Skip to content

Both Sides of the Bullpen: Navajo Trade and Posts

in stock, ready to be shipped
Original price $34.95 - Original price $34.95
Original price $34.95
$49.99 - $49.99
Current price $49.99

Between 1880 and 1940, Navajo and Ute families and westward-trending Anglos met in the “bullpens” of southwestern trading posts to barter for material goods. As the products of the livestock economy of Navajo culture were exchanged for the merchandise of an industrialized nation, a wealth of cultural knowledge also changed hands. In Both Sides of the Bullpen, Robert S. McPherson reveals the ways that Navajo tradition fundamentally reshaped and defined trading practices in the Four Corners area of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado.

Drawing on oral histories of Native peoples and traders collected over thirty years of research, McPherson explores these interactions from both perspectives, as wool, blankets, and silver crossed the counter in exchange for flour, coffee, and hardware. To succeed, traders had to meet the needs and expectations of their customers, often interpreted through Navajo cultural standards. From the organization of the post building to gift giving, health care and burial services, and a credit system tailored to the Navajo calendar, every feature of the trading post served trader and customer alike.

Over time, these posts evolved from ad hoc business ventures or profitable cooperative stores into institutions with a clearly defined set of expectations that followed Navajo traditional practices. Traders spent their days evaluating craft work, learning the financial circumstances of each Native family, following economic trends in the wool and livestock industry back east, and avoiding conflict.

In detail and depth, the many voices woven throughout Both Sides of the Bullpen restore an underappreciated era to the history of the American Southwest. They show us that for American Indians and white traders alike in the Four Corners region during the late 1800s and early 1900s, barter was as much a cultural expression as it was an economic necessity.

ISBN-13: 9780806157450

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 10-19-2017

Pages: 376

Product Dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Robert S. McPherson is Professor of History Emeritus at Utah State University–Blanding Campus. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books on Navajo history and the history of the Southwest, including Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker (with Samuel Holiday) and Viewing the Ancestors: Perceptions of the Anaasází, Mokwic, and Hisatsinom.

Read an Excerpt


Of Songs, Prayers, and Spirit

Navajo Relationships and Property Concepts

Like fish in a pond, humans swim through culture on a daily basis. People are often unaware that they are participating in a select body of ideals, values, and beliefs that interpret experience and generate behavior peculiar to their society. Every culture in the world has its set of values that defines membership through a taught and practiced system of beliefs. For most people living outside of those limits but looking in, a culture may range from being mildly different and amusing to frightening and insane, depending upon compatibility with their own values. Those practicing within a specific culture experience expected behavior buttressed by ideals and teachings that circumscribe what is best. It is just normal and "makes sense," given their upbringing.

Take, for instance, shopping at a twenty-first-century American supermarket through the eyes of a fictitious character named John. He has been reading all week of the super sales now available for a limited time only. As he approaches the entrance of his spacious neighborhood market, he sees seasonal plants and bags of loam stacked on wooden pallets outside, as the doors open, automatically activated by an electric-eye beam. John picks out a large pushcart with a collapsible child's seat, rather than the plastic shopping cart built like a car with an inoperable steering wheel. In the background, he hears soothing nondescript tunes from Muzak piped in over an intercom as he selects produce stacked in a pyramid and advertised with florescent lettered signs hung from the ceiling. Oranges treated with chemicals that turn them a desired color, apples coated with wax to preserve freshness, and glistening fruits and vegetables sprayed with water are placed beside brightly colored packaging that screams "one-third off," or "fewer calories," or "organically grown, natural food." As John speeds through the express-lane checkout where his items are laser-scanned, he barely acknowledges the girl working behind the counter in front of the code-reader. Instead, he gathers up his purchases in plastic tote bags, glances at his watch, then sprints to his car, located near the handicap-parking stall. Weaving between other automobiles, he hits the main flow of traffic, never giving a second thought to the series of choices he has made, many of which were influenced as much by his environment and the store manager as by his own needs. John's value-laden decisions derived, whether consciously or subconsciously, from the culture in which he operated. Shoppers visiting a bazaar in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the same time, would find John's experience bizarre.

