Why would anyone in his right mind want to
become an Indian trader? First he had to learn the native language, no
little chore in itself, then isolate himself in a barren country surrounded
by members of a foreign society, whose social patterns and thought processes
he had to learn and adjust himself to, all for the sake of a small monetary
benefit. Why then become an Indian trader? I have been asked this question
There are many answers; a challenge, an opportunity to prove oneís self, a fascination with the people, the stark beauty of the country, the chance to make an honest living are but a few of them.
In my case, I was born into a trading family. My father, brother, six uncles and three cousins were already in the business before I came along. Growing up in Gallup, New Mexico which was a major trading center for the Navaho, Zuni and Hopi tribes, was an ideal base from which to learn most of the skills necessary to become a successful Indian trader.
After selling the post at Chinle in 1912, Dad moved to Gallup, New Mexico. He worked with C.N. Cotton as general manager until 1920. He then bought the J.H. McAdams Post just across the bridge from the Cotton Company in Gallup. He enlarged the post and became a wholesaler for general merchandise to the trading posts on the reservation. The built-in clientele of relatives was a reliable base, so he expanded, selling to almost all of the posts except those in the extreme western part of the reservation. Although small, his business thrived because he would always take rugs and jewelry on account, whereas the big wholesalers, The Gallup Mercantile Company, Cotton Company and later the Gross-Kelly Company, wanted payment in cash.
Our store was a combination retail and wholesale general mercantile company that sold principally to trading posts. The front of the building was a typical trading post with a ěBull Pen,î (a place for the Indians to lounge), a potbellied stove, very wide counters, with dry goods, canned foods and other items on shelves and in bins, with pots, pans, saddles, bridles and harness hanging from the ceiling. Jewelry was displayed on the walls directly behind one of the counters. We even had our own trade money with ěKirk Brothers, Gallup, New Mexico,î stamped on one side of the brass coin and the value, $1.00, 50, 25 10 and 5 stamped on the other side. The traders always referred to these as ěTin Money.î Should someone be foolish enough to spend silver coins he would find that they very quickly found their way to the nearest silversmith. Trade money was supposedly outlawed on the reservation, but it was used extensively off the reservation as well as on it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs were responsible for outlawing trade money, but the Tribal Council took a more or less neutral stand with the result thatí the practice flourished. Paper trade scrip was also used, but was phased out in favor of ěTin Money.î (See Arizona Highways, February 1977, pages 2-11, for a detailed account of token money).
The store proper was next to the warehouse where flour and sugar were stored. These buildings were one-block long. Forming an ěLî was another block-long warehouse where wool, blankets and grain were kept. In back of the trading post were two hogans (Navaho style houses) which were at the disposal of any visiting Indian family that wished to use them.
While growing up in Gallup, my summers were never dull. My parents would often ěfarm-outî my older brother, John Jr., Dude, as we called him, and me to one of our relatives who operated a trading post. One uncle, Mike Kirk, owned the post at Manuleto, New Mexico, just eighteen miles west of Gallup. Uncle Con Shillingburgís post was at Rough Rock, Arizona, the site of the first bilingual education center where the Navahos were taught English. This post is thirty-five miles west of Chinle, Arizona. Don Shillingburg had the old Dalton Pass Store which was fifteen miles west of Crown Point, New Mexico. Uncle Tom Shillingburg was at Nazlini, Arizona which is about halfway between Ganado and Chinle, Arizona. Herbert Shillingburg owned Round Top Trading Post which is two miles north of north of Ganado, Arizona. Jim Cavanaugh was married to my Aunt Mame (Mary Kirk), Dadís sister. He was the warehouse foreman for Kirk Brothers Trading Post in Gallup New Mexico. Later on, in the 1960s, my son Michael Edward Kirk operated the trading post at Sunrise, Arizona .
Dadís house in Gallup was a show place of Western art and Indian textiles and silverware. He had the only paved tennis court in town and let everyone use it. He loved the game. Most of the furnishings in theí house were obtained through trades. A typical example of one of the trades would start something like this: ěTom, Mr. Sharp here has a $500.00 painting. Show him a $500.00 rug.î Everyone would laugh and the trading began. His art collection included works by Frank Tenney Johnson, E. Irving Couse, Blumenschein, Edward Borein, Eldridge A. Burbank, Von Hassler, Frederic Remington, William R. Leigh, Ina and Gerald Cassidy, Kathryn Leighton, Lon Megargee, William Collings, Win. Henry D. Koerner, Jimmy Swinnerton, James Montgomery Flagg, Will James, Gordon Coutts and others. He really loved Western art and knew many of the artists personally. One year, he and Blumenschein teamed together to take the New Mexico state Veterans Tennis Championship.
