Trading in the arts of Native America – Gallup, New Mexico

By Eileen Ogintz

GALLUP, NM — Not your ordinary Jewelry store. Or gallery.

There are entire rooms of silver earrings of every variety; another with just bracelets. There are hand-woven rugs and baskets, hand-carved Zuni fetishes, Kachina dolls of all sizes and an entire warehouse of saddles whose owners pay to be safely stored here.

Perry Null Trading Gallup NM
Perry Null Trading Gallup NM

“Think of all the hours and people it took to make these,” says long time owner Perry Null, perusing the huge store that bears his name.

In the 19th Century, traders were the go-between for the Native Americans and the white settlers. They could trade their jewelry, rugs and blankets for goods they needed. Today, thousands of Native Americans work with the traders in the Western New Mexico city of Gallup to sell their art.

“I still get excited morning with the idea of what someone is going to bring in a paper bag,” says Null, who has been in business for nearly 50 years and now works with his son and son-in-law.

He explains that 80 percent of Native American jewelry sold around the world is made within 100 miles of Gallup, the gateway to the famous Four Corners (clockwise: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona) that are home to the Navajo Nation, the Zuni Pueblo, Hopi and many other tribes.

Gallup was founded in 1881 as a railhead for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, named after David Gallup, who worked for the railroad. One-third of the city’s 22,000 people have Native American roots.

Native American jewelry on display at Perry Null Trading
Native American jewelry on display at Perry Null Trading

Today, art dealers and gallery owners come from around the world to peruse local works at Null’s Trading Post and some 50 others in the surrounding area.

Jen Lazar, who oversees tourism efforts here, acknowledges that Santa Fe – some 240 miles to the northeast of Gallup — is famous for its Indian Market and its galleries. “We want the tourists to come here, to meet the artists, to see where they are working and what they are doing.”

She says artists here especially love to engage kids. “Here, we want them to see art and making art is for all ages.”

Gallup is what you might call a “hidden gem.” You might need to work a bit to have your authentic experience, whether deciding for yourself whether you prefer the local red or green chili sauce (each restaurant has a different version), the type of Native American jewelry you prefer, or whether you want to go hot air ballooning, mountain biking, to a rodeo in the summer, or rock climbing, even open-road motorcycle riding. The High Desert Trail System has some scores of miles of hiking and biking trails; the nearby Red Rock Park has amazing views of the Pyramid and Church Rocks from relatively an easy hiking trail.

There is a flea market every Saturday (the place to sample traditional Navajo food!), Indian dancing on summer nights downtown and a monthly ArtsCrawl, the second Saturday of each month to showcase local artists’ work including the spectacular Downtown Outdoor Murals that were commissioned to retell Gallup’s story—a World War 2 Navajo Code Talker, Zuni Culture, the Coal Mining Era, among others.

Did I mention Gallup is on Historic Route 66?

Daryl Dean Bagay and his award-winning $36000 bolo
Daryl Dean Bagay and his award-winning $36000 bolo

Starting in the 1930s and into the sixties, famous movie stars including In the 1930s and 1940s, famous movie stars including Kirk Douglas, Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan came and stayed at the El Ranch Hotel & Motel on Route 66 while filming . Today the restaurant and hotel is owned by Armand Ortega, a well-known local trader. Walk in and you feel as if you are entering another era with the Spanish Indian décor. Feast on steaks as well a traditional Southwest dishes—enchiladas, fajitas, tamales, tacos and burritos with dishes named after famous actors including Rita Moreno (enchiladas), Desi Arnez (burrito plate),  John Wayne (half pound burger) and Katherine Hepburn (a BLT on toast).

There is no pretense in this town. Dressing up is jeans, cowboy boots and a really nice belt or necklace. “I love that it’s a small town,” said Eri Pena, who with his parents runs Grandpa’s Grill (no website, no credit cards, cash only!) which serves up great burgers. The walls are plastered with memorabilia from earlier days—mining, fire fighting, Route 66 signs, even an ancient popcorn popper for an open fire.

Null, who has eight grandkids, says kids here do what kids do everywhere—play sports, play instruments, act in school plays—but they also love the outdoors whether hiking, biking, camping enjoying snow sports or when they are older, hunting.

Null acknowledges he really doesn’t know exactly how any items he has in this mammoth trading post where heads of buffalo, deer and elk—most that he’s hunted—hang on the wall swearing their own turquoise and coral necklaces. Rugs are hanging too worth thousands of dollars with baskets while Native American pottery is showcased on high shelves.

There are tiny turquoise earrings that are less than $10; and other pieces that are tens of thousands, including the spectacular 18-carat gold, turquoise and coral bolo made by local artist Daryl Dean Bagay that  retails for $36,000. Like most other artists, Begay said, he learned from those in his family.

Perry Null in the saddle valut
Perry Null in the saddle valut

Null looks around the saddle room with saddles stacked nearly to the ceiling. “I don’t think there is another room like this in the world,” he said, pointing out the buffalo robes and deerskins that Medicine Men use in their ceremonies. Some Concha belts are 100 years old. Native Americans store them here, he explained, not because they want them sold but because they want to keep them safe.

“A lot of these things have been in the family for a very long time. We have to take care of them.”

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