner, Foutz--and on my mother's side it's McGee and Hunt. So I can't do anything but be an Indian trader. (laughs) It's just in the roots, it's to the bone. But my Grandpa Joe and his wife, when the government discovered that all the settlers at Tuba City needed to be--it's kind of like the Hopi-Navajo land dispute--they all had to be removed because they said Chief Tuba didn't have the right to allow them to settle there. So the government bought all of the Mormon people out. They gave 'em land exchanges and money, and my Grandpa Joe obviously had the most valuable, most precious place there at Tuba City, because he got the biggest settlement of any of the other settlers. So our first trading post was established near Tuba City, and it was Seth and Grandpa Joe's--they were equal partners in it. And that was part of what ended there.

Cole: What time period did they start the trading post?

Tanner: That would have been.... The Mormons settled there in 1872, and I think they were forced to leave about 1890. I don't have those dates on the tip of my tongue, but it was likely in the eighties. I comfortably say that my family has been continually trading among the Navajos since 1872. And I think I could go earlier than that, but don't--that's the date I use, is when they for sure settled there and started their homestead. Then my Grandpa Joe moved over to the Mancos and Cortez area, and Shiprock. He ultimately ended up having a trading post at Mancos Creek. Then at Shiprock, he owned the Hogback place that the Wheelers now own, that is one of the oldest places on or near the Navajo Reservation. At Hogback my Grandpa Joe had made it so easy for… both he and Seth, but particularly my Grandpa Joe-- he just has made it so easy for all of us, all the family that has followed him. He loved to party, he loved to get together, he loved to shindig. I'll tell you what, this guy, when he showed up at your house, it wouldn't be twenty minutes until he'd say, "I believe that fat kid and that long-legged kid.... I'll tell you what I'll do. Let's put the heavy-set boy about forty feet ahead of the long-legged boy, and let's run 'em seventy-five yards, and I'll bet on either of 'em." (laughter) Just to get some fun goin'. And it was the same with horse racing and chicken pulls. I guess when he bought the Hogback Trading Post, he hosted a huge party and there were over a thousand Indian people who came for that big shindig when he.... He owned that store a shorter period than anybody, any owner ever did, but had the biggest party (laughs) that ever happened on the reservation.

He was a linguist, just like Chee Dodge. Both of 'em were very involved in the early politics of the region. When the Navajos had their big uprising on Beautiful Mountain, it was Grandpa Joe Tanner that was the liaison from the Army and Shelton at Shiprock carried the message up to the top of Beautiful Mountain. There's a great story about when he was goin' up the trail to talk to the Indians who were on the warpath, he was on his horse and the Indians kept telling him, "Stop, or we're gonna hafta shoot you." And Grandpa just said, "It's in God's hands. If this horse keeps goin', I'm supposed to come talk to you. If he turns around, then I'm not." Uncle Wheeler, who used to live with us, said that Grandpa told him all the time he was spurrin' that horse on the side that the Indians couldn't see. But he got up there and he talked 'em out and saved a lot of bloodshed. So he accomplished that.

Grandpa Joe just really loved the art. He was instrumental--he was one of the earliest guys.... The Navajos mostly had great silver by this time, and were embracing it and enjoying it. But it was not added with turquoise. I say all the time that my Grandpa Joe Tanner was instrumental in the marriage of silver and turquoise.

Cole: Approximately what time period was this?