In 1930, when I was sixteen years old; my father gave me my first opportunity at trading on my own. There was a SqUaw Dance being held out on Tohatchi Flat so I loaded up the Model-A Ford pickup with two barrels of mixed pop, some watermelons, candy; Bull Durham tobacco and matches and headed for the îSing.î A Squaw Dance, or ěSing,î is a three day and night ceremony to heal a sick person. To bolster my courage I took two of my boy friends with me. There were over two hundred Navahos there and, as we were the only traders on the spot; business was very good. We sold for cash, or bartered for goat and sheep pelts throw rugs, or just about anything of value the Indians had to offer. Trading proceeded throughout the night: I will never forget the next morning! When we were loading the truck one barrel of pop was still full and the three of us were unable to lift it. Noticing two large squaws standing close by, I offered them the two remaining watermelons if they would load the barrels for us& Well, they almost threw it over the cab of the truck: From that day on, I figured that if I ever had to right an Indian it would be a buck, not a squaw.
The term trading post means just that, a place in which to trade. The only real cash the Indians or traders saw was in the spring when the Indians sold their wool and in the fall when they sold their lambs. In the meantime they had only rugs, skins, pelts and some jewelry to trade. An occasional pinon crop was a godsend, because they only occurred every four, five or six years. When this happened the entire family would quit whatever they were doing and go gather nuts. This was an excellent cash crop and frequently the trader would finance a family by giving them food and supplies to take with them. It was very important that the nuts be gathered before the snow fell as wet nuts would spoil quickly. The easiest way to gather pinon nuts is to spread a tarpaulin under the tree and shake the tree until the nuts fall out of the cones. You could always tell when the Mexicans had been in the pinon area, because you would see sticks stuck up in the trees. The Mexicans would throw sticks at the cones in order to shake the nuts loose. The Navaho would never do this, because that would hurt the tree and as the tree was giving him some of her fruit he would not think of hurting his benefactor.
After shaking the tree the Navahos would gather the nuts from the tarpaulin and place them in sacks. When full, these sacks weighed from ten to fifteen pounds, although sometimes the larger gunny sacks would weigh as much as eighty pounds. If a sack weighed over eighty pounds you could figure that there was something wrong; possibly it contained rock to make it weigh more. We had a steel probe that we could stick through the sack. The probe had small openings that, when we twisted the handle, would open different parts of the probe We could close it and pull it out, then by looking at the probe we could tell what was in each section of the pinon sack.
In the 1930s we shipped sixteen railroad car loads of pinon nuts, each car carrying at least 40,000 pounds of nuts. These were shipped to New York where the large Armenian and Syrian population provided a good market. Being good business men we shipped every car with a sight draft bill of lading. This guaranteed the trader that when his shipment arrived in New York his money would be paid. There was no foolishness.
Dealers, coming from the East, were surprised to see copies of Kiplingerís Letter, the Congressional Record and the Boston Wool Market Report lying on the desk or counter. Frequently they would ask, "What are you doing with these things?" They didnít realize that we had to know what was going on in the sheep market in Denver and Kansas City, what the wool market was in Boston and what the silver market was in Los Angeles and New York. We had to know these things in order to base our prices in buying and trading.
One year during the War, I think it was 1943, a group of traders (Armenians, I believe) came from Kansas City to buy made-up silver (sheet). We sold the processed silver for one dollar an ounce. The silver cost us fifty cents an ounce and fifty. cents an ounce to make it up, so we would sell it for a dollar an, ounce, using, our trade margin for the profit.
These traders brought their own scales, thinking we didnít know the difference between troy and avoirdupois weight. That really tore it! We ran them out and refused to trade with them even when they offered to use the correct scale.
Good traders always saved two or three of the seven foot long bags of Wool for their regular Indian Weavers. They chose the long staple wool, both black and white, because it was worth less in Boston and was easier to hand spin into yarn for weaving rugs and blankets. A specially prepared dye (Diamond Wool Dye) with mordant included was packaged and sold for ten cents. This would make five gallons of dye. The solution was boiled in a tub and the yarn dipped until the desired color was obtained. During the 1920s and ë30s all poor rugs were bought and sold by the pound. This encouraged the making of heavy, coarse rugs The Weaver often added white clay to the wool to make it weigh more. This type of rug usually brought about a dollar a pound. Saddle blankets sold for one dollar per pound.