This book is also about a cultural experience — the one encountered in trading posts on or near the Navajo Reservation between 1880 and 1940. During this sixty-year period, while there were changes in products, transportation, and other circumstances introduced from Anglo-American culture, many of the traditional Navajo practices derived from their nineteenth-century agrarian-livestock economy were also present. Most of these values and customs had their origin in religious teachings and myths that framed Navajo culture. The term "myth," as used here, denotes stories that are sacred and true and that outline proper behavior and practices as given to the Navajo by the holy people. This point is central to understanding what follows. The first two chapters in this book revolve around some of those teachings as understood by both the Navajos and the traders who faced them across the counter. While there have been a number of excellent studies about trading posts as a frontier institution of commerce, as well as autobiographies and biographies of Anglo traders and their experiences, there has been very little done in analyzing the cultural scene from both sides of the "bullpen." That is the task at hand.

Fundamental Navajo Thought

Since the Navajo perspective is unfamiliar to most readers, a brief description of relevant elements in Navajo thought will lay the foundation for what lies ahead. Navajo cosmology is complex, interconnected, and pervasive, explaining most aspects of life in this physical world. Through the stories, ceremonies, and songs, one encounters a deep philosophical framework of not just how to understand what has happened but also how to interact, influence, and direct both tangible and intangible elements. The world, and everything encountered in it, started at the beginning of creation with the holy people. This was a time when powerful spiritual beings established the physical world, its inhabitants, and all of the patterns and procedures necessary to make it a successful place to live. There had to be the opposites of good and evil, success and failure, right and wrong, but each side of these pairs complemented the other. One cannot know good without recognizing evil; one must know hunger in order to appreciate food, and poverty to value wealth. These qualities are viewed by the dominant American society as intangible properties that denote a state of being. In other words, they express how one feels.

Navajo culture looks at them differently in that although one cannot see hunger, just the results of it, the feeling is actually personified as a being that acts upon an individual. For example, in English, when one says, "I am hungry," what is really being communicated is that "I feel hungry," whereas in Navajo, the phrase is interpreted as "hunger is killing me." This can be understood as both metaphorical and literal — that an active force is working on an individual. The myth or story that explains why hunger exists comes from events during a period known as the "palm of time" as the holy beings prepared the world for habitation. Joe Manygoats from Navajo Mountain explained that during this time Monster Slayer and Born for Water, mythological warrior twins, traveled about, killing monsters that inhabited the earth. Four of these monster groups were allowed to exist in order to foster appreciation for the things of life. The first ones, called the Hunger People, pleaded, "Let us live. Who can eat and live on one meal forever? Let us be the hunger that exists in humans so that one will crave the taste of all the different varieties of food. It is good for everyone's well-being." So they, as invisible beings, were allowed to continue to exist. Next, the Death People begged, saying, "Let us live. We will fill the void, the boring time, even if one is at home." They, too, were not killed. Next, the Poverty People pleaded to remain alive: "It is not good to wear one type of clothing forever. It is better to keep changing and renewing one's clothes because of the wear and tear. Besides, then one will have a choice." Finally, Old Age reminded Monster Slayer, "It is not good to be born, then remain as a newborn forever. Therefore, it is better to renew generation after generation through the aging and dying process." All of these beings are with us today, as each generation continues to ask why it faces these problems.

This type of story can be multiplied numerous times, as traditional teachings explain how and why things happen to the Earth Surface People, or the Five-fingered Beings known as humans. Continuing with this single concept of hunger, the holy people have provided a way to combat it. Women, whose domain is the home, have a number of tools (habeedí) that are essential for their role in this setting. Among these tools are the stone mano and metate, whose noise while grinding corn keeps sickness away. Stirring sticks used to mix ground cornmeal mush combine into another instrument that combats hunger. Made from seven peeled greasewood sticks two feet long and tied approximately six inches at one end, this utensil serves not only the practical side of moving thick cornmeal mush but also works as a "weapon to fight hunger," just as a bow and arrow serve a corresponding function for men. Nellie Grandson spoke of women praying for rain after mixing the mush and noted that, when the sticks were not washed, "it is said that there is hunger on them. The Hunger says, 'Eek' when she is washing her weapon. This is what was said." The Navajo saying, "Healthy food makes me invulnerable," takes on a deeper meaning than just "eating right."

