America's Best Idea: Hubbell Trading Post Evolves to Support Navajo Culture

Flagstaff, AZ –

For decades trading posts were the centers of Navajo communities. They served as grocery stores, banks, and bustling social hubs. Now many of their historic functions have been replaced by modern supermarkets and Wal Mart. But places like Hubbell Trading Post the longest continuously operating post on the reservation are still vital to the preservation of Navajo culture. Rose Houk has the latest story in our week-long series "America's Best Idea."

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The creaking door of Hubbell Trading Post is a sound long familiar to Navajos around Ganado:

"There's something about that for them, opening the door and walking through, there's that time change for them.

Assistant trader Edison Eskeets is keenly aware of Hubbell Trading Post's rich past. Since at least 1878, Native Americans have brought in their finely woven rugs, baskets, jewelry, wool, and pinon nuts in exchange for groceries, hardware, or cash. Edison is himself Navajo -- an exception among traders. He speaks to his customers in their own language:

"I have always said you've got to at least know four things hello', what are you here for' the person's reply might be a rug. Then the other is how much is it?' Steve Pickle shares the job of trader with Edison. He walks into the post's rug room, where he's surrounded by stacks of exquisite Navajo rugs --including many "Ganado reds" that Hubbell is famous for. When a weaver brings in a rug, he judges several different qualities.

"I look at it and see that the design is balanced throughout, and then I fold the rug in half and if the rug's design is same on both sides."

Steve Pickle follows in the footsteps of John Lorenzo Hubbell, who bought this business beneath the sprawling cottonwoods along Pueblo Colorado Wash. Blond and mustached with just a wisp of Southern accent Steve's Anglo heritage is unmistakable.

He says he's found working as a modern-day trader rewarding, but challenging: "It's a very complicated place dealing with the two cultures. I've learned a lot. I thought I knew a lot about Navajo culture when I came here but found that I knew very little it's a balance to keep everybody happy."

Traders traditionally have been outsiders who became integral parts of their communities. John Lorenzo Hubbell served as merchant, employer, and friend to his customers until he died in 1930. His two sons and their families continued to run the business until the mid 1960s, when daughter-in-law Dorothy Hubbell was ready to sell. Largely at the urging of Edward Danson of the Museum of Northern Arizona, the post instead became a national historic site in 1965 with one catch. It would remain a real, living trading post--not a museum. Park curator Ed Chamberlin deals with the fallout of that decision every day:

"The furniture in the trading post is all the original furniture and it's still being used, it's been used for a hundred years, and the trader still stands behind the desk, the drawers are full of papers, the roll-top desk is stuffed in every little corner with some note remembering someone's name, or who knows."

Along with what's out in full view to Hubbell visitors, another half million artifacts are stored in a modern, climate-controlled building at the site. Ed Chamberlain keeps track of every single piece:

"We have everything, from the rusted metal nail and old drive shaft from an abandoned automobile all the way up to a wonderful Germantown blanket D1, Tr 3, 4:04-4:19 Dorothy described it like this. She said "The Hubbell family had a disease and the disease was called collecting, and once you get that disease you never let it go."

Maintaining this collection along with the fully functioning store, furnished Hubbell home, and operating farm makes this national historic site unique. And Chamberlin adds it generates a lively, debate about what exactly is the role of a trading post in the modern world.

"For example, is doing pawn a requirement for being a trading post? I'm not sure. Is selling groceries a requirement? I think it is. Is selling Native American art a requirement? I think it is Maybe it's not what's inside. Maybe it's how it approaches its role in the community "

Ailema Benally, chief of interpretation at Hubbell, says the trading post has long been an institution in the community:

"So much like a piece of furniture you don't recognize it as something special expect it to always be there when need it, so don't think twice about it until things start to change or fade away as trading posts are now become nostalgic about it."

Ailema, a Navajo, grew up in Ganado. She remembers her grandparents coming to Hubbell to trade small rugs and goat skins. And her first trip to the post too:

"My first time here was with my parents, they invited me to come in with them and I hesitated, when I did, they disappeared and by time I entered the trading post I was surrounded by counter I was small enough that couldn't see over the counter " That same counter is still the heart of Hubbell. It's where trades are conducted, goods are purchased, and gossip is shared.

"Here at the trading post we still have satin, velvet, enamelware, cast iron, stovepipe things they need for the ceremonies or for at home What you'll find here at the trading post supports Navajo traditional lifeways."

And within the walls of Hubbell Trading Post those traditions will likely be kept alive for generations to come.