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.

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