Importance of preserving Oljato Trading Post underscored by endangered historic site listing

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named the Oljato Trading Post in San Juan County as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country for 2021.

The 100-year-old trading post has recently become a focal point for preservation efforts after decades of neglect. 

The Oljato Chapter and the Navajo Nation are hoping the designation will stimulate greater awareness and support for the project, which has the potential to bring resources and economic development to the tribal communities. 

However, the deteriorated structure needs $1.3 million for rehabilitation so it can serve a new career as a community center and tourist destination.

“This can become the first stop for tourists as they travel to Monument Valley and Bears Ears, which will bring in revenue and help people understand the history of trading posts,” said Herman Daniels, who represents the Oljato area on the Navajo Nation Council.

“There’s a lot of memories for people who went to the trading post,” said Daniels. “I can still remember getting bubble gum from the gumball machine whenever we visited.”

The Oljato Trading Post is a rare example of a once-ubiquitous mainstay in Navajo communities that offered a wide assortment of goods, provided Navajo producers a place to sell or trade their products, and acted as community centers and social hubs. 

Built in 1921, the National Register-listed Oljato complex includes a trading room, living area, storage for wares, and a traditional hogan (or sacred home) for overnighters.

“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.

“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.

“This is an opportunity for the Oljato Chapter and the Navajo Nation to reclaim and reframe this 100-year-old trading post to communicate their history, serve their communities, create a source of community pride, and attract revenue and resources that benefit the tribe.”  

Restoring the trading post would serve the dual purpose of preserving the past while also giving it new life as an economic tool for the local community and tourist destination.

But for that to happen, funding for the necessary restoration work is vitally important, said Robert S. McPherson, a professor of history emeritus at Utah State University.

“Oljato Trading Post was the center of the community, but then it lapsed into oblivion,” said McPherson, who is helping raise restoration funds through the Friends of Oljato. “But we’re bringing it back, and it’s going to be a boon for the whole region.

“It has huge potential for economic and cultural revitalization in an area with strong tourism.”

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, sponsored a proposal to provide funding for infrastructure improvements for the trading post and Oljato community, such as water, power, and roads, during the 2021 legislative session and plans to do so again in the 2022 session.

Preserving the trading post provides a rare snapshot of life on the Navajo reservation in the early 20th Century.

“The Oljato Trading Post, in a remote corner of the Navajo Nation, is a historical gem,” said Lyman, whose district covers seven counties in southeastern Utah and includes Oljato and the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

“Recognition of Oljato is recognition of the people, of their history, of their culture, and of their struggle.

“It embodies a confluence of European and Navajo cultures, which entreats deeper contemplation of and appreciation for what it means to be American.”

Also working on the restoration project is 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.

The designation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation should serve as a catalyst that can not only generate awareness in the trading post but also encourage much-needed financial support.

“This national designation highlights both the significance of the trading post and its vulnerability,” said Roger Roper, the deputy state historic preservation officer for Utah.

“As one of the last of its kind, it represents a distinct way of life in a very remote part of the country that is little understood by most Americans.

“Preserving this unique structure will not only return it to a viable use that benefits the community, but it will also honor the Navajo culture and people for generations to come.”

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