Sally Wagner

Sally Wagner


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Well, a woman would come in with a rug, and she would come in very quietly, carrying the rug wrapped up in a flour sack. She would look around, finally, and if any of her friends--and most of them were her friends--she would eventually go over and touch hands. You know, [the Navajos] don't really shake hands, they just touch hands. Then she'd probably sit down on the loafers' bench and sit there for an hour or so. Then she'd come up and put the rug, still wrapped in the flour sack, on the counter. Then one of us would take the rug back into the room where we kept the rugs and unwrap it and spread it out and look at it and decide what we were going to give for it. We paid very high prices for the rugs that pleased us. We liked the simple patterns. Then she usually would follow us back, and we'd tell her how much we would give her, whereupon she would demand more, but we never bargained, simply because we didn't like to--and anyway, we always gave high prices. So she would agree, usually.

Then the trading would begin, and she would pick out eight yards of percale, maybe. We'd measure that out, and then we'd write down the amount that that cost her on a little piece of paper, and deduct it from the price of the rug. Then she would go on to buy four cans of green chile, maybe, and then we'd deduct that from [the price of the rug]. Usually we would tell her every time that we deducted something, how much she had left. And that would go on. She'd buy a pair of shoes, an axe handle, fifty cents' worth of hay for her horse, 'cause she came in on a horse--and that sort of thing.

Or, if the man or the woman--the customer--did not have something to trade at the time, and they were regular customers and we knew how honest they were--and nearly all of them were quite honest--then we would give them credit, and write that down on a piece of paper, and we would give them whatever was left, and we would keep track of how much was due us, on separate little pads for each customer. And then, as I said, they would pay off in the spring and in the fall.

Underhill: And who did most of the buying, men or women?

Wagner: Oh, both.

Underhill: Did the women often have a separate account based on a rug sale?

Wagner: Yes.

Underhill: What were the most popular items for men and for women?

Wagner: Well, it always was a sack of flour, a can of baking powder, and they always wound up with five caramel lollipops. They bought the percale for skirts, men's shirts, leather--just plain leather. I was trying to think what else. Oh! that's something funny--before the war they always bought a can of tomatoes, and they would want us to open it. Then we would put a dollop of sugar in, and give them a plastic spoon, and they'd eat it. But after the war, they didn't eat it anymore. I never understood that. But after the war, they started buying underwear, which they had not before the war.

Cole: How much hay would fifty cents buy?

Wagner: About that much. You know, off of a bale.

Cole: So just enough to feed the horse at that point. They weren't going to take it back with 'em.

Wagner: No.

Underhill: Did you have a guest hogan, where people would come and stay while they were trading?

Wagner: No, we didn't.

Steiger: If they had to feed their horses, they must have been comin' from pretty far, then? Or not necessarily?

Wagner: Not necessarily, because, see, they would come in and spend nearly the whole day.

Steiger: So just to give their horses somethin' to do?

Wagner: Yes




Wagner: I was born in 1913, in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Underhill: Who were your parents?

Wagner: Do you mean their names?

Underhill: Uh-huh.

Wagner: Elsie Whitaker was my mother, and Dwight Wagner was my father. I had an older brother and an older sister.

Underhill: How many years were you in West Virginia? Had you spent your childhood there?

Wagner: Until I was about twelve or thirteen, and then I went away to school. In the summers, I came out here. I had persuaded my father to bring me out.

Underhill: And what attracted you to this area?

Wagner: Well, we had quite a bit of property in West Virginia, and there was a prehistoric site on it, and I kept finding things. Actually, my brother collected arrowheads at a great rate. Then when he got tired of whatever he was collecting, he passed it on to baby sister. So he passed on the arrowheads to me. Then I kept finding more things around outside, and I became interested in the people who had done these things, and I read all sorts of things--most of them just novels. Then I was reading the travel section of The New York Times, one Sunday afternoon, and it was all about this part of the country, and I persuaded my father to bring me out.

Underhill: Wonderful! What did you think on your first trip?

Wagner: Oh! I was bowled over, as most people are, and I kept coming back every year. And then after I was old enough, I came by myself.

Underhill: How old were you the first time you came?

Wagner: I think I was about fourteen.

Underhill: And where all did you go when you would come out for the summer?

Wagner: Well, we started in Albuquerque and we hired a car and a driver and we saw everything around the Albuquerque area, and then came to Santa Fe and did that here, and then to Taos. We drove up to Mesa Verde, and believe me, a trip to Mesa Verde in those days was awful! So I saw a good deal of the Southwest, early.

