Historian’s latest work provides a fresh perspective on trading
Trading posts were such a fact of life for so many years in the Four Corners that many of us haven’t thought about how unique this system of commerce really was.
In “Both Sides of the Bullpen: Navajo Trade and Posts” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), Utah State University history professor Robert McPherson gives us a look at the heyday of the Indian trading posts from both the Native and Anglo perspectives.
Indian trade is a well-trod trail for both historians and novelists. A search on amazon.com turns up dozens of titles, including several first-hand memoirs of traders — but McPherson’s book plows new ground by including the Navajo and Ute perspective. He has combed the few memoirs and oral histories of Natives and done some original research among the elders of the Monument Valley area that sheds light on the fragile yet lasting relationship between trader and customer.
When the traders started setting up shop, shortly after the Navajo Reservation was established, Native Americans were no strangers to barter. Utes, Paiutes, Diné and Puebloans had been exchanging meat, corn, baskets, pots, skins and jewelry for centuries. The Navajos even had songs for trade, McPherson notes.
Several early traders described hearing beautiful melodies from afar as their customers rode in on horseback — not knowing the Diné were actually praying for an advantageous deal.
The best traders immersed themselves in Diné culture, learning the language and ways to make their posts comfortable and welcoming to their customers, slowly building trust deal by deal. The worst didn’t last long, either abandoning their posts for greener pastures elsewhere, or in extreme cases being murdered by angry customers.