There are two additional points to be drawn before leaving this example. The first is that everything in the Navajo universe is either male or female. This includes what Anglos would consider both animate and inanimate objects, as well as dual parts of the same thing. For instance, it is male rain that comes in a downpour that scours the canyons and floods the land; female rain is a soft, nurturing, soaking shower that brings life to plants and animals. Everything from rivers and trees and clouds to homes and ceremonies and prayers is also classified in similar fashion, based upon their nature, shape, or origin as specified in the myths by the holy people. Even within an individual, regardless of sex, there is this male and female dichotomy. Returning to the example of the stirring sticks, women hold them in their right hand while stirring, but men grasp the bow, a corresponding weapon to fight hunger, in theleft hand. In Navajo thought, the left side and those things associated with it are for males; those on the right, for females. Thus the left ear, eye, nostril, lung, leg, and arm are viewed as male; those on the right, female. In the hogan, the female's work area and place to sit is to the north, or on the right side as one enters, while the men move to the left or south side, a point that will be expanded elsewhere.

The male/female dichotomy extends into activities. Men are concerned with war, hunting, politics, and powerful ceremonies, while women are often herbalists, caretakers, weavers, and homemakers. Each has their realm of power and objects received from the holy people to perform their assigned roles. Both men and women can use some of the same objects, such as sheep shears and saddles, without a problem. On the other hand, there are other things that hold power and should not be used by the opposite sex. Women should not be involved with weapons like bows and arrows and other objects that may be associated with violent death, for their realm is one of birth, life, and nurturing. A knife used to kill a sheep for dinner presents no problem, since it is associated with food, so both sexes can use it. On the other hand, men are not free to use certain women's implements. Sam Black, a traditional Navajo from Monument Valley, noted that, after a woman has used the stirring sticks, she raises the implement to the east and prays for a "warm winter day so that her family will not be cold. After her prayer, she squeezes the cornmeal off of each stick and eats it with delight. If a man should use the cornmeal sticks, he will be afraid and shake all over. These sticks are not to be used by a man." Thus, the universe is one of order and respect, with some tasks being shared while others are relegated to specific roles.

As the holy people made plans and established patterns, they created everything spiritually before it existed physically. The process started by thinking about what was needed and how it would help to make life on earth meaningful. Lengthy discussions followed, where abstract thought became concrete when expressed through words, which in turn became songs and prayers — the heart of existence. The world was literally first thought about, then sung into being with each object, place, or thing having its own songs and prayers that not only identify it spiritually, but also provide a means by which it can be approached and communicated with. Language holds a compelling power through which spiritual and physical things are controlled. Frank Mitchell, Blessingway singer, explained that when the creative process ended, the holy people would no longer speak to the Earth Surface people but would be available to help. All one needed to do in the future was to go to a certain spot and leave an offering with prayers, and then these supernatural beings would provide assistance. He next said:

You see, in the story [origin of the Blessingway ceremony] it says that whenever anything was established for the use of the Earth People, it required song and prayer. In that way they [the holy people] put it in motion; it became alive, just by the songs, the actions, and the prayers. Now with us, we cannot do that because we do not have the power to create anything. If we were singing and praying, it would not come to life at all. But we can keep the power alive today by using those songs that were used when the first Blessingway was created.

At the center of everything in the physical universe — from rocks and trees to baskets and blankets — there lies an inner form (bii'yistiin), roughly glossed as "animate being that lies within." Humans also have an inner form known as "in-standing wind soul" (nílch'í bii'sizíinii), which enters the body at birth, leaves at death, and during life controls a person's thoughts and actions, giving rise to individual personality traits. "The capacity to think 'far ahead' and speak a language is acquired from the wind soul dispatched at birth, and it is this capacity that distinguishes humans from other animals, who have only calls and cries." Thus, while everything has a spirit or soul, there are gradations in ability as to what each spirit can accomplish. Navajo prayers and songs address both the outer and inner form of an object, or in other words, both its physical and spiritual essence.

