Trading goods, and stories, on the reservation

  • Along Navajo Trails: Recollections of a Trader, 1898-1948

    Will Evans, edited by Susan E. Woods and Robert S. McPherson, 270 pgs, hardcover: $42.95. Utah State University Press, 2005

In the 1920s and ’30s, many Navajo Indians traded for flour and coffee at Will Evans’ Shiprock Trading Company. Among them were survivors of the infamous Long Walk, the 300-mile forced march that sent the tribe into temporary exile in eastern New Mexico in 1864. When yet another battle-scarred Navajo limped into the post, Evans settled in eagerly, saying: "Well, here’s another story." Decades later, his readers will do the same.

Along Navajo Trails is less a memoir than a mosaic of Navajo oral history. What stands out most is Evans’ openness toward the people he chronicled. "This is how Tall Man explained the situation to me, and I respect his belief," he wrote of one singer’s account of a healing. This tolerant attitude wasn’t shared by the government representative who attempted to send one Navajo leader’s children to boarding school: "The agent returned to Fort Defiance without the Black Horse children and minus a small handful of whiskers." The trader’s attitude may have been shaped by his own upbringing: As a Welsh-born Mormon, he was a minority twice-over in his native Britain.

In a 1938 letter, after the death of a medicine man, Evans noted, "I must get real busy on the biographies of the older Indians … one more tribal historian is gone." Ironically, this collector of stories left his own book unfinished when he died in 1954. Fortunately, his granddaughter, Susan E. Woods, and historian Robert S. McPherson ably edited the work.

Today, when mesa-sized Wal-Marts loom on the horizons of Farmington and Flagstaff, Along Navajo Trails reminds us of the essential link the trading post once was.

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