In Turquoise in America Part Two 1910-1990 one of the important features are the Stories of Turquoise, the first person narrative of the people who made the history of turquoise. In these stories we hear from miners, and those involved in the jewelry trade. One of the central themes of the book is the development of a tourist market for Native American jewelry. Early on the main source of the jewelry was from the trading posts who had close contact with the Native American jewelers and would provide them with silver and turquoise. They in turn obtained their merchandise for trade, including clothing and food items, from the large wholesalers such as Gallup Mercantile.
By the 1960's the trading post system had changed with few posts remaining. Also the large wholesalers no longer dominated as they once had and smaller independent wholesalers became an important part of the marketplace.
When I was interviewing Ernie Montoya he suggested I contact Gilo Lopez of Nakai Trading Post one of the last remaining independent wholesalers from that period. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Can you tell a bit about those early days?
I was out on the reservation. If I could get to the reservation the first five days of the month, I could collect, because all the checks came to the Trading Post. They were a full-service trading post. The Indians got everything on credit. And when the check came into the trader, he would give them a little bit of cash and put the rest on their ticket. And maybe once or twice a year, not all the time, the Indians could clear up the debt with wool or pinon, either one of those two items. In my heart, I'm a pinonero, and it was because I got involved with taking pinon as payment and selling it. For 20 or 30 years, I would pay 50 cents a pound for the pinon and then I'd come into town, and sell it to El Cambio Supermarket, a Jew on Fourth Street that catered to the Hispanic community. He had all the ethnic food there. I would sell it to him for 55 cents, and then he would sell it to the public for 79 cents.
When did you start? You were telling about buying the pinon and making the collection. When would that have been?
In the 60s. And for 20 years, I bought pinon for 50 cents and sold it for 55. There was a guy named Mel Montoya that had Big Chief, who would package it in little bags for a buck. And maybe, if it was a thousand pounds of pinon, maybe I made 50 bucks. If there's 30 sacks, and they docked me a dollar a sack, instead of making 50 bucks, I only made 20 bucks. I was keeping my accounts current, as much as I could, because I couldn't see all the trading posts every day of the month. But what happened, one time, I was on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and this guy gave me a huge back-to-school order. I used to have a station wagon, and I had suitcases with samples of different blouses, shirts, which I never used because they only asked me for Levis, Wranglers, tennis shoes, trunks, stuff like that. So, this guy asked me, "are you going to Gallup on your way home?" And I said, "yeah, back to Albuquerque." He said, "John Kennedy is late in coming up here to buy all my saddle blankets." I said, "what's a saddle blanket?" And he told me, they're all wool saddle blankets and there's 30 by 30, and 30 by 60. And the 30 by 30 is 6 bucks, and the 30 by 60 is 12 bucks. So, he says, "go by John Kennedy, and he'll pay you, and then you pay my bill. You get the money, and you pay, and everybody's happy." He took me in the back room, and rugs were piled up like newspapers.
So anyways, we loaded my station wagon, and wool is real heavy. I couldn't see to the right. I had that station wagon filled up. There were no paved roads. I was on a dirt road. Literally, I was going maybe five miles an hour, because of so much weight. So, I get to Gallup, I don't know, three or four o'clock in the morning, and I park in front of John Kennedy's.
This is John W.?
Yes, he arrived around 8am wearing a western suit, like Roy Rogers used to wear, cowboy boots, straight as an arrow, big like this. I told him the truth, that this guy was 90 days behind on his bill, and John hadn't been out there to pick up the saddle blankets. He asked me to pick up the saddle blankets, get the money from John and pay his bill, and then he could get his merchandise for the kids to go back to school. So, John says, OK. Bring it up to the loading dock. Some Navajo boys came out there, and they were counting and grading at the same time. I went in there, and the check that John wrote to me covered the whole 90 days, so it wasn't just to get him off the hook for one month. So, he gave me the check, and I started driving out of Gallup. I was about five miles out of Gallup, and a light went on in my head. I said, I've got a bunch of guys in the same situation and I wonder if they have saddle blankets. So, I turned around, and I went back, and I knocked on Kennedy's office. He was a very elegant man, very sophisticated, and he said "young man, what's wrong." I said, "Mr. Kennedy, can I bring you more saddle blankets? "And he goes, "as many as you want." I'm not entirely stupid. I said, "does that mean a hundred? Does that mean 50? Does that mean 10?" "Son, I told you, all you can bring."
