Monthly Archives: October 2023

Southwest Road Trip: The Last Trading Posts

We wanted to call this The Trading Post Tour! We went to five.

In the mid-1800’s and well into the early 20th century, there were more than 300 trading posts dotting southwest United States of America tribal lands, mostly in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, where Native Peoples lived. Usually owned by Anglos, they were thriving centers for commerce and a robust social life. It was here that Native Americans picked up their mail, purchased Blue Bird flour for fry bread, sold their goods or pawned them for cash or to trade for food and supplies.

Trading posts were first established by trappers, who got furs and food. In trade, Native Americans received guns, ammunition, cloth, beads, metal cooking utensils. It began as a barter system. Mostly, they were on Diné-Navajo reservation, in rural areas with little access to goods. Sometimes the system meant that First Peoples had either a credit or debit at the trading post. Prices might be higher, but it was easy access close to home. Trading post owners were integrated into the community. Many married local women.

To visitors today, trading posts offered an off-the-beaten path adventure to meet artisans and to buy blankets, rugs, jewelry, pottery, baskets, and other handmade goods that were not redeemed. Pine nuts, too, were a valued commodity. Trading posts also took in saddles, rifles, boots and spurs, plus farm and ranch equipment. The trading post also offered a market to the world beyond the local, sending goods off to Denver, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Dallas and Houston, for example, where those who appreciated Native American made pieces could have access.

Today only about a dozen trading posts remain. They have closed down, Les Wilson, owner of Two Gray Hills Trading Post told me, because people now shop at Walmart, Dollar General, Family Dollar, or Costco. With the car, shopping in the larger towns is more accessible and less expensive. In addition, tribal groups, now better organized, emphasize the importance of buying from and supporting Native owned businesses. Most trading posts are, and continue to be operated by Anglos.

Before we left on the Southwest Road Trip, I researched the trading posts that we might find along our routes. We also just encountered some along the way, using online searches to see if there were any in the general neighborhoods we would be traveling through.

Our first find was Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona, established in 1878. We stopped here on the way from Zuni Pueblo to Hopi Pueblo, after spending the night in Gallup, NM. Operated by the National Park Service and designated a National Historic Site, the trading post is much like it was at the turn of the 20th century. The old wood floors creak as you walk through the general store section into the two back rooms filled with handwoven Navajo rugs, katsina dolls, baskets and a treasure trove of jewelry, some of it vintage.

On the route between Monument Valley and Mesa Verde where Highway 160 and US 64 meet is Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, established in 1905. It’s pronounced Tease Nas Pas (NOT Teak Nose Pose). We almost passed it and did a quick U-Turn into the parking lot to explore. The general store stocks Blue Bird flour, canned goods, cereals, dried corn, blue and yellow corn meal, fresh meat, and a dairy-refrigerator case. You can also buy super glue, batteries, and automotive oil. You get the picture. There are two side rooms adjacent to the general store. The first holds glass cases of new and vintage silver and turquoise jewelry.

The second room is locked and behind the check-out counter. This is the rug room, almost like a vault, featuring fine weavings and a few really high end vintage pieces of jewelry. These rugs feature the designs of the local region, colorful and geometric, plus others from Ganado, Two Grey Hills, Klagetoh, and Burntwater. Click this link for a History of Navajo Rug Weaving. We were too buy shopping to take photos!

Once we got to Mesa Verde, we were tempted to continue to follow the trading post trail to Bluff, Utah, where we would find Twin Rocks Trading Post and Cow Canyon Trading Post, both said to be the real deal. In Durango, Colorado, there is Toh-Atin Trading Post, said to be superb. We just didn’t have time to detour to explore more.

When we got to Canyon de Chelly, we stayed at the Navajo owned Thunderbird Hotel, where the restaurant caters to a local crowd. One night at dinner there, I serendipitously struck up a conversation with Anthony Tallboy, whose turquoise necklace I admired. He told me he was a blue ribbon award winner for his weavings at the Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonial, and added Toh-Atin Trading Post carries his work. That’s where he and his family go to buy their jewelry because the selection and prices are best. Yes, there is a trading post at the Thunderbird Hotel!

