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“Life at Wide Ruins”

by Sallie R. Wagner

In 1938, Sallie Wagner and Bill Lippincott came to Wide Ruins, Arizona, in Navajo country. There they ran a trading post until the end of World War II (1941-1945), when the return of soldiers and the construction of more roads made reservation life less isolated. In the paragraphs below, Wagner describes life at her trading post.

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It took some months for the people to decide that it might be all right to trade with us. The test came when Bent Knee arrived to take a deerskin out of pawn and found that the skin was still in the building. It was the custom, when selling a post, to also sell off all the things that were in pawn, thus clearing still-owed debts. But we had bought Navajo Woman and Daughter“Navajo Woman and Daughter,” Bob Martinez (Artist) all the pawned goods at the price for which they were pawned, and Bent Knee was overjoyed to find that his belongings and those of all the other customers were still available for redemption. This event, of course, was not a complete breakthrough but it did bore a hole in the “buckskin curtain” that would be widened over the years.

The Navajo economy was based on sheep; lambs were sold in the fall and wool in the spring. At those times the bills run up by customers were paid off. We had to know the approximate size of each family’s flock in order to know how much credit to allow them. We sold the lambs as feeders (animals that would be fed to increase their weight) directly to buyers who came through from stockyards in the Middle West. In the same way we sold wool to traveling buyers from the Boston wool market. In the fall we hired herders from among our steady customers, turning over to them the sheep we bought each day. At the end of a month of buying, these sheep were slowly moved to the railroad in Chambers, eighteen miles away by either land or truck, loaded into cars and sent to the Colorado feed lots.

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A trading post was not all business by any means. The posts were the center of social activity, always places of interest and fun to the Navajos. Because they lived in isolated family groups, a central gathering place was very important. They tended to come to the traders for solutions to almost any problem—domestic, medical, or technical. We doctored them, laid down the law about family fights, made out their work applications, and wrote their letters for them, often sending to mail order houses for things that they could have bought from us. Once old Cut Hair had us subscribe to Esquire for him. But when the first copy came, he was bitterly disappointed that the little manikin that served as the magazine’s logo was not included.

There was always a large copper pot of coffee on the wood stove that dominated the customers' side of the high counters and there were always friends or relatives, also in for a day’s trading, who were seldom seen at any other time. The free coffee, laced with a large dollop of sugar from a deep drawer watched over by the storekeeper, was one of the delights to be savored at the end of a long ride by horseback or wagon.

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When it rained the country smelled of sage and creosote and the air was cleansed of dust. I liked to wander around the hills then as long as the rain did not turn to hail. The colors in the sand and rocks were enhanced by the scrubbing that they got. I filled my pockets with bright colored pebbles that dulled again when they dried.

High Clouds Over the Mesas“High Clouds Over the Mesas,” Robert Draper (Artist)

The edge of a storm that was attacking the eastern horizon was pelting Wide Ruins when I donned a jacket and headed for the hills in back of the post. It was late in the evening and soon became dark. In the northern distance I watched the headlights of a car coming cautiously along the ridge-top road between Klagetoh and Wide Ruins. The arroyo below us was raging with sand and rock-filled water, and I was surprised and concerned to see the headlights disappear over the edge of the arroyo and not reappear. I ran back to the house and alerted Bill, who quickly started the pickup. Off we raced to the rescue. There in the maelstrom was a station wagon, afloat but helplessly moving down stream. Off with our boots and jackets and into the water we leapt. Two men clambered out of the car and the four of us, by main strength, maneuvered the station wagon over against the bank where the force of the current held it immobile. We pulled them out and we all laid exhausted on the bank. I sat up, looked at my companions in disbelief and said, “Dr. Kluckhohn, I presume.” Sure enough, one of them was the eminent anthropologist, whom I had known in Santa Fe many years before and hadn't seen since. The two anthropologists spent the night with us and, with the help of the Navajos, dug out their stranded car the following afternoon.