Holdovers of the complex economic and social system that developed after the Navajo returned to their land following the “Long Walk” exile to New Mexico’s Fort Sumner (1864), today’s trading posts offer a glimpse into a not-entirely-vanished era of Arizona Indian culture – not to mention excellent shopping.
For an overview of the system, visit Ganado’s Hubbell Trading Post, now a National Historic Site. Established in 1878 and the oldest continuously operating trading post in the Southwest United States, it showcases the original homestead and store of John Lorenzo Hubbell, whose empire eventually included stage and freight lines as well as other trading posts.
Hubbell and his fellow traders did more than just barter flour, tobacco, sugar and dry goods for Native American crafts. Because they knew that excellent workmanship – as well as certain designs and colors – would fetch the highest prices from the tourists who had begun arriving in Arizona by rail, they also helped shape the style and quality of the Indians’ artistry.
Hubbell’s influence was particularly strong on Navajo silversmithing and rug-weaving, and weavers still give demonstrations at the trading post’s visitor center.
Most of Arizona’s trading posts, including Hubbell, are in Navajoland, but they offer crafts from a variety of native peoples. At the Cameron Trading Post, for example, you’ll find everything from Plains Indian beadwork to pottery by such famed New Mexican Pueblo potters as Maria Martinez.
The gift shop has the widest range of wares, but the gallery – part of the original 1911 trading post – has the highest-quality goods, including antique collectibles and contemporary Indian art.
Like the one in Cameron, the Tuba City Trading Post was in the hands of non-native traders – in this case, the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company, in 1905 – but is now owned and operated by the Navajo.
Since 2007, in addition to selling crafts, the post has served as the entryway to the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum, which includes an exhibit on the Navajo Code Talkers’ role in World War II.
Because the trading posts were closely linked with tourism, it’s no surprise to find several in extremely scenic spots.
The Thunderbird Lodge, for example, which got its start as a trading post around 1902, is inside Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The original stone trading post building is now part of the cafeteria, while the crafts – an excellent selection – are sold at the gift shop next door.
The main roads never made it to the Shonto Trading Post, founded in 1915 at the floor of Shonto Canyon near Navajo National Monument, but that makes visiting this remote spot an experience in time travel.
As they did in the past, traders like Shonto’s Al Grieve rely on long-established and trusting relationships with the local Native Americans with whom they do business.
By virtue of Bruce Burnham’s close ties to the Navajo community, R. B. Burnham and Company – about 40 miles west of Gallup, New Mexico – is extremely traditional, even though it’s not on a historical site. Burnham, who speaks Navajo and worked at several historic trading posts before establishing his own, encourages the Navajo weavers he works with to be innovative in their textile designs.
In the case of McGee’s Indian Art Gallery, trader Ron McGee’s relationship is with the Hopi people on whose reservation the shop resides.
The gallery was built on the site of the 1874 Keams Canyon Trading Post, which was sold to the McGee family in 1938 by virtue of John Lorenzo Hubble, who had owned it since 1902. Come here for kachina dolls, baskets, pottery and the silver overlay jewelry for which the Hopi and other Puebloan artisans are known.