Our last stop was to Toadlena Trading Post. We circled back on our way to Chaco Canyon since we were in the vicinity. It was closed when we went there on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Twelve miles from the highway, it’s worth a visit. The store manager is a local Navajo woman. The owners live near Taos. They have a huge selection of rugs, a good selection of new and vintage jewelry, and the shelves are stocked with staples for those who do not have the means to travel the distances to Gallup or Window Rock for shopping.

There is a similarity between the Teotitlan del Valle rugs I am most familiar with and those from Navajo weavers — they both use churro sheep brought to the Americas by the Spanish. The Navajo use the vertical loom, and traditionally women are the weavers. In Teotitlan del Valle, the Spanish taught the Zapotec men to weave on the two-pedal floor loom, also called a tapestry loom, imported at the start of the conquest. I have read that the Navajo learned to weave when they were in exile and hidden by the pueblos along the Rio Grande valley during their expulsion and the Long Walk. Navajo mythology tells us that Spider Woman taught them to weave as part of their creation story. Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly honors this oral tradition.

The same carding paddles are used to clean and soften the wool. The drop spindle is used to make the fine warp and weft threads. The Navajos use a wool warp whereas the Zapotecs use a cotton warp. The binding off of the rug is different in both cultures, too. What I noticed is that there are about 12-15 warp threads per inch on the Navajo textile. A standard Zapotec rug for floor use has about six warp threads per inch and the weft yarns are much thicker, making for a sturdier piece to walk on.

How to identify a Navajo rug? Read what Weaving in Beauty has to say!

I bought two small rugs, one from Two Grey Hills Trading Post and one from Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, each representing a different regional style. I won’t use them on the floor!

I want to add that Perry Null Trading Post in Gallup, NM, is a mind-blowing experience. They do a robust business and have many satisfied Native American clients who both buy and sell there. The pawn business is still in operation. The selection is beyond imaginable. We hear from one of our favorite traders, Zuni native Holly Coonsis from Bahti Indian Arts in Santa Fe, that Perry Null is reputable and honest. We have known Bahti for almost thirty year, first discovering them in Tucson, their original gallery, when our parents lived there. It is our first choice because their prices are fair and their quality is the best.

I also want to mention that we believe the best artisans are sending their work to galleries and it is difficult to find highest quality pieces at the pueblos unless you know an artisan in particular and make an appointment in advance to visit her or him.

I’m leaving for Oaxaca on Monday. This is the last post for the Southwest Road Trip.

Next up: Oaxaca Cultural Navigator collaborates with Oaxaca Learning Center to establish a named scholarship! We are excited about this opportunity to support a student dedicated to attending university.

Southwest Road Trip: Center of the Ancient World at Canyon

Chaco Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a remote site operated by the National Park Service in collaboration with the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners Region of New Mexico. The Ancient Puebloans occupied the site from 850 CE to 1250 CE, until a forty-year drought necessitated a gradual migration to the Rio Grande valley where water was more reliable.

The closest lodging is in Bloomfield, NM, about an hour and a half north, although there is camping at the site. Another deterrent, and why there are likely only 60,000 visitors a year here is because 14 miles of the 22 miles off route NM 550 to get there is unpaved. This part of the road is bumpy, winding, filled with pitholes and sinkholes. But, it was definitely worth the zigzagging to get there.

The Ancient Puebloans occupied the three major sites that we visited on this Southwest Road Trip: Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Canyon, plus a fourth site, Casas Grandes, that we did not visit. They built elaborate ceremonial kivas, stone roads that linked these great sites for spiritual journeys, and participated in robust trade of turquoise, shells, pine (piñon) nuts, corn, obsidian, pottery, and woven goods.

This is where we went to view the October 14, 2023, solar eclipse at the crack of dawn.

