Economic/Cultural Philosophies


Elijah Blair:

In the Navajo language, there are two words that define their philosophy of economics or business or life forever.

One of them is a word which actually means "stingy" or "tight" or something like this. See, the Navajo, if you interpret this in their philosophy, they are collectivists, or socialistic. The Navajos have what we call their own Navajo "social security" system. It's a matrilineal society where all the kinship is related to the mother's clan. So then if you belong to the mother's clan, then you are forever responsible for each other. So if you marry the girl, then you become responsible for her, her mother, and every member of her clan. And if you try to rise above the other members of the clan, then you become "stingy," because it is a leveling philosophy. Ayn Rand called it a leveling philosophy. What it was, you know… Karl Marx came up with socialism and stuff like this. He thought he was original when he sold it to Lenin and all these other people, but the aboriginal people had been practicing it for thousands of years. They've always been a socialistic, collectivist society in a tribal existence. And most Native Americans are still that way today.... you are "tight stingy" because you try to have more sheep than the other guy. You actually should share. And you know, Karl Marx says, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Well, it's exactly what they were saying... As a man tried to become prosperous and get more money, more sheep, more jewelry, whatever… they'd say, "Well, he's 'tight-stingy'." And I can name you a dozen good people about whom the Navajo says, "Well, he's stingy, because he rose above his peers. He had more than he needed when someone had less and then he should share."

And the other word is.... Okay, the other word means you are crooked or a cheater. Now, this is the closest that you can define that. I still think you can't define every Navajo word into English. Unless you know the cultural background, it's hard to do it. But it really means that you basically are crooked or you cheat or something like that. And it comes back to a socialistic interpretation of business economics, or philosophy of economics, okay?

I remember the first time I went to Mexican Water… (chuckles) this guy came up, and he didn't speak any English, and he picks up this can of beans, and, "You are a cheater, because you charged me more for this can of beans than you paid for it." See, that shows that he belonged to a society that just by charging him more, see, made me crooked. This is one of the things that they never understood when they had those hearings with the Navajo in the '72 hearings at FTC [Federal Trade Commission]. See, when they say this trader is crooked… you and I know, in a capitalistic world or a free enterprise world, I have the right to make a profit on this, and I'm not crooked. But to them, in a socialistic collective society, you're actually taking something from them that don't belong to you. You should sell the beans for the same price. And this happened all the time. So this is their interpretation of bein' crooked. See, the capitalist, which the trader actually was a free enterprise entrepreneur, he was capitalistic, see, they could not understand.

Well, this is not bad, this is good. This is the way the free enterprise system works, this is what made this country the greatest country in the world, is [the] capitalistic system. Although, our elected officials, sometimes, like particularly in the sixties and seventies, they kind of strayed away from this and got a little bit more liberal and bleeding heart, and actually were saying, "Hey, you know, capitalism wasn't all that good." But that's basically--[I think] the good guys are the [capitalists]. They're the ones who made this country the greatest country in the world.

And so it's a misinterpretation of what is crooked, or what is stingy. Who has the right to do this? I had, just recently down here [in Page], bought a rug from this girl downstairs. This is 1992. The first guy told me this in 1948. The girl downstairs, I bought a rug from her, she says, "I know you're going to sell that rug for more than you paid me for it." Now, this kid was educated in our educational system, and in our universities, and this is why [the UITA] gave the [business] scholarship to Northern Arizona University. "Hey, teach them something about capitalism." This is what we said. This is what we do. And I think one of the books they should put in the business department down there is Ayn Rand's Virtue of Selfishness, and the other one is Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal. See, they've got to know this. This is an acceptable way of life. You're not crooked because you do this.

