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Without Reservations

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April 27th, 2005: The End of an Era?

Some have said that the introduction of roads and automobiles has eliminated the need for the trading post by providing Native Americans with access to goods and services off the reservation, sometimes at lower prices. The argument also refers to the disappearance of pawn business, credit dealings, and the direct trade of goods for goods as other examples of the deterioration of the trading post.

If you take another look at the trading post, you will see that it is still an economically viable and integral part of the reservation community. The way business is done at the trading post has only evolved, it hasn't disappeared. In years when corn or wool production was low, Natives sought other ways to insure their survival. The trader was the first to take the risk of accepting "crafts" as an alternative medium of barter. Thus began an era of transition from goods for goods, to crafts for goods - and eventually arts and crafts for cash. The mediums have changed, but the exchange remains the same. The trading post remains an income producing mechanism for a large number of the community - not only as a destination where artists can be compensated for their work, but also as an employer for many of the local residents.

The trading post is still an important part of the community. Times have changed, and so has the trading post, but the underlying components of the model are the same. The locals still rely on the trading post as a market for their "goods," and they still look to the post to fulfill some of their immediate needs. Although reservation prices might be slightly higher, and selection not always as abundant, it must be taken into consideration that much of this is determined by the trading post's suppliers and freight carriers. In addition, because the trading post absorbs greater losses statistically than other traditional businesses off the reservation, prices on local goods and services may reflect this also.

Still, in remote areas such as Keams Canyon, where the trading post still caters to a vast majority of local patrons, it is arguably to their advantage to be able to do limited shopping when the nearest off-reservation store is almost 70 miles away. Consider the time and money spent to travel to and from these destinations. Convenience has proven valuable in the American economic society at large, as well as the Native American communities on the reservation.

Already illustrated are three benefits of the modern trading post - 1) a market place for local arts and crafts, 2) an employer for locals within the community, and 3) convenience in obtaining necessary goods and services. Keep in mind that the trader has to cope with a lot. He goes to great lengths, at considerable expense, to maintain his business on the reservation. He must meet the unique requirements and stipulations placed upon him by the locals, by the tribe, by the state, and by the federal government. In most cases, he does not own his trading post or the land upon which it resides. He merely possesses a limited license to conduct business within that area - so long as he can maintain peaceable and profitable relations with the powers that be. He invests a great amount of his own time, money, and energy into building up a community of which he will never fully be a part, as well as an asset that can be repossessed at will and ultimately belongs to someone other than himself or his posterity. He can only hope that his earnest and sincere efforts will win the respect, support, and appreciation of the community that he serves and supports and thereby ensure his survival as a businessman a little longer.

He must obtain a lease agreement from the tribe with which he conducts business, he must also obtain a federal license as a bonded trader, and in most cases he must remit a percentage of his gross revenues back to the tribe and/or village as a royalty for the right to do business on their land.

Tribal governments can be fickle. Leadership often changes. Attitudes and agendas will change also. The trader has to constantly be aware of and sensitive to the political climate he is immersed in. This is very different from most private enterprises, where business owners have equity in their own assets and can pursue a course of free trade without the worry or concern that what is here today may be gone tomorrow - as a result of influences other than his own ability (or lack thereof) to conduct business.

A trader may pour hundreds of thousands of dollars back into his community, back into his business - into his building, property, and marketing - and never have the promise of recouping that investment through the sale of any assets. What he builds up, he builds for someone else. What he creates and maintains, he maintains for another generation - for someone who will come after him. If he is lucky, he may be able to sell his rights to conduct business to another would-be trader, but only if that individual feels confident enough that he can also meet all the requirements, maintain good relations, and conduct a successful business long enough to recoup his own investment. Since this prospect is a daunting one for most prospective "buyers," it may be a challenge for the trader to ever find a liquid exit or promise of retirement.

