The National Trust for Historic Preservation named a San Juan County trading post as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America in 2021.
According to the trust, which is a nonprofit that works to preserve American history, the Oljato Trading Post is one of the few remaining historic trading posts for Navajo communities that haven’t been bulldozed or replaced by gas stations.
The Oljato Chapter of Navajo Nation are hoping the designation will bring greater support to raising the $1.3 million project needed to rehabilitate the 1921 structure and give it “new life as a community center and cultural tourist destination.”
“The Oljato Trading Post, a focal point of the Navajo community, celebrates its 100th birthday this year,” said Katherine Malone France, the Chief Preservation Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a press release. “What better way to honor this place, which helps tell Utah’s multi-layered history, than by preserving and re-activating it under Oljato and Navajo leadership.”
Navajo trading posts were areas of commerce and community hubs that started as early as 1868 at Fort Defiance in Arizona, said Bob McPherson, a retired Utah State University history professor and member of the San Juan County Historical Commission. As more Navajos returned home after the four-year “Long Walk” and internment, they built places to trade their goods. Their resettlement led to the ‘golden age’ of trading posts between 1900-1930.
The traditional Navajo trading post structure was large, with an area for trading, an elevated area to oversee trading, a pawn room for customers to receive extended credit before the seasonal tradings of wool and lambs, and loading areas for wagons to store goods.
“The thing that makes [Oljato] unique is that it was not unique,” said McPherson, who lives in Blanding and is involved with the restoration project. “Of those 260 posts that existed … you probably have maybe half-a-dozen on and off the reservation that are still in the same form that they were during the heyday of trading.”
During the 2021 legislative session, Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, requested funding for infrastructure improvements for the trading post and the Oljato community. He plans to make the same request in 2022. In his proposal, he stated that the community of Oljato, San Juan County and the state of Utah would see a “return on investment” in visitation and tourism taxes as the project developed, with the bigger impact being the “cultural capital” it would bring to “one of the most underserved areas of the state.”
Although the project did not get funded, Lyman brought a few legislators to see exactly what he was hoping to restore. The restoration could be funded by the state’s allotment under the American Recovery Act, said Lyman, and he says he will find out if it falls under one of the act’s special designations by the legislature’s June 16 interim committee meetings.
“With the [historic trust’s] designation, it raises the profile significantly — at least people understand that I’m not just talking about a pet project, it really is a special artifact that needs to be preserved,” Lyman said. “When you go to the community of Oljato, it’s hard to see that there’s been much investment from the legislature or the state or really anybody else… This is a nice thing to do for a community that has a really apparent, obvious need.”
McPherson said the trading post has received $15,000 from a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization, and $10,000 from the federal government in Certified Local Government grants, which help preserve historic places.
“We’re operating on a shoestring. There’s no water in the building, there’s no electricity in the building, there’s nothing … We’re worried about just getting a roof on the building. And there’s one corner, the southeast corner, that is falling down,” McPherson said. “That would be the end goal, to get [the $1.3 million], but right now we’re just desperate to get things [stabilized].”
The trading post restoration project is also working with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, the Utah Division of State History, the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, and Preservation Utah, according to a press release. For now, McPherson said there is an organization called Friends of Oljato for individuals who would like to donate, which is run by the San Juan Foundation.
Ultimately, McPherson hopes a restored Oljato Trading Post would be owned and operated by local Navajo people, with opportunities to teach tourists more about the culture and for local people to sell their wares.
“We hope it will be an economic exciter for the community that will not only give them financial opportunities, but also reach out to teaching about the culture and showing what Navajo history and culture is all about in that area,” McPherson said. “This is where everything took place — this was a center of the Oljato-Monument Valley Community for a long, long time. This is just an opportunity to really make a difference.”