A person's wealth and power can be measured by the number and type of songs that he or she knows. They open the gate of understanding and communicating with whatever the song addresses and calls upon for assistance. The entire world is energized and controlled through this power, which instructs the spiritual forces within. From birth to death and beyond, there are songs that influence and direct every occasion and every object. There are songs for traveling, from the time a person leaves home until their return; there are farming songs that cover each stage of the effort, from clearing the field to harvesting the crop; there are songs for war, hunting, gambling, bidding farewell, greeting the sun, and healing the sick; and there are "building songs, which celebrate every act in the structure of the hut [hogan], from 'thinking' about it to moving into it and lighting the first fire."

Relationships (K'é) and Property

All of this leads to one of the most fundamental principles in understanding traditional Navajo life and values and one central to the trading experience — k'é. This simple word, translated as "relations, relationships," encompasses a wide variety of thought and action and identifies the ideal relationship that an individual should strive to achieve. Encompassed in this term is the meaning "compassion, cooperation, friendliness, unselfishness, peacefulness, and all those positive virtues which constitute intense, diffuse, and enduring solidarity." Also inherent is the thought that all people are related, a feeling that is expressed through bonds of love and assistance. Navajos use kinship terms to describe this relationship, terms that show respect and commitment, so people do not address individuals by their "street names," as is done in Anglo society. Kinship, with its accompanying responsibilities, becomes the basis for all relationships.

The practice of k'é extends beyond the family to all other humans as they adopt this code of behavior. Social interaction of this nature produces harmony and brings people into a bonding relationship of peace, love, cooperation, and the ideal state of hózho, a complex term that means far more than the gloss of "long life, happiness." Navajo people recognize that obtaining this point of perfection in this life, where there is a final state of spiritual harmony and equilibrium within oneself and with the outer world, is almost impossible. Rather, it is an ideal to strive for as one stays on a path of long life and correct behavior as outlined by the holy people.

The concepts of k'é and hózho, however, go far beyond human relations. Since everything in the Navajo world is animated with a spiritual essence, can communicate, assist, or deny, and enjoys certain ways of being addressed as established in the beginning, an individual needs to properly maintain those relationships. In a world filled with spiritual beings, ranging from the holy people to a tree to a human, it is imperative that proper respect be shown. Otherwise, the object and its spirit can turn its power against the offending person. Thus, ceremonies establish a proper relationship with the holy people who can aid in healing an individual as long as care is taken to follow prescribed actions, the songs are sung properly, and participants provide offerings identified when the holy people performed the ceremony for the first time. The same is true when one crosses a river. Offerings and prayers for protection are said as one leaves the boundary of safety and moves into the water. The power of the being within the river can serve as a protective force as long as the person crossing shows proper respect and diligence in performing the prescribed ritual. This underlying concept of relationships is central to every aspect of traditional Navajo life, including the trading experience.


Excerpted from "Both Sides of the Bullpen"
by .
Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

1 Of Songs, Prayers, and Spirit: Navajo Relationships and Property Concepts 3

2 Setting the Stage: Traditional Trading Practices 27

3 Thinking about Architecture: Navajo Values in the Home and at the Post 44

4 Building Bonds, Trading Goods: The Navajo Post Experience 68

5 Standing behind the Counter: The Qualifications and Qualities of a Trader 91

6 Exchanging Wealth: Stock and Livestock 115

7 Weaving a Lifestyle: Rugs and Pawn 139

8 Social Life at the Posts: Ladies, Law, and Laughter 164

9 Beginning Relationships: Early Posts along the San Juan, 1878-1900 190

10 A Different View at the Posts: Ute and Navajo Trade, 1880-1940 215

11 Posts as Economic Exciters: The Heyday of Navajo Trade, 1900-1935 242

12 The End of an Era: Boom, Bust, and Livestock Reduction, 1920-1940 268

Epilogue: Post Trading Post 290

Notes 295

Bibliography 327

Index 343