Moreover, because the tribe ultimately retains all rights to the land and any improvements upon it, and because the asset is technically theirs, so is any value that has been added as a result of the traders own efforts. The trader does not, in most cases, receive any subsidies or support from local, tribal, state, or federal governments - other than temporary permission to conduct business for a term, again contingent upon compliance with various stipulations, regulations, and requirements.

It takes a certain kind of person to run a trading post. In many cases he must be willing to make his home on the reservation and forgo the convenience of life in an urban setting. He must deal with the challenges that inter-cultural exchange presents - in terms of language, values, customs, and prejudice. He must often accept that he will never be fully accepted as a part of the community. He must often service his community and assist them in preparations for activities, ceremonies, and other celebrations to which he is often neither invited nor welcome at. He must do all he can to learn about the culture and customs of his neighbors, showing respect and appreciation for them, while at the same time making apologies for his own culture and heritage. His housing is often sub-standard, making the most of whatever land and resources are available to him - as he is precluded from housing opportunities and medical services available to his Native patrons. Medical care, even when the trader is insured, must be obtained off the reservation except for cases requiring an emergency room visit. This requires the trader and his family to travel great distances for doctors and dentists visits, and in the case of emergencies he must pay for all services rendered out of his own pocket, since most insurance companies will not cover him at an Indian Health Services hospital.

Today's trader is not the unscrupulous opportunist which occasionally surfaced in generations past. Conducting business on a reservation requires strict adherence to various regulations which are vigorously enforced - as they should be. If anything, the trader is Native patron's best friend. He cannot afford the luxury of many "trading post" galleries who pick and choose whom they will buy from, encourage, and promote. His viability in the community depends on his support of all of his patrons - and artists at every level. Traders are perhaps the most responsible for the great American art form that Native American arts and crafts have evolved into. They were the first to create the market - to endorse the art - and to take risks that no one else would have. They bought pottery, baskets, kachina dolls, and rugs from young artists who didn't have the big names at the time. Every one of today's elite Native artists began somewhere - quite often on the shelves of a reservation trading post.

Often the trader extends special terms to both his Native and non-Native patrons. This includes prolonged layaways with generous grace periods, as well as discounts for the collector at the expense of the trader and not the artist. The trader takes the desirable with the undesirable - averaging out the marketability of his patrons' wares. The trader also extends cash advances and loans - similar to the credit method of an earlier era - when his patrons require money to meet their other obligations such as electric bills, gas money, or simply food for the table. Often this act of generosity, compassion, and kindness tends to alienate the trader from the borrower since the money is always harder to repay once it has been spent. There's an old saying among traders that says "if you want to get rid of someone for a while, just give him an advance." This is unfortunate, since the good will of the trader is often exploited and turned to his disadvantage - especially when he discovers that the same artist whom he loaned money to is now taking all their best work to the gallery in town where they don't have an obligation.

The trader must learn to interface with a myriad of suppliers. Whereas most businesses have only a handful of suppliers (some having as many as a couple dozen), the trader not only has these, but he also has a hundred others in terms of the artists he supports. Each has a unique set of circumstances - needs, terms, expectations, performance abilities, etc. Each must be understood individually on his or her own basis. This introduces a multitude of complexities to the day to day regimen of running a trading post business, as you can imagine. The trader is often called upon by these individuals to act as a counselor, banker, broker, and friend.

The trader must assume all risk, meet cash flow demands, and put forth extra efforts to market and preserve and promote not only the art, but the artist and his culture - thereby performing a service that directly benefits the artist, the tribe, the community, and their cultural preservation program goals.

In addition to providing a catalyst for Native American art, providing employment for members of the local community, and providing convenient goods and services (such as a grocery store, a Laundromat, a gift shop, a service station, a café, and a convenience store), the trading post acts as a regulator for tourism. The trading post serves as a hub for visitors who want to be introduced to the art, history, and culture of the region. The trader obliges by making his visitors aware of regulations and prohibited activities - steering them away from culturally sensitive locations and helping them find meaningful diversions that will be of relevant interest to them. By doing this, the trading post continues to support the mission and efforts of the cultural preservation office. Appropriate and well-developed points of interest are promoted, while sacred sites are kept secret or are discouraged when inquired about by visitors.