Many traders tried to improve the skill of their Indian weavers by displaying samples of fine blankets furnished them by the Kirk Brothers. In this way the Indian learned something of good design and technique. Fine blankets brought higher prices for both Indian and trader, so all were satisfied.
Trading with the Navahos was unlike any other business transaction in the United States. To succeed, in my estimation, one had to think like a Navaho. They just did not operate according to our accepted procedures. They were never in a hurry; they had all the time in the world. Getting the best price for their merchandise was not the most important thing. After they got to know and trust you, but you had to prove yourself first, they would wait for hours for you, and only you, to take care of them. Each had his or her own personality and, like anyone else, had to be dealt with as an individual. Generally, it was not considered a sin to steal from a white man. Not that they took things outright but if there was sand in their sack of wool or if their lambs were watered just before being weighed, that was part of the game. It was a game to get the best of a trader or pull a joke on him. However, if a trader tried to cheat, he, was soon, found out and word traveled fast on the reservation. They knew the average weight of their lambs and any marked deviation from this caused them to question the weighing. They also knew how much wool was sheared from each sheep. After all, they sheared them themselves, so who would know better than they? A good trader would make allowances for the sand and water and did not mention it. Of course, he would not come out on the short end, but he would not be cheated either. This way the trader and Indian would save face and both were satisfied. To watch a good trader at work was a graduate study in business psychology. It was beautiful to see! The Indian was happy and so was the trader. They would laugh as they shared a cigarette or a bottle of pop and discussed the latest reservation news. Navahos have a good sense of humor and can not stay mad if you can get them to laugh. Once when a squaw got mad at me, I said, Huska o ya u?, (You are mad, arenít you?). She started to laugh and forgot about being mad. A joke is worthwhile in any business and especially so when one is an Indian trader.
I can truthfully say I never actually had a fight with a Navaho. If an Indian was drunk in the trading post, a good trader would not argue or talk to him. All he needed to do was to take him by the arm and walk him out the door. Some of the young Indians, those with a little education, could be difficult. I used to go to the telephone and make believe I was calling the Navaho Police. That gesture was enough as they were very afraid of the police and avoided them whenever possible.
Con Shillingburg once recovered, in a very subtle manner, an expensive necklace that had disappeared from his post. He let it be known that he had hired a ěshaker.î Ordinarily a ěshakerî diagnosed the ailment of a patient for a medicine man. However, he also had powers that enabled him to perceive the whereabouts of missing items. The missing necklace was found two days later when Con opened the front door for business. It was between the screen and the locked door. Con never did find out who took, or who returned, the necklace.
Trade goods, with coffee, flour and sugar being the most important,, were freighted to Chinle and other trading posts by wagon train, from. Gallup, Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona. It took the wagons from a week to ten days to make the one-way trip from Gallup to Chinle. The staples ordinarily stocked in a trading post included baking powder, pinto beans, rice, soda, crackers, salt, pepper, canned tomatoes, sardines, corned beef, pork and beans, deviled meats,. Vienna sausage, salt pork, Long Horn cheese, barrels of soda pop, mixed hard candies, bulk sugar cookies, canned peaches and other canned fruits, dried prunes and apricots, axle grease, trace chains, horse collars and shoes, unbleached muslin, cheap print goods, velveteen, rickrack, thread, needles, squaw shoes (high top, laced shoes), denim pants and shirts, ělong-handledî underwear, colored bandannas, Pendleton robes and shawls, plus various blankets and comforters. John used to say that the squaws never wore underwear. Why? Because in forty years of trading he never sold or even handled any womenís under garments.
Other essential items included were: Bull Durham tobacco, Wheat Straw cigarette papers, matches, coal oil, lamps and wicks, Copenhagen Snuff, cigars and cigarettes.
Sometimes, at the bottom of the Wagon Sheet (order form), you would find the following, ěOne special sack of sugar,î this meant one gallon of bootleg whiskey.