So now, this is a big check. I had already gone back. The banks are open. So, I go to his bank, and then I asked to see the president, because these guys (his suppliers) in El Paso are not going to forgive me any mistakes. So, I go to the banker and I told the truth, blah, blah, blah. I'm a dry goods salesman. The trading posts are all full service. They all rely on credit. I say, "is this check any good?" He said, "yes." I said, "can I bring you more? "And he told me John has a hundred thousand dollar line of credit. Well, a hundred thousand then was more than a million today, right. I was never going to bring that kind of money. So, to make a long story short, I drove back to Albuquerque. I unloaded my station wagon of all the suitcases. I got there about three or four o'clock in the morning. And about eight or nine o'clock or seven o'clock, somebody knocked on the window and he said, what's up? They used to call me Gil. And they said, "Gil, what's up?" And I says, "I have a solution for this back-to-school problem." I said, "do you have anything called saddle blankets?" He took me in the room, and they were piled like newspapers. So, we load up the station wagon, right. I go back to John. He writes me a check. But now, I have a big problem. In those days, it took two weeks for checks to clear. There was a float time, right. And I didn't want those guys to know what I was doing. So, my brother had a bank account about this big, where McDonalds is, right here on Central. It was called The Fidelity Bank. And he said, let's go talk to Mr. White over at Fidelity. So, he and I went over there and I told him my problem. I showed him the checks. This guy – do you remember Ronald Coleman?
He looked like Ronald Coleman.
A little mustache.
And he was suave, suave. Class was dripping on this guy. And for whatever reason, I've always felt that God took me by the hand and guided me. He took me out front. At that time, all the tellers were girls, and all of them were beautiful, and young. He introduced me to every one of them. He said, this is Mr. Lopez. When he comes in with one of these checks, give him immediate credit. So now, I wrote a check to the people in El Paso, and I told them that they paid me cash, and I couldn't send cash through the mail, so I put it in my account and made it out to them. So, after I got a bunch of guys cleaned up and bought hundreds and hundreds of saddle blankets, I get back to Albuquerque, and my brother asks if I know a man named Frieg? And I said, "no but I know where his store is on Fifth and Central." He said, "he's been calling every half hour."
So, I call up Mr. Frieg, and I said, "this is Gil. My brother says you've been calling." He said, "I've been out on the reservation and I couldn't buy one saddle blanket. They said, you have them." He said, "what are you – what are you doing with them? And I said, "man, I take them all to John Kennedy, and he pays me cash." The reason I'm going through all this is to show you that I was just either lucky or fell into it. He said, "if you don't mind me asking, how much does he pay you." And I said, "everybody knows the price, man. It's $6 and $12." He said, "Gil if you'll bring them to me, I'll give you $6.25 and $12.50, right. So, I knew if I brought a hundred singles, that would be 25 bucks. And if I brought a hundred doubles, it would be 50 bucks. And that 50 bucks was floating. It didn't belong to anybody, right. So now, John Kennedy's history, right. So, I started bringing them to him. And he wore a double breasted suit from the 1920s. He was a Jewish merchant. And he would open up a cigar box, and he had hundreds, I mean stacked like that. I don't know how much money this guy had. But he had more money than I'd ever seen.
Mr. Frieg was bringing stuff from all over the world. He was Pier Imports in his day. And he knew what fit into the southwest. But I'll tell you where all these blankets were going. A month later, two months later, my brother asks me, "do you know Western Warehouse?" I said, "I don't know who in the hell they are." And he said, "they've been calling every day. They want to see you." So, I call up the guy, and he says, "I was on my biannual trip to the reservation to buy saddle blankets and couldn't find any. They said, you have them. What are you doing with them?" I said, "oh, man, I got it covered. I bring them from the reservation, to old man Frieg, and he gives me a quarter delivery charge and 50 cent delivery charge. He said, "if you bring them to me, I'll give you ten percent." I said, "what's ten percent?" Honest. I did not know. And then he says, "I'll give you 60 cents, and a $1.20." So, piss on John Kennedy, piss on Frieg, now I got this guy, right. And he's giving me 10 percent.
So in June or July of '68 or something like that, my brother told me some lady, Ruth Sims, has been calling for you. I said, "who in the hell is that?" So, he gives me the phone number, and I call her up. And she says, "we sponsor the Arabian Horse Show and the way we make money is by selling all these people that bring these Arabian horses handmade Indian saddle blankets, because they wear like iron, and they not like the ones you buy in a western store." So, I said, "hey, Ruth, you're a day late and a dollar short." She said, "why is that?" And I said, "Western Warehouse. I can't get enough saddle blankets for these people. So, I don't need any new customers." And then here comes the question, "how much are they paying you?" I says," I don't mind telling you, man. I'm making ten percent." And then she says, "how about $25 a piece straight across?" I said, "what? are you kidding me?" And she says, "no, we get $100 for them, and that's the way we sponsor the Arabian Horse Show." So, I got a load of rugs, and she told me how to get to her house. I thought I walked into – you remember Gone with the Wind, that mansion?
