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 neighbors. 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.
Inside the gift shop, on her 9’ x 12’warp loom, Navajo artist and master weaver, Elsie Glander, is weaving a rug. Elsie—whose father was a medicine man and her mother a weaver—began weaving at the age of eight. Now 74 years old, Elsie has been weaving at Cameron for over twenty years. Her rugs, some taking up to commissioned and ranging from $425.00 to $35,000.00, some taking up to a year to create. Elsie shared that it took her two days to set up the warp for [this] piece. As I watched her methodically move the wool through the warp loom, weaving and combing the wool into one of her four designs, she told me that this design, “The Storm,” is the most popular. Weaving necessitates tremendous mathematics ability. Intricate patterns mentally visualized, threads counted for each pattern’s design, wool skeins—the length of thread or yarn—calculated and strung to warp looms. In effect, a weaver’s brilliance reflects in the earliest blankets and rugs to those recently created by surviving elders.
With no Churro sheep to shear, Elsie purchases Moreno wool. Already processed and colored, she reworks the yarn to create a smoother, more superior quality. Depending upon the skeins, this process may take up to a month. Elsie described it as “challenging” and shared, “You have to sit at it, imagine it, decide how to do it, visualize it, and figure out the count.” The Native American Art Gallery at Cameron is the original pueblo-style hotel built by Hubert Richardson in 1928. Throughout this beautiful, hand-cut stone building, sacred Native artwork is showcased—including antique and contemporary works from every genre—with probably the largest selection of early weavings anywhere. Featuring Navajo blankets (1860- 1890s) and original Apache oils (1870-1890s)—works ranging from $ 8,700.00 to $250,000.00—the gallery is a paradise for collectors and history enthusiasts alike.
Observe rare works from distinguished potters like Hopi-Tewa Nampeyo (1859-1942), Maria Martinez (1887-1980) of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo works by Margaret Tafoya (1904-2001) and pottery by the original Cochiti “Storyteller” Helen Cordero (1915-1994). Award-winning artists like Charles Loloma, Vernon Haskie, and Raymond Chee are on display, as is Cheryl Yazza, who’s known for her hand-made porcelain dolls. Awestruck might a modern-day bowman be by the 1870s Sioux bow case and quiver set with quillwork in buffalo, currently valued at $95,000.
The trading post building hosts the gift shop where over 20 tribes have their works exhibited. Herein one will find rugs, pottery, baskets, turquoise and silver 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 Bilagáana, 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 Bilagáana 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.
“It’s a family-for-family business. Every decision I make affects all of these families.” - Josh Atkinson
Story written by: River Ann Polinard Photos Provided by: Cameron Trading Post