Les Wilson

Les Wilson

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[I was born] in 1948 in California. I grew up in California. As soon as I finished high school there, I went to college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That's where I met Ray Drolet, who later offered me a job out at Shonto…. I think I went to work out there at the end of 1972….

That was sort of the tail end of the "good ol' days" of trading, because it was a very, very busy store. Ray was the manager, working for his parents. I was the assistant manager, and we had anywhere from three to four to even five clerks workin' every day. This was before people up there could get to Page, to a supermarket, or before the supermarkets had been built in Tuba City, Kayenta. So we were pretty much it for a large area, and it was one busy place.

Cole: Was that a bullpen operation?

Wilson: No, it'd been converted to self-service, oh, at least ten years before--probably early sixties. There are pictures of it when it still had the bullpen. Have you been to Shonto yet? No? You will, though.

Cole: Yeah. And then what was that like for you? Was it a pretty big shock, going out there?

Wilson: Well, it was, yeah, but I needed a job so I just.... I was there about a week or so and Ray said, "Take over, run the place, 'cause I'm goin' into Farmington." He stayed three or four days, and it was kind of the "off the deep end" method of learning how to run a trading post. There was good help there that told me what to do, so I could....

Cole: And then what were the living conditions like at that time for you?

Wilson: I lived out in a stone cabin that had been built in the back of the store. I didn't live there at first, I lived in the living quarters in the store. Ray and I were both sort of bachelors then, and we lived like bachelors--we never washed the dishes. We got frozen steak out of the store and fried it up every night, and lived on steak, and corn flakes in the morning. It was primitive. (chuckles)

Cole: And at that time was Shonto pretty much a cash business? Or was there still some barter that went on?

Wilson: No, it was at least three-quarters credit, I think. Yeah, maybe more than three-quarters, and it had always been a credit store, like all of them. That's one reason we were so busy, I guess, 'cause it was liberal with its credit….

Cole: And at Shonto was there still a lot of weaving going on?

Wilson: Yeah. What they specialized there were saddle blankets, and large, thick rugs, rough rugs--nothing like the fine Two Grey Hills here. Oh, they were heavy rugs, and they were all still mostly handspun and died at home with aniline dyes.

Cole: Something you don't see much of here?

Wilson: I think the western side of the reservation, they're still making handspun rugs, rough ones. But the rest of the reservation, except for here, handspun has mostly died out. It's all commercial yarns now.

But, see, the reason there were so many saddle blankets up there, as you probably know, is due to Stokey's [phonetic spelling, last name Carson] influence, 'cause he kind of specialized in those, and he shipped 'em out all over the country--the Navajo saddle blanket.

Cole: Was that still a going concern when you were there?

Wilson: Oh, yeah, very much. And I think it probably still is, probably with reduced numbers. I don't know….

Cole: And then, do you speak Navajo yourself?

Wilson: I speak what you might call "trader's Navajo." It's store Navajo. You get along okay in the store, but you lose it outside in another situation.

Cole: How long did it take you to learn that?

Wilson: Oh, just as soon as you go to work, I guess, you start pickin' it up. I think Ray told me, "The first thing you need to learn is how to say 'no.'" Since we were doing a lot of credit business, you had to say no sometimes.

Cole: At what point did you feel like you were accepted by the Navajo?

Wilson: Oh, just a week or two. I did get into a fight with a guy that threatened to come back and kill me that night, and that was probably during the first six months. I've been at three different stores--that's happened at each store. You'll get in a fight with somebody when you're still relatively new there.

Steiger: Do you think it's like they're testin' ya'?

Wilson: It could be somethin' like that, yeah. But once that was over with....

Cole: Did you ever get a Navajo nickname?

Wilson: Yeah, I was called Dághá_chíí', which means "Red Moustache." It used to be red--it's grey now, but it used to be red.

Cole: Did that name follow you over here?

Wilson: It's followed, yeah, as far as I know. They probably call me something else, too.

Cole: And after Shonto, what was your next stop?

Wilson: I left Shonto I guess at the end of 1976. I worked for a short time at Tuba City at the Chevron station that used to be on the corner there. It's been replaced by a big convenience store, but it used to be a standard gas station, and I sort of co-managed that place. Did a lot of flat tire repairs and things. That was just a temporary job, maybe less than six months. Then I went on to Many Farms, and I stayed at Many Farms for six years--Many Farms, Arizona.

 

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Cole: So you've been here then since 1983?

Wilson: Since 1983, yeah. Let's see, Two Grey Hills has had nine owners in its 102 years of existence. I'm the ninth owner, and I just beat the record. Ed Davies was here fifteen years, and now I'm the longest-lived trader at Two Grey Hills at sixteen years.

