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In the cross-cultural relationship between Navajos and Indian traders, trading incorporated separate economic philosophies. Navajo communal “share all goods” values clashed with the capitalistic economic philosophy of the traders. These differences did not sway the necessity for survival. Instead, it provided the genuine opportunity for Navajos and Indian traders to share conditions and familiarity of the area in which they lived in. Navajos distrusted the economic aspect of the trading system. The economic dissimilarity of both cultures did not become resolved, because of the ideology. The Navajos’ and Indian traders’ essential need to cope with the day-to-day interactions increasingly overshadowed such discrepancies and enabled Navajos and Indian traders to survive under the same Southwestern skies. 1998 oral histories reveal diverse economic philosophies and engage the voices of Navajos and Indian traders.
The trading post provided the necessary space for the exchange of goods to pass daily. Carolyn Blair, who married a trader, Bradley Blair and worked side by side with her husband, recalls the interior of the trading post at Red Mesa. She described it as “a typical old-time trading post with the high counters, and things hanging from the roof, like saddles or, you know, the reins for the bridles and what not, pots and pans.” [i] Fran McNitt also described the interior with the high counter design, which gave the look of a, “bull-pen [used as] a place to stand, lean, squat or sit while in the process of trade, sociability, or reflection. On three sides were wooden counters eight inches to one foot higher and wider than store counters elsewhere; they were designed as barriers between customer and trader.” [ii] The “bull-pen” arena created a cultural barrier between Navajos and trader. This spatial arrangement of the trading post contributed to the economic “distrust” Navajos held toward Indian traders. By appearances, the trader’s well-stocked store gave the Navajo’s the clear impression they had amassed wealth and were not “sharing” it with the rest of the community.
As merchant, pawnbroker, and arts and crafts dealer, the Indian trader linked the outside world to the Navajo reservation. Indian traders’ livelihood depended on well-stocked shelves with all the imaginable goods that were likely to sustain the community throughout the various seasons, like coffee, flour, tobacco, cloth, and wool for the Navajo community at large. An Indian trader had to win the trust of Navajos, in order for the day–to-day transactions to run smoothly.
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You have to make an Indian person very comfortable in order to win his trust, because in the Navajo way, you’re told you don’t talk about your culture, your language, your history, your tradition, your taboos—especially your religion—to a non-Navajo. It’s very hard for a Navajo person to do that. So the trader had to break through and win the trust of the Navajo, they first have to learn the language. This man [Elijah Blair, trader] is fluent in the Navajo language. He knows the way of the teasing, the tradition, how to act as being a Navajo, how a Navajo should act, how you tease.[iii]
The cultural challenges faced by Indian traders entailed an alternative approach in their methods of understanding a complex culture. An appreciation and respect for the Navajo way of life was imperative for the development of their relationship. Respect and understanding provided the foundation despite the contradictory economic philosophies. It was a necessity for both survival and for building a community.
In the system of exchange, according to anthropologist, Willow Roberts Powers the, “basic rule of trade, is that you exchange one thing of value for another of similar value.” [iv] Bruce Burnham of R.B. Burnham and Company Trading Post takes it further,
Well, the system that I see in place with the Navajo is that if you pay a Navajo $1,000 for four bags of wool, they will immediately convert that—not so much now as they would have in the past—they would have converted that cash to jewelry or goods, because they don’t see that is tangible, something they can use. You’ve got that money in your hand, you can’t eat that money, and it has no value. You’re going from one culture that doesn’t place any priority on saving money, to a culture that in business tries to amass money.[v]
Elijah Blair, owner and operator of the Dinnebito Trading Company added, “You had two different philosophies, 180 degrees opposed to each other.” Blair also points out in the Navajo language there are two words that defines Navajo economic philosophies, “stingy and crooked.” The first is referred to those who acquired more than their share, “as a man becomes prosperous and gets money, more sheep, they say, he’s tight-stingy and if you tried to rise above other members of the clan, you are stingy. It’s like a leveling philosophy”, Blair explained. “Crook” on the other hand, defined by the Navajo means Indian traders should not charge more for their items. From the Navajo’s point of view the Indian traders should not be making a profit. [vi]Navajos view traders as ‘crooked or cheated” because of their established communal philosophy. Paul Begay, speaking from a Navajo standpoint explained, “That many people did not understand that the trader was here to make money. They did not grasp that idea. There is always a little animosity, there is always a little anger set towards the trader. But it’s understood we cannot live without the trader.” [vii] The concepts, “profit” versus “share” remained as an unresolved conflict between Navajos and Indian traders.
