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Chinle -

Stores from the Navajo Reservation

The Trading Post


When I was ten we moved to Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo reservation. My father had gotten a Job with the U.S. Government. His job was to oversee the living quarters of a boarding school for Navajo school children. In the early fifties, the government was trying to move Navajos off the reservation. They believed that if the Navajos were educated, they would no longer want to live on the reservation in their isolated six-sided log cabins called hogans. The Navajo parents were given a monthly check to send their children to Chinle to live and go to school.

The nearest town was Gallup, New Mexico, which was 90 miles to the east. About one or two miles to the north, at the mouth of Canyon De Chelly (Canyon De Chelly has numerous famous ruins of Indian cliff dwellings), there were two trading posts where the Navajo’s would trade sheepskins and rugs for food. These trading posts were our only source of food and other commerce.

The trading posts were similar to the "general store" that you always see in frontier moves, they’re mostly old one-room buildings. Inside, all of the food and merchandise was kept on shelves that circled the room. There was a counter in front of the shelves that also went around the room. Because customers were not allowed access to any merchandise most of the room was empty space and an old black potbelly wood stove stood in the middle. There were always a half dozen or more Navajos standing around this stove getting warm, talking and drinking pop.

The men were dressed in blue Jeans with a colorful shirt. They always had a necklace, most made of turquoise, with some silver and earrings that consisted of a string through their earlobes with a hunk of turquoise on the string. The women had even more jewelry with large turquoise bracelets and a brightly colored blouse and skirt. Also the woman quite often had brightly colored sheep wool "Indian" blankets wrapped around their shoulders.

To buy anything, you had to wait until someone waited on you. Then you told the clerk what you wanted, and they would stack it on the counter in a pile. Once you had everything, it would then be rung up on an old mechanical cash register; cash or trade only, no check (the nearest bank was 90 miles away), and the idea of a credit card had not even entered our heads. There was no paper or plastic. If there was too much to carry and you didn’t bring your box, they would use an old cardboard box that food had been shipped to them in.

Once when we were getting groceries, the clerk, I think her name was Margaret, was having trouble getting all of our groceries into the box. After several frustrating tries my Dad said, "I’ll bet you that watermelon on the shelf that I can get everything in the box in one try". "I’ll bet you can’t," said Margaret. He did, and we got a free watermelon.

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copyright 2005 O.Frank