First impressions are important but they’re often wrong. I’d driven through Gallup, New Mexico several times – bought gas twice. Off the interstate, the main street is Historic Route 66. It’s lined with shops with unattractive facades and numerous signs saying, “Pawn.” But Gallup’s like a gift in a plain, brown wrapper. You have to get inside to enjoy the treat.
Unless you’re driving, Gallup isn’t the easiest place to get to. Reneé Gordon, a writer from Philadelphia, and I flew into Albuquerque where we Ubered to the train station to take the Amtrak’s Southwest Chief’s one westbound train a day. The ample train seats were a treat after being sausaged into an airplane. At first glance, Gallup looked as uninteresting as it had from my car window.
The town has the usual assortment of chain accommodations – easy-to-find, reasonable places to stay. I don’t usually write about these generally generic accommodations, but the Comfort Suites was unusual. The manager, Ken Riege, a veteran of Desert Storm, has turned the lobby and halls into a mini-museum honoring service people from the area.
He was also instrumental in Gallup’s having been named “America’s Most Patriotic Small Town.” The attitude here isn’t just flag-waving – it goes deep, honoring service to country and love of community. It’s a much more thoughtful approach to what it means to be an American. The region has a rich history which includes Hiroshi Miyamura, a Medal of Honor recipient, the Navajo Code Talkers and generations of citizens who have served the nation.
I loved my stay here. The room was clean and comfortable; breakfast was good and the mints at the front desk came in red, white and blue wrappers.
The next time I visit, I want to stay at the El Rancho Hotel, a real Route 66 legend. Opened in 1937, it hosted a skyful of stars during the era when Westerns were box office bonanzas. Pictures around the walls are mementoes from luminaries like Ronald Reagan, Alan Ladd, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.
The lobby is massive with a second floor balcony. In the summer, Navajo master weaver Lois Becenti sits at a large loom working on a beautiful rug with a pattern designed by her mother. I love historic hotels and this one is a Mother Road classic.
If you’re interested in buying Native American arts, you couldn’t come to a better place. Every other store seems to be labeled “trading post.” As settlement moved West, Native Americans found themselves hemmed in by government-assigned boundaries.
The U.S. government gave contracts to entrepreneurs who would set up trading posts on reservations.
Although there are still a few trading posts on the Navajo Reservation, a number of the traders moved into Gallup as the city grew. One of these was Joe Tanner’s great-grandfather, Seth. Today Tanner’s Indian Arts continues under the ownership of Joe Tanner, his wife Cindy and 5th generation Emerald Tanner.
The store is a wonderland of Indian works. Walls and floors display gorgeous rugs; shelves are stacked with baskets and pottery and the jewelry is a knock-out. The most important factor in Tanner’s success, besides impeccable taste, is the on-going relationships between the artists and the Tanners.
The role of the trader today has changed. The relationships between traders and Natives were complicated. Traders often served as bankers, promoters, friends, advisors, even lawyers. Once, Native artists traded art for necessities. Traders would then take items to market. Today traders like the Tanners are the market with buyers from other areas coming to them for fine items.
A really cool thing about Gallup is that many of those old relationships have been carried down through generations. A majority of the pieces at Tanner’s – 75 – 80 per cent — comes from local artists. Emerald Tanner says, “What makes our Native American jewelry so special is that, at the core, it is not created for income, but to be worn. My talent is seeing talented artists and encouraging them to take risks. For really fine jewelry, my dad commissions pieces, enabling artists to spend more time being creative.”
The role of women in trade is also interesting. Today women are becoming an important force in the industry. Many have been involved in the past – usually as unpaid help for their trader husbands. Emerald’s grandmother was trading back in the ‘30s.
Emerald grew up in the trading post but her father insisted she go to college. At ASU she majored in accounting and communications. In the ‘70s, there was another boom in popularity of Indian items. People saw Native fashions on models and learned how to wear Native jewelry to complement modern fashions. Emerald combines her college knowledge with a good eye and an understanding of how social media has taken the industry to a new level. Her talents have been recognized with a showing at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.