Trading posts were the focal point of the Navajo community that provided services other than selling or trading goods. Elijah Blair illustrated the importance of the trading post; he encouraged the rational of, “think[ing] of the trading post as the same thing as you would think of the anchor tenant in a large shopping center, except the trading was the anchor tenant for the community.” [viii] As an anchor, the trading post kept the surrounding Navajo area stocked with food, supplies, medicine, and clothing, including the multiple roles the Indian trader was expected to fulfill for the Navajo community. Evelyn Yazzie Jensen, Navajo, expressed her viewpoint on the matter,
I think in the old days the trader was expected to be everything to the community. They could be a doctor, or they could be a lawyer, or they could correspond for people. Of course, you know, a lot of people didn't know how to read or write, so if they had students off somewhere else, you know, they would read the letters for them. A lot of the traditional people don't like to have anything to do with someone that is deceased, so a lot of the traders did burials, I think. And then a lot of the traders at that time were like loan officers--they were there to provide loans to people.[ix]
Most Indian traders, such as Bruce Burnham and Elijah Blair viewed their position as an important necessity and saw their roles as contributing to stability, health, and support the community. Elijah Blair explains,
The trader was the Bilagáanaa, the white man. To the Navajo, this Anglo is supposed to be all knowing, because they were certainly makin’ all the rules for’em, governing their whole life. And the trader actually did, to them, we could do anything. So anything they wanted to do, or problems they had, they would come to us. [x]
Indians,For Paul Begay, “a Navajo or Anglo trader to the if he truly understands and respects and appreciated the cultural teachings of the Navajo people, he’s truly a Navajo trader, a trader to the Navajos.” [xi] For many of the Indian traders, the trading post provided a way of life unlike any other. Under similar conditions, the necessary requirements for survival involved respect, admiration, and acceptance. Although, these two cultures were not always in harmony, both cultures managed to live, work, and experience each other ways of life for decades—together. Bruce Burnham sums up the traders experience on Navajo Reservation,
Traders deal in decades. The first ten years of your career you spend learning how to be a trader and learning how to turn a profit on every deal you make. The second ten years you’re on the reservation or in the area, you begin to lighten up a little and see the broader picture. You’re not quite motivated by profit. You’re getting concerned with the community. By the third [decade] you’ve got a lot of kids that are calling you grandpa and you’re a respected member of the community. You even pay less attention to the bottom line, and more into just what’s good for us. The fourth decade, you’re locked into, you’re at home. You’re the community’s Grandpa. By then you start to give back some of the treasure that you amassed, you’re feeding it back to the community. The fifth decade, he [trader] gives it all back, he dies broke, but happy because he had a great life, enjoyed his affiliation with all those people, and had no qualms about feeding it all right back into the community again. [xii]
The Indian trader was the connection between the Navajo and the outside world. This link introduced an opposite set of values on exchanged goods and presented another way of living, unlike the Navajo, which created cultural difficulties. The perception of the monetary values presented a unique insight into two distinct belief systems. Sharing, among the Navajos provided their community with the essentials for living in harmony with their environment. Sharing also possessed a social leveling quality, which enabled the Navajo community to maintain their cultural heritage. The cultural dynamics did not discourage Indian traders from gravitating towards these cultural attributes, in fact, the community dynamic encouraged Indian traders to embrace the cultural importance of community, maintaining harmony with all relations, and to hold genuine appreciation for the Navajos.
[i] Interview, “Oral Histories: Carolyn Blair”. Interview by Brad Cole. (Northern Arizona University) February 12, 1998.
[ii] Frank McNitt. The Indian Trader. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 73-74
[iii] Interview. “Oral Histories: Paul Begay”. Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 10, 1998.
[iv] Willow Roberts Powers. Navajo Trading: The End of an Era. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2001), 238
[v] Interview. “Oral Histories: Bruce Burnham”, Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) July 17, 1998.
[vi] Interview. “Oral Histories: Elijah Blair”, Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 9, 1998.
[vii] Interview. “Oral Histories: Paul Begay”. Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 10, 1998.
[viii] Interview. “Oral Histories: Elijah Blair”, Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 9, 1998.
[ix] Interview. “Oral Histories: Evelyn Yazzie Jensen”, Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 10, 1998.
[x] Interview. “Oral Histories: Elijah Blair”, Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 9, 1998.
[xi]Interview. “Oral Histories: Paul Begay”. Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) February 10, 1998.
[xii] Interview. “Oral Histories: Bruce Burnham”, Interview by Karen Underhill. (Northern Arizona University) July 17, 1998.