Cole: And what years was Ed Davies here?

Wilson: From 1909 to 1924.

Cole: And maybe tell us a little bit about the Two Grey Hills rugs.

Wilson: They're famous. They were famous as far back as 1904, we found out, because we came across.... Well, Win Wetherill, one of the Wetherill brothers, owned the store from 1904 to I think 1908, something like that. There's a quote from him where he says that the weavers around Two Grey Hills make the best rugs, or make very good rugs. So something started long ago to produce the best. At that time they were still making red and blue and yellow and green--general rugs like you see everywhere. Nowadays those are usually called J. B. Moore rugs. They're not just specifically J. B. Moore's designs, though.

I think about 1910 the first experiments in using brown and grey natural wool colors began, with a black border. And today's style just evolved.

Cole: Have you had any involvement in trying to change the style yourself at all?

Wilson: No, I don't try to change it. I make suggestions to weavers on improving things. Generally we don't have an influence.

Cole: How many weavers in the area do you still work with?

Wilson: Well, a lot of people ask how many Two Grey Hills weavers are there? I usually say, "I think there's a hundred." That would include little girls and old ladies and people that don't weave anymore, but know how. There's gotta be at least a hundred. We don't buy from that many. They can take their rugs elsewhere. But we buy just about everything we can, including the very rough stuff, like…. (pulls out an example) That's the best she can do. Lack of a design there. She starts out with a design at this end, but she loses it before she gets to the top. So we don't just buy the best, we try to buy everybody's.

Cole: Why do you do that?

Wilson: Well, for one thing, we have clientele that can spend different levels of money. But you need to support all the weavers, not just the best, or there eventually won't be any best. There has to be the whole supporting cast of people with different levels of skill, in order to produce the finest. And part of our mission here is to keep the fine weaving alive.

Cole: Since you started in 1972, and now working here for fifteen, sixteen years, what are the big changes that you've seen in the trading business?

Wilson: Probably the collapse of the credit system. It still exists, but on a small scale. And, you know, the beginning of a different economy where people spend most of their money in town, the border towns. They travel a lot. The roads have improved, so they've left the local stores, and we've become sort of a convenience stop. Gasoline is probably our biggest seller now, instead of a large grocery business, we have a small grocery business. We were two-thirds credit, in 1983 here, when I took over, and we're down to about 25 percent or less now. The big credit accounts were mostly old people here, elderlies that got Social Security, SSI checks. Unfortunately, a lot of those good accounts, or the owners of those accounts, have passed away, or gone into nursing homes, and we miss them--the store misses them.

Two Grey Hills also used to have a lot of rug accounts--you know, credit paid off with weaving. And we're down to about two or three on those.

Cole: How does a Navajo approach selling a rug? I know it used to be a trader would usually give credit, and they'd produce it. Has that changed dramatically?

Wilson: Mostly they just come in with the rug now, and want to sell it for cash, and we pay cash. One thing that probably never has changed, the rugs are always rolled up in a piece of sheet or a pillowcase or blanket or something. I think they've done that since the old days, when they bring it in.

Cole: Do they shop the rug around? Or do they just....

Wilson: Not a whole lot. I think some weavers do. I will make an offer on rugs, and they'll shop it around and sometimes come back and take my offer. It's not easy to buy rugs, it's always been a difficult thing to judge the quality of a rug and what you can sell it for when it first comes in. Stokey Carson once told me that all his life he'd been paying too much for the bad rugs and not enough for the good rugs. It was always hard for him to get it just right. I consider a lot of what I know about trading, or the way I treat customers and the way I do things, the way I run the store, to come from Stokey and his family, because they're the people I worked for first.

Cole: What were some of their main philosophies or tenets in the business?

Wilson: Well, they liked the Navajos, or they wouldn't have lived with them. Stokey was a sheepman, too, and he brought up his four daughters on mutton. They always loved their mutton, all the time I knew them. Sunday dinner was mutton.

 

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Cole: I'm sort of curious, when you buy a rug, how long do you usually end up having to hold it before it'll turn?

Wilson: Anywhere from a week to five years. It's real inconsistent. It just depends on your tourist trade. This store has a heavy tourist trade--especially in the summer months. We probably couldn't survive without it. As a grocery and gas stop, it wouldn't survive. It needs both parts of the business here to remain in business.

Cole: When you were out at Shonto, did you get many tourists out there?

Wilson: A fair number, but not as many as here. It's not as famous. We sold probably more to dealers out there--wholesaled our rugs and pottery and baskets. Pottery and baskets were both important there, which we don't have here.

