Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pawn Shop 101

Assumption: A pawn shop is a place to go when times are tough to get some money for a watch or an old trombone from a person whose name is unknown and who, along with the watch or trombone, will probably never be seen again.

Then there are the trading posts serving the Navajo Nation that turns the assumption of pawn shops upside down.

Chief "Assumption Breaker" was John Lorenzo Hubbell, who, in 1878, purchased the Trading Post (left) that was to bear his name and become the oldest continuously operated trading post on the Navajo Reservation.

The Post, now the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, is located in the Great Basin Desert of northeastern Arizona, one mile west of Ganado, on highway 264.

A bit of history: The Long Walk began a four-year period of forced removal by US soldiers of thousands of Navajos from their native lands in the northeastern corner of Arizona and, after a march of 400 miles to Fort Sumner, NM, a period of confinement from 1864-1868.

Even though the Treaty of 1868 allowed the Navajo to return to their homeland, they returned to a land and way of life--homes, herds, and fields--that had been totally destroyed.

Economically and spiritually depressed, the Navajo turned to traders who could help them establish a relationship with Anglos for basic items in exchange for simple possessions and later for Navajo rugs, jewelry, baskets, and pottery.

Hubbell served not only as a merchant but served as a liaison to the world beyond the reservation. He spoke the Navajo language, serving as a translator and writing letters for the Navajo. He settled family quarrels, explained government policy, and helped the sick, e.g., using his home as a hospital during the smallpox epidemic in 1886.

"The first duty of an Indian trader," Hubbell believed, "is to look after the material welfare of his neighbors, to advise them to produce what their talents dictate, to treat them honestly and expect the same from them, to find a market for their products, emphasize quality, and advise them which commands the best price."

Hubbell established himself as one of the leading traders of his time, operating, at his peak, some 30 trading posts.

The trading post is still active, trading with members of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other tribes, just as members of the Hubbell family did for 89 years until it was sold to the National Park Service in 1967.

It is now operated by a non-profit organization that maintains the trading traditions the Hubbell family established.

The Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site consists of the original 160-acre homestead (photos above), including the trading post, family home, and Visitor Center as the primary attractions. The front part of the Trading Post (with signs "No Flash Photography") operates as a general store selling food items and household goods.

The back rooms have jewelry and rugs. A weaver was working on a beautiful black, white, and gray rug that appeared to be about 75% completed. Photographing her at work seemed inappropriate.

The photographs (no flash) of the rugs that were piled in one room do not do justice to the beauty of these works of art.

But back to the assumption about pawn shops.

Trading posts were created as a bartering destination for the exchange of manufactured merchandise and food for Native American goods, such as jewelry, handmade saddles, authentic ceremonial costumes, wedding baskets and hand-woven rugs.

Gallup trading posts have signs that read “CASH PAWN,” or “PAWN LOANS,” but their use of the word pawn is different than elsewhere in the United States. Only valuable Native American items are accepted by trading post owners, and the items are always left with the intent they will be reclaimed.

Less than five percent of pawned items become "dead pawn," according to 92-year-old Bill Richardson, owner of Richardson's Trading Company (left), meaning that no payment has been made for three months and the store can sell it to the public. But because most pawned merchandise is an important family heirloom, trading posts (pawn shops) are very reluctant to sell the items. At Richardson’s they usually wait a year and make numerous attempts to contact the owner. We found a dead pawn bracelet at Richardson's along with informative conversations with two helpful staff members.

[Richardson's (below) now occupies three storefronts along Historic Route 66 that runs through downtown Gallup.]

Jim Winnerman in the Route 66 Pulse web page quotes a Gallup banker as saying: “Most local Native Americans do not have checking accounts. When they need money the trading post becomes the bank, storing their valuable artifacts until the loan is paid off. Frequent small loans and storage are services banks cannot provide. I am not aware of a similar system anywhere else in the country.”

Many Native Americans also use the trading posts in place of a safe-deposit box. Again quoting the report by Winnerman, "According to Joe Milo, owner of Joe Milo’s White Water Trading Company, the most valuable item he held in pawn was a squash blossom necklace that had a historical provenance and dated from the late 1860s. 'It had a value of $25,000, and I had it for seven or eight years, but no more than $500 was ever borrowed against it,' Milo says. 'It was really here because they knew it would be safe.'"

There are many trading posts in Gallup. The one on the right was one of the more colorful ones.

These special trading posts with pawn loans function unlike a typical pawn shop. According to Bill Richardson, “It is a social center. Many also pick up their mail here.”

Trust. Long-term relationships. Strong bonds. Special Gallup pawn shops.