When I was born, the blood that come into my heart and system and through my veins apparently had "Indian trader" written all over 'em, because that's the only thing I really ever wanted to do in my life. My grandmother started the thing off, and my grandparents, and then I picked it up from there. Out of high school, I went to Smith Lake, close to Crownpoint, New Mexico, was my first trading post. I worked for my brother-in-law, Charlie McGee, there at that trading post. I was there ten months, and I learned a lot about buying lambs, issuing credit, buying rugs. In those days, you bought rugs by the pound. You put 'em on the scale and you give 'em a flat price of $1.75 a pound, regardless of how good or how they was, that was the way you bought rugs then. We even started with the old SECO money. It had the Smith Lake Trading Post SECO money that was trade money. That was a type of credit that you let out--if you bought a rug or jewelry, you give 'em that. They traded it back, and you accepted it against merchandise or anything in the store.
Then from there I went to Keams Canyon, Arizona. I worked there, and I went there in 1948, for my brother-in-law, the McGees--Bill McGee and Cliff McGee, and C. A. Wheeler. They all owned the trading post together. So I worked there and [I was in] that trading post about twelve years. And then we bought the Piñon Trading Post, which is a very famous post that used to belong to Lorenzo Hubbell and his brother. But before that, I was at Polacca Trading Post with the Hopis. Now, we did have Navajos and Hopis together trade with us, but the trading post at Polacca was the old Tom Bobatia [? phonetic spelling] Trading Post at the bottom of the mesa. Here I found a real friendship with my Indian people. They called me "the magpie" and I learned the Hopi language. How I picked it up, I don't know. They called me Magpie, and I was called up on the Mesa a time or two for using some bad words, but they said, "Well, we'll excuse you, because they taught it to you."
And then we bought the Piñon Trading Post from there. It
was a great experience, a great, great area.
My grandmother [Harriet Adelta Bingham Wheeler] was really the trader. She was what they called the same thing as a medicine man, with the Navajos there. She doctored with herbs. You couldn't just go right down here to Sandborne [phonetic spelling] Hospital and get a shot, or for a cold, or whatever. You know, it was doctored by herbs, and that's why I say she was a doctor through herbs and natural medicines.
When I went to Lukachukai, a man come in and he asked me in Navajo, "Are you Mósí?" or the Cat Clan, and I said, "Yes, my grandmother was called The Cat," because she had been doctoring those people all the time, and that's how she got in the trading business. And he said, "Yes, we went all the way from Lukachukai Mountain, over to some white lady. She was a Mormon lady. She doctored us and got us over the impetigo."
And then one young man come in that had blood poisoning in his arm, and
it had swelled double it's size and [he] was about to die. My grandfather
said, "Well, you can't save that young man." And he was nearly dead,
and she took some pine pitch gum and some herbal medicines and put it
in there and made a poultice and drew all that poison out of that boy's
arm and saved his life. So that's how she got involved in the trading
business, is that they give her gifts of rugs and livestock, and so she
started a trading post from there.
Cole: What do you think separates a good trader from a poor
Do you mean spiritually, or do you mean financially?
Let's take both. All right, take me. I ended up unsuccessful, I think, but I wouldn't trade for all the Association's money, or all the money in the world, for the experience I had and the friends I got with those Indians on the reservation. I have friends, I can go to the grocery store and I'm talking to 'em in Navajo, they know me. "Hi, Giishchilii!" And we converse in Navajo. They are my friend. Now, a white man, we'll get mad at one another, and we won't deal with one another, we write 'em off. With the Navajo, it's different--you're a friend forever. You have your differences, but you come back and reconnect again.
So for that experience, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. My friends still call me at Lukachukai. Walter's friends still call him at Dinnehotso, (in Navajo) "Daa’ ditá niteel." They call him "thick lips." "Come on out!" And he goes to the funeral, and I go to Lukachukai to my people. And they're still my people.
