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Bridging The Past With The Present

(Published on - 1/6/2022 3:44:15 PM)

Poised high above the deep, narrow gorge of the Little Colorado River—running thousands of feet below—a swayback suspension bridge serves as a reminder of a gap long ago bridged—not only geographically but culturally, as well.

Driving 65 miles per hour across the modern-day pavement, one might glance at that bridge, forgetting that this arid, rocky region—scarce of vegetation—was once traversed on foot or horseback by the original American peoples. To the Navajo and Hopi, these lands were theirs; the bridge provided them a straightforward route over the precarious gorge.

Five years following the bridge’s construction—erected in 1911, thirty-two miles from what is now the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park—Texas brothers Hubert and C.D. Richardson claimed over 100 acres on the south side of the gorge. They constructed a meager, tin-roof building and in 1916 opened the Little Colorado Trading Post. Later renamed Cameron Trading Post, honoring Ralph H. Cameron, the post best served the indigenous neighbor. Crossing the 660-foot-long bridge, the Navajo and Hopi peoples used Cameron’s to barter blankets, wool, and livestock for dry goods.

In visiting Cameron Trading Post, we are invited to remember the rich history of this area and to realize the old ways that connected people and cultures in a rare exchange of diversity and respect.

The Richardson brothers played a crucial role in the lives of their Native friends. Treated like family, they housed and fed local tribes at the post, for the journey to and from was arduous. Understanding Native dialects and traditional customs, the brothers shared the new American laws and social systems with the tribespeople.

The post grew over time. Hogans were built to accommodate Native guests, and in 1928, Hubert built the Klo-a-chee-kin (Little Red House) Hotel. Additions were created over time, connecting the original structures with new.

In 2016, Cameron celebrated its Centennial. What began as a shack in 1916, Cameron Trading Post boasts a magnificent Native American art gallery, a 15,000 square foot gift shop, a market, a restaurant, a post office, gas station, an R.V. park, a 66-room hotel and the stunning Sandstone garden—planted in the 1930s.

Today, Cameron is owned and operated by father and son, Joe and Josh Atkinson. Joe purchased the lease from Gilbert Ortega in 1977 and the trading post from Standard Oil in 1983. Like their predecessors, the Atkinson’s have an intimate history with the Navajo, a personal connection to the post, and trading with Native Americans. Joe, fluent in Navajo, is the great-nephew of C.D. Richardson. Josh Atkinson—the present Naat’áanii, or leader—began working at the post when he was thirteen. Josh’s grandmother was an educator and taught Navajo children, and his great-grandmother was a trader who—with her bible, her gun, and a few spare tires—traveled to different posts in her Cadillac.

Trading families and local-area ranchers assisted in protecting their Navajo communities and endeavored to help Natives preserve their culture and traditions. Sheep, for example were sacred to the Navajo.

Sheep provided the tribe sustenance and offered wool to the exceptionally accomplished Navajo weavers.

In the early 1900s, traders like J.B. Moore and C.N. Cotton crafted catalogs featuring Native American designs intending to sell them back east, where a romantic interest in western culture bloomed. For hundreds of years, Churra wool was the material for Navajo blankets and rugs. Churra sheep, later renamed Churro, were brought to North America by conquistadors in the 1600s. Navajo and Hopi peoples acquired Churro through trade. For a Churro blanket in the 1800s, one might trade two horses and a wife. In later times, blankets and rugs sold by the pound. The Navajo then added dirt to the wool to increase their work’s value.

Around the 1930s, environmentalists believed overgrazing was a problem that would result in flooding and landslides. Through government-sponsored flock reductions, herds were slaughtered, almost to the edge of extinction. The government forbade the tribe to eat the meat or utilize the wool; the tribe was traumatized. News of this spread fast. As tribes began hiding their sheep in caves, ranchers like Josh’s great-grandfather—whose Star Lake ranch was on the eastern side of the reservation—sheltered thousands of sheep to save them from certain death. When things settled, the sheep were returned to the tribe. Although the Churros are no longer considered endangered, their breed is still rare. That Churro blanket—once traded for two horses and a wife—would today sell for as much as $250,000.

…The trading post building hosts the gift shop where over 20 tribes have their works exhibited. Herein one will find rugs, potter, baskets, turquoise jewelry, kachinas, sculpture, totems, stone carvings, and drums.

Overlooking the Little Colorado River Gorge and revolving around a massive stone fireplace bordered by large picture windows, guests enjoy spectacular views inside and out. The Cameron Grand Canyon Restaurant—surrounded by history and ornamented with Native American artwork—offers a delicious menu featuring local, Mexican, and American food. Located behind the restaurant sits an old barn once used to shear Navajo sheep.

Of Cameron’s 145 employees, most are Navajo with a few Hopi, Apache, and Bilagáa-na, or white man. “It’s a family-for-family business,” Josh Atkinson explained. “Every decision I make affects all of these families.”

What began over a century ago—a meager post for local traders—Cameron Trading Post now welcomes visitors from all over the world. Standing as an icon of ancient times, Cameron embodies the traditions of the Navajo Nation. It reveals a fascinating story of the Bilagáa-na learning to value the original Americans. It shares a history of the interdependent relationships between the indigenous peoples and the pioneers that settled here. Cameron holds the legend and lore of diverse cultures, blending, defending, and sharing a way of life and survival in a harsh environment. And like those indigenous peoples who crossed the bridge and walked through its doors, Cameron’s is one of the last of its kind.

Taken from story written by River Ann Polinard

Published in Essential, essentials for the Flagstaff lifestyle, Summer/Fall 2021 edition, Vol. 1.2

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