Thursday, April 26, 2012

Trading Posts Past and Present

     "What is a trading post?”  Since 1989, when Twin Rocks officially opened its doors to the public, Barry and I have repeatedly, and often unsuccessfully, attempted to answer that question.  The challenge in addressing the inquiry is that contemporary trading activities have little in common with historic operations.

     In the early days of trading on and near the reservation, Navajo people brought wool to the post in the spring, delivered lambs in the fall and supplied weaving and other crafts throughout the year.  In return, they received credit which was used to purchase mass-produced foods and manufactured goods.  The interaction was generally based in barter and cash was rarely exchanged.  On the distribution side, typical trade items fell into specific catagories, including: saddles and tack; skillets, dishes and other household articles; canned peaches and tomatoes, coffee, plug tobacco, boxed cookies and crackers; calico, sateen and velveteen; Pendleton blankets and shawls; and working-quality shoes, clothing and hats.

     Approximately 50 years ago, with the advent of paved roads and reliable automotive transportation on the reservation, the substitution of cash money for credit, and the decline of sheep and other livestock as the primary source of income for Navajo families, the nature of trading posts started to change.  Instead of regional mercantile centers based upon a captive agrarian population, trading posts began evolving into two distinct categories.  These included convenience stores providing gas and a limited grocery selection and galleries focused primarily on Native arts and crafts.

     What has not changed, however, is the relationship between trader and reservation dweller.  One of my favorite stories is that of legendary trader Berrando, who around 1870 built what was in essence a trading post at a location that would later become known as Holbrook, Arizona.  It is said that after opening his store Berrando put up a sign which read, “If you have money, you can eat.  No got money, eat anyway.”

     For me that statement epitomizes the connection between the Indian trader and his Native clientele.  While the relationship often may not make economic sense, it does resonate from a human perspective and reflects the symbiotic connection between the two parties and speaks to the bond they feel for one another.

     This close connection has often resulted in strong collaborative efforts when it comes to arts and crafts produced for the world outside reservation boundaries.  For example, trader Lorenzo Hubbell of Ganado, Arizona had painters create designs that weavers used as inspiration.  Not far away, at Crystal, New Mexico, J. B. Moore published a mail-order catalog from which customers could purchase Navajo textiles.  Through their work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these men greatly influenced the direction of Navajo rug and blanket weaving, adapting it to contemporary needs and tastes.  In fact, as documentary film maker John Adair noted, “Navajo rugs became the Indian’s idea of the trader’s idea of what the white man thought was Indian design.”

     While some may argue the impact traders have had on American Indian art is intrusive or patronizing, it is certain that traders such as Hubbell and Moore are responsible for invigorating Navajo weaving and saving it from certain extinction.  What we enjoy today as “traditional” Navajo rugs would not have been possible without them and the influence they exercised on their trading partners.

     Borrowing from the old-time Indian traders, shortly after opening Twin Rocks Trading Post, Barry and I embarked upon our own program of collaboration with local basket makers.  In the early days, utilizing the only means available to us, we provided artists with black and white Xerox copies of interesting art from other cultures and encouraged the weavers to experiment by mixing design elements or varying the original motifs in unusual ways.

     Prior to that time Mary Holiday Black and her family had begun exploring new basketry designs of their own.  Their evolutionary path was akin to that taken by Navajo rug weavers almost 100 years earlier.  While they were ardently discouraged from doing so by traditionalists, they persisted and began applying corn, spiritual Yei, and eagle motifs on their baskets.

     Some years later, as technology advanced and our knowledge of Navajo culture and history improved, Barry hired Damian Jim, a Navajo artist and graphic designer, to visually interpret traditional stories we had learned.  Damian’s work resulted in the creation of never before seen basket patterns which related ancient Navajo legends in both abstract and realistic images.

Portion of Trading Post Baskets

     Once the divergent movements associated with Damian and the Black family intersected, it was not unusual to see Damian at his Apple computer with Lorraine, Sally or Peggy Black seated at his side, each of them excitedly discussing new concepts which rapidly took shape on the screen in front of them.  The result of this cooperative effort was an explosion of baskets, with patterns and colors driven by Navajo lore, oriental optical art, the art deco movement, Ancient Puebloan pottery, contemporary Southwest art, and any number of other outside influences. 

     This unusual confluence of ideas has frequently been referred to as the Navajo Basket Renaissance, but might more appropriately be termed a revolution.  All Barry and I know is that it was an exceedingly interesting and stimulating development, one in which the artists felt liberated and absolutely free to create fresh, new and innovative work.  It was a time when Barry and I were overwhelmed by the constantly changing styles and endlessly shifting artistic ideals.  The collaboration galvanized Navajo basket makers, traders and the collecting public, and inspired a whole new way of looking at Navajo basketry.  The results of this partnership between trader and basket maker were nothing short of stunning.  For the first time, Navajo basketry was viewed as true art, rather than simply a novelty.

     Like the legendary traders who blazed the trail before us, Barry and I eventually came to understand that at the end of the day, it is not about maximizing the funds in your checking account.  It is instead about the experience, making an honest living, and building productive relationships.  Through this process, we learned that the real question is not how much money you make, but rather whether you have genuinely advanced those around you and whether they have done the same for you.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and The Team

Great New Items! This week's selection of Native American art!

Our TnT's purchased new treasures! Check out Traders in Training!

Enjoy artwork from our many collector friends in Living with the Art!

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