Quite often there was a cigar box nailed to the counter. This box had numerous small nails with their points protruding upward. from the bottom.î A sack of Bull Durham tobacco was, sprinkled throughout ëthe bottom of the box and a package of cigarette papers left alongside. The tobacco was ëfree; however, the nails prohibited the taking of more than a pinch of tobacco at a time. The smoker had to ask for a match.
In order to operate a successful trading post one had to learn the Navaho words for both numbers and colors, This was essential because frequently an Indian would point to a red can, for example and the trader would see that there was a red tomato on the label. He would then know that the Indian wanted a can of tomatoes.With this kind of logic it was easy to understand why the Navahos never bought Carnation milk. They would buy Borden canned milk because it had a cow on the label.
Each trader had his own code for marking the cost of a rug or a piece of jewelry. Most codes consisted of. two or more wordS whose letters added up to ten.î For example: "Black Horse" , B 1 ,L=2,A= 3, C=4, K=5,.etc. A $250.00 item would be marked ëěLKEî or a $3.25 item would be marked ěALK.î Some of these cost marks reflected the personality of the trader. Bill Evans, a trader at Shiprock, New Mexico, used the cost mark ěHope And Try.î Another trader at Waterflow, New Mexico, who was know to imbibe once in a while, used ěBad Whiskeyî for his cost mark. Another man used ěTrade Quick.î I guess he may have been a little shady in his dealings.
Trade money, which could be redeemed only at the store issuing it, was in general use at all of the trading posts: Wool, sheep, lambs, skins and pinon nuts were almost always cash purchases. Rugs, jewelry and other slow moving items were usually paid for in trade money: A popular method of buying a rug or bracelet was to offer three different choices: one, an all cash offer; two, a half cash, half trade deal; or three, an all trade price. The Indian would choose the method he desired or decline the entire offer. If he owed the trader a bill he naturally took the all trade deal. If, however, he had a payment due on his pickup truck, he would take the cash offer. Rugs were always wholesaled at the purchase price. The trader used his trade margin for his profit.
With the Navaho,. pawning was a way of life. They had no bank accounts and saved no money. After they sold their sheep or wool, they would take their surplus money and buy jewelry, a saddle or a new Pendleton robe, things of value that they could use. Such items were always valuable as the trader would allow credit when they were offered as pawn. It used to be that the trader had to keep the pawned article for one year, and could not charge interest on the credit, extended.
However, stores in Gallup and other towns near the reservation had stores that dealt exclusively in pawn, frequently charging ten percent a month compound interest. When the ěTruth In Lending Lawî was passed this practice ceased. The trader never paid cash on a pawn, only trade credit. In this way he used his margin of profit, on the trade credit extended, instead of charging interest. His markup had to be competitive, because the trader twenty miles away might be selling the same item for less money. Present day Navahos have bank accounts and trade for cash. The barter system is seldom used today.
In spite of the fact that there were no telephones, communication on the reservation was amazing. News was spread by word of mouth and spread rapidly. It was nothing for a Navaho to walk twenty or thirty miles just to visit another trading post to learn what was going on. Each trading post was a social center, a gathering place where news was relayed back and forth from all parts of the reservation. Frequently a trading post would build one or two hogans to be used by the families who came long distances and wished to spend several days at the post.
My son, Michael Edward, followed the family tradition and went into Indian trading. When he was at Sunrise, Arizona and I was in Chinle, he used to call me to ask me what was the Navaho word for this or that. One day he called and asked me if I had ever been around Ganado very much I said, ěNo, why?î He answered, ěAre you sure? There are a lot of Navaho Kirks around here.î The fact that Navaho families adopted the name of Kirk indicated the high regard in which they held the Kirk name. They did not change their names lightly and only when they wished to honor someone.
Michael Edward is no longer in the trading post business, but in one closely related. He is vice-president of an Indian jewelry supply house handling silver, gold, turquoise and other jewelry supplies. Most of his clientele are Navaho silversmiths and he conducts business with them in Navaho. None of the Kirk family are presently engaged in operating Indian trading posts, although at one time they were very prominent in this field.
A brief resume of the various members of the Kirk family and relatives will give some idea how extensive their operation were. The first of the Kirks to become a trader was my father John Joseph Kirk. It came about in the following manner: Inez Shillingburg was a young Pennsylvania Dutch teacher in Gormania, West Virginia. She was a frail girl and suffered from a bronchial condition. Her doctors had said she could not survive another harsh winter in Gormania. She decided to go west. Her first stop was Albuquerque, New Mexico where she applied for a school teaching position. She was assigned to the Laguna Pueblo which is just north of The Sky City, Acoma, New Mexico. We have no information on how she made the forty some mile trip but it had to be by stage.