Cole: Do you get much jewelry through here?

Wilson: A little bit, not much. It's the weaving that's famous.

 

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Cole: What kind of traits makes a good trader?

Wilson: You just have to be reasonably honest, and you have to like the Navajos. I don't know! (chuckles) I'm not sure I'm successful. I've kept this place alive. That's sort of my goal.

Cole: What do you like about the Navajo people?

Wilson: I just consider them down-to-earth, ordinary people. I'm married to a Navajo, so maybe that helps. I've been married to two of them. I first married a lady from the Shonto area, and I had two kids by her. And when we split up, I raised those kids. It's the two boys in the picture up there, holding the big rug. But they've grown up and mostly left the nest now, and I've remarried to a lady from Sanostee over here. So I'm kind of part of the Navajos, I guess.

Cole: Did your wives work in the trading post?

Wilson: No, never. Well, my first wife, occasionally, but not formally.

Cole: Have you had any other family involved in your business?

Wilson: No, I'm not a member of one of the trading families. I just came by myself. So, no, I'm kind of a loner. I don't know if my kids will be interested in this store or not--it's too early to tell.

Cole: What do you think you've meant to this community?

Wilson: I've heard Navajos say, "Oh, you still have a nice store here. Where I come from"--you know, visitors--"where I come from, we lost our trading post long ago, and we miss it." I've heard them say that. So it does mean something to 'em.

 

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Cole: Well, Les, do you still have any livestock business?

Wilson: No, we don't. There are sheep here, but my wife owns those. She inherited them from her mother when Grandma died. We do sell wool--some from our own sheep, and some from wherever we can get it. We actually take the wool and clean it ourselves, wash it, and have it carded. And then we can sell that product back to weavers, and they can spin from it. Then they can continue to produce handspun rugs, instead of using commercial yarn. Now the reason we have to do that, is because most families don't have a flock of sheep anymore--even the weaving families. Sheep raising, as you probably know, has gone way down on the reservation in twenty years, and it's been replaced by cows and horses, or people just don't lead that kind of lifestyle anymore. They don't herd sheep in the numbers that they used to. So we're tryin' to fill the demand there for good wool that goes into Two Grey Hills.

Cole: Where does all your wool come from?

Wilson: Local people. We'll just buy the weaving wool, the colors--and even then, not in large quantities, but what we need to have processed. Or not processed, but cleaned and carded.

Cole: And then you were talking about your wife has Churo sheep?

Wilson: Uh-huh, she's got about twenty of 'em out in the corral.

Cole: And what color of wool?

Wilson: We've got browns--not much grey, but mostly browns and light browns. A couple of white ones. Need more grey. The brown wool is in short supply, especially the dark brown, like in this rug here. There just isn't enough of it. When we have it for sale, it sells out fast to the good weavers. It's a lot of work to clean it and card it and get it for sale, but it's worth it to maintain the integrity of these rugs. Some of the rugs here are made of commercial yarn, like the one I'm holding up. But even then, this weaver has used a natural handspun dark brown right here. The rest of the rug is commercial. We'll continue to buy their rugs if they've used commercial yarn, but we do everything we can to promote hand spinning, because it's a superior product, makes a superior rug.

Cole: So they actually then do the spinning themselves?

Wilson: Yeah, most of 'em still do, and still use the Navajo spindle. There's other ways to spin, but they haven't really caught on among the Navajo weavers.

Cole: Does your wife do any weaving herself?

Wilson: Well, she would if she had the time, but she's a mental health social worker. So she spins a lot, yeah. She spins when we travel in the car, or just to relax at the end of the day, she'll spin. She's trying to finish a rug she started eighteen years ago. She had it rolled up and put away. Just recently she put it back on the loom. You can do that. You can take one down half finished and roll it up, and then string it up again in the future.

 

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Cole: Why did you stay in the business--why do you?

Wilson: I've just done it long enough it's too late to move on to something else, I guess. It's not a way to make a large amount of money anymore. It may have been at one time, but it's not now. But it provides a living for yourself and your family.

Cole: What kinds of differences do you see between the trading posts like yourself, that's on the reservation, versus the trading posts that are off the reservation?

Wilson: Well, they're almost like two different things, two different types of business. The ones off the reservation are strictly arts and crafts: they buy and sell and take pawn. We're still trying to be a community general store. As you were saying earlier, I think we live with the Navajos in a different way than the store owners in town do. I mean, we're just part of the community here.

Cole: What are some of your favorite memories as a trader?

Wilson: Oh, I don't know. I like living away from town. I'm the kind of person that doesn't like to be in the big city, so maybe it's a good place for someone like that. Other traders that I've known that have stayed for a while are the kind of people that can't take the big city. But as for memories, I don't know, I've had good times.

