The first trading posts began on the East Coast, where Native Americans and adventurous Europeans would bring their furs and beaded textiles to trade with European merchants, who would ship the items back to Europe in exchange for items the Native Americans might need, like metal knives, mirrors, or other similar trade goods.
As the Europeans (the new Americans) pushed further west, the Native Americans were either killed through battle or disease, or forcibly relocated to restrictive reservation lands. Many of these reservation lands were either small vestiges of the traditional lands where the Native American peoples roamed, or they were marginally fertile lands for crops or hunting.
That led to the next iteration of the trading post, most commonly seen in the American Southwest. These trading posts were almost like grocery stores, where Native Americans could bring whatever trade goods they could make and acquire basic food items and tools. In many cases, the Native Americans had no concept of the value of their trade goods, so they were at the mercy of either good-hearted or unscrupulous merchants.
Over time, two distinct types of trading posts evolved. The first, the very traditional trading post, oriented around serving the tribe or pueblo in which or near which it was located. Halona Trading Post is a good example, started in the 1890’s by Andrew Vander Wagen and still sitting in the center of the Zuni Pueblo and serving the peoples of Zuni. Another outstanding example is the Toadlena Trading Post in the Navajo Nation, where Mark and Linda Winter work diligently to provide the basic necessities of life for their neighbors, while taking in Navajo rugs for resale from the weavers. Mark and Linda purchased the trading post from another owner about nineteen years ago, and reestablished the trading post as a credible and reputable service to their community.
Teec Nos Pos (T’iis Nasbas or Cottonwoods in a Circle) is in northeastern Arizona near the Four Corners Monument. Teec Nos Pos is one of the 110 chapters that comprise the Navajo Nation. Michael and I had a chance to visit recently, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the rug room, as well as looking at their lovely pottery and jewelry. Until this visit, I didn’t have a weaving from Teec Nos Pos, but now I do. It is absolutely stunning. The regional pattern that bears the area name goes back to 1905 when Hambleton Noel came into the area and convinced the residents that he would be just the person to serve the community in the role of trader. Noel was the first white man who was able to win the approval of the local Navajo to set up a trading post on their land. Ten years earlier, two potential traders were driven off. Hamp Noel married Eva Foutz in 1911 and eventually the Foutz family took over the post and still operate it today, according to information from Cameron Trading Post.
The second type of trading post is a more tourist-oriented retail operation, focusing more on serving tourists than locals. Some are just as old as the traditional type describe above, but tend to spend their efforts on selling trade goods (art works) to tourists rather than food and basic necessities to the local residents. A couple of them that are done extremely well, and that we enjoy visiting, are Garland’s Navajo Rugs in Sedona and Than Povi Trading Post at the San Ildefonso pueblo.
As the name would imply, Garland’s has a large assortment of large, authentic Navajo rugs sourced from the different chapters of the Navajo Nation – Two Grey Hills, Wide Ruins, Ganado, Chinle, and many others. They have a small but very nice assortment of pottery, kachinas, and jewelry and it is really fun to hang around and chat with them.
Than Povi is a bit different, in that it sits on the San Ildefonso pueblo and is run by Deborah and Elmer Torres, a couple of San Ildefonso natives. Their trading post has been lovingly restored and has the look and feel of a high quality museum or gallery. They have a wide assortment of authentic Native American works of art from many New Mexico pueblos, as well as some great Navajo and Hopi items. The pricing is very reasonable, and if you don’t have the time to visit the different pueblos and really don’t want to run the risk of buying fake stuff in a retail store, this is a great place to go. As they move more online in the next couple of years, we expect this trading post to blossom nicely.
So, at the end of the day, what is a trading post? It is a term that had a lot of meaning a few hundred years ago, and still had some meaning in the Southwest in the middle of the last century. But today, when we think of the term trading post, it really depends on their focus – local residents or tourists. And, as with all retail establishments, there are all levels of quality. Some have great assortments, great pricing, and great service. Others, not so much.