The Tanners had some words of wisdom for those wanting to buy Native American art: Pieces come in all price ranges but collectable pieces are made of precious metals with good stones and the artist’s name. You have to love it to buy it. If you don’t love it, don’t buy it. If you don’t know your turquoise, know your dealer. There are a number of reputable dealers in Gallup. Richardson’s has a huge stock and amazing rugs. Ellis Tanner Trading Company, more like an original trading post, carries more than Indian arts. They buy lambs and wool, have a pawn shop and even do taxes. Perry Null Trading is a blend – mostly jewelry and Indian items for sale but they also do a big pawn business.
Gallup turns what you think you know on its head. Pawn is a prime example. Maybe it’s just me being snobby, but pawn shops have always had a bit of a stigma about them. Pawn in Gallup is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s more like a bank or storage unit with benefits. Very few pawned items ever go on sale. Native Americans use it to store valuables – jewelry, saddles, rugs, buffalo robes, buckskins and ceremonial items. Long-term relationships and trust are big factors – refreshing! Sometimes items are used as collateral for small loans. Pawned items are often borrowed back for special occasions or ceremonies then returned to vaults or storerooms. This system has worked in Gallup since territorial times.
I got another look at the way things are, visiting with Mickey Menapace, one of the owners of Rico Auto Complex, (they loaned us a car). The business, founded by his grandfather Enrico, celebrates 100 years of family ownership this year. Mickey says, “Grandfather took sheep, cattle, rugs and jewelry for cars and trucks. He bought a ranch for the livestock he took in trade.”
Today, eight Menapaces – multiple generations – are involved in Rico’s. I asked Mickey if they still trade. He answered, “Yes, we still take livestock and jewelry – but not as much as we used to.” Traditions run deep in this town. And people here are proud to share their traditions. Summer visitors get front-row seats at nightly presentations of music and dance by Native American nations’ members. One evening, Reneé and I watched beautiful Zuni women, wearing pounds of silver and turquoise jewelry, present a traditional dance with ollas balanced on their heads. Another night we saw dances from a number of other areas – a highlight was watching champion dancer, Norman Roach, Sioux, performing a hoop dance.
To learn more about the history and culture of the Diné (Navajo) people, we drove northwest into Arizona to Window Rock and the Navajo National Museum. A series of dioramas introduce traditional Navajo creation stories. Another area dealt with political history – particularly the Long Walk. This is the Diné equivalent of the Trail of Tears. In the early 1860s, the U.S. Army systematically rounded up over 10,000 Navajo men, women and children and force-marched them from their homelands in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona between 200 and 400 miles to Bosque Redondo, a desolate area in eastern New Mexico.
The 1868 Tappan Treaty allowed the Diné to return to a portion of their native soil. Three copies of the treaty were created. One of these original documents was on display when we visited. Due to its age and fragile condition, it is rarely displayed. Only one other original copy is known to exist. The pages of the treaty are held together with a faded, red ribbon, a customary method of the time. Guess where we get the expression “red tape!” Other areas are devoted to Navajo arts, crafts and projects. Outside, there is a hogan – a traditional Navajo dwelling. For more immersion in Native American culture, plan way ahead to attend the 99th Annual Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial next August. From parade to pow-wow, the schedule is packed with art, music, pageants and rodeo events; this is a photo op on steroids.
Another special event is the annual Balloon Festival in December in Gallup’s Red Rock Park. The setting provides more great opportunities for photos, even when the balloons aren’t flying. Early morning is an ideal time to get the best light for photographing the eponymous geology. If you go later in the day, visit the museum in the park.
Gallup is a great home base for exploring some of the nation’s most scenic spots. It’s less than a two-hour drive to El Malpais National Monument with impressive lava flows and a nearby ice cave. Other great day trips include: El Morro National Monument with towering cliffs and a source of water that made it a destination for thousands of years; Canyon de Chelly with trails and ancient dwellings; Petrified Forest National Park and Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site.
Obviously, there was a lot more to Gallup than ever met my eye before. And I haven’t even mentioned the numerous murals around town or the sopaipilla stuffed with ground beef, beans and guacamole and smothered with cheese and red or green chile at Jerry’s. So, if you’re ever getting your kicks on Route 66 through New Mexico, don’t gallop past Gallup. Stop and discover this surprising little town for yourself.