I was looking at that mansion. I've been here 400 years, and I didn't even know there were these people around. I see this southern mansion like a plantation. So, I drive up, and it's all dirt road. I get almost to the house, and then a great big black guy, wearing a tuxedo comes out. "What are you doing on the property?" I said, "wait a minute. I was invited by Miss Sims. My name is Gil, and she ordered some saddle blankets." He said, "wait here." I could see a parasol, like an umbrella and these ladies were like southern belles, dressed like that. They had mint juleps, and they were blah, blah, blah. So, he comes back, and he says, "come on over." Ruth had never laid eyes on me but she gets up and says, "oh, girls, this is my best friend, Gil Lopez. Oh, come here Gil. Come here and say hello to all these ladies." All of them were a little bit tipsy.
The butler did like the guys in Gallup, sorted them all out, wrote it down. He brought it to her, and then she said, "oh, get him his money." So, the guy comes back, and he puts money in front of her, and in front of me and pays me. There was $2,000 profit. I had never seen $2,000 in my pocket ever. So, I said, "I'm going to buy a station wagon to get stuff for Ruth." I went down to Volkswagen, and I bought a Volkswagen station wagon. I paid $1,700 cash and I kept doing what I was doing. And that's Gilo Lopez.
So everything grew from that?
There was a guy named Gilbert Ortega. He was married to Bernie Vanderwagen's daughter,Linda, and I used to do a lot of business with her dad. I tried to work with him, but I always got the short end of the stick because I didn't know Zuni jewelry. I used to go up to Saint Christopher's Mission in Bluff, Utah. The unemployment was like 40 percent, so the church would pay these Indians to make cedar bead necklaces, chindi necklaces. They would sell them to me by the gross, boxes, huge boxes. Sometimes, I would pay for it, and sometimes I'd pay them after I sold it. I'd go up and down 66, and I'd sell them for 75 cents, 60 cents, whatever I could get, so I could pay those guys. Gilbert's dad died, and he was the postmaster in Lupton. Gilbert got that land, and then somebody lent him the money, and he built his business. Anyways, he tells me, "Gil, I have a contract with Zales Jewelers for Navajo rings. I can't buy a ring for less than nine bucks here in Gallup and I need to buy them for five, so I can sell them to Zales for nine." I said, "why are you asking me? I don't know anything about jewelry." He says, "no, you know all the silversmiths. You know the Indians. You know all the stone cutters". I said, "but I don't know nothing about this." He says, "you'll make me the rings for five bucks." And I said, "where do I start?"He says, you go up on Green Street and see Phil Woodard at Indian Jewelers Supply.
So, I drive up to Green Street, and I don't have any money. I go inside, and talked to a guy named Eddie Kirk, he was about 18 or 19. I told him the story about Gilbert. He says, no problem. He goes out and pulls out a sheet of silver. It was 26 plate and he got some eight half round and some solder. He told me, you do this, then you do this, you do that. Silver was a dollar an ounce. So, I said, "OK."
This was before the big boom.
This was the fuse. I was making jewelry for Pennys and Zales.
Did you work with turquoise?
I used to see those guys from the Manassa Mafia selling turquoise in Gallup. ( A reference to the many Mormon families working out of Manassa Colorado including the Kings who were active in the Albuquerque wholesale jewelry market).
I went up to Manassa and knocked on doors, and they all had flats. They said, this is 50 cent a carat. This is 40 cent a carat. This is 30 cent a carat. This is 10 cents a carat, right. So, I went up there, and I don't know how but I ended up in Old Man McGinnis' house, because he owned the McGinness Mine. And it was natural, hard turquoise, beautiful. (George McGinness owned the McGinness mine. See Turquoise in America Part Two 1910-1990 for the complete story).
I said, "OK, I'll give you 15 cents and buy all of it." He said "No" and we went on for hours, hours, right. I finally wore him out. He said, all right. Now, you're talking about $30,000 – $40,000 worth of turquoise. So, I pulled out 500 bucks and then I grabbed a handful out of every box, from the 50, from the 40, from the 30, from the 10 until I got to 500 bucks. He said, "you were going to buy it all." I said, "it's mine. Put it under the counter. I'll be back next week, and I'll buy some more, the same way." I wasn't taking all his good stuff. So, I was getting good turquoise for 15 cents a carat. I was making rings. Gilbert set the price, I didn't, at five bucks. At the end of the day, it was only costing me $2.50. So, in one-month's time, I had $50,000 cash, and I had a $50,000 inventory, just in one month, because he was paying me five bucks, and I was taking him hundreds of rings, thousands of dollars worth of rings, right. I had 300 piece workers on the reservation. I couldn't work with the silversmiths from Gallup. I couldn't work with the silversmiths from Cañoncito, because in those days, you'd give them silver, and chances are you'd never see them. But the Indians from Alamo, for whatever reason, they were reliable and honest.