But that question came up last week, and I've got to relate this story to you about just this same thing. There was a guy in here, not real super educated, but a guy who was in his fifties, something like that.... he was in here, and real friendly, real nice guy, he's talking about him being a silversmith, and I realized I didn't know him. We were talkin' in Navajo and English, too, back and forth, and I said, "Where you from?" He said, "I'm from out at Inscription House." I said, "Oh, you knew Bah Jo Phah," which was the name they called Stokes Carson. Stokes Carson was in this country forever. When I said, "You knew Bah Jo Phah." He said, "He cheated!" First thing he said! "He cheated!" And then he switched to Navajo and he said, "stingy-tight-crooked-cheater." And he first said pit-hat-so, and then "he cheated." Then I said--I didn't offend him--see, I knew Stokes, I knew the whole family, and I said, "Well, what do you mean he cheated?" He said, "Well, he stayed out there all of those years, and he never gave nothin' back. And he finally died. There's no way he could get all that stuff into that box [ his coffin] with him." So that made him crooked, because he took more than he needed, so he became the capitalist. To me that was the best story about capitalism versus socialism.

The only difference in collectivism and socialism is where the control is vested: socialism in the state, and collectivism in the culture itself, which is much more demanding. And this happened last week. This guy said, "He cheated." Now, I know the Carson family, they were good! And Stokes, he was a trader, he made money. But you don't make money--the Navajo interprets this as "you make money off of us. You actually got more from us than you needed, because when you left [died], you couldn't take it with you, you couldn't get it in that box with you. So this makes you crooked." This is the key to what I am trying to explain.….

Can't you see how the trader ended up actually with a bad name? Because you had two different philosophies, 180o opposed to each other, and the interpretation of what is good, what is bad, what is honest or dishonest were two different things.

Underhill: And how did that play into the 1972 Federal Trade Commission hearings, and maybe a little background about that?

Blair: Well, that was probably one of the biggest fights that we probably had, which actually was with DNA actually. You know, they were the ones, and FTC came in and had the hearings, you know. But who promoted this was DNA and these legal aid attorneys, most of 'em from back East. They came in and it was promoted actually at that time by Peterson Zah, because he was the director of DNA, and I think sold the idea that the trader was an exploiter, that he was really exploiting these people. They said everything in the world about us, that we had a captive audience, that we did credit saturation and all of these different things that the trader did, and they had the hearings, and we participated. I think--I was president during this time, of the Traders Association, and LaVoy McGee either was vice-president or whatever, but LaVoy and I went to Washington, D.C., which Peterson Zah was there, and we met with FTC. And you know, trying to explain what I have been explaining to you in this setting, you should try in the asphalt jungle in Washington, D.C. Now, this was....

It was just hard to look at those Anglos and Belaganas around this room who were gonna decide not necessarily so much my fate, as the Native Americans', the Navajos' fate, because to me, who was really being done in on this whole thing was the Navajo people. The trader really wasn't the guy that was gonna really be hurt from this, but we tried. But you just couldn't relate it to them....

Underhill: And why do you think they wanted to wipe out the traders?

Blair: I (chuckles) think it was just the times--very liberal times that they had. They didn't understand what I have explained about the difference in economics between the trader and the Navajo. They thought that we were out there to rip them off. At this time, you know, truth in lending come in, and boy, the big, bad word was "open-end credit," like we had used, and stuff like that, and you credited them from wool season to wool season. A guy just trades. See, yet by today we have open-end credit on your credit cards. All you have to do is pay a minimum, and you have open-end credit. They didn't want that. I think it was just a liberal time in the world, and these people were idealistic, social reformers, and they had this ax to grind, and I think Mr. Zah probably had a very bad experience somewhere with a trader that wasn't probably the best trader in the world. And he could have had a bad experience. So he was really ok, but.... And I know him. I saw him later, and he's an okay guy, but he really wanted to reform unknowingly. They even put out a book, said, the traders are destroyin' the tradin' post system. They thought it was really a system, like we were all out there together, and we were doin' all these things to the Navajos. They didn't know. Why they did it, 'cause they didn't understand. They still don't understand. If you're sittin' out there in the middle of the reservation, and an old lady at Navajo Mountain, like today, and she needs a sack of flour… all she [used to have to do] is take one lamb to that trading post, that he would buy, and she could get a sack of flour. Today, if she wants a sack of flour, to sell that one lamb, which there's no lambs left--she can't sell it, so why should she? There aren't very many of 'em left. She has to go to Cortez, Colorado, to a sale barn, or St. Joe's, Arizona, to a sale barn. By the time you haul that lamb to Cortez, Colorado, to a sale barn, you kind of defeated the purpose.