John Joseph Kirk, son of Irish immigrant parents, was born in Westernport, Maryland. He was the manager of the bank in Gormania and was engaged to the bank presidentís daughter, Inez Shillingburg, when she had to go west. Being in love, he could not stand the separation and in a few months followed her. This was in 1908 and they were married that year in Gallup, New Mexico. This was the beginning of a movement which would involve eight relatives going west and all of them becoming Indian Traders.
John was working for the C.C. Manning Trading Co. in Gallup at the time of his marriage. He had saved some money while in West Virginia so when a trading post became available at Chinle, Arizona in 1910, he bought it. It took John Sr., Inez and John Jr., then age six months, three days to go from Gallup to Chinle in a buckboard. They made St. Michaels, Arizona the first night and stayed at the Catholic mission. Sawmill, Arizona was the second nightís stop. Here they stayed with trader John Stagg. Leaving very early the next morning, they arrived in Chinle that evening.
John said that he knew three words of Navaho when he went to Chinle. Yah te hey, a greeting; Hulla
(I donít know); and Do tah (No). However Iím sure he knew more Navaho than that. He learned the native language quickly, but always maintained that the words Do bazzen (I donít understand), were the most useful. In later years, when I asked why his brother Mike spoke better Navaho than he did, his answer was this: "Most charities were deserving,
however, if you gave to every one, you yourself would need charity.î He said that Mike listened to the troubles of every Indian and before he knew it he was reaching into his pocket to help them. In this way he gave away more than he should have. If the Indians thought you didnít understand, they didnít bother to tell you their troubles, thus saving you money. The phrase Do bazzen, used by John, saved him money as the Indians thought he didnít understand them so didnít bother to tell him their troubles.
At Chinle, John hired a Navaho stone mason, carpenter, and jack-of-all-trades to make the home and store liveable. This man was named Clitso Dedman. Clitso was a well known Navaho artisan who had not only built the old church at Chinle, but also stores at Nazlini and Ganado, Arizona. In later years when he became paralyzed, he became famous as a wood carver. Some of his carved Yei-Be-Chi dance teams were his best works.
Con Shillingburg, Inezís brother, joined the Kirk family at Chinle in about 1911. Besides working in the trading post, he was the baker. The Navahos immediately gave him the name Hosteen din cuh (Mr. Yeast) a name that they used for over thirty years. When he moved to Rough Rock, Arizona, thirty-five miles away, the name Hosteen din cuh followed him.
Con joined the Marines during World War I and served in France. Upon his return he purchased the trading post at Rough Rock and stayed there until the late 1940s. Every week or so he would go to Chinle to pick up his mail. In was there that he met and married Ruth Reid, a school teacher who was tutoring Tom Frazierís boys at the nearby Chinle Valley Store.
My brother Dude and I spent many summer vacations with Con and Ruth. They were wonderful people who not only taught us Indian trading, but also took us fishing in Colorado and hunting in the Kaihab Forest. on the north rim of the Grand Canyon I will always remember the Sundays at Rough Rock and the gunny sacks of cold ripe watermelons we would haul up from the cool waters of the well.
My father, John Kirk, sold the Chinle Trading Post in 1912 and moved his family to Gallup, New Mexico. Here he took the job as manager of the C.N. Cotton Co., then the largest wholesale house in the territory. In 1968, when I was working for Buddie Tanner at Yah-Ta-Hey, New Mexico, I had occasion to cash a Navahoís government check that was made out to John Kirk. Of course, I had to know how the young buck got the name John Kirk. He told me that his fatherís name was Kirk and if I didnít believe him I could go out to the pickup and ask his dad. The old manís English was very good and he told me this story: ěA long time ago I worked at a big store in Gallup named Cotton Co. Well, the managerís name was John Kirk and I liked him.î Not having an English name, I asked him if I could use his and he said, ëOf course,í so I am John Kirk and my son is John Kirk, Jr.î I was so pleased that I bought dinner for the whole family that night.
