Earlier this year, Arizona’s historic Round Rock Trading Post burned to the ground. Starting in the 1880s, Round Rock had been part of a vast network of trading posts in an area of the American Southwest that would become known as the Four Corners. These were meeting places where Native Americans bartered with Anglo-Americans, offering wool, rugs, baskets, silver jewelry, and other hand-crafted items in exchange for coffee, cooking oil, flour, velveteen, and other goods they needed. Before its closure in 2014, and before the fire, Round Rock was one of the few remaining trading posts in the country. Every year, more trading posts close or are vandalized.
Since 1970, Queens-born photographer Ed Grazda has been searching the Four Corners, now a Navajo Reservation area, for the remains of these trading posts. He’s documented their slow decay, or, in some cases, their transformations into convenience stores, gas stations, and post offices. A Last Glance: Trading Posts of the Four Corners, just out from PowerHouse, compiles Grazda’s vintage and contemporary photographs, creating a rare visual record of a nearly extinct system of commerce.
In Grazda’s melancholy black-and-white images, the one-story buildings appear almost ghostly. A few are overgrown with brambles and vines; others are covered in graffiti; still others resemble large tombstones, piles of crumbling bricks camouflaged into background cliff faces. Each building is emblematic of the fraught relationship between Native Americans and their European colonizers, a reminder of Native America’s uphill battle to preserve its culture.
Trading posts first cropped up in 1870, two years after the Navajo treaty with the US government. “Navajos needed goods; They had just returned to their homelands from the four-year military incarceration known as Hwééldi, at Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico, destitute and lacking the wherewithal to make a living,” writes Willow Roberts Powers in the book’s introduction. The trading posts were run by Anglo-Americans. Though they had the commercial upper hand, the traders lived on Navajo land, in Navajo communities, and were subject to both the tribal government and community pressures. By the 1880s, after hard work, Navajos had built up their sheep herds and could trade wool, a hot commodity in the broader economy.
But by the 1930s, trade by barter had largely ended. “Why, if the [trading post] system was so vital, so community oriented, and so central, did it collapse?” Powers writes. “The major reason was the Navajos’ — and indeed all Native Americans’ — desire for modern goods, modern supermarkets, and shopping centers, detached from the trading system that was now seen as outdated and domineering.” The remains of these trading posts are, in some ways, an American counterpart to the ancient ruins found all over Europe — architectural evidence of a bygone era, physical reminders of a razed pre-megamall society.
A Last Glance: Trading Posts of the Four Corners is available for pre-order from Powerhouse.