Thursday, July 28, 2005

It's A Dying Art

For many decades, there has been widespread speculation that Native American culture and traditional art forms are dying. At the trading post, we often see indications that a change is in the air; a basket weaver decides it makes more sense to pursue a nursing career; another "retires" because the cash flow is inadequate to pay the mounting bills; and the younger generation does not want to learn a craft because it takes so long to master the necessary techniques.

It is hard to argue that education is somehow less important than keeping a tradition alive, or that the artists should persevere in spite of low pay. It is also difficult to convince the young people to learn a craft that takes years to develop and, in the beginning, pays less per hour than an entry level position at the local convenience store.

Although I have often contemplated the loss of traditional crafts, until recently, I had never given much thought to the potential extinction of Indian traders. Yes, I have noticed that trading has evolved, but our trading post is evidence that the profession is alive and well. Or is it?

On a recent summer afternoon, as the temperature in Bluff soared to well over 100 degrees, I stood behind the trading post counter trying to keep my perspiration in check, and talking to a customer about the history of trading in the Southwest. As the conversation wound down, my companion commented, "Yes, trading is a dying art." It took me a moment to realize what he had said, and several days to sort through the implications of his statement.

Since, in many ways, I came to the "art" of trading through the back door, and because my trading credentials do not hold up well under close scrutiny, I have always been fascinated by the legendary Indian traders. I have studied the books on Hubbell; visited the Hubbell home and trading post at Ganado, Arizona many times; and learned what I could about the other successful trading posts, hoping to uncover the secrets to their success. Quite often, what I discovered led me to the conclusion that the early traders were successful because they loved the culture, art and people; the profit motive was secondary. It also became apparent that those traders embraced change, and readily incorporated it into their businesses.

The University of Utah Press recently published a book on the Farmington, New Mexico trader Will Evans. The surprisingly well written text is entitled, Along Navajo Trails; Recollections of a Trader. When the marketing copy arrived, I took a look. The book confirmed what I have begun to believe; that, while the Navajo people and the trading post system have changed dramatically over the past century, the founding principles of the people and the business are unchanged.

In the introduction to the book, focusing on the winter of 1917, when Evans was just starting his trading career, the editor states,"[Evans] realize[d] . . . that the Navajo culture is dynamic and is moving increasingly into the white man¹s world. Even the trading post, which allows Navajos to remain on the reservation to ship and sell their wares, is an institution of change. . . A trader and his post are the center and heart of the Navajo community. He is their creditor, advisor, and at times, their midwife and undertaker."

Although Navajo culture and art are changing, they may not be dying. Instead, the Navajo people may be continuing the evolutionary process they have engaged in for centuries; moving into new realms, and leaving behind those aspects that are not relevant to contemporary society. The primary characteristic that has allowed Navajo people to thrive in this harsh physical, social, economic and political environment is their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. That was the case when the first posts were established, and the trend continues to this day. The Navajo people are agents of change, and trading posts have had to change with them; the evolution is inevitable.

Those of us observing Native Americans from the outside are often inclined to freeze them in the amber of the past, rather than recognize and celebrate the changes they are experiencing. Their ability to innovate and adapt has brought some extremely interesting developments to Native American art. Although it is certain that some aspects of the culture and art will be lost, there are surely new and exciting developments ahead.

Trading posts are experiencing the same evolutionary migration. No longer do we sell flour, beans, peaches and coffee. In fact, the trading posts of today look nothing like posts of the Hubbell, Moore and Cotton era. I was recently reminded, however, that we still play the same role the early posts played. When I picked up the telephone last Saturday afternoon, I heard the voice on the other end say, "Hey Steve, we're hungry! Can I borrow a hundred dollars until my basket is done?" "Come on in," I replied. "We can't have hungry children." Out here on the Navajo Trail, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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