About 1920 my father bought the J.M. McAdams Trading Post across the bridge in Gallup. His brother Mike joined him and they called the store Kirk Brothers. Gradually the post was enlarged and the quantity of merchandise increased to the point that they could compete with the Cotton Co. and the Gallup Mercantile Co. With seven relatives operating trading posts, John had a built-in clientele. They bought their coffee, flour, sugar and salt by the carload and had jobber arrangements for canned goods, hardware and dry goods. One huge advantage he had was his ability to take the traderís rugs in payment for merchandise. The other wholesalers were owned by corporations and wanted payment in cash, and at that time cash was scarce. Turning the rugs into cash to buy our merchandise was our biggest problem. To do this we would bill the National Parks and some customers E.O.S. (End of the season) this meant they would remit monthly for the rugs sold and then return the rugs not sold at the end of the season. Some dealers had summer shops in Colorado and winter shops in Palm Springs, Phoenix and Tucson. This was a break for us as it gave the same merchandise exposure in two different places. I also wrote sales letters to every one in Texas offering saddle blankets for one dollar per pound. Dad and I took jewelry and rugs to Los Angeles and traded them for hardware and dry goods. It was on such a trip that Dad became acquainted with Will Rogers. We were following Ben Hogan and Walter Hagen during a golf tournament in Beverly Hills when Dad remarked with his dry Irish humor, ěShucks, back home we have a golf course this size, but instead of eighteen holes, it has ninety-six holes.î A fellow in the gallery inquired as to the location of this remarkable course. It was Rogers. Dad answered him saying, ěThe course is at Gallup, New Mexico. Actually there are nine regular holes and the rest are prairie dog holes.î This started a friendship that had Mr. Rogers visiting us in Gallup and our going to his Ranch in Santa Monica.
Don Shillingburg arrived in Gallup about 1914 and went to work with the Post Office Department. He hauled mail to different localities on the Navaho reservation. I have a picture of him and the stripped-down Model-T Ford loaded with mail. This was taken in front of the Hubellís store at Ganado about 1916.
After a time in the army during World War I, Don returned and bought the Dalton Trading Post at Daltonís Pass, New Mexico. The store was about sixteen miles west of Crownpoint, New Mexico. He married Arlene Weedman of Kansas City, Missouri who was teaching school at Crownpoint.
My brother Dude and I spent some summers with Don and Arlene and learned much about the Navahos on the eastern part of the reservation. Don caught one smart Indian who had put sand in the sack of wool to make it weigh more. He put some wool in the seven-foot long bag, then inserted a stove pipe in the center. After packing more wool around the pipe, he filled the pipe with sand and gradually lifted it out of the bag. The scheme would have worked, but the Indian was greedy and put too much sand in and made the bag overweight. Don knew at once that there was something wrong and on looking in the bag saw what the Indian was trying to do.
As Don had no running water in the house, we had to haul it from a spring about a mile away. To do this, we had a wood and leather yoke made with a five-gallon can attached to each side. It was fun to ride a burro up the trail to the spring and bring back the two cans full of water. There wasnít saddle or bridle for the donkey so it was quite a trick to balance the two pans, of water while riding down the trail at a trot. One morning a rabbit ran in front of us and spooked the donkey. He stopped suddenly and the two cans of water and l went over his head. In retrospect it is funny, but at the time it was not.
Mary Kirk (Aunt Mame to us) was Dadís sister and came to Gallup about 1920. She became the bookkeeper
for the Kirk Brothers and married Jim Cavanaugh, the warehouse foreman. They were an important part of the store operation for over twenty years..
Rob and Jannie Cassidy were Dadís second cousins. They were from Maryland and came to the reservation about 1920. After two years learning Navaho and the trading game, they bought the trading post at Lukachukai, Arizona. This was about one hundred and thirty miles north and west of Gallup.
I remember Dad telling me about going to Lukachukai to visit Rob and Jannie. He said it was winter and the Navahos had nothing to trade except wild turkey and deer meat. Rob showed dad the warehouse where there were two deer and a dozen turkeys hanging from the beams. The Navahos used .22 caliber rifles to kill their game. Ammunition was scarce so when an Indian found a deer track in the snow he trailed it for as long as it took to get a good shot. A .22 rifle didnít carry much of a punch so the Indian had to aim carefully to get a killing shot. Things were tough for both Indians and traders so they tried to help each other. In the 1930s Rob and Jannie moved to Chambers, Arizona. This trading post was right on the railroad and over one hundred miles away. Things were good at Chambers and Rob and Jannie prospered.