Now, there are other individual dealers in livestock here and there that do do a little of this. But basically, the trader was gone. And they couldn't see how this would make that much difference. They completely destroyed the market for the Navajo products in this.

Now, you tell me why. I don't know why.... I was quoted in The Arizona Republic and half a dozen different publications where I said that FTC and DNA "came with rope in hand to hang the traders, but really they hung the Navajos." And I don't know that they ever understood it. They say, well, all we were doin', we didn't want to put in shoppin' centers. I was on the board, helped to put in the original shoppin' center that DCI [Dine Cooperative Inc.] put in in Chinle, Arizona. The shoppin' center was past due, it was time. The Navajo people, the Navajo consumer had a more diverse merchandise to buy from. But you can't put one in Chinle, Arizona, and solve a problem of a Navajo living on Navajo Mountain on top of Black Mesa, that is 50-75 miles away with no roads, all the mud, all the snow. If they wanted to do that, then they would have had to have gone to Navajo Mountain, to Dinnebito, Piñon, etc., and then put in small satellite shoppin' centers and trade like the traders did, which the shoppin' center operators wouldn't have done it, because it wouldn't have been economically feasible to do it. The trader, if they had left it alone, it would eventually evolve to where there would be no reason for the trading post. But they just come in and whacked it off, and the Navajo was sittin' there, holdin' the bag, really--that's who got hurt. The trader--you know, we were business people. When it became to where it didn't work feasibly for us, we changed, we moved, or we did something different. But the Navajo, see, he was stuck, he could not go anywhere. He was settin' there, and then had to adjust his lifestyle. But you know, the Navajo has been so mistreated by the federal government, that this was just another blow....

See, when the trading post left, when you had this anchor for the community that left out here, then about this time the welfare system came in. So then all these people, there's no reason now to sit out there and have a big herd of sheep that they could take to the trader and buy and sell to him, or whatever. They have to go off the reservation, or to a shopping center on the reservation. So then consequently, the Navajo actually moved to these communities, like Tuba City, Kayenta, the big communities and towns, and then you see the ghettos beginning to appear. And this is gonna be the next big push. These people are livin' in ghetto conditions, because they can't live out [away from the towns], because they removed the source of the market for their product. The trader serviced that. And there's no way for them to do that now. There's no reason to be out there. They thought about--any more, you say somethin' to the Navajo about the sheep herd, they say, "There's no sheepherders. The only sheepherder is the dogs." You just have five or six little bunches of sheep. There's nothing to do with the sheep. They eat 'em, or they trade 'em back and forth with each other. But it doesn't supplement the economy like it did for part of the family group working somewhere else. This livestock supplemented the income and stabilized this existence they had out in the remote areas.




Bruce Burnham:


Well, the system that I see in place with the Navajo is that if you pay a Navajo $1,000 for four bags of wool, they will immediately convert that--not so much now as they would have in the past--they would have converted that cash to jewelry or goods, because they don't see the money as having any value until it's spent. Once it's spent, then it is something that is tangible, something they can use. You know, you've got that money in your hand, you can't eat that money, so it has no value. So I think you're going from one culture that doesn't place any priority on saving money, to a culture that in business tries to amass money. Everything's towards that end, of amassing wealth. To a Navajo, an acceptable form of amassing wealth is to buy lots of jewelry, and then you have that jewelry to use, and that's, you might say, the interest on your savings account, up until the time you decide to pawn it and convert it to something else that you need. And so the pleasure of ownership, which the Navajos have a different idea of ownership...