We returned the next day, not quite as early, to meet up with Gilbert Tsininijinnie, our Diné (pronounced Din-Eh) guide with Navajo Tours USA.

Gilbert shared some of his own personal family history, telling us that he is also part Zia and Jemez, two of New Mexico’s 23 Federally recognized tribes. His Diné (Navajo) antecedents were refugees taken into these two tribes to hide them from being captured and expelled by the U.S. Cavalry. They managed to escape the Long Walk, the expulsion of the Navajo people from their sacred land at Canyon de Chelly. In 1868, when the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland, Gilbert’s people returned as well.

He was extraordinarily knowledgeable about Chaco Canyon history, explaining the architecture and how the buildings were constructed to line up with the cosmology events of moon and sun cycles that illuminate the niches in the ceremonial kivas.

These people were expert astronomers. At the corners of many buildings, there were observation windows for star gazing. They believed that stars have order and earth is chaotic. The stars gave them a compass to bring order to their lives. The buildings are aligned along solar and lunar axises. Niches in the kiva walls were used for offerings and aligned to be illuminated as the sun moved across the space.

The structures and a myriad of kivas were covered by sand for hundreds of years. Only a small part of it has been excavated. The Navajo Nation has told the National Park Service that they do not want any more of the site to be disturbed. We are able to see two stories of construction, but many of the buildings were four stories high. Today, one to two floors are subterranean.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is considered to be the most important ancestral homeland for most of New Mexico’s tribal groups.

Here, we saw very early petroglyphs, innovative building techniques from sandstone chipped from the base of nearby cliffs and held together with mud mortar and sandstone shims, and the rubble of giant boulders where Threatening Rock crashed down from the cliffs and crushed 30 rooms at Pueblo Bonito.

Being here after traveling through Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly gave us a complete, full-circle view of the development of Native America culture, and a deeper respect for the First Peoples who inhabited these lands.

Southwest Road Trip: Chasing the Solar Eclipse at Chaco Canyon

We heard that Chaco Canyon would be at the epicenter of the solar eclipse earlier this week. Little did we know when we planned this trip months ago that we would be at Chaco for the event! We bought the special glasses at the Mesa Verde visitor’s center, but the National Park Service rangers at Chaco gave them out for free for all the visitors. Thank you, United States government.

The closest place to stay is in Bloomfield, NM, about an hour and fifteen minutes away. We knew that the final fourteen miles to get to the canyon would be unpaved, and we also knew that there were only enough parking spaces inside the park for one hundred vehicles, and that entry would be allowed at 7:00 a.m. So, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. and were on the road by 5:45 after filling the gas tank.

We got there just in time to get a place in line and were assigned an official parking permit for Hungo Pavi, the first archeological site in the park. The site is not rebuilt to demonstrate to visitors how archeologists found the various Ancient Puebloan structures here before they underwent restoration.

There were ten cars parked at Hungo Pavi. We saw licenses plates from Colorado, California, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Michigan, as well as New Mexico. Eclipse chasers brought high-powered telescopes and cameras with long lenses mounted to tripods. The woman parked next to us advised that if we were using our iPhones, to put the special filters over the lenses so as not to burn them out.

Well, we figured out that if we did that, we might get some pretty good shots of the eclipse as it was happening. We did a lot of experimentation. Not professional, but good enough! As we waited for the 9:15 a.m. beginning of the eclipse, we stayed warm (it was 27 degrees Fahrenheit outside) inside the car, eating our breakfast of leftover blue corn pancakes and bacon from the day before.

We found a sheltered corner amidst the ruins that protected us from chill, and from there we shot most of our photos. Colin, a park ranger responsible for overseeing Hungo Pavi, struck up a conversation and gave us an explanation for why Chaco Canyon is so important in the development of the Puebloan Culture.

This was the center of the universe for Chacoans. They flourished between about 850 AD and 1200 AD. They believe they emerged from water, and this site with its river and abundant summer rainfall reinforced their origin story.