Underhill: And what did your father think?

Wagner: He loved it. My mother came out once, and she liked it, too, but she wasn't very well, so she only came the one time.

Underhill: And where did you go to school then?

Wagner: I went to the National Cathedral in Washington, to boarding school, and then to the University of Chicago.

Underhill: What did you study?

Wagner: Anthropology. What else?!

Underhill: You mentioned you came back by yourself then. Was that to live, after you graduated from college?

Wagner: No. No, it was in the summers.

Underhill: What brought you ultimately to the Southwest, when did you come and stay?

Wagner: Well, of course we lived on the Navajo Reservation for thirteen years, and we kept coming over here from there. But to stay, to live year-round, in the fifties.

Underhill: When did you go to the Navajo Nation, and what brought you there?

Wagner: Navajos brought us there! That was in 1938. My husband was in the Park Service, and we were sent to Canyon de Chelly. We liked the Navajos, but we didn't like working for the government. We'd gotten to be friends with Cozy and Inja McSparron, who had the trading post at the mouth of the canyon. We moved in with them and we resigned from the Park Service. We were sitting around one evening, trying to decide what to do next, and Cozy said, "Why don't you buy a trading post?" Well, that fit right in with our interest in anthropology, so Cozy and Inja and the two of us looked around for posts for sale, and we found Wide Ruins.




Wagner: Oh, the roads were simply awful! They were always bad, except in the middle of the summer. Of course, in the winter there was snow, and quite a bit of snow. Then in the spring, that snow would melt and leave mud. In the fall it would rain and there'd be more mud. And oh, yes, then in the middle of the summer it would be sand, and the wind would blow that across dunes, so they were always bad. You know, I keep wondering, how did we get along without four-wheel drive? But there wasn't any such thing then. Of course we had trucks.

Underhill: And were you ever stuck?

Wagner: (laughs) Oh, frequently! Usually, as a matter of fact. We carried shovels and axes in the car. I remember sitting for forty-eight hours on the road between Ganado and Chinle once. We worked and worked and worked to get out: hauled rocks, chopped brush, rebuilt the road. We did a lot of that.




Underhill: How did you receive your news of the outside world while you were there?

Wagner: We had a radio. As a matter of fact, the one and only time I have ever listened to short wave was a Sunday morning--I hate gadgets--I hate that thing over there, that TV--I just don't fiddle with them--but that one morning, for some reason, I was fiddling with the short wave, and I got the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (long pause)

Underhill: What impact did World War II have on your area?

Wagner: Oh, tremendous impact, because the men either all went into war industry or went into the service. And then, of course, when they came back, they'd seen the outside world, and they had ideas. That's when we realized that the Navajos were going to change. We didn't want to see it happen.

Underhill: What kinds of ideas did they come back with, after they had seen the outside world?

Wagner: Well, let's see, they wanted more possessions than they'd had before. They weren't as sure about their own culture as they had been before. And of course that marginal state is very destructive to the individual.




Underhill: When did you get your first telephone?

Wagner: Oh, there was one there.

Underhill: When you arrived?

Wagner: Yes. Or was there? No, there wasn't! We had one put in. Yes, I remember, that was when we first went there, and it was, of course, a ring-down. It connected to the school, and then from the school to Klagetoh. And then from Klagetoh to Ganado. And then from Ganado to Window Rock. And then from Window Rock to Gallup. Yeah, getting a call through was sometimes quite a problem, because there wasn't anybody to really man the switchboard at Ganado, or, I suppose, at Klagetoh either. If a nurse happened to be going by the switchboard when you were ringing, she'd answer it. Otherwise, you didn't get anybody!

Underhill: Did your telephone become a community phone for everyone in your area?

Wagner: Yes. But the Navajos didn't have much use for a phone, and of course the teachers had one of their own up there. Every now and then, I remember Joe Toddy's daughter ran away. No, she had been sent to the school at St. Michael's, and she ran away from the school, so they called to tell Joe that. I answered the phone, and I called Joe in, and Joe was terrified of the telephone. I tried to show him what to do. He'd hold the receiver way out here, and hold way back from the phone, and then yell at it. So really, they didn't have much use for the phone, or much knowledge about it. Things have changed.

Underhill: When you moved to Santa Fe, to this home, did you go back?

