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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.

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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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