We will know more on Sunday, October 15, when we take a tour with a local Navajo guide.

This is the last leg on our journey. On Sunday evening we return to Albuquerque, and then on Wednesday we head back to Taos. I return to Oaxaca on Monday, October 23.

Buen viajes.

Southwest Road Trip: On The Floor of Canyon de Chelly

We have hopscotched through four states — New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado since October 1, 2023. We left Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY) and Chinle, Arizona, yesterday morning and are back in Gallup, NM, before going on to Chaco Canyon, NM, where we will see the annular solar eclipse on October 14 as it passes over us there. This location promises to give us the maximum view!

Mostly, for the last week, we have been in Navajo country, a vast area of 16 million acres that spans New Mexico and Arizona. Diné is the native language and this is what the people prefer to be called. I was compelled to do this road trip after reading the epic tale of conquest of the American West, Blood and Thunder by historian Hampton Sides.

He eloquently tells the story of the Diné people and their expulsion from their sacred homeland, Canyon de Chelly, by Kit Carson and the U.S. Cavalry in 1964. They employed a scorched earth policy by burning corn and wheat fields, killing churro sheep, and starving them out. They cut down 5,000 mature peach trees on the valley floor. The Diné forced Long Walk to desolate Fort Sumner in southeast New Mexico along the Pecos River near the Texas border, resulted in hundreds of deaths. It is told and retold today, a painful part of history.

In a sense, this trip has been about learning more deeply about Native Americans by visiting them on their ancestral lands, in their pueblos, appreciating their connection to the spiritual, and the beautiful weavings, pottery, baskets, and jewelry that they create. We have eaten Navajo tacos (fry bread topped with chile con carne, onions, tomatoes, and cheese, and attended the Northern Navajo Fair in Shiprock.

Most importantly, we spent a full day on the floor of Canyon de Chelly with a Diné guide exploring the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans and retracing the footsteps of great grandmothers and grandfathers who were forcibly expelled and then interned at Fort Sumner from 1864 to 1868.

Yes, Diné people still inhabit the canyon floor where they farm, tend apple orchards, raise horses and cattle. They are the descendants of the survivors. On the canyon rims, too, there are ranches and farms where Diné gave lived for generations.

What is remarkable here are the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, much more numerous than at Mesa Verde. We made the trip through Canyon de Chelly in a Jeep, across gullies and washes, through shifting sand, wind, over rocks and between old growth trees. I sat in the back seat and figured after this ride, I could easily ride a horse in Michoacan.

Our destination was the impressive Mummy Cave and White House. We saw some amazing petroglyphs, also created between 350 and 1300 AD. The Diné painted glyphs of Spanish conquistadores that came through in the 16th century using charcoal.

From the South Rim road, we saw Spider Rock, the birthplace of the Navajo Nation. From the canyon floor, we saw where the Diné climbed the narrow crevice to get to the top of Fortress Rock to escape, and hide from, the U.S. Cavalry.

The only way to explore the ancient archeological sites, caves, and petroglyphs is by going on a tour with a Diné guide. It was expensive, but it was well worth the experience. We both agreed that this was a highlight of our trip so far.

Southwest Road Trip: Ancestral People of Mesa Verde

We commonly know them as Anasazi, a Navajo name that is interpreted as ancient enemy, considered disrespectful by the 26 tribes who descended from these ancient peoples. This includes the Hopi, the Acoma, the peoples of Taos Pueblo, and all who live along the Little Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. These descendants of the people who lived in Mesa Verde for 700 years want the original inhabitants of Mesa Verde, Colorado, be known as the Ancestral Puebloans.

Why did the ancestors abandon the site in 1200 CE? Most experts think it was because of drought and perhaps threats from more aggressive tribal groups. The mesa was no long able to sustain the thousands who now lived there. Only in the last 100 years of their inhabiting Mesa Verde, did the ancient ones build elaborate living structures, kivas, and food storage areas in the cliff crevices along the canyons below the mesa. The most impressive is Cliff Palace.

