by John Aldrich
The trading post era is all but history on the reservation. For the most part the traditional functions of these outposts have been supplanted by conventional retail outlets in towns that are now much more readily accessed thanks to improved roads and transportation. Instead of being the regional source of food and supplies, often provided on credit through the pawn system, the modern-day trading post is more likely to be just a convenience store or a tourist stop for purchasing locally made crafts.
One post that still serves at least some of the traditional functions is the Shonto Trading Post. Shonto is a small settlement south of Navajo Mountain which is still relatively isolated. The post is both a gas station and convenience store, but also extends credit (but not via pawn), serves as the hub for local mail service, and provides a market place for local artisans. Adding to its "authentic" look is the fact that the buildings are mostly unchanged from the early 20th century.
Established in 1914 by the famous trader John Wetherill, the Shonto Trading Post was a satellite to his primary location in Kayenta. Initially it was a tent operation, but after World War I stone buildings were built that still exist today as the core of the operation. The trading post was built in a beautiful canyon with water supplied by a nearby spring. Shonto means "spring water in the sunshine" in Navajo.
We visited Shonto following the recent food run to Navajo Mountain. The populated settlement sits on a bench near the canyon, and this sign directs the traveler toward the canyon:
Dropping down through these red rock walls, the approach to the canyon is very inviting:
In the canyon itself is the trading post and the chapter house. Many large cottonwoods attest to a reliable water source over many years. Here is the front of the post:
The bulletin board shows that the location still serves a significant community function for the local residents.
Over the years a variety of traders have operated this location. Trading families often operated multiple posts, and after marriages between families the same names keep popping up at different locations across the reservation. After Wetherill, other well-known names that have owned or operated here include, Turpen, Richardson, Carson, Heflin, and Foutz.
The Shonto Trading Post is now owned by the Navajo Nation through the local Shonto Chapter. The current trader, Al Grieve, came out of retirement to operate the post several years ago after the previous trader left and the post was closed briefly. He and his wife Margaret, a Navajo, have a year-to-year lease arrangement with the chapter.
During our visit, Al was generous with his time in helping us understand the history of the trading post as well as the challenges of its current operation. Here he is holding a beautiful basket by Fay King:
The subsequent sale of this basket to my brother perhaps helped him to feel that his time with us wasn't entirely wasted.
This area of the reservation is probably better known for its basketry than for rug weaving. Despite its modest size, Al's "rug room" had a nice selection of baskets, rugs, and pottery.
A number of our Navajo Mountain Elders have post office addresses at Shonto. It turns out they don't live there, but use this location to collect their mail. Given the Navajo tradition of dispersed living, they may live many miles from their post office box in very remote locations. Daily mail delivery would be an inconceivable concept to these people. This photo shows the line up of post office boxes:
And here's the convenience store end of the post which, of course, doesn't look much different from countless other similar places:
Walking about the grounds we saw this old stone building behind the post:
Adjacent to the trading post is this stone hogan:
It was built in the early years of the operation to serve as lodging for Navajos who had to travel long distances to reach the post and couldn't return home in the same day.
The final picture shows a plot of corn to the rear of the post:
Al assured us that the life of a trader was not an easy one - long hours, seven days a week, with no respite. Also missing are a few modern conveniences we take for granted like TV and internet access. But Al says there would be no time to enjoy these amenities anyway. And furthermore, he doesn't even consider them amenities. The trading life is clearly in his blood.
If you're ever in this area of the reservation, a detour to the Shonto Trading Post would be worth your time - it's a beautiful, restful location as well as a fascinating trip back in time.