I was at a funeral, there were five people that were suffocated--they were having a barbecue and it rained out there, and it was stormin'. They took it inside, enclosed with the charcoal--suffocated and killed 'em, five of 'em. So I went to the funeral.
Stand for just a minute, I want to show you the Navajo handshake. Okay, you approach me here. Now, you put your hand out this way. Now, don't close. Now, we just barely touch, but you look this way, and I'll look that way. This is the Navajo handshake, you touch this way, and you look the opposite way. But on that occasion, it was hugs from the people. It was a time of sadness, because a great tragedy had happened. And here them old ladies come up, and they hadn't seen me, and my boy, my baby, that's, (in Navajo) "________________." See, that's what they say, you know. And the thing was, it wasn't a handshake, it was a hug--the men, the women.
And up on the hill there was the schoolteacher at Lukachukai. He
was from Keams Canyon, and he knew me and he said, "I'm amazed at you
going through these people this way." And I said, "Man (chuckles)
I've been here for thirty years! These are my people." I said,
"I sold my store." "Oh," he says, "you're rich! You got millions
of dollars!" I said, "I can't even write a check for $100 without
it bouncin', yet am I rich?"
Well, you could extend way too much credit, and that could get you in trouble. That happens, yeah. And, you know, we had a change when Ronald Reagan was in. He cut off a lot of work on the railroad--the railroad stopped a lot of our work at that time. And I mentioned that a guy paid me a year afterwards. It wasn't that he was dishonest, it was that he didn't have it to pay, and when he got it, he come in, slapped her down there and says, "There you are. You took care of my family while I was out there, and now I'm repaying you." But he had lost his railroad job, and that sort of thing....
And then, too, you gotta stay up with the times. You gotta change. You can't simply stay the way you are. Like I was, "Hey, I ain't gonna change the bull pen." "Ha! It's too late, we've already got the counters out!" So, you know, it's with the times. The cars is come, the transportation's come, these modern facilities in town brings 'em to town. And we had that, too, we still had competition. We started sales. That was never heard of on the reservation, to cut a price: eight cans of pop for a dollar. You know. Those is things that you had to do. (sigh) I just don't see that.... I think a guy could do it if he had the backing.... My laundromat, I started to put a laundromat, and I was financially unable to finish it. It would have saved my bacon. A car wash would have saved my bacon. See, it's all changed into services.
The other thing that I would have liked to done very much was put these Kentucky Fried Chickens, or the McDonald's, or what have you. Would have been a great deal. Some of 'em, that one at Chinle was the top chicken seller around in this country here for quite an area. Now, that's taking in pretty big for Albuquerque and everywhere--and down to Farmington, it outdone it. They said it was the top store, so that thing, tourist business was good.
Mr. Goulding come to Greasewood and got up on the counter. That was the thing to do, is your competitor friend would come and set and shoot the bull. He got up on the counter and he said, "Wheeler, I know your uncle, but Wheeler, you're makin' a mistake. You need to start these tours. There's money in it. I have it at Monument Valley."
And I said, "Mr. Goulding...." Harry Goulding was his name. He said, "I'll go to Phoenix with you. Walter Bimson is the head of the Valley National Bank and I can get you the financing, put you in a deal here. I'll go and I'll assist you and I'll back you as the wisdom to it." And I said, "Harry, I'm not interested in taking tourists and touring and doing stuff like this." I lost a gold mine. I let a gold mine go away, it was right in front of my nose. But I wanted to be like my uncle. We seen the book over here with, what was it, eight stores? I wanted to be king of the reservation, I wanted to have eight stores--the most trading posts on the reservation. That was what I wanted to be. And that was poor vision. If I had listened to old Harry, I'd have had her made. (sigh) That's my idea.
.... I don't have a $10 million pawn deal, and $10 million worth of Navajo rugs, or one of the best collections, 'cause I had to sell 'em. I do have a watch, and my wife has a little bit of jewelry, but we had to sell it to make a living. But like I say, it was the best times of our life was when we were with the Indian trading business.