We know them as cliff dwellers, but for hundreds of years they lived on the mesa plateau, first building round pit houses, shallow dug outs of earth, then constructing more complex, larger quarters with straight walls supported by pine or juniper logs and plastered with adobe mud. The hunter gatherers became sedentary agricultural farmers, growing The Three Sisters — corn, beans, squash.

Corn is as important here as it is in Mexico. Corn was first hybridized from teoscinte down the road from where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, likely as many as 8,000 years ago. The kernels made their way north via trade routes. Native corn is as abundant and important here in the Southwest United States as it is in Mexico. Symbols of rain, fertility, abundance, frogs, snakes, are common to both regions.

Sister Barbara and I were there for two full days at the Far View Lodge operated by a contractor for the National Park Service. We signed up for a private tour and our guide, a retired veterinarian from nearby Cortez, Colorado, gave us a thorough explanation and showed us the important sites during the four-hours we were with him. Both of us have back pain and we decided not to climb up and down steep ladders to get into the magnificent Cliff Palace, which Mesa Verde is known for. We opted for the long view instead.

As the round pit houses were abandoned in favor of more substantial structures, these became ceremonial and religious places that we know today as kivas. The kiva is an essential part of Puebloan culture, and as we see the the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde with their multi-storied, multi-room complex of living and social gathering places, we note how the round kiva structure is incorporated into the architecture. We saw contemporary round houses on Navajo land as we traveled from Mesa Verde to Canyon de Chelly.

The kiva reminds me of the temescal sweat lodges of Oaxaca. In my village, many of the homes have their own temescals. These are square, shallow, womb-like structures that you crawl into on hands-and-knees. A wood fire heats rocks. Water is poured on the rocks to create steam. This is a purification ritual. The kiva is different though similar. It will hold many people who enter it via a ladder from the top, and is used for life-cycle rituals and prayers.

Our guide Marty tells us that the ancients came out of Asia later as the ice age was receding and settled in Arizona and New Mexico. At the height of its civilization, 5,000 people lived here. Extended family, multi-generations called clans, shared one living space. They wove baskets lined with pitch that they used for cooking and storage.

Archeologists have found 1200 alcoves on the cliffs. Sixty of these were inhabited and the rest were used for food storage. The ancients used a sling/spear apparatus called an atlatl (Aztec word), to hunt bear, deer, elk, big horn sheep, mountain lions, lynx, rabbit, squirrels, turkeys — a native to the area.

To stay warm in the cold, snowy winters, the women wove blankets and capes using a cotton, turkey feathers, animal and human hair. They developed the bow and arrow around 850 CE as they created the more elaborate straight-walled houses on the mesa surface.

Kiva construction lines up with the North Star. Inside the kiva is a drum pit, a fire pit, and impressions in the earth to hold round baskets and later clay pots. Drums, plus flutes made from juniper and pinion wood were part of the kiva ceremonies. There is a hole called a Sipapu that symbolizes the creation story. The ancients believed that they emerged through this hole in the earth, coming up through the glaciers, through endless space, into the worlds of ice, water and air, to be greeted by Grandmother Spider Woman.

Upon death, the Ancient Puebloans were buried in the fetal position facing east — Father Sky. And, they were born facing east to accept the blessings of Father Sky. This is a practice that continues today in traditional communities.

When asked by a Hopi elder, why the Ancestral Puebloans left Mesa Verde, his reply was, Because it was time!

Archeological site at Far View reminds me of archeological sites at Yagul, Lambityeco, and Dainzu in the Oaxaca valley, just beginning restoration. I first visited Yagul in 2006, when it looked like this!

We are now in Chinle, Arizona, getting ready to tour Canyon de Chelly, rich in Ancient Puebloan history, and the epicenter of Navajo-Dine culture, where U.S. Army troops starved out the Navajo and forced them into the Long Walk. More to come! We go next to Chaco Canyon, and I’ll be writing about The Last Trading Posts of the Southwest.