Magazine article Sunset

Fair Trades in Gallup

Magazine article Sunset

Fair Trades in Gallup

Article excerpt

The historic Indian trading posts around this northwest New Mexico town reflect the changing nature of pawn and commerce

An elderly Navajo woman in a magenta scarf and many-layered skirts places a red-and-orange Pendleton blanket on the pawn counter. Inspecting it, the trader asks, "How much do you want?" The woman answers in Navajo. Soon the blanket hangs with hundreds of others in the storage room, and the customer collects her $20, some mail, and a few kitchen supplies before departing.

Although this scene takes place in 1998 in a trading post in Gallup, New Mexico, it could have happened a hundred years ago - except, of course, for the cash, the computer record, and the customer's shiny red pickup. Indeed, the rustic trading posts that once dotted the Indian country of northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southern Utah and Colorado almost seem anachronistic. But are they? While many have closed and crumbled, an impressive number are still in business, though their business has changed. Today's trading post may shelter several enterprises under the same roof: an art supply store, pawnshop, post office, grocery store, and tax-preparation center for Indian customers alongside a gift shop and arts-and-crafts gallery for tourists. Trading posts, it seems, still fill a need - it's just that needs have changed.

The first trading posts were founded after 1868, when Navajos who had been rounded up by Kit Carson were returned to their vast homeland (limited by reservation borders, that is). It didn't take long for traders from the outside to move in to provide basic supplies. Flour, sugar, and cloth were exchanged for wool, pine nuts, and rugs. Traders served as interpreters, letter writers, and art agents, becoming a key link between two cultures. Commerce was the common language as traders extended credit for pawned jewelry, saddles, and guns. Though other native people, such as Acoma and Hopi, used trading posts, it was the numerous and scattered Navajo who relied on them the most.

In 1881, when the railroad arrived, trade with the East increased and the trading posts prospered. This lasted into the 1920s, but autos changed the formula. By the '50s rail travel was in decline, Indian clients were independently mobile, and the fortunes of the trading posts began to fade.

But not entirely. In the market hub of Gallup, veteran trader Bill Richardson sits at his paper-strewn desk in the pawn vault of Richardson Trading Company. Retail cases full of new jewelry and crafts line the path to the historic vault. "It's changed from the old days," Richardson says of his generations-old post. "Our retail business up front is separate. The pawn business that we run here is essentially a bank."

Pawn serves a twofold purpose for Navajo clients today. It's collateral for cash, redeemable at a regulated interest rate, and a way for them to safeguard valuables. At Richardson's shop, hundreds of turquoise-and-silver necklaces, concha belts, and bracelets hang behind his desk. In a side room floor to ceiling - sit 1,400 saddles and countless blankets, buffalo pelts, and deerskins along with other items, from pottery to television sets. All are live pawn, objects likely to be reclaimed by their owners.

Trading posts once thrived because of the isolation of the reservations. Today, isolation is still a factor. "On the reservation, it's easy for things to disappear when people aren't home," explains third-generation trader Tobe Turpen III. …

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