For tribes that have active and ambitious tourism programs and goals, the trading post can provide important services. It can market and promote points of interest, it can educate and clarify with respect to cultural and historic issues, it can provide alternative experiences for travelers during times of ceremony or other seasons when village visitation might be inappropriate. The post can act as a museum and gallery of local arts and crafts. It can be a venue for auctions, exhibits, art shows, and performances. It can provide for many of the needs of the visitors - in terms of basic sundries and supplies, as well as lodging, food, and fuel. It can be the point of origin for organized tours, allowing visitors to have thorough exposure and meaningful experiences without traipsing through the back yard of their hosts.

Trading posts have been accused of contributing to the disintegration of the traditional society and values of a reservation community, as a result of their introduction of outside consumer goods, and then as a result of their influence on Native crafts as commercial arts. The need for the trading post has been eliminated by arguments suggesting that the development of automobiles and roads provide Native communities with access to the only goods and services they will ever need. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, these roads and automobiles have contributed more to the degeneration of traditional societies and values than anything else. This kind of proximity and exposure to the Western world has greatly influenced and left a lasting impact on rural Native communities - by both in the inflow of outsiders and the outflow of local residents.

Additionally, the fact that the trading post provides jobs, goods, and services for the reservation communities allows people to stay closer to home - to stay connected and to be involved in cultural affairs. Imagine if there were no economic opportunities "at home." Many men and women would have to seek employment and housing off the reservation - ultimately leading to extended separation from the culture and traditions. Children would not have the opportunity of being reared in a traditional environment - languages would evaporate even more quickly than they already are, and cultural events and customs would be an increasingly unfamiliar and foreign experience for them. Eventually the living heritage of a people would become merely a memory.

On a side note, some have criticized the commercialization of kachina dolls as an exploitation of Native religion. However, it is important to realize that the carving of kachina dolls is an adaptation of artistic and symbolic cultural expression within a medium normally reserved for traditional religious purposes. If the carving of kachina figures for sale is wrong, then what about their likeness as they appear on Hopi baskets, pottery murals, original paintings, or overlay jewelry designs. As one pueblo artist put it, "I try to interpret the significance of my cultural and religious experience through abstract expressions in my art." In my opinion, contemporary kachina carvings are an abstract expression of their traditional counterparts. Although they are realistic in form, their purpose and function is much different from that of the original "old style", or flat-doll carvings. If anything borderlines exploitation, perhaps it could be construed that the revival and introduction into the marketplace of "consumer-grade," neo-classical carvings is just that.

Still it is safe to say that purpose is the main variable that should differentiate one from the other. For example, many marketers of Hopi kachina carvings (both contemporary and new-traditional) reserve the term katsina to refer to the actual spirit beings which the carvings represent, whereas the term kachina is more loosely used when referring to the art form produced for commercial purposes. It would be wrong for a religious object to be created, consecrated, and dedicated for one purpose and then be used for another - such as financial gain within the marketplace. A devout Christian would never take a religious symbol from within a church where it had been dedicated for that particular purpose and introduce it into the marketplace - but it is obvious that many similar items have been created for the sole purpose of purchase, and people buy them for a variety of reasons - mostly out of respect and reverence for the original, in hopes that they might invite a little of that "special" spirit into their own environment.

The federal government has enacted laws to protect tribal cultural heritage by prohibiting the illicit sale of sacred religious objects. This includes rare and special items unknown to most outsiders, but should perhaps also encompass authentic items such as traditional kachina dolls that were carved for a particular purpose and used in ceremonies or given out to the children of the village by the Katsina himself. In this way, members of the tribe sensitive to the possible exploitation of their religion would know that "authentic" items intended for spiritual use were not being bought and sold. However, it would still allow the Native artist to express himself freely within the context of his own culture.

The Permanent Rezident

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