Relocated: A new visitors center leaves vendors in Monument Valley with an uncertain future

What is now graded red sand at the junction of Highway 163 and the Monument Valley Road in Utah was, just six months ago, the “Vendor Village,” also referred to as the Monument Valley Mall.

It consisted of two lines of vendor booths constructed of rough-cut lumber, where a generation of Navajos worked and sold their wares to tourists from around the globe. I’ve heard them called “shacks” by members of the San Juan County establishment, some of whom have made a long and concerted effort to remove them from the beautiful, photogenic landscape.


Today, a brand-new facility of brick and steel is being constructed on Utah State Parks land on the southeast corner of the junction, and the vendors are gone. With them went a piece of Monument Valley’s past.

Forced out at gunpoint

There’s a history of relocation among the Navajos. In the 1860s, Kit Carson, on orders from Gen. James Carleton — who was convinced that great mineral treasures lay below the Navajo landscape — rounded up all the Navajos and Apaches he could get his hands on, and relocated them to a place called Fort Sumner, N.M. The Navajos were forced to march there in the middle of winter. Pregnant women and enfeebled or injured Navajos who couldn’t keep up were shot.

“Bosque Redondo,” as the Navajos called it, became their home for four years. Attempts at turning this concentration camp into a successful farming enterprise were a total failure. Many hundreds of Navajos died during their internment before the tribe was allowed to return their homes.

In the 1950s San Juan County, Utah, cattlemen, who tired of Navajos herding sheep on public lands north of the San Juan River (a traditional herding area for the Navajo for hundreds of years, but off of the reservation boundaries established by the Treaty of 1868) forced them from their camps at gunpoint in the middle of winter and drove them back across the river.

Now, as I stood beside the “junction” — where Highway 163 intersects with the road connecting the village of Monument Valley (the Post Office, medical clinic, Head Start, the fire department and EMS, Goulding’s Lodge, the air strip, and the high school) with the Navajo Nation Tribal Park — I could not help but wonder at the events that led to the current chapter.

Ten years ago, I frequently stood in the same spot with a stack of copies of the Canyon Echo, a small, local newspaper which included monthly articles about the Diné, or Navajo people, the Utes, and occasional historical references to the “disappeared” Paiutes who once formed an important part of the indigenous community along the San Juan River.

Every month (except January and February), I delivered papers to the people at Vendor Village, and so got to know them and their families. I went to high-school graduations and weddings, and saw some of the boys go off to fight in their country’s service.

Children played in the Monument Valley sand close to the little coal- or wood-fired stoves in the winter, and the wind blew the red sand through the cracks, covering the tables where sat silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery, and arts and crafts, designed to entice Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Americans in Winnebagos to stop on their tiresome journeys between the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde and peruse what the Navajos had to sell.

As the saying goes, “There’s a history to everything,” and this story is no exception.

Fictional Indian tribes

Back in the 1930s a fellow named Harry Goulding had an idea. He had a small trading post and a few rooms to rent in what he thought was the most beautiful place on earth, Monument Valley.

When the Paiutes were relocated and moved off the Paiute Strip, and the Navajo Reservation was extended from the Arizona border to the San Juan River in exchange for the land which is now Lake Powell, Goulding found out about it and wangled a section (640 acres) from the State of Utah. That’s the current location of Goulding’s Lodge.

Goulding’s idea was Hollywood. He thought Monument Valley would be a great place to make movies, and he was right. He convinced director John Ford of it, and the result was many movies featuring John Wayne fighting a wide assortment of fictional Indian tribes. The names of the tribes weren’t fictional (Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache), but many of them had never been anywhere near Monument Valley.

I had a friend, Michael Lacapa, who was Hopi/Tewa/Apache and grew up among the White Mountain Apaches, his mother’s people.

“I grew up around Fort Apache,” he said. “I had seen all of those John Wayne movies when I was a little kid and I always wondered at how unalike the landscapes were. Then when I finally went to Monument Valley, I said, ‘Oh, so this is Fort Apache!’”

Barter and trade

The basis for a relationship between peaceful Anglos and Navajos has always been trade. When the Hollywood celebrities arrived on their chartered flights and in their fancy convertibles, the Navajos presented their colorful rugs and jewelry, and a lively barter ensued. This went on for a number of years (until Hollywood became bored with making movies about cowboys and Indians) and became the basis for the Vendor Village.

In the 1950s the Navajo Nation built a visitors center on the Arizona side, overlooking the most spectacular part of Monument Valley, and a road to it. Local Navajos built small enclosed stands to protect them from the weather and set out their tables with goods on display.

It got crowded in the little parking lot and, according to one source, “The tribe didn’t like the competition,” and decided that if the local Navajos wanted to sell there they’d have to pay fees. The result was that the community of vendors moved, lock, stock and barrel, to “the junction” on the Utah side, where they sold their goods and raised their children until just this year.

They were camped on Bureau of Indian Affairs property within the state of Utah. The road is maintained by the Utah Department of Transportation. It was a good spot for the vendors and tourists — but one that was in the way of progress.

The State of Arizona decided years ago that it wanted to build rest stops on scenic byways. It offered to put up $2 million to build one at Monument Valley. About 20 years ago the State of Utah decided it wanted to be a part of this project, and San Juan County got involved.

The Vendor Village, the one people have called Monument Valley Mall all those years, was located on BIA land, but outside the fences and on the highway right-of-way. Inside the fences was State of Utah land.