Alamo is on the Navajo reservation.
Yeah. Let me tell you about Alamo. When they signed the treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe in 1848, they broke it up into Texas, New Mexico, California. Everybody spoke Spanish. Didn't matter if they were white, green, blue, yellow, they all spoke Spanish. So finally, when they signed this treaty, the Indians that signed treaties with the government became wards of the government and they had Indian agents, and they had forts. Every first of the month, they'd come, and they'd give them two army blankets, some tobacco, or beans or rice.
Then, the adjutant general said, " kill all the savages, all of them." He called them savages. So, he recruited Kit Carson and Kearney. Kit Carson, by definition, was an Indian lover, because he was married to a half-Spanish, half Tewa lady in Taos, and they had seven kids. So, he didn't have it in his heart to kill anybody. They went over to Canyon de Chelly, and that was the breadbasket of the Navajo reservation. They had 6,000 peach trees. They had corn. They had squash. He destroyed all of it. He starved them out. And then they came on the Long March over to Bosque Redondo.
So, when they had this Long March, some of those guys, escaped and came to the eastern slope, and they told these guys, "these guys are coming. What can we do?" So, Alamo was the Chavez ranch. It was a land grant, right. So, they ran to their Franciscan priest and said, these assholes are after us. Will you protect us? Absolutely, but there's two conditions. You become Christians, and you get baptized in the Catholic faith. Praise Jesus with their tongue. So, they baptized them, and then they gave them Christian names. Even the Navajos don't know why they have Spanish surnames, because they were baptized by the Catholic priest, right.
These are the ones on the eastern side, who were getting away from the Navajo on the western side to escape being sent on the Long Walk..
Yes. The people in Window Rock hate these guys. They call them fucking Mexicans, because they were with these guys over there. Then, they taught the Indians how to silversmith, that's where you get the name platero, which just means silversmith in Spanish or ganadero, which is a sheepherder.
Yeah, pesh-le-gai , that's Navajo for silver. But they would say platero. Plateros was the first name, because that's the guys that were silversmithing. These guys never signed a peace treaty with the U. S. Government.
And this is this group right here by Albuquerque.
Yeah, Tohajiilee. The first silversmith was a guy named Nakai. Now, if you ask an Indian what does Nakai mean, they'll say Mexican. They think nakai means Mexican. It means stranger.
Not of the Dine.
I don't like to use the word Indian. The indigenous population here was always low man on the totem pole. They were like indentured slaves or something, right. After they signed that treaty of Hildalgo Guadalupe, we didn't have trade with Saint Louis. We didn't have trade with Chihuahua. So, in my culture, they call the people like me from New Mexico, huerfanitos, which is orphans. Because no trade with Saint Louis, no trade with Chihuahua, until Lorenzo Hubbell showed up, right. These white guys were all smart. They married land owner heirs.
Has your family, Lopez, been long time Nuevo Mexicano?
My family's been here since 1598. So, when people ask me what I am, I say I'm an American. No, where's your parents from? An American. Where's your grandparents from? I'm an American. And screw them, if they don't understand it, because I don't fit in, in California. I don't fit in, in Colorado. I don't fit anyplace, except here, because I embrace my culture. I embrace my heritage. And if somebody pins me down, I say, I'm indio hispano, which means Spanish indigenous Indian, right. And I'm not being rude or facetious when I say, screw you if you don't understand it.
Well, Gil, I think I understand a bit, because my family came over during the Civil War, not the American Civil War, the English Civil War, 1640s.
Well, yeah, you're an American period.
So, you beat me a little, just a little bit.
So, here's this group of Navajo jewelers close by. You can trust them. You've been all over the reservation. You know the area well, but you can't deal with the Zuni trader, so you've got Winfields, and the old C. G. Wallace group is up there. Then in Gallup, you've got the Tanners and Kennedy.
I dealt with all of them, J. B. Tanner, Ellis Tanner and Joe Tanner,. Everybody was in the same position I was. They didn't know anything and how to do it. They couldn't produce enough, because the people in Gallup want to squeeze your nuts as hard as they can and make as much money as they can, right. So, the evolution of this thing is, most of the white people that got into the jewelry business got frustrated with the Indian workers, whether they were in shop or piece workers, because like I say, I run on Indian time. They come in when they want. They leave when they want. They do what they want. Sometimes, I get $5 worth of work out of them. Sometimes, I get $500 worth of work out of them. So, I accept them the way they are. But if you're a hard-core businessman, you get very frustrated, right.
