SHIPROCK - An estimated 4,000 American Indian artists do business with Bill Foutz.
Foutz, 64, is a fourth-generation Indian trader and owner of Foutz Trading Company in Shiprock, a business with roots in the early days of trading more than a century ago.
But Foutz runs the business in a very different manner than his father or grandfather. Although he is located in Shiprock, one of the biggest communities on the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation, more than 95 percent of his business is conducted elsewhere.
"If I had to rely on walk-in clients, I'd starve," Foutz said during an interview in his trading post on U.S. 64 in east Shiprock. "Ninety-five percent of my business comes from websites, arts and crafts shows, truck deliveries to other stores."
Foutz, who began trading in the 1960s, constantly scrutinizes the way he does business in order to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. He's one of only a handful of Indian traders still operating in ways that mirror the past, though at the same time are vastly different.
"There are seven, eight, 10 people now doing similar but entirely different things," said Elijah Blair, a lifelong trader and past president of the United Indian Traders Association. "There are supposed modern-day traders, but those guys are just running convenience stores out of the old locations."
Foutz also is operating at a time when the Navajo population is aging and few remember the glory days of the trading posts half a century ago, when roughly 150 traders were doing business on the reservation and trading was a way of life.
"A lot of the Navajo my age or older are soul-searching," said 62-year-old Eugene Joe, president of the Shiprock Historical Society. "They're looking to the past. We're getting together and remembering the old days, going back in time.
Finding a niche
The majority of trading posts went out of business in the 1970s, on the heels of Federal Trade Commission regulations that made pawning on the reservation nearly impossible. Dozens of old posts were abandoned as traders left the reservation, creating a void for the Navajo where once there was easy access to food, household products and hardware.
"It was a forced exodus of the trader," Blair said. "The story has never been told about how the Navajo had to survive in a different world. They could walk to a trading post for a loaf of bread. When the posts closed, they had to go 100 miles for it."
Very few traders stayed on the reservation and met the federal and tribal regulations, which included being licensed with the tribe on an annual basis. Pawning, which yielded small, convenient loans to the Navajo, disappeared completely from the reservation.
"Just because it quit in the "70s doesn't mean the need was gone," Blair said. "Everyone saw trading as exploitation, but it worked the way we needed it and the way the Navajo needed it. There's a missing link out there on the reservation. It (losing pawnships) was a hardship for folks, and it still is."
Other traders sold their buildings to be used for convenience stores. Jerry Clayton, a Farmington businessman, is credited with buying 39 trading post leases on the reservation and converting them to convenience stores, Blair said.
Navajo life also changed, with former sheepherders moving into towns, Blair said.
"Grandma lives in a housing project now," he said. "She doesn't have sheep. You can't have sheep if you don't have a market. All the trading posts are 200 miles away."
All the changes meant traders who were determined to stay in business had to find a way to do it. Those who succeeded carved a niche that remains relevant today.
Foutz Trading Company operates out of a Shiprock building that historically was a trading post.
In some ways, Foutz's business has not changed. But one look around his 10,000-square-foot facility reveals that Indian trading in 2012 is very different than it was in 1960.
"Almost everything you see here is wholesale," Foutz said, motioning to a large work space in back of his store. "We're a manufacturing facility and a warehouse. We sell merchandise throughout the country, throughout the world."
Foutz's smallest market is locals. By far, the majority of his business comes from out-of-town customers, many of whom will pay top dollar for authentic American Indian products.
Foutz's niche, as he defines it, is to embrace the technology of the future while maintaining a place for Navajo artists to sell their wares. He also capitalizes on his family's presence in the area.
"My family has been in this business for 100 years," he said. "During that time, you develop lots of contacts. People know about you before you know about them."
During his career, Foutz has purchased thousands of rugs, he said. He knows exactly what to pay a weaver and exactly what the markup will be. It's a competitive business, he said, and people are paying more for American Indian arts and crafts than ever before.
In that aspect, the trading post is not a thing of the past, Foutz said.
"There may be no such thing as a traditional trading post anymore," he said, "but that just means we shifted the emphasis. We found a better model that fits the need. I don't do cows, I don't do groceries, but I sell thousands of rugs, thousands of sand paintings.