Wagner: No. You know, it burned, it's no longer there.




Underhill: How accepted do you think you were by the community? Any problems? Or were you welcome to be a part of that society?

Wagner: I think we had quite an impact. First of all, it was quite an impoverished community when we first went there. We started rebuilding the post and the house and that immediately gave jobs to quite a few people. Then we had been so impressed with the rugs that Cozy was getting in at Chinle. And I still think the Chinle rugs were the best that were ever made, except way back in the early days. But we wanted to improve the rugs at Wide Ruins, and they were doing terrible weaving there--it really was pretty awful. But they knew better--they just didn't bother. And so we began an educational program. We paid rather high prices when they would do what we wanted them to. We never gave them any designs, anything like that--they did their own designing and their own dying. But it was how well the rug was woven, and whether the pattern was pleasing, which made the difference in the price. And they were able to meet those standards. So they got quite well paid, and that, along with the jobs of construction for the men, raised the economic level. The Wide Ruins type rugs are still being made there. So we did have an impact on the community.

Underhill: How did you distribute your rugs that you took in for trade?

Wagner: There again, we skipped the wholesale houses, and we sold directly to mostly interior decorating shops, places like that. Then the rugs gained a reputation, and people would come to Wide Ruins You asked about tourists earlier. Well, of course these were not tourists. They came directly to buy the rugs, simply because we had a reputation for good rugs.

Underhill: Who do you remember among the weavers? Does anyone stand out in your mind?

Wagner: Oh, yes! The entire family of Hosteen Glish--all of those women wove prodigiously, and they wove beautifully. They were very dependable.

This rug here on the floor was made by Ralph Jones' wife. She was one of the best of the designers, but she didn't make very many rugs, unlike the Glish family, who were at their looms all the time.

Underhill: And how is that art of weaving transferred from mother to daughter? In your opinion, how was that taught?

Wagner: Of course, I guess in all communities, the daughter learns from the mother. But in our attempts to improve the weaving at Wide Ruins, we hired a teacher from Fort Wingate, a Navajo woman who had been teaching weaving at the government program at Fort Wingate. You know, it was a boarding school at that time for Navajos. Then there was a building in back of the school at Wide Ruins that was not used for anything. In fact, the roof leaked and was in pretty bad condition. We bought the materials to renovate that building, and the Navajos did the work. They made that into a workshop, with one side of it for the women for weaving--or the students, the little girls--and the other side for the little boys to learn things like tanning of skins and carpentry and such like. Then we built portable looms for the little girls, and provided them with wool, and guaranteed to buy their rugs. So we had quite a supply of little bitty rugs. Those little girls, they really learned. They were taught by the woman from Fort Wingate, and we paid her salary.

Underhill: Interesting. The wool--was that raw wool that was then carded? Or did you use any commercial wools?

Wagner: No, it was raw wool that they brought in. And then we would sort it--keep out the long-stapled wool--and we would turn that back to the weavers--not only to the little girls at the school, but to the regular weavers. We would deduct the price of the wool from what we gave for the finished rug.

Underhill: Do you recall at all what the average price of a rug that you would provide to the weaver, what you paid for rugs, even a ballpark figure?

Wagner: What we paid for rugs? Well, I do remember that for a saddle blanket, single-weave saddle blanket, was eight dollars. Now, that rug there, we paid $2,000 for. That was an unheard of price in those days. This size rug, which is a more normal size, we would pay maybe $75 to $100. But we were always sold out!




Underhill: Now, when you were younger and you became intrigued with the Southwest and archaeology, what did you envision life being like? What did you think you would end up doing?

Wagner: Oh, I wanted to be an archaeologist!

Underhill: And did you want it to be in the Southwest, or an archaeologist anywhere?

Wagner: No, with Indians--not necessarily Southwest. And as a matter of fact, I did work with the Pennsylvania Museum in the mound area.

Underhill: Interesting. And was that during college or after college?

Wagner: No, it was before.

Underhill: Before college! (Wagner: Uh-huh.) Oh, my! That's great. A very fine museum.

Wagner: But once I came to the Southwest, like everybody else, I was hooked on it.

Underhill: And what captured your attention?

Wagner: Here?

Underhill: Uh-huh, as opposed to West Virginia.

Wagner: Oh, heavens! Well, the wide-open country, the big sky, the freedom for the individual here. The social constraints were not, and are not what they are in the East.