Tanner: Well, his career was.... I think he was born in 1868--Grandpa Joe was. And he was at the height of his career at that great opportunistic time, when all of these early traders were trying to figure out ways to--what were the goods of trade? The obvious one, the Navajos had the hottest commodity in America. In the West, before the white man ever showed up, the Comanches wanted their blankets, the Utes wanted their blankets, the Mexicans wanted their blankets. That weaving art was the obvious most sought-after thing, whether you were an army soldier, or whether you were.... We found some of the greatest old wearing blankets in some of the Spanish land grant estates along the Rio Grande. Some of the earliest and best ones that have been found have come from there. All of these guys, whether it was my Grandpa Joe, or whether it was Cotton in Gallup, or Moore at Crystal, or Hubbell--they were all just trying to figure out ways that these people could best make a living. And turquoise and silver became one of those important things. And my granddad was toe-to-toe with those--my Grandpa Joe was toe-to-toe with Hubbell and Moore. Back to lovin' the party, he was real involved in the first Gallup Indian Ceremonials. He was real involved in the fair at Shiprock. We've got great early photographs of the booth those guys had. This all really happened fast. They turned this whole thing into a trade. I'll tell you, the Navajos are such enterprising, hard-working people. They don't need the government to do anything for them.

I think the greatest hour of the Navajos, and these people that worked with them, was those years from when they were released from Fort Sumner and given a few head of sheep and lots of bayeta trade cloth. And that's what those earliest and best blankets are.... You know, the ravelled stuff, those are the pieces that are bringing the mega-bucks, and so sought-after. I'll show you a little later, I've got a picture over here by Willis, and I kiddingly say that this old Navajo war chief that Willis painted, he's having a ceremonial smoke. Right beside him I've got this red coat soldier--an old weather vane that's been made into a lamp--and I tell people all the time, "This is how Navajo weaving really got started. This is the old trader's story. This war chief sittin' there thinkin', 'How in the world am I gonna keep my little girl warm this winter?' And then he gets this great idea. 'I know, I'm gonna shoot me a red coat soldier. Have the old woman ravel up his jacket and make her a blanket to keep her warm this winter.'" So I've got the ravelled bayeta trade cloth rug there, and the weather vane, and Willis' picture. [chuckle] That's how it all got started. The government gave Dr. Joe Ben Wheat [phonetic spelling], from the University of Colorado, who's been one of my great gurus…. He's documented the tons of bayeta trade cloth that was given to the Navajos as part of what they were trying to do, both at Fort Sumner, and then continued to be brought as an important trade item by Hubbell and Moore and my Grandpa Joe and anybody else that was involved at that time, trying to put everybody to work.

Grandpa Joe started mining turquoise down between Bisbee and Morenci, and he had a really important turquoise mine down there. And what he would do is he would mine the turquoise, then he would bring the turquoise up to the bead makers. And they were Navajo bead makers, Hopi bead makers, Santa Domingo bead makers, and Zuni bead makers. The technique of trade was that half of what was created out of the turquoise belonged to the bead maker, and the other half belonged to Grandpa. And so he'd leave 'em an important stash of turquoise, and when he came back at a designated point in time, he would sit there and Grandpa got first pick, the bead maker would get the next pick, and they would just satisfy it that way. And then of course Grandpa would try to then buy the bead maker's piece, and sometimes he had success and sometimes he didn't. The Zuni, the bead makers were always traders themselves. And this was a great commodity, a great jacla, the earring that goes on the bottom of a necklace, a really good one of those was fair trade for the best steer in the herd, or thirty head of ewes. So they've always had great value. The treated ones don't have that value today, but the real ones still have great value.

So Grandpa Joe would take those then and everyone in his experience knew that when they seen Old Joe Tanner comin' down the lane, there was somethin' in his bag of tricks that was a thrill for anybody to trade for. And so he made it so easy, because one, the languages that he spoke, the rapports that he established. He did quite a lot of--he was an herbal medicine practitioner, so there's great stories about Grandpa Joe.

One that I love to tell is he left Shiprock one time and was headed out to Crownpoint where his homestead was, and this Navajo family had just married off one of their daughters and they had moved out to near the same area. And her family asked Grandpa Joe, "Please stop by and check on the kids and see how they're doin'." Nellie Arviso [phonetic spelling] who was the daughter that the parents were concerned about, said when Grandpa Joe got to her front door, both her and her husband were just deathly ill with the flu. And she said, "That man just came right in our door and stayed with us for two-and-a-half weeks until he had us both nursed back to health, and away he went." So he was never too busy not to care for the folks that he shared life with.And they called him "Little Bear" or Shash Yaz. And so if you noticed, my son's poem to his dad that Cindy brought for you to read last night, one of the things that Jonathan thanked me for was teachin' him how to be a bear. (chuckles) And so that's a family tradition of ours.




