New photo books documents the last days of trading posts, a once-vibrant cultural institution.
These days it may not seem so, but trading posts are a unique and vital part of America's cultural heritage. Beginning in the 1870s, following a Navajo treaty with the US government, tribes used to exchange bags of wool for tobacco and foodstuffs in tents that later became iconic albeit under-appreciated fixtures of the American landscape. Shopping malls, highways, and the internet are just a few of the reasons why buildings that housed trading posts have slowly become abandoned or appropriated by gas stations and convenience stores. Yet in the late 19th and 20th centuries, they were a part of everyday life of the Navajo in the American southwest. Published by powerHouse Books, A Last Glance: Trading Posts of the Four Corners features contemporary photos by Edward Grazda, as well as an essay by Willow Roberts Powers that examines the role trading posts played in American history.
Most proprietors of trading posts were typified by an Anglo-American, husband-wife team who traded with the Navajo. As trading posts grew from makeshift tents into brick-and-mortar, mixed-use spaces, the nature and quality of the goods changed, too. Traders on the Navajo Reservation typically bartered, selling wool wholesale or exchanging it for drygoods and food the Navajo needed in order to rebuild their communities after westward expansion. During the era between the World Wars, different areas began to trade and sell material that reflected unique needs and styles. They sold and traded canned goods, beef jerky, candy, basic apparel, tools, medicine, outdoor equipment and other necessities. Eventually, trading posts also sold gas, serving as a pit stop for the steady stream of settlers moving west, as well as local communities.
"Agents and traders had competing interests in and attitudes toward their communities: agents thought of changing and modernizing Indian ways of life, values, and beliefs, while traders, although an indirect force for change, also looked for ways to support tradition and community practices," writes Willow Roberts Powers. "Many communities became known for their weavers or silversmiths, and some traders worked hard to encourage them, providing them with special supplies and sometimes with suggestions for patterns and designs. Traders would buy their work, as would the occasional visitors or the dealers purchasing for the Fred Harvey Company stores, or collectors for museums. Beyond that, traders always had the goods needed for ceremonies and the feasts which accompanied them; they helped in letter writing and provided information and assistance in many other areas, recognizing that if their community prospered, they did too."
While the businesses were owned by Anglo-American families, the land still belonged to Native Americans, who leased the land to the traders. In the 1970s, trading posts were slowly replaced by supermarkets and malls. No longer was it fashionable to barter or pawn goods. Changing tastes fueled by cheaper, modern, mass-produced goods replaced woolen, handmade goods, and trading posts became largely unnecessary.
"Now, as these photographs illustrate, most are gone, the traditions and community focus of a commercial hub with them," writes Willow Roberts Powers. "The central role the trading post played was, for better or for worse, exceptional, and though the Navajo tribe now provides such services, the old buildings give mute evidence of a Navajo past, a shared history."
A Last Glance: Trading Posts of the Four Corners is out now from powerHouse Books. Click here to order your copy.