"Some people call me a trinket peddler, but my wholesale business is called Bill Foutz Rugs, not Bill Foutz Trinkets," he said. "If the Navajo make it, I will still find a market for it."
Roughly 6,000 nails are pounded into the walls of the vault at Manning's Pawn in Kirtland.
Thousands of pieces of turquoise and silver jewelry hang from those pegs, evidence of each individual transaction at the pawn shop.
Born in Shiprock, Manning moved to Kirtland when he was 14. After serving in the Korean War and getting married, he returned to Shiprock to run the family business. Livestock was a big part of the business back then, he said.
"The Navajo relied on trading posts to sell their livestock," he said. "We had customers in England who would buy the wool, customers in Kansas and other states who would buy the lambs for feed lots."
By the time Manning took over the business, cash transactions were starting to gain popularity, he said. It was a sharp difference from the "30s, when most traders dealt in store credit.
"I remember my dad telling me in 1937 or "38 that they didn't do $100 in cash business in one month," he said. "Trading in the "50s still was very little cash. It was still mostly charge accounts and the Navajo paid their debts twice per year."
It wasn't until pawn really took off that cash became commonplace, Manning said. In the "70s, when most pawn businesses moved off the reservation, the trading posts that remained started dealing primarily in cash.
Manning operated a trading post, laundry and self-serve car wash in Shiprock, but moved his pawn business to Kirtland. The trading post stayed in business until about 2001, when it burned down.
"Pawn was an important thing to the Navajo," Manning said. "They don't hang onto cash. If they had money left over after harvesting the wool, they'd buy a good piece of jewelry. That was the collateral. Then they used the pawn shop as a bank. If they needed $25 or so, they took the pawn in."
Manning's Pawn still works in much the same way, Manning said. He serves an exclusively Navajo clientele and deals only in saddles and jewelry made of turquoise and silver. He also offers a check-cashing service for lower fees than most banks charge.
Business is steady, he said, and the average pawn is $103. The cash flow also still coincides with distribution of federal checks and the livestock market, Manning said.
"It will vary quite a bit," he said. "February will be different from July, but February of this year and February of last year and February of the year before will be within a few dollars of each other."
Because pawn has become part of Navajo life, Manning gets clients who drive to Kirtland from across the reservation.
"The come in to get money for a car payment, for insurance or groceries," he said. "We get customers who drive in from Kayenta or Page. That's a long way to drive for $100."
But pawn, like traditional trading posts, also may be on its way out, Manning said.
"In another 20 or so years when all the people my age are gone, I think this will give way to credit cards, debit cards," he said. "Jewelry doesn't mean so much to the younger generation. We'll have to either change the business again or quit."
The road to Hatch Brothers Trading Post is paved with the skeletons of posts from the past.
Half a dozen trading posts once operated near Hatch on County Road 6677, said 93-year-old Stewart Hatch, who only recently retired after 60 years in the trading business and left the post in the hands of his youngest son, Chuck.
Lanterns, flutes, tobacco, fabric, dyes and groceries line the shelves in this small trading post on the banks of the San Juan River and on the reservation border. People who do business here do it on purpose.
"People ask us to advertise, but we don't," Chuck said during an interview at the post. "It's amazing how so many people come out here, and how they find us. It's all word of mouth, but I get the best customers because they find us, not the other way around."
About 50 customers still trade jewelry or handmade items for store credit, Chuck said, and he still receives grocery deliveries by truck once a week.
Doing business at Hatch Brothers is a bit like stepping into the past, though few customers come on horseback or in wagons, and most now deal in cash.
Business continues to work the way it always has, and Chuck and his father have no plans to change.
Father and son sell groceries, clothing and household items on a daily basis. They also sell ceremonial items back to Navajo customers, and rugs, baskets and other authentic items to a growing Anglo clientele.
"The market for rugs is better now than ever," Hatch said. "We still buy rugs every day and sell rugs every day."
As the older weavers die and fewer younger weavers are replacing them, the demand goes up, Hatch said. He recently had customers from Germany, Turkey and Mozambique looking to buy authentic Navajo rugs. Each customer signs a guestbook Chuck keeps behind the counter.
Like many of the other traders, Hatch worries the trading post is losing relevance.