I had finished my sophomore year of high school….I wanted to really learn the whole story of trading, and Jewel McGee had worked for my father at the very beginning of his career at one point in time, and so Jewel agreed to bring me out to Red Rock. And Troy Kennedy was just, at that point, kind of Jewel's apprentice trader…. I was just spellbound by Jewel McGee. Jewel McGee was, in my opinion, and still is, just the perfect Navajo Indian trader. And a great trader is like a great banker in a community. If he's successful, not only is he successful, but all the people he touches are equally successful. And of all the trading characters that I've ever met, Jewel McGee was and is the fairest, most straight-shootin' trader that I've ever met. He helped upgrade the livestock business. So I worked for Jewel along with Troy. I kept telling Jewel, "Jewel, I need a trading post. I want to get in the business." "Well, you're doin' just fine." See, I'm the ripe old age of seventeen here. (laughter)

I'd been there for about a year, and Jewel's brother, Melvin McGee, had Tocito Trading Post. Tocito, they had the trading post, and then the brothers Roscoe and Melvin and Jewel had a whole series of trading posts over on that side. Well, Melvin was working at their cattle ranch. They had a collective cattle ranch where they'd buy the stock. Melvin was haulin' a load of water, but got run over by the truck and killed. And a few days after the funeral, Jewel came out to Red Rock. I was cookin' breakfast--I never will forget. He came in and he threw a set of store keys on the table and he said, "Well, kid, I bought you a tradin' post." (laughter) I went out to Tocito.




I brought my money to Navajo Shopping Center, and my brother J. B.'s idea was to create, for the first time, a marketplace for the Navajo, and any other tribe that might want to come--a place where you could sell anything that you produced, for cash. And then on the other hand, we'd put the other hat on and try to sell them anything that they bought, for cash. And this was one of the most successful, the biggest operation of its kind that had ever been done. We started that thing out on a wing and a prayer, but everybody--my mom and dad, all my brothers, myself, my Uncle Don that had the flour mill--put money into it. We split the pie. J. B. was the largest stockholder. My brother Don and my mom and dad were the next-largest, and then I owned 10 percent of it.

We started this place out, buying lambs, steers, rugs, pinons--but everything they produced, we tried to create a market for, and find a willing buyer. And so it was a brokering thing, to keep up with it. Took a lot of money, but this thing took off just like a house afire. We did so much business so quick, made so much money so fast.... Like in the grocery department of it, we would butcher our own sheep, right there at the facility. There wasn't any government laws then. And this old sales barn had a big corral, like most sale barns do. And we'd buy these butcher ewes, and then like on a Saturday--just to give you an idea of the volume of this place--we would bring thirty head of sheep down at a time, into a little corral just outside the.... Here's the meat case in the store. The back door was this corral where these sheep were. I struck a deal with the Navajo ladies that would come and butcher. They got to keep the insides and the head. I'd bring the mutton in and I had days there that when I was runnin' the meat department when we first started, where I would cut and wrap and sell a hundred head of sheep on one busy Saturday--with no help.




I was still at Navajo Shopping Center, and I'm nineteen-and-a-half or twenty at this point, not old enough to drink in a bar, but I'm big and I look like I should be able to. So I'm down at Pete's Club, drinkin' beer and tryin' to loosen up my arm from wrappin' that hundred head of sheep (laughs) or whatever it was that I had done that day, and I was havin' a beer and I had a nice turquoise ring on….This old boy sat down next to me, and he said, "You kinda like that turquoise, huh, partner?" And I said, "Boy, I love turquoise. My grandfather used to mine turquoise. I just wish that I would have been my dad and I'd been a generation sooner."

