Trade posts in Four Corners fight to stay open amid changes

In this May 17, 2019 photo, John McCulloch stands in his office at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post in Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., one of the few traditional trading posts that remain in the Four Corners area.

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) — The trading posts, once a staple in the Four Corners region that connected Navajo weavers and artists to buyers, are facing challenges to their survival.

Trading posts are facing increased competition from online retailers as well as a large regional grocery store chain and working to navigate changing demands, Farmington Daily Times reports.

Farmington Museum at Gateway Park director Bart Wilsey says trading posts that have survived into the 21st century have become art galleries that deal almost exclusively in Native art or become convenience stores. She says they also can become wholesalers for Navajo rugs and art in order to remain healthy

The Shiprock Trading Post, now in Farmington after years in Shiprock, focuses exclusively on Navajo rugs, jewelry, pottery and other works of art. It used to provide all sorts of goods to Navajo customers. Owner Kent Morrow said the changes were needed in order to keep it open.

Trade posts in Four Corners fight to stay open amid changes

In this May 22, 2019 photo, Chuck Hatch stands over his eclectic inventory, including vintage Native jewelry, at the Hatch Brothers Trading Post in Fruitland, N.M. The trading posts, once a staple in the Four Corners region that connected Navajo weavers and artists to buyers, are facing challenges to their survival.

"That was really a hard thing for our company to leave Shiprock because we had a hundred years of history there," Morrow said. "Economies change. We just chose to focus on the arts and crafts side of the business because that was what we were most passionate about, and we wanted to move it to a location that was really going to be the future of our business with retail and wholesale."

Tom Wheeler, who will mark his 50th year of ownership of the Hogback Trading Co. in Waterflow next year, focuses on Navajo rugs, art, jewelry, drums and cradleboards, having made the transition away from the traditional model early in his tenure as the proprietor. His family has owned the trading post since 1871, but Wheeler took it on himself as a young man to shake things up.

Wheeler began his changes by building and operating a shopping center next door that offered many of the goods and services that had fallen under the umbrella of the trading post for so many years. Then he notified the Navajo weavers and artists who had done business with his family for generations that he was closing their charge accounts, forgiving whatever debt they had accumulated and compensating them on a cash-only basis from that point on.

That brought to an end to the "trading" model that the business had engaged in for a century, but the response to his decision was overwhelmingly positive, Wheeler said.

"They absolutely loved that," he said of the weavers and artists. "The word spread throughout the reservation. If you took your rug to Hogback to Tom Wheeler, he'll pay you cash."

Still, the modern-day trading post is as much a landmark as a business, Wilsey said, and that is why some people continue to seek them out. But he worries about their continued viability, especially as older generations of traders, artisans and customers pass on, often leaving no one to replace them.

"They don't have a lock on the market like they once did," he said. "It doesn't serve as the warehouse as it once did. It's not done as much anymore."

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