"The rug weavers are passing away and the youth are employed," he said. "They go to Walmart. They have no need for trading posts."
Chuck, 49, plans to continue doing business as long as he has customers, he said.
"I think it's going to rattle out," he said. "I have no idea what's going to happen, but I will stay as long as I can."
Josie Gonzales doesn't take a salary.
For the last 15 years, Gonzales has worked as cashier in the Borrego Pass Trading Post, about 85 miles south of Farmington, near Crownpoint.
Except for nearly 100 pairs of narrow, dusty, 60-year-old shoes left over from the 1950s, the post functions almost exclusively as a convenience store and gas pump.
Located 15 miles off the main highway on County Road 509, the post caters to the handful of people who live in the tiny community of Borrego Pass, which has a school, a fire department and little else.
"People come in for pops, food, chips," Gonzales said. "It's pretty much just a convenience store. The majority of the customers are Navajo. The Anglos don't come by. If they do, they're asking for directions to Chaco Canyon."
But Borrego Pass Trading Post has something only eight other New Mexico posts have: It is listed on the state Register of Historic Places.
The post opened in 1927. Operated by Ben and Anna Harvey, it offered store credit for wool, rugs, jewelry and pi-on nuts. It also is considered significant because of its ties to the Mormon church, said Tom Drake, a spokesman for the state Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Smouse family purchased the store in 1938, and DeForrest Smouse attended school in Farmington while his parents worked at the post. Smouse died in November at age 80, but the post remains in the family, Gonzales said.
Smouse, during a Daily Times interview in 2010, said the historic site includes a main residence, a hogan, a garden, two pastures, a warehouse, several outhouses and a Mormon chapel.
"We we first went there, only one Navajo had a car," he said. "Most of them would come on horses, and we had to haul water until my father drilled a well. Things haven't changed much."
Gonzales still lives at the post, and her husband is in the livestock business. She runs the post from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and limited hours on Saturday.
About one-eighth of total sales come from the gas pumps outside, Gonzales said. She also sells basic groceries and snack food. A small gift shop in back is stocked with jewelry and other items.
And the trading post is for sale.
"We are operating so we can sell it as an operating trading post," Gonzales said. "I read a lot. I sweep and mop and dust. It's really pretty out here, and it's very quiet. I think I like it quiet."
Adapting to needs
Even after 42 years of Indian trading, Tom Wheeler hasn't lost his fascination with the Navajo culture.
Wheeler, 65, lives on the second floor of the Hogback Trading Co., located on the south side of U.S. 64, less than a mile from the reservation border.
"It's always been a very fascinating type of business because in order for traders to be accepted and trusted, the trader had to really become familiar with the culture and tradition," he said. "That's one thing that perked my interest and still does today."
Wheeler changed along with the trading posts, he said. He watched as his clients' needs shifted, and he tried to adapt. His changes included building a modern facility across the highway from the old trading post and expanding his merchandise.
He also stopped attending arts and crafts shows throughout the country, instead choosing to cater to local needs.
"I started doing my own studies," he said. "I started writing down the age of people coming in, their gender, how much money they spent, what they were looking at."
Wheeler's findings changed the way he operated. For one thing, he realized he couldn't entice the younger generation into his store.
"The generation that's age 30 and under are into technology and entertainment," he said. "When it comes to appreciation of Indian arts and crafts, if it doesn't have anything to do with technology, they're not buying it."
Wheeler revamped his business to cater to Navajo clients first and tourists second. Because of his location, easily accessible from the highway, he gets a fair amount of tourists, he said. But his main business is buying and selling ceremonial items, and most of his customers are Navajo.
He also has a distinguished collection of American Indian items, some dating back to the 1600s. He runs a museum in the trading post and gives presentations to groups as large as 65 people at a time.
"The really interesting thing about Navajo culture is that I'm still learning something different all the time," he said. "Everything has a story behind it."
But even an operation like Wheeler's likely won't last forever, he said. Much has changed since the early days when the Navajo gathered for days a time, cracked open watermelons and gossiped while trading over the counter for tobacco, saddles and chewing gum.
"Times are changing," Wheeler said. "I'm a fourth-generation Indian trader. People ask me if there will be a fifth generation. I have to tell them I don't know."