He said, "Well, I know where there's some turquoise. I shoe horses for the horse racing circuit. I get out to Nevada, I've done some prospectin' out there, and I have found an outcropping of really good turquoise out there in Nevada, and I'd partner with you on it."

I said, "Well, what does this take?" And he said, "Well, if you'd give me a little money, the next time I'm through that country, I'll take a couple of days off and go mine a little of it, and I'll bring it to you and show you." So I'm a hotshot kid, you know. I reached in my pocket and gave him (laughs) a hundred-dollar bill and I said, "Well, just see what you can do with this." He said, "Oh! Fifty would have done. This hundred will do me just great." So away he went. I don't think I even asked him his name. About six months later, he showed up with a coffee can with some of the nicest turquoise that I'd ever seen. I still have a ring that I wear sometimes out of one of the stones. It was a nice spider web.

So I sent my brother Jerry--I bought a little caterpillar compressor, just a little unit….I think I paid $5,000. It had a little jackhammer with it, and it was a poor boy operation. Mining turquoise is a tough way to make a living, but that was my first partnership in a turquoise mine. We made the claims and started mining and we got some really good turquoise out. And so I started making some jewelry.…

Catherine Wilson and Sol Ondolasi were married and good friends of mine--friends of my grandpa's as a matter of fact, Sol was. A lot of my information on my Grandpa Joe I got from Sol throughout his lifetime. But we started makin' a few pieces of mostly silver jewelry. Trimmed it with a little bit of gold. I got involved in the Navajo Fair at Window Rock, and while all this was happening is when I sold out of Navajo Shopping Center, as well. I actually traded out….I offered to take weavings and rugs and stuff that I had traded for, in trade for my stock.… And Sol and Catherine and I immediately made entries for all of the categories for the Navajo Fair, the competitive awards. We had eighteen entries in that first competition that we went to, and won seventeen blue ribbons and one red. And we thought, "Well, this'll work!"




I've just been spellbound by the Navajo weavers. These great weavers: you give them a challenge and an assurance that their efforts will be rewarded, and they go on that fast to get that picture in their mind's eye as to what they're gonna weave. And when they get that lock onto that image that's going to come through them, and start at it and achieve it, I've just been in awe all of my life of that great talent. So I have many, many really good weaver friends, and a number in the livestock business, too. That's the wonderful thing about my business as I look back on it, is this rapport with people. On the one hand, I experience the great zeal of the creation of the piece and have a part in that, and then to take that piece to the collector that's going to embrace it, and the things that those people do. You know, the common denominator between our friendship is the creation with the person that's making it. And then embracing it. The person that ends up owning the piece of course wants to know as much about that piece as he or she can, so when you can be that bridge.... But the icing on the cake is you get to know the way the people who collect, have enough money to collect, and how'd they earn that money and what do they do. So this friendship starts just with the media that you trade in.

I think the greatest bridge of understanding that the Native Americans, one and all, can teach each of us is their reverence for everything around them, their reverence for their Mother Earth, and all of the things and all of the creatures that are in it. And then of course what I think we can all do to best help them.... I think the greatest successes among the American Indians are the artists themselves. And I think when we as outsiders look at what they create, I think it's one of America's last real things where you can buy something that people have made by hand and created from themselves. I think the greatest compliment that we can give these artists is ownership of their items for ourselves. It's wonderful to look at 'em and say, "Oh, that's beautiful, and that's wonderful." But it's another thing to give it its ultimate compliment, and that's ownership of it. I've really tried all of my life and all of my career to talk people into collecting American Indian art. And each facet of it, I don't care--a Navajo rug, I tell people all the time, there's no other art from anywhere in the world, that can come into your space and bring a better feeling and a better warmth than a great Navajo rug in a room.