Frank, a very distant relative, was an 1800s Indian Agent. Towns in Utah and Oklahoma bear his name.
“Western” movies often had a villainous trader selling whiskey and guns to the natives. I don’t recall seeing the Indians pay for it. In one movie, they shot the guy. [Because we are talking movies, I say “Indians” rather than “First Americans.”]
Reality was better. First Americans traded with each other for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans. Fur trappers, some of the earliest white explorers, trapped animals but also traded for furs. Hunter-traders followed them onto the plains seeking deer and bison hides. As trade developed, they hiked, took mules and canoes and finally wagons out specifically to trade.
A Wyoming Senator’s wife long ago told Alie and me we could walk into Santa Fe art galleries and find proprietors happy to discuss the details and merits various First American products even though we were there just to learn, not buy. They were generous with their time and knowledge. It helped us better appreciate what we later saw at Navajo trading posts.
After being driven out of their homes in 1864, the Navajo people returned to a reduced area established by the U.S. government in 1868. At the same time, the government established rules for trading on the reservation. Itinerant traders were required to be licensed and were encouraged to set up trading posts.
John Lorenzo Hubble, born in 1853 in the New Mexico Territory to a man from Connecticut and his Spanish wife, learned the Navajo language and customs while a clerk at trading posts in Albuquerque and Kenab and as a Spanish-speaking interpreter for the U.S. Military at Fort Defiance.
Navajo Chief Totsonii Hastiin invited him to come to the Ganado Valley where Hubble, age 23, purchased William Leonard’s trading post. Five years later, Hubble acquired a second trading post. Ultimately, he started a freight company, established or owned thirty trading posts, was a sheriff, served in the territorial legislature and was a state senator after Arizona became a state.
The traders who arrived and thrived did so because they became part of the local community. Hubble obtained a 160 acre homestead at Ganado, one of the few in-holdings in the Navajo Nation.
Hubble was more than a trader. He was a his customers’ friend. He tried to explain the outside world to them. He wrote letters for them. He opened his home as a hospital during a smallpox epidemic. He said the role of a trader was “everything from merchant, to father confessor, justice of the peace, judge, jury, court of appeals, chief medicine man, and de facto czar of the domain over which he presides.” He even built an irrigation system used by valley residents until the 1960s.
Hubble had his own commercial tokens to substitute for coins. He took in firewood, livestock, wool, piñon nuts, and other produce. In the late 1800s, he discovered there was a market for Navajo blankets, rugs, pottery, jewelry, baskets and other works of art.
Hubble and his wife reared four children at the post, Adela, Barbara, John Lorenzo Jr. and Roman. When he died in 1930, his children continued to operate the trading post until 1967 when Roman’s wife sold it to the National Park Service to be preserved as a national historic site and to continue as a trading post.
Hubble is buried on a hill just outside the property in an un-marked grave. That is the Navajo custom. His wife also is buried there as his best friend, the Navajo “Many Horses.”
Navajos and other First Americans still bring rugs, jewelry, pottery, baskets and souvenir items to the post. They buy groceries and chat.
In 1981, we purchased three rugs at Hubble and a book describing the art and artists including Mary C. Nez who wove one of our rugs.
We also visited other trading posts although most of those are now gone.
Alie wanted to go back this March; I knew what that meant. She purchased another rug.
It takes months to weave a rug. While there was a brief surge in popularity in the 1970s, that sort of thing is a fad. One should not buy a Navajo rug as an investment. (The exceptions are the exceedingly rare mid-1800s blankets.) Buy rugs just to enjoy the art.
The women – almost all weavers are women – cannot make enough money to justify the work. It may become a lost art. Alie buys them because she loves them. Her latest find is the most beautiful of all. It reminds us of dusk at Monument Valley.
Click on photos to enlarge.
P.S. In Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides writes that in the early 1800s, one Navajo blanket was worth 10 buffalo robes.