There are few things that the Navajos consider total ownership of--one is your horse. And even through time, now, that has even evolved into the ownership of your vehicle or your car. If you ask a Navajo, "Whose horse is that?" The Navajo would say, "It is Chee's horse, or it is So-and-So's horse." But if it was his horse, he would say, "Eh shish a lane." That means, "That is my personal horse." He says, "Shish eh," "shi" twice, you know, "my my," so that labels it as his personal--not something owned collectively by his.... If it was collectively, he would say, "Eh neh he lane," "it is our horse." But he doesn't say "our horse," because that horse belongs to an individual. Even if it was another individual in that family, he wouldn't say, "It's our horse," he would say, "It's my brother's horse," or "my sister's horse." So that is one thing that Navajos really believe that they own personally, is their saddle, is their horse. It doesn't extend out to "my livestock." That's not "my my" cow. That's "my" cow. But that personal, that emphasis on it being mine mine makes it different. And so a Navajo's idea of ownership is radically different than ours. Everything that I own is mine, and not in the sense of the word, "It's mine until I need to convert it to something else." This possession and ownership, to us, we feel that we own the land that we build our home on. The Navajo doesn't feel like you have the right to own Mother Earth. It's not that final acquisition of it becoming mine and no one else's. It's only mine to use while I need it, and then I can convert it to something else, in the nature of being Navajo.

So I don't know if that answers your question much. We come from two different philosophies, and our common denominator between these two philosophies is the very thing that we have such a difference on, is the ownership. You can funnel that right down into the focus of cash. Man, that's my hundred-dollar bill, period. Probably, to us, it might be more valuable to us in the stage of being cash, because it represents the power to be able to leverage. With the Navajo, it's only yours until you need something. It's serving no other purpose....

So that one basic difference in our philosophy really tells the whole story about the rub, or the differences between the trader and his Navajo customer, and why his Navajo customer feels like he is crooked. But that is why Navajos in general are not capable of running a trading post, is because they have that Navajo philosophy of life, that Navajo cultural identity that prevents them from absolute ownership of something. It's complex. Some traders understand that outright. Other traders have fit in, really not knowing how or why they were successful, or what the differences were in their lifestyles, in their cultures. But in order for a trader to be successful, he has to deal with that idea of just the simplicity of money not having any value until it's spent. If you understand that statement, then you understand how important it is for us to save some of that money, and how unimportant it is for a Navajo to save some of that money. In terms of being Navajo, if you wanted to save something, you would buy 200-pound sacks of corn and save it. That corn might not be available when you need it. (laughs) Then you'd just be stuck with a hundred-dollar bill. It's a difficult thing to overcome. And the Navajos, by choice, have chosen to still keep that cultural identity and just let the traders more and more kind of manage their affairs--even the modern-day families, modern weaver families still let, and still expect the trader to fulfill their needs--on a daily basis, almost. I had a gal in here a couple of days ago that I bought a rug from for $2,500. The next day she wanted to borrow $500 against her next rug.




Peterson Zah:

The way I see all of that [DNA, FTC hearings, etc.] is that.... And the traders may not have anything to do with this, where the Navajo people were kept on that reservation, almost like in captivity, for all these years. We just stayed there, we didn't know the outside world. We didn't know the good things that were happening out there. So all of a sudden two things happened. One of them was that many of our Navajo people went out of the Navajo Reservation to serve this country during the war. So they had contacts. My father is a good example. He went into the service and he saw what kind of society is out there, because he rode the train between Los Angeles and San Francisco so many times when he was stationed in San Diego. And so he saw for himself the way life is out there. A lot of Navajos did the same thing. So after the war, in the mid-1940s, they came back in. So that's one thing that happened.

The second thing that started happening was the scholarship program kicked into place. Paul Jones and Scott Preston had allocated $10 million for the Navajo Scholarship Program, and they said anyone who's able, willing, aggressive, and that has good grades, can use this money to go to college. So then more Navajo kids started going out, getting their college education. They saw with their own eyes the kind of life that exists out there. They came back into the Navajo. Then, as a result, they started saying, "Hey, we have this situation here." And so those two things began happening, and as a result of those two things, a lot of Navajos were beginning to question some of the activities of the traders. And the traders may not have had anything to do with all of this. It's just that the evolution of Navajo history that took place, that came about at this time, that resulted in the so-called trading post problem.



Virginia Burnham:


Cole: What do you see as the future of trading?

