For more than a century, trading posts were integral parts of Native American life in the Southwest. These posts were stores, owned mostly by Anglos, where Native Americans exchanged woven rugs, jewelry, baskets, wool and nuts for food and other necessities.
Trading posts also served as banks and bustling social hubs. Today, most of them have been replaced by grocery stores and big box chains like Walmart, but a handful of establishments still function as traditional trading posts.
The longest continuously operating post in the Southwest is the Hubbell Trading Post near Ganado, in northeastern Arizona. It's also a national historic site.
The rug room at Hubbell is filled with exquisite Navajo rugs, including many "Ganado reds," a variety that the trading post is famous for.
When a weaver brings in a rug for Hubbell to sell, a trader judges its worth based on several qualities.
"I look at it and see that the design is balanced throughout, and then I fold the rug in half and see if the rug's design is the same on both sides," says trader Steve Pickle.
Pickle says he has found working as a modern-day trader rewarding, but challenging.
"It's a very complicated place dealing with the two cultures," Pickle says. "I thought I knew a lot about Navajo culture when I came here, but found that I knew very little. It's a balance to keep everybody happy."
Edison Eskeets, assistant trader at Hubbell, bridges the cultural gap quite well. He is Navajo, which is unusual in the trading world. He enjoys speaking to his customers, especially the elders, in their own language.
From Family Business To National History Site
The trading post was built in 1883 by John Lorenzo Hubbell. It's located beneath sprawling cottonwood trees along a creek called Pueblo Colorado Wash. Hubbell served as merchant, employer, and by all accounts, a friend to his customers until he died in 1930.
Hubbell's two sons and their families continued to run the business until the mid-1960s, when the family was ready to sell. Largely at the urging of Edward Danson (late father of actor Ted Danson) of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, the trading post was bought by the National Park Service in the 1960s. It became a national historic site, with one catch: It would remain a working trading post.
Preserving The Past
Today, visitors enter the Hubbell Trading Post through the same front door as in the 1880s and walk across the same creaky wooden floors. Everything in the store, including the furniture, is still being used. And this is a challenge to curator Ed Chamberlin, who is charged with making sure the contents of the trading post are well preserved.
Chamberlin also keeps track of every artifact (half a million pieces) stored in a modern, climate-controlled building on the site.
"We have everything from the rusted metal nail and old drive shaft from an abandoned automobile, all the way up to a wonderful Germantown blanket," says Chamberlin.
Park Ranger Ailema Benally grew up near the trading post. She remembers her family coming to trade small rugs and goatskins when she was a child back in the 1960s.
"My first time here, my parents invited me to come in with them, and I hesitated," she says. "And by the time I entered the trading post, they had disappeared. ... I was small enough that I couldn't see over the counter."
That counter, the original, is there today. And it's where much of the exchanging and selling goes on.
"We still have satin, velvet, enamelware, cast iron, stovepipe," says Benally, "things they need for ceremonies. What you'll find here at the trading post supports the Navajo traditional life ways."
And within the walls of Hubbell Trading Post, those traditions will most likely be kept alive for some time. But Chamberlin says there's a lively debate among the staff at Hubbell about the role of a trading post in the modern world.
"Is doing pawn a requirement for being a trading post? I'm not sure," he says. "Is selling groceries a requirement? I think it is. Is selling Native American art a requirement? I think it is. Maybe it's not what's inside; maybe it's how it approaches its role in the community."