Posts Tagged ‘Edward T. Hall’

Wide Ruins. Memories from a Navajo Trading Post by Sallie Wagner. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, N.M. 1997. 150 pp.


41vO5l7mxnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wide Ruins is the story of a Navajo Trading Post from the late 1930s until 1950—a time of irrevocable change both on the reservation and the country at large—and of its owners, Bill and Sallie Wagner. As Wagner described it, as newlyweds they arrived for a temporary ranger position at Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. A local friend who, like them, was an “outsider” had purchased a trading post himself and suggested the Wagners do the same. Which they decided to do shortly after, in 1938. As Sallie opens the book: “We slipped sideways into the Navajo Indian trading post business.” After a crash course from their pal Cozy, they took over the post and for the next three years managed it, as well as another they purchased on the reservation. This book describes what life was like for white traders located in an extremely isolated location between the Arizona Defiance plateau and the Painted Desert.


The closest post office was at Chambers AZ, a tiny, overwhelmingly Navajo settlement, eighteen miles south. The nearest “big city” was Holbrook, about 40 miles southeast. Emergency medical services were available at the hospital at Ganado, about 100 miles north along a dirt road. For the three years that closed out the Depression, the Wagners ran the post, learning much about the Navajo culture, rituals and clans as well as how trading happens. In the process they became a trusted institution for trading locally crafted jewelry, wool and blankets. Sallie Chambers introduced new weaving techniques (especially borderless blankets and rugs) as well as the use of vegetable-based dyes. These newer approaches led to the creation of what are now highly prized “Wide Ruins” blankets. The post also served as a kind of “bank”, storing valuables (which had been pawned for cash) in the store safe, where they remained until the owner returned to repay the loan.


Wide Ruins Rug, 1930s-1940s


Early in 1941, Bill was called up from the Naval Reserve and he and Sallie sold the post and moved to the West Coast. Later, as the war ended, the Wagners returned to the post, re-possessing it after the buyer defaulted on his payments. The Navajos were happy to see them return and business was soon brisk again. In 1950, they sold the post which finally burned down in the 1980s.


This is an engaging story, told with humility, kindness and humor. It is not as insightful as Edward T. Hall’s West of the Thirties set on the Najavo reservation at about the same time (Hall wrote this book’s glowing introduction). But then, these folks were businesspeople not anthropologists and they seemed willing and able to fit themselves into a tricky financial role as trading post owners in the community—a difficult feat in which few outsiders proved successful.


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West of the Thirties, written 60 years after the events it records, chronicles the four summers a barely adult Edward T. Hall spent working on the Hopi and Navajo reservations of northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. He was only 19 when he arrived to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933.

Hall went on to become a world renowned cultural anthropologist.  In his college classes and his State Department foreign service officer training, he taught his central theory: Because individuals in one culture are unaware of, or insensitive to, differences in how other cultures perceive and act in the world, fundamental misunderstandings and miscommunications occur all too easily and all too often.

As the subtitle, Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi, suggests, Hall’s groundbreaking ideas were shaped in those four years he acted as a camp manager in the Native American equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps, overseeing work crews of Navajos and Hopis as they improved reservation roads—which were in deplorable condition—and built check dams, important to reservation agriculture.

The reservation years most certainly provided him direct experience of his now widely accepted anthropological concepts: the importance of proxemics, how various cultures define and organize space; the essential nature of nonverbal communication; the likely misunderstandings between high context cultures (much background information is taken for granted) versus low context cultures (little background information is assumed) ; and the difficulties arising between monochronic cultures (those who do one thing at a time with emphasis on planning and time management) versus polychronic cultures (those who emphasize human interaction, allowing results to evolve in their own time.)

Hall admits he thought long and hard about the title West of the Thirties and what it might convey. Not only was he talking about the 30s as a pivotal time in our collective history. He was also aware that he was describing one of the last true frontiers—the empty, stunningly beautiful land, red and sculpted, resting in the sun under the bowl of azure sky. The mud and sand, horses and wagons, sandstone canyons and dry arroyos, Indian traders and reservation agents. This was the Real West, not the cheap imitation created by Hollywood and horse operas. A West that still existed in Hopi and Navajo land in the 1930s.

That descriptive vigor and obvious infatuation with the harsh southwestern landscape makes West of the Thirties sing and gives it a lasting place on my Western bookshelf. I’ve read all of Hall’s popular works and this is my favorite, the most personally engaging and illuminating. It is a paean to an almost mythic place, a time, and a way of being in the world that has been all but lost. It is a Western in the truest and finest sense of the word.

Edward T. Hall, anthropologist extraordinaire and New Mexican to the core, died July 20, 2009 in his Santa Fe home.

West of the Thirties: Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi.

by Edward T. Hall.

Doubleday. New York. 1994. 187 pages.

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