Burnham: The future? (chuckles) Well, we've been kind of worried about.... You know, we have a lot of open accounts with our customers here, where they have no collateral, we just lend them money against whatever-it might be rugs or their checks that come in every month-they borrow money against that and buy groceries and stuff. We've been told that they're going to demand that a lot of these Navajo people get checking accounts or savings accounts so that they can have direct deposits with their Social Security checks. I think that's gonna hurt us some in the trading business, but I don't know. We were with a couple of people that already have direct deposit, and they're pretty good about coming in and paying their bill. But then there's some that have.... We get stuck with some accounts. At Painted Hills we've had maybe a dozen people. They'll do really well, as long as you work with them. They'll come in and pay their bill and keep working with you, but one time they want to borrow over their limit. If they borrowed more than they can afford to pay back, then they end up just taking their check and going somewhere else. So it's really kind of hard, it's a gamble that we take in trading.

But there's a lot of trust between our people and us. We know these people, and lots of times it's just.... We don't take credit applications or anything like that. They'll come in and talk to us and say, "I get $700 a month. I want to open an account." A lot of the people that I know that we're working with, they take their check, in two days, it's gone, there's nothing left, and then they want to come in and pawn. They don't have anything for the rest of the month, and it's really hard for a lot of these people to manage their money. With open accounts like that, they can go a little bit at a time. When they come in, you tell them, "Well, this is how much you've got left." They get their groceries a little bit at a time, or borrow money only when they need it. I guess when you have it there.... And the situation with a lot of my people is that when I have money, my relatives see that I've got money. They have no gas, they say, "Okay, I need some gas money. Give me some gas money." And so you put twenty there. And then somebody else wants some hay for their horses, so you give a little. Pretty soon it's gone. It just kind of.... It's hard for a lot of the people to say no. It's hard to say, "No, I don't have it," or "I'm going to have to make this last a month." It just goes really fast.




Peterson Zah:

My grandfather was also a good English speaker--perfect English speaker--because during his young days he used to work in White Mountain Apache. He worked with the San Carlos Apaches, and he was down here in Phoenix. He was all over the place, and spoke very eloquently in English. His brother was Scott Preston, who was the vice-chairman of the tribe at the time. And I remember Scott Preston used to come over and visit his brother, and they used to build sweat baths, start a sweat bath going, and I used to go over and participate with them. And all day they would just talk politics. As a little boy, I was there to listen. Of course my interest always was politics, and so I used to love to listen to Scott Preston, what was going on in Window Rock with tribal politics and all of that. It was interesting times....

Steiger: When you were a kid sittin' in the sweat lodge with those guys, and they were talking politics, what were the issues that they were talking about then?--if you want to get into that.

Zah: Well, one of the issues back then was a national issue of the use of medicine men. See, the BIA had this big thing about the Sun Dance in the Dakotas and the Wyoming area with the Sioux, and how the United States viewed that as not such a good idea to have, to do, by an Indian tribe--that it was not a religious activity, it was a way of torturing a human being. But the way the Sioux were looking at it was in a religious way, similar to your sacrifices that one has to do. So it was a form of sacrifice. And the United States was thinking about doing away with some Indian religious activities. On the Navajo, the Native American Church was just beginning to crop up through the Navajo Reservation. And if you have a religious Sioux activity as an activity that bothered the United States, whether they should even practice that or not, then having the Native American Church for the Oklahoma Indians coming into the Navajo, then the Navajo religion was also being raised also as an issue. And Scott Preston was a medicine man. And that kind of a discussion was a big topic in the sweat bath, because he was kind of also a guy with a sense of humor. They would be talking about, "They want to do away with even this sweat lodge. They want to maybe even do away with these songs." And then Scott Preston would say in his own Navajo way, with a lot of common sense and a sense of humor, and he would say, "Brother, they're talking about all of this, that we shouldn't be doing this, being in the sweat lodge. But to hell with them, let me sing this song for you." And then the two of them would laugh and they would start singing. He says, "Who are they to come to this country to tell us that this is an inappropriate thing to do? This is between our great Creator, our spirit, and our communication with the Great Spirit. To hell with those other guys, what they think!" and they would start singing. So the old man had a great sense of humor in that way. And he says, "I'm happy. And I know when we get out of this sweat bath, I'll be happy that I saw you and we had a chance to talk about this." So those were the topics....