The Navajo Count Sheep.
Story and Photos by Gary "Arizona" Johnson
One of my favorite places in Arizona is the Historic Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site near Ganado on the Navajo Reservation, where I was to meet my long time friend and Navajo Guide Lonny Yazzi. Upon arrival, I was impressed by the vision of an imposing rock and timber building, and a unique collection of vintage territorial horse drawn wagons and carriages parked in the shade of its stalwart walls. The rustic cavernous barn attached to the store is replete with neatly stacked hay bails, leather harness and tack. The roughly hewn timbers and stonework speak volumes to the casual observer of the heritage contained within this structure.
Lonnie shared a “Park Service Guidebook” inviting me to read about the man who built this historic rendezvous, where people have gathered to trade or share thoughts and stories for over a hundred years.
Founder John Lorenzo Hubbell was born November 27, 1853 in the sleepy village of Parjarito, New Mexico, a small community south of Albuquerque. He was a territorial pioneer, intrepid adventurer, known to his friends as “Don Lorenzo" and affectionately called “Double Glasses” or “The Old Mexican.” by the Navajo. Hubbell acquired the language of the Navajo as a young man while serving as a Spanish language interpreter and clerk for the U.S. Military; this ability served him well in the years following his military service. As a politician Hubbell served on the Territorial Council, guiding Arizona to Statehood serving as County Sheriff and later as State Senator. He used his political ties to facilitate communications between the Navajo and the U.S. Government.
The aging white paint although chipped and cracked clings tenaciously to the weathered screen door. It creaks and groans as we enter, the sound of the heavy wooden inner door chaffing the plank wood floor is a familiar sound to those who visit this historic haunt. The sweet smell of cedar wood burning in the pot bellied stove perfumes the air. The old floor planks creak softly as we tread ever so reverently, we whisper as if in a library or church. We can feel Hubbell’s spirit; his presence is reflected in the soft tones and low whispers we hear as we explore the building.
The Official Park Service guidebook tells the story; “In 1883 Hubbell purchased 160 acres of land, from William Leonard and began construction of his trading post at the present day site. Trading with the Navajo people in the area since the 1870’s Hubbell gained a reputation as a fair man and provided his Navajo customers with merchandise and food while nurturing and promoting Navajo arts and crafts to tourists and collectors from across America. Hubbell acted as a bridge between the Navajo
and the Euro-American people by gently compelling these two divergent cultures to communicate and understand one another. His life as a trader spanned the most pivotal time for the preservation of the Navajo culture. Don Lorenzo was accepted by the Navajo when the Long Walk and the Trail of Tears were still very fresh in the memory of the Dine’. With the help of frontier Photographer Simeon Schwemberger, Hubbell produced and distributed a series of mail order catalogues featuring Navajo arts and crafts to the eastern United States creating a market and demand for goods produced by the Navajo.”
Several large wood and glass display cases filled with silver and turquoise “old pawn” jewelry arranged neatly on a Pendleton blanket are visible in the first room. Behind the counter are bolts of cloth, dyes, saddles, hand tools, cinches, lariats, halters and harness. The shelves on the walls stacked with various canned foods, peaches, beans, lard, and baking powder each artistically designed label a visual feast for the eyes.
John Hubbell’s much respected influence on Navajo weaving and silver work endures to this day. He consistently promoted excellence in craftsmanship and design. He helped the native weavers understand which designs were popular to the Eastern populations and he discouraged the use of commercial dyes and the cotton warp. He encouraged his partner C.N. Cotton to bring Mexican silversmiths to Ganado to instruct Navajo men in the art of silver and turquoise jewelry design. The legacy of John Lorenzo Hubbell lives on today and can be experienced at the Hubbell Trading Post, National Historic site.
A multitude of brightly colored bundles of wool yarn hang on nails from the rafters the room is filled with an unusual assortment of saddlebags and riding tack, bow saws, axes, cast iron cookware and Dutch ovens. An amazing selection of blue enamelware and a wood burning cast iron stove transport us to an earlier simpler time in the Southwest.
In a corner of large room a Navajo woman sits weaving a Ganado style saddle blanket. Stringing one strand of colored yarn at a time, the hand spun, dyed wool blanket slowly takes shape in the warp of the loom. We are in the blanket room, the walls are an amazing montage composed of hundreds of Navajo blankets, the floor is stacked with piles of folded weavings some new, some old, each one a beautiful, hand crafted gem in the Hubbell crown.
To the casual traveler this is obviously a special place; the term self-discovery is the watchword here. You can actually touch all of the goods as they did in Loranzo Hubbell’s time. The basket room has an incredible number of examples of this ancient Native American craft, fastened to the walls. We are surrounded by beautifully executed Indian arts and crafts. It’s like visiting a museum without glass barriers.
As our visit to this fascinating site neared its end, Lonnie and I stood at the counter of the dry goods section, for one last look at this pleasant anachronism. A traditionally dressed Navajo elder entered the room and stood beside me at the counter. His white hair neatly combed and tied back in the Navajo way. His skin, brown and creased by the sun told the story of his long life. His head wrapped in a sun faded purple satin headband. A blue and tan plaid wool shirt, collar buttoned, also faded from the sun, fit him well. An impressive, ancient, silver and turquoise, squash blossom necklace adorned his chest. His dusty Levi’s cinched to his slim waist by a black, weathered, leather and sand-cast silver concho belt. His jeans cuffed and folded up over his dusty, Kaibab moccasins. There he stood; this elderly shepherd, a slender man with an unassuming air of confidence derived from living a simple uncomplicated life, a man who is one with nature and comfortable in the outdoors, his squared shoulders, proud demeanor and humble eyes waiting patiently for service at the counter.
The cashier, a young Hopi woman with horned rimmed glasses answered his questions. She gently smiled at the old Shepherd, and retrieved some transistor radio batteries for him. He paid and left. Being curious, I inquired as to their conversation.
She explained. “The batteries are for his transistor radio. He’s getting old and can’t see as well in the dark as he could in the past. He can’t see the coyotes coming into the herd of sheep at night, like he did when he was younger. Before he beds down he ties the radio around the neck of the lead ram of his flock. He sets the dial to KTNN radio. The flock is calmed by the voice on the radio as they listen to Navajo language programs until dawn. The Coyotes are afraid of the human voice, the little radio keeps the predators away from his flock, and he sleeps well without worrying about loosing any of his sheep.”
She smiled and stepped away to another visitor. I thought about the old Shepherd and smiled as Lonnie quipped; “In the Navajo world, you can actually loose sleep, by counting your sheep.”
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