Ben and Anna were Inezís cousins. They arrived in New Mexico about 1920 and, after learning Indian trading, bought a trading post at Borrego Pass, New Mexico. This was north of Pruitt and east of Crownpoint. They were good solid traders who lived and let live. They operated the post for about thirty years.
Herbert Shillingburg was a latecomer to the reservation. After learning the trading game from his brothers, he bought the Round Top Trading Post at Ganado in about 1935. His trading style was unique among the traders of the time. He had no accounts, did little pawn business and attracted his customers by doing business on a cut-rate cash basis. He once said that the Indians came to his store, not because they liked him, but because they liked his prices.
One day while I was buying his skins and rugs he showed me a large 9í by 12í Ganado-red rug. He said, ěLook at that thing, the pattern goes the wrong way.î It sure did! Instead of the ëdiamond design extending lengthwise, it went crosswise. ěShe only wants $75.00 for it, but who will buy it?î ěI willî I assured him, He didnít know at the time that I was thinking of my new home in Gallup. The oblong living room had a fireplace on one side and a long western-style couch on the other side, but nothing in the middle. That rug did not see the rug room at Kirk Brothers, but went directly to my house. Imagine buying a good Ganado 9í by 12í rug now for a mere $75.00. If one were available, it would be worth over
$2,000.00. Herbert and his wife, Stephanie Brown sold the store about 1950.
Tom Shillingburg bought the post at Nazlini, Arizona, about half way between Ganado and Chinle, after his service with the Marines in World War I. He and his wife, Waunita Duling, operated the store for almost thirty years. They were snowed in almost every year for about four months. It was a race to be the first wholesaler to the post, not only to sell Tom a nice order, but also to be the first to buy his furs, skins and rugs that had accumulated during the winter.
Iíll never forget one April day in 1938. There had been an early thaw so I decided to try to make the seventy-five mile trip to Nezlini. Eddie Junker, a lifelong friend, decided to accompany me. He helped me out of some tight spots that day. Taking the pickup we managed to make it to the post while the roads were still frozen. We were the first white people Tom and Dutchie (Waunita) had seen since the previous November. We were not disappointed in the prime pelts and the beautiful collection of rugs we obtained. Tom and Dutchie were happy to receive the fresh vegetables, fruit and coffee which we had brought with us.
We got a late start for home and even with chains, the heavy load of furs, skins and rugs contributed to our getting stuck time and again. However, our real challenge was at the crossing of Ganado Wash which was within sight of the settlement of Ganado. Arriving at the wash, in looked passable, but taking a stick to test the water depth I walked across and back just to make sure. There were two deep places with high centers, but because the water was rising, we decided to try it anyway The first bad spot was a lot easier to negotiate than we had thought; however even the compound gear was not powerful enough to pull us through the second hole. We were desperately rocking the truck back and forth when we looked upstream and saw a well of water descending upon us. It hit us broadside and almost turned the pickup over. Eddie grabbed his camera and I scrambled out the window with my .30-.30 rifle and found a perch on top of the load which was as high as the cabís roof. We sat up there swaying with the surge of the water which was then flowing through the windows.
The mild weather had melted the snow higher on the mountain and we were caught in a flash flood. As we sat there helplessly watching the swirling, muddy water all around us, ěRedî Mortenson, the caretaker of Ganado Lake appeared on the far bank. Shouting above the noise of the rushing water he said, ěJust a minute Iíll turn the water off.î Hearing this, Eddie grabbed for my gun. He was going to kill poor ěRedî. The situation was anything but funny. ěRed,î however, could and did control the water flow at the sluice gate by diverting it from the wash unto the lake. In about an hour we were able to wade ashore and summon help.
On many occasions it was not unusual to spend the night in a car or truck waiting for the water to recede. Con Shillingburg barely saved his wife, young son and my brother one day while crossing the Nazlini Wash at Chinle. It was sheep buying time and they were on their way to Rough Rock from Gallup. As the Navahos would accept nothing but silver dollars, Con had brought five money bags, each containing one thousand silver dollars. Soon after becoming stuck in the wash, Con heard, then saw, a wall of water roaring down,upon them. He picked up his wife, Ruth, while Dude took their son, Gordon, and started for the bank, arriving there just as the water hit the car. The Buick touring car was rolled over and over as it was swept down the wash a distance of about one hundred yards. Con could see his money disappearing and Dude knew he would never see his new .20-gauge shotgun again. Navaho workmen recovered only one money bag intact, the other four had burst and there were silver dollars spread in the quicksand over an area about the size of a football field. After a week of steady digging the Indians and Con recovered almost $1,600, but there was no trace of the shotgun. If anyone is interested, there are still about $3,400 in silver coins somewhere in the Nazlini Wash as well as a .20-gauge shotgun.