Somewhere during this long, convoluted chapter, federal money became available. Twenty years ago it was called “ISTEA” money and was set aside to promote American scenic byways such as Utah’s Highway 163.

Officials wanted to use the money to build their “interpretive center,” but the Navajo vendors were right there in the way, in their shacks.

In an age when uranium-mining had ceased to be the means by which southeast Utah garnered its income, tourism seemed the logical next step.

‘Basically the bully’

“That (funding) was just for an interpretive center,” said Peggy Humphreys, director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council. The SJCEDC has been a prime mover in the project. “But then we started to talk about a Vendor Village for the vendors down there, who are at the present in those shacks you see going off toward the tribal park.”

I first met Leroy Teeasyatoh in his booth at Vendor Village a decade ago. He had been “relocated” from the Joint Use Area of the Hopi Partition Lands by an agreement between the Hopis, the Navajos and the U.S. government. He and many other Navajos were relocated from the homes where they had lived for generations.

“The (Navajo Nation) tribe is basically the bully,” Teeasyatoh said. “I think the tribe has a chip on its shoulder, and who they take it out on is the next person who’s like a crab, trying to get out of the bucket.

“I say this because I went through it. It’s happening right now. It has been happening since I was born. It’s happening because the Navajo Nation put me out here in Monument Valley because of relocation.”

Teeasyahtoh has been highly involved in the Monument Valley Economic Development Association (MEDA). He is the owner/operator of Sacred Monument Tours. He has served on the board of directors of MEDA, and now is on the board of the Monument Valley Tour Operators’ Association.

Eventually, between the federal government, the State of Arizona, Utah, and the Navajo Nation, more than $4 million was raised for the project. They have been working on this phase of the project for 15 years.

But the vendors were in the exact place which was ideally suited for the Monument Valley Visitors Center. The trick was how to get them to move. It was a slow process, but MEDA had the money committed to build the visitors center and also a commitment from Utah State Parks for the land on the other side of the fence.

Remember that the Monument Valley Mall was located outside the fence on highway frontage owned by the BIA and maintained by UDOT. There were no restroom facilities (Navajos used outhouses perched precariously out on the sand dunes which no tourist would consider approaching, let alone using).

There were proposals and counterproposals, meetings and arguments, and Oljeto Chapter (the governing body of Monument Valley and Oljeto, similar to a county) meetings. But, in the end, progress prevailed.

Not the same

The vendors were entreated, threatened, cajoled. Finally a lawsuit and forceful removal were threatened. The result is what you see now: the new facility at the southeast corner of the junction, with the vendors gone. You can look down Highway 163 and see what remains of the vendors, listing in a row on the west side of the road The vendors were offered funding to buy building materials to relocate farther up the road, on Highway 163 in Arizona. Some of them did, but they say it isn’t the same.

“There’s not much business up there at the new location,” said Garry Holiday, Jr. (his family has been vendors for two generations). “The traffic doesn’t slow down along there. The location is not nearly as good as the old one.”

“Some of the vendors are selling at the flea market in Kayenta now,” Torrie Teeasyatoh said. “But tourists don’t stop there. Now, they are trying to sell to their own people in Kayenta.”

There are two phases involved in the process: finishing construction of the visitors center, and building the Vendor Village. The price tag is between $4 million and $6 million for both projects, with estimates of $1 million for Vendor Village.

Construction of the visitors center is under way. Construction of the Vendor Village has not begun.

A question of cost

What of the new village? Wasn’t providing a permanent home for the vendors the motivation for getting them to move in the first place?

“That’s right,” Humphreys said. “At first we were just talking of a visitors center, but we wanted to get the vendors interested because there’s going to be 40 stalls, 40 places to sell their work.”

That’s impressive, I thought. Booths heated and air-conditioned, bathroom facilities for everyone to use, clean, paved walkways. Very civilized.

But Torrie Teeasyatoh is skeptical.

“They’ll never build it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen. We just got used. There’s no Vendor Village, as you can see.”

Leroy Teeasyatoh agrees. “That was a tactic they used to get local Navajo support for the project. There’s no funding for the vendor village. I think the Utah Department of Transportation needs to cough up some money. They don’t put nothing into it. I’m sick and tired of those guys.

“To force the vendors to move the way they did really affected them. The local Navajos are really struggling right now. If you want to be self-sufficient you have to struggle. That’s what we are doing.”

One of the principal issues is rent. At their old location, the vendors didn’t pay rent. They were their own bosses. They came and went like the wind, adjusting their movements to their needs.

With the new vendor village (if and when it is built) fees can be charged, taxes collected. Under the old system the state of Utah wasn’t assured that it was getting its sales tax.

“The major issue is of rent, of fees for using the booth space,” said Patricia Seltzer, longtime principal of Monument Valley High School, and a community member. “The vendors don’t want to pay it.”

How much will fees be for the newly constructed village?

“A minimum of $10 per day,” Leroy Teeasyatoh said, “plus utilities and fees for trash pick-up, and association dues.”

The fees will be charged year-round. “That’s $3,650 per year at $10 per day. I’ve heard the estimate as high as $6,000.”

Who will decide these things?

“The Vendor’s Association,” Humphreys said. “The Arts and Crafts Association of Oljeto Chapter will govern themselves.”

In the meantime a handful of vendors are stretched along a narrow strip of Highway 163 and few cars stop, even when the weather is fine. There is no vendor village and some people think there may never be one, and if it were built tomorrow, the vendors wonder, who could afford it?

From January 2006.