At the (new) old trading post: The Old West meets the information age
05/12/2011 12:49:08 AM MDT
com'>www.toadlenatradingpost.com, went live in 2004.
Editor's note: The remote Navajo Nation is about to get wireless communicaton service, better opening it to the world. This story is part of a series looking into the Navajo's global potential and its current perspective on international connections.
NAVAJO NATION — The trading post is an icon of the American West: The hand-built wooden structure nestled among hills, or standing alone at a wide spot in the road, a place where American Indians could trade their wares for food, household items or weapons.
Some of those icons still stand on the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas, and a handful still operate much as they did more than 100 years ago.
A newer method of marketing, however, has taken some traders by storm, changing forever the way trading posts — historically operated by non-natives — and traders view commerce.
For a population whose traditional livelihood centered on herding sheep and weaving rugs, Internet-based business can be a blessing or a curse. And for those who embrace it, the whole world is literally at their fingertips as the global community shrinks and becomes more accessible.
"It's just like any other business," Farmington businessman David John said. "People who weave, now they can sell their products around the world.
When they sell on the Internet, it opens up a whole new variety of ways to sell, to better themselves."
Not all are Internet savvy, however. About 40 percent of residents on the sprawling, 27,000-square-mile reservation still live in primitive homes without running water or electricity. Internet access is simply a luxury few can afford.
That's not always a bad thing, said John, who also serves as chairman of the city of Farmington's Community Relations Commission. Many of the more traditional artists or entrepreneurs prefer to do business face-to-face.
"A lot of people want to stick with their own traditional way of doing things from home," John said. "A lot of people don't want to use computers or advance with cell phones, technology, email and that kind of thing. They'd rather just use a simple phone."
The World Wide Web, though enriching economic opportunities for those who have access to it, also is widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
But even as technology rushes forward, many businesses owned by Navajos or located on the reservation still are hesitant to join the race.
Business is booming at the Toadlena Trading Post.
Located at the end of a dirt road 13 miles off the beaten path, the century-old trading post still sees a steady stream of customers.
Housed in the original building, which opened in 1909, owner Mark Winter operates the trading post much as his predecessors did. He accepts rugs from a limited population of Navajo weavers and offers, in exchange, cash or store credit.
Winter, who took over the lease at the trading post in 1997, buys rugs from between 150 and 175 weavers, all of whom live within 12 miles of the trading post and have local ancestry, he said. About a quarter of his customers don't speak any English.
"We're the bank. We cash government checks. We do a little of everything," Winter said. "It's all unsecured, all uncollateralized. It's a negative cash flow, but with a lot of positive results."
The trading post and adjacent Weaving Museum are nestled in the small community of Toadlena, nudging the rolling hills and surrounded by trees. Stepping into the trading post is much like taking a step into the past.
Saddles hang from the ceiling inside the main room, and groceries and cigarettes line the shelves behind the cash register. Additional rooms are filled with jewelry, dolls and piles of hand-woven rugs.
But Winter doesn't conduct all his business inside the store. The Toadlena Trading Post also has an online presence, where customers from around the globe can view and purchase authentic Navajo rugs. The website,
Straddling the traditional and modern worlds presents Winter with unique business challenges.
"The website serves much more as information for people," he said. "It's a wide world out there, so you have to realize the potential of the Internet, but we like the old world here."
Winter, who lives in a mobile home outside the trading post, has Internet access via satellite, but few of the local residents have computers. Most have a hard time finding cell phone service.
Weavers who are Internet savvy sometimes sell on popular sites like eBay, but many who are still spinning their own wool before spending months in front of the loom simply don't want to bother with the hassle of marketing online, said Linda Larouche, Winter's soon-to-be bride who works by his side at the trading post.
"We're at a crossroads between tradition and cyberspace," she said. "I can't imagine living with my foot in two worlds."
Those who trade their rugs in Toadlena don't have to worry about that. They still do business the same way generations before them did, yet their rugs find owners worldwide.
Winter is the first to admit that he doesn't capitalize on the possibilities the Internet presents.
"It's a way of reaching out to a broader market," he said, "but just because the capability is there doesn't mean we have to use it. We're not living up to the potential."
Winter has plans to upgrade the trading post's online presence, including offering news about the small weaving community and alerts when weavers have finished long-anticipated rugs.
His main method of advertising now is a handful of billboards spread out along U.S. 491 between Shiprock and Gallup.
Trading posts were started as a way for artisans to get cash, credit or loans for their wares, and that model still works, Winter said. Customers come from all over the country to buy authentic Navajo art, and the personal experience is better than typing in a credit card number and rolling through an online checkout lane.
"Rugs are so textual," Larouche said. "People need to feel them, to touch them. We get a lot of phone calls from people who see the website, but they want directions on how to get here. They want to see the environment where these rugs were made, have a chance to meet the weavers."
"The website is the impetus for people to come and visit," she said. "It's nice to present it to the world on the Internet, but it's such an intimate experience that you have to be here."
Online customers, though few, spend big, Winter said. When people buy on the Internet, it's usually in excess of $10,000.
Those customers are missing out, Larouche said.
"People think we're out in the middle of nowhere, but business is non-stop," she said. "It's off the beaten path, so people who come meant to be here."
Francis Mitchell doesn't own a cell phone. He doesn't have Internet. He owns a computer, but he doesn't know where the power switch is.
Mitchell, a practicing Navajo medicine man, has business around the globe, yet he never has sent or received an email message.
How does he do it?
"Word-of-mouth," he said. "It's what you do, who you know. That's what gets things going."
Mitchell's lack of technology comes from a cultural belief that medicine men should not advertise their services, he said.
"It's not supposed to be a competition," he said. "It's not a way to recruit business, a way to identify yourself."
Mitchell, who grew up in the Midwest and served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, returned to his homeland as an adult. He learned the Navajo language and studied medicine after returning to the reservation in 1969 at age 25.
"I picked up the language, the culture by word of mouth," he said. "Medicine is an attempt to assist, so modern technology is not part of it."
Mitchell's business started to pick up more than 25 years ago when Navajo clients he treated intermarried with members of other tribes, he said. Those clients spread the word about Mitchell's services, and he started getting calls from Canada and Europe.
"There was no Web back then and very few computers," he said. "Word of mouth opened the door."
Mitchell eventually joined the International Association of Shamanic Practitioners and built a reputation that spans the globe. He gets patients from across the country, Europe and Australia.
He gets all his business by waiting for his home phone to ring.
People like Mitchell face both advantages and disadvantages by not embracing modern technology, John said. Although he is selling a service rather than a product, Mitchell may be losing business by not having an online presence.
"As far as selling around the country, this is modern time, and everyone else is using the Internet," John said. "This is helping them. They've got to do it."
Those who choose to run an online store or employ another Internet business model may find greater ease and flexibility when it comes to doing business, John said. Internet shopping can occur without a store attendant, which cuts out the need for artisans to travel to far-away cities to market their wares or spend hours selling at flea markets.
"If they're on the Internet, they can go back to their weaving or herding sheep while their product is on the market," John said.
Another advantage to doing business on the Internet is receiving payments in cash. Traditional business people, Mitchell included, sometimes accept payments in goods, such as food or livestock.
On the flip side, however, artists who choose to limit the visibility of their products by keeping their businesses off-line may have better success at controlling copycat artists, John said. Serious artists usually offer a certificate of authenticity with their wares; sellers at some of the bigger events must get their wares authenticated by jurists before they can sell.
"In general, the Internet can help these people as long as they have a strong hold on who they're selling to," John said. "But even on the buyer's end, if you buy over the Internet, you might find out that it's fake."