They need the money.
They want the money right now. And with the exception of a few people, and I mean a few people, like you were talking about Joe Tanner. I was in his store one day trying to sell him, because I collected a lot of dead pawn on the reservation. I would pay the traders 20 percent over what they lent out, and I would do it right off the ticket. There was no honest-to- God 10 percent or 20 percent. It was right off the pawn tickets. And I knew Don Hoel in Sedona. He was the most knowledgeable buyer I had. And I would say I want a $100. And it was yes or no. It was never I'll give you $90, or $99 or $99.99. I knew where to take it, and he would pay me, right.
I was over at Joe Tanner's one time, and this guy was there, and I asked him who he was, and he told me his name was Preston Monongye and I said, "where are you from?" He said, "my mother came off the mesas, Hopi. When she was 18, she came down to Arizona. I don't remember if it was Tucson or Phoenix, and was experimenting with life, alcohol, drugs, sex. And she got pregnant. And she had the kid and left back to where she came from." So, Preston told me this, and I have no idea if it's true. He told me that he was working construction, and then a Hopi Indian came and was working construction. And they said, oh you're Hopi. I'm Hopi too. Why don't we live together and share expenses. And the Indian from the mesa was a master doll maker, Kachina dolls. I mean really expensive dolls. But he was also experimenting with life, alcohol and drugs. And so, he would get 80, 90 percent done with a project, and then he'd go on the drunk. And so, Preston would finish it, and he was a natural. It just came to him. And then he got this reputation, like Jimmy, his son, is – quote, unquote – the best silversmith on the planet right now.
Jessie I mean, number one. Now, Jessie looks like an Indian, acts like an Indian. Preston didn't look like an Indian and he didn't act like an Indian. I used to call him the Mexican. And I could show you in some old books where Preston was selling to Joe Tanner. I had access to every turquoise on the planet by now and he liked Bisbee turquoise. There was a pendant that Preston was getting $150 for. I made it better than Preston, and I was selling it for $40, and I couldn't sell it, because those guys were buying his name. Just like Jennifer Curtis now, just like Jessie, just a name. I do the finishing work for Cody Sanderson from Santa Fe, and all his work goes to Japan, right. He has a full factory and a shop, whatever you want to call it, in Santa Fe but he brings it to me, because the Japanese think they're buying diamonds and those people can't finish it the way I do, because I take pride in what I do. I tell people that come in here to buy my jewelry, if you can't see the difference, don't pay the difference. To deal with me, you have to have money, and you have to have knowledge. And from 800 customers, I'm down to five, because they're all dead.
How has the business changed?
If I didn't have a million dollars worth of turquoise that I accumulated over the years, I couldn't exist. And even with that, time is running out on me, and I know it. You know what I mean? Because the young Indian, he doesn't have to make 50 cents an hour doing piece work. He can go to the casino and make $10, $12 an hour. So, they're not even sitting at the table of the family making jewelry. It's a vanishing thing. But guess who's taking it over?
I'm the most copied man on the planet. And there's an east Indian that owns a company called Skyway that, if you come out with something real nice, and you're getting 50 bucks for it, he'll buy it off you, pay you your 50 bucks, and then he'll take it to the Mexicans. And they are damn good. I mean really good, right. And he'll sell it for 25 bucks, and he'll be making 15 bucks. You know what I mean. And we can't even make it for what he's selling it for.
So, it's – Al Zuni from Gallup, the Khalafs, in Phoenix. He's on the TV and says "I was born on the Navajo reservation. My family's in the jewelry business." The labor got too high. So, they bought the factory in Cebu in the Philippines. I went over there. Ray Gomez from Malay, Ray Lee Imports, had a compound with a guard, with a .22. You walk in, and all you see are young boys and girls with just a pair of shorts on, grinding heishi and there's 20 in the bullpen if this guy drops dead. He was paying, at that time, $20 a month and a kilo of rice every 15 days. So, how could anybody possibly compete with that? Now, you look at JTV, any day of the week, and they have southwest jewelry that is coming from Khalafs in Cebu in the Philippines, right. And there's a bracelet that they had on the TV not long ago for 150 bucks retail. I pay the Navajo here for the same bracelet 150 bucks, and I sell it for 180. So, these guys have devastated the authentic handmade Indian jewelry, because I pay $16 an hour, right.
Mike Ryan II