Mike Kirk was the showman of the family. His wife, Carrie (Caroline Olson) had a son by a previous marriage named Dean, who later was very successful, specializing in Navaho jewelry. Before going into partnership with my father in Gallup; Mike worked for ěCozyî McSparron at Chinle and ran the trading post at Coyote Canyon, New Mexico. After a few years of good business, it became apparent that he would rather be away somewhere with a group of Indians, promoting their culture and handiwork, than taking care of business at home. So, when old man Aldridge died and the store at Manuleto, New Mexico came up for sale, Dad encouraged and even helped Mike buy it. Dad retained the name Kirk Brothers because he thought, and rightly so, that Dude (John Jr.) and I would some day be running the store ourselves.
From his base at Manuleto, which the Navahos called Kin ho cho, (dirty house), because of a previous owner who was not too clean, Mike developed a wide wholesale jewelry trade. He even had a large Indian museum which was a popular tourist attraction. Old Sam Day, from St. Michaels, Arizona, got hold of a mummified childís body that, had been dug up from a ruin in the Lukachukai, Arizona area.. Together Sam and Mike had a miniature coffin with a glass top made for the mummy. This, along with many old baskets, pottery and artifacts that had been dug up, attracted a lot of attention.
Thanks to Carrieís good business sense, Mike now had a chance to get away. She stayed home and took care of the store while Mike took runners and dance teams all over the United States. He loved showmanship and dressed the part with a white ten-gallon Stetson hat and fancy boots to go with his pinto horse. He was instrumental in starting a number of intertribal shows: the Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonial, The first American at Albuquerque and the Powwow at Flagstaff. The Navaho word for powwow was nah ho hi (chicken pull).
On one occasion Will Rogers, the humorist, was visiting Dad. I overheard Mr. Rogers say, ěI have to meet this brother of yours. Last year, while on the Santa Fe train, I passed his store and I saw his sign that read, ëMike Kirk Honest Indian Trader. This year in reads, ëMike Kirk Product of 49 Tribesí. (The Navaho sign painter had neglected to add the ěsî after the word ěProductî.) Mr. Rogers went on to say, ěěHe must be quite a guy.î He was, "quite a guy." Often when asked his address, Mike would say, "Just Mike Kirk, New Mexico." I have actually seen letters addressed to him in this manner that had been delivered.
Times have changed since the Kirk Brothers operated their trading posts among the Navaho. Roads have been extended and improved; telephone, radio and TV communication greatly expanded; educational opportunities broadened and cash income increased. During the early years of the Kirk Brothers operation, there were very few government projects in the reservation; now there are many. Royalties from the gas and uranium deposits have brought money to the Tribal Council enabling them to set up a fund through which they can hire unemployed Navahos. One employment program is called a ten day work project by the Tribe. They hire a crew for two weeks, five work days in each week, and pay each man $10.00 per day. At the end of the two-week period, each one gets $100.00 less Social Security This is not a government project, but a tribal one. They build roads, repair hogans, dig wells, improve springs and any other type of work decided upon by the Council.
The return of hundreds of World War II veterans had a marked effect on reservation life. These men were no longer satisfied with life as it had been and wanted to improve their living conditions. Because of this influence and the impact brought about by the proliferation of cars, telephones, radios and TV, life did change.
Today there are supermarkets on the reservation. Multiple government assistance programs, such as Aid to Dependent Children, Social Security, Welfare, etc., have increased the amount of ready cash and removed the necessity for barter. However, this has not eliminated the trading post which is still a viable institution retaining much of its character and friendliness. It still remains the place where friends meet and exchange news and gossip among themselves. The potbellied stove and the ěBull Penî still survive. Perhaps all is not lost: Perhaps some of the spirit of the past will remain to remind us of a time when life moved at a slower cadence.
Trading was good to all of us. While we did not make a lot of money, we made some good Indian friends and have a lot of fond memories. As I close this narrative, may I say, ěHuztloo non na, may your journey be in peace.î