Cole: Do you have much involvement with the different ceremonials, like Gallup or the Window Rock fairs or any of that?

Wilson: Yeah, a little involvement. We had a display at last year's ceremonial in Gallup, and we're gonna do that again this year. Two years ago, our centennial, we had a big celebration. We put a lot of time and effort into that. We had maybe a thousand people here. I think it was probably the largest crowd ever to gather at Two Grey Hills. I estimate maybe 500 Navajos, 500 tourists/visitors--an all-day thing that was real successful, with games and speeches and music and dancing and open house. We repeated it last year. We're gonna do that every year. It's gonna be this year June 27. So far we don't have a name for it, other than the Third Annual Centennial.

Cole: Sounds like fun!

Wilson: Not a bicentennial, but "second annual," "third annual," "fourth annual."

Cole: What do you think of the future of the trading business?

Wilson: It doesn't have much future, except the pawn operations. So I don't know, I guess we could last quite a while, doing what we're doing. It's an institution worth preserving. We have a role to play in the community. If we can do that successfully, they'll let us stay here.

Cole: And how about the future of Navajo arts and crafts?

Wilson: It's in danger. I mean, the quantity of good rugs being woven is way down, but still healthy. So there needs to be people like ourselves working with weavers and doing all we can to promote weaving. I can't say much about silver and baskets and so on, 'cause I don't know that much about it. Weaving needs encouragement, and other traders like Bill [Malone] and Bruce Burnham, they're all doing their part. All of us need to do our part. Weaving probably would have died sixty, seventy years ago, without traders promoting it. It would have died again in the 1950s without traders promoting it. So it's a mutual thing. The traders have been an important part of keeping it going.

Cole: And as far as yourself, when you look back at the short time you've been in trading, would you change anything about that, if you could?

Wilson: Change? How do you mean, what would I change?

Cole: As far as if you could change anything in your life or work.

Wilson: Oh, what I've done?

Cole: Yeah.

Wilson: No, I'm happy with what I've done. I just wish financially it was a better thing to do. It's been difficult to keep this store going, especially about the first ten years I was here. It was struggling at that time, and it'd been struggling for some time before that, too. And then so have the others--that's why they're not there anymore.

You were mentioning quantity and quality of arts and crafts. Take a look in the picture book there of the rug room at the Gallup Mercantile Company in 1941. Oop! turned right to it! And look at that pile of rugs.

Cole: Holy smokes!

Wilson: There isn't anyplace, anywhere--Garland's or anywhere--that has a pile like that now…. Well, Gallup Merc., of course, supplied a lot of stores, so they undoubtedly took those rugs in payment for their merchandise. There's 5,000 rugs there, I think.

Cole: Yeah. That's amazing. How many rugs do you have when you're really stocked up?

Wilson: Oh, a hundred or so, at most.

 

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Cole: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Wilson: No. (chuckles)

Cole: Gail, any other questions?

Steiger: You know, I do have one question. Is there anything, like if you think of your great-grandkids lookin' at this sometime, or somethin' like that, is there anything you want them to know about, or whatever, way down the line?

Wilson: I'd want them to keep the store going. If it goes through an inheritance thing, yeah. It'd be neat if it could go for two hundred years. That's really a stretch, but it might happen.

Cole: Well, thanks again.

Wilson: Okay.

Cole: Boy, that sure is a nice rug there.

Wilson: Yeah, but I just sold it. This weaver's eighty-two years old. She's a mostly unrecognized master of weaving. Another big one of hers is over there, and that's also been sold. I hope she can weave ten more years. It would be nice. She may not last that long. This is the best, there's nothing finer. There's finer weave, like the tapestries rolled up in the cabinet, but for conception of design and the execution and the workmanship and everything, this is the best. This is Ramona Curley, handspun from wool from her own flock.

Cole: Does she have any daughters or descendants that are taking it up?

Wilson: Yeah, her daughter, Mary Clah, is just as good as she is, and Mary will weave for a long time to come. The granddaughter also knows how, but she's got ten kids and she doesn't do it.

Cole: Does Ramona Curley still live a real traditional lifestyle?

Wilson: Pretty much, yeah. Like a lot of people in this area, she's gotten electricity and water the last few years, and probably lived a more comfortable life lately than she ever did before. There's a picture of Ramona up there. No, not that one--just a Polaroid. So we sold this one in less than a month.

Cole: A tourist?

Wilson: Yeah, he had looked at it a week ago, and then decided to buy it. It's no problem selling the very best of the weaving. It can be more difficult with second-best.