Southwest Trading Posts – The Real Story
A Part of Southwest History
Trading posts found in areas close to Native American reservations may be the real thing or, unfortunately, they may be just another souvenir shop. To enter a genuine trading post that trades with local Native populations is an experience in commerce that has it’s roots in Indian trade before the 1900’s. And, for some trading posts, the families have been trading with locals for generations.
I have been a westerner all my life. Yet, it took a visit to Gallup, New Mexico for me to really understand and appreciate trading posts. I came away with an appreciation for the authentic goods that are traded there and how important trading posts are to Native American commerce and financial viability.
I visited several trading posts. They were bustling with business, both with Native Americans pawning or selling their goods to the traders and with tourists and collectors buying genuine Native arts and crafts. The atmosphere inside these trading posts reminded me of stories about the old trading days when Navajo families might travel for several hours and spend a day or two in town. They would spend an entire day at the trading post selling wool, trading blankets and jewelry to the trader for food supplies and clothing, exchanging stories with friends or neighbors seen only on these occasions.
The Story of Pawn
For me, the mention of the words pawn shop used to conjure up visions of skid row down-and-outers pawning their watch or guitar for some money to buy a sandwich, or worse, another drink. But a visit to Perry Null’s Trading Post, formerly Tobe Turpin’s Trading Post, and a personal tour led by Perry, changed that vision.
When you come to think of it, Native Americans on the reservations, have to be self-sufficient. There aren’t many places nearby to provide employment and a steady income. It is said that over 80% of the Native American jewelry sold today passes from the reservations near Gallup, New Mexico through the Gallup area. There are many home-based businesses doing weaving, pottery and silver work. Native Americans who pawn their family possessions, jewelry, guns and saddles, do so for two reasons. One it is a way to get a loan to see them through a lean season.
And, two, it is a way to store precious possessions. That was an eye opener for me. Perry led us into the back rooms of the Perry Null Trading Post, the vaults, you might call them. We found rooms of beautiful saddles, treasured rifles, ceremonial skins and wedding baskets. And, of course there was beautiful jewelry, much of it vintage turquoise and silver, handed down for generations. What I found out was that the ceremonial skins and baskets were stored there, families paid monthly, and when a ceremonial was planned, they would pay on the item and take it home. The same process took place for rifles, which might be needed only for the hunting season.
At Richardson’s, another well-known trading post in the Gallup area, we were told that over 95% of the items pawned were paid on and were considered “live pawn.” “Dead Pawn” is what you see for sale, only small percentage of what people entrust to the trading posts to be stored.
Trading Posts were developed to meet a need in the Native American communities. In the Gallup area, the Native American culture is a matrilineal culture, meaning that heritage and valuables are passed through the women's families. Many women on the reservations own the sheep and the homes. Valuables are in the form of saddles, jewelry and animals. This was unfamiliar to banks but completely acceptable to the traders who understood the Native American culture.
Next: Buying at a Trading Post