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Letter From Shiprock, N.M.
TURQUOISE, SODA POP, AND TERMINATOR 2
Della Lee has been doing business at Shiprock Trading Co. since 1940. Even with a supermarket down the road and three discount stores 30 miles east in Farmington, N.M., she's loyal to the Shiprock trading post. "I get along with all these white people. Jed and Eddie Foutz, they're good friends to me. Two years ago, I made an 8-by-10 rug, and they gave me $2,500 for it. They really did," says Lee. She hasn't come to sell today, though. She has come to shop and settle her bill. Dressed in a traditional Navajo tiered skirt and shirt, her long hair knotted in back with string, Lee examines a piece of "old pawn," a silver rosette brooch inset with cut turquoise. She wears a similar pin on her shirt, a rosette ring, and a rosette bracelet on each arm.
"I'll wear it tonight," she says, looking over the brooch with an expert eye.
"When we go dancing," joshes the trader, Jed Foutz.
"I wish I was 25 years younger," she flirts. "Hey, where's my pop money?"
Foutz hands Lee a chit good for a six-pack of soda pop. He gives one to every customer who pays off a tab.
NATURAL BRIDGE. For Lee, 70, the trading post is the mainstay of an economic system that has served the Navajo for more than 100 years. The traders sell foodstuffs and dry goods and buy Indian livestock, weaving, and handmade jewelry. Traditionally, they did far more. Until the federal government capped interest rates on Indian reservations a few years ago, traders also made loans, taking jewelry as collateral. (Hence, antique jewelry is known as old pawn.) Traders were a bridge to the bewildering white world, reading letters and interpreting laws. They even helped bury the dead, since the Navajo are terrified of corpses.
Like his Navajo customers, Jay Edwin "Jed" Foutz, 28, is steeped in that tradition. He is a fifth-generation trader to the Navajo, descended from Joseph Lehi Foutz, a polygamous Mormon who spawned a trading dynasty. Jed's grandfather, who operated a post at Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., 27 miles west of here, died of spinal meningitis, which he may have caught from a Navajo he buried.
Just last August, Jed bought Shiprock Trading from his father, Edwin L. Foutz, who retired after 30 years. Known by the Navajo as "Son of Little Red Mustache," Ed Foutz, 55, expanded the post three times, turning it into a thriving general store. At the same time, Shiprock became one of the largest and most successful wholesalers of Navajo rugs in the U.S.
Jed Foutz, who does not yet have a Navajo name, faces an uncertain future. Shiprock Trading, which has 20 employees, both Navajo and Anglo, is just one of a handful of full-service posts left on the 25,000-acre Navajo Indian Reservation, down from around 70 in 1950, when I first visited here. While my parents haggled for a $25 rug, my brother and I drank strawberry soda pop and watched the Navajo eat popcorn and canned peaches in the shade of their horse-drawn wagons.
Today's Indians drive pickups, which makes them more mobile, but less loyal customers. Many posts have been turned into convenience stores. To survive, the remaining traders must offer customers services they can't get elsewhere. Jed gives credit and cashes government checks without charge. He donates food for ceremonies and shawls for burials--though he has never been asked to help with a corpse.
`MORE AUTHENTIC.' Jed is not as fluent in Navajo as his father. Still, the Indians are comfortable with him. Mary Monroe, 77, comes to the store from Newcomb, N.M., 35 miles south, because she feels at home here. But her daughter, Carrie Chase, 35, says: "I shop in Farmington. It's cheaper."
Harvey Johnson, 80, watches through dark glasses as a granddaughter translates. Johnson is a Navajo medicine man who drives 52 miles from Sweetwater, Ariz., just to buy buckskins and baskets and sand-painting supplies at Shiprock Trading. "They have stuff that's more authentic," he says. "You don't find it in the supermarket."
Not everyone who trades at Shiprock is old, of course. Ronson Clani, 14, searches through videos of White Men Can't Jump and The War of the Roses to find his favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, Terminator 2. Clani came in with his cousin, Dianda Benally, also 14, who hopes to sell her 4-H calf.
Jed buys livestock, pine nuts, and jewelry from the Indians, but Shiprock Trading is best known for rugs, so weavers come from all over the reservation to sell here. For instance, Annie Blackhat, a weaver from Red Mesa, Ariz., waits shyly for Jed to look at the rug she has brought folded up inside a plastic bag. Jed takes her into a back room and spreads the rug on the floor. It is finely woven and depicts two birds framed by a traditional geometric border. "How much were you thinking?" he asks.
"What about $200?"
It's a fair price, and after thinking it over, Blackhat says, "O.K."
Trading today is less of an art form than it was 25 years ago, when I watched Ed negotiate for 30 minutes with a weaver. They haggled over her rug in Navajo, and when they agreed on a price, Ed paid in cash, groceries, and yarn for the next rug. When the trade was complete, Ed reached into the jewelry case, took out a fine, old bracelet, and slipped it into the weaver's grocery sack.
"With Dad, it was price, too, but it was so much more. There was a bond both ways," Jed says. "Today you talk money. The trading days are gone."
FINE STONE. He writes Blackhat a check. She endorses it, and he hands her the cash. Then he turns to a silversmith with bracelets to sell. He buys half a dozen, remarking on the fine workmanship and the quality of the turquoise, which is natural and untreated. Inferior grades of turquoise are often treated with plastic to enhance their color.
Jed knows jewelry the way his father knows rugs. While a student at Brigham Young University, Jed, and his wife, Holly, formed a wholesale Navajo jewelry company that boasts such customers as Robert Redford's Sundance Catalogue and Ralph Lauren's Polo stores. He wants Shiprock to be famous for jewelry as well as rugs. He's buying other crafts, too. An Indian artist from an area known as the Hogback shows him six sand paintings, and Jed buys them, also paying him for four additional paintings to be delivered in a week.
Activity slackens after lunchtime, so Jed sits down with a bowl of Holly's green chili and talks about the future. He grew up listening to trader stories and likes the romance of the posts. But nostalgia won't keep him in business.
Rugs, jewelry, and other crafts will. They now account for two-thirds of sales and virtually all profits. Groceries and dry goods are marginal, and Jed might have to discontinue selling them--but he doesn't want to. "If you take away that part of the store, you take away the trading post. You're an arts and crafts dealer, not a trader," he says.
Jed is still a trader, and he wants his son, Eli, 5, to have that chance. "I'm sure Dad looked at me when I was Eli's age and wondered if there would be a place for me here," Jed says. "Now I wonder if there will be a role for Eli."SANDRA D. ATCHISON