Wednesday, April 04, 2018

System D in the Navajo Nation

the Shiprock (Tsé Bitʼaʼí in Navajo)
The informal economy is a big part of the Navajo Nation. Roadside snow cone vendors -- visible because of the giant pickle jars on their display tables -- dot the sidewalks in towns and at highway intersections. The Piccadilly seems to be the big draw: flavored syrup and dill pickles over shaved ice (my bad: I wasn't in the mood for any taste tests.)

the choice stalls in the Saturday market
Flea markets are popular in cities across the Rez. Shiprock, NM, the second-largest city on the reservation, is particularly notable because it has two flea markets -- an official Saturday-only market and an unofficial daily market.

The Saturday market has its own permanent location along highway 64 near the San Juan River. Here, some 40 merchants, paying $15 per stall, get locations under built-in metal awnings. All other merchants bring their own portable canopies or umbrellas. 

Some of the sellers -- including a band playing Proud Mary and other classic rock hits -- take their power from outlets around the grounds. The market also has a vendor who provides portable toilets that -- at 50 cents per use -- are reasonably clean and not stinky.
the band serving up Proud Mary

The everyday market is up the hill near the crossroads where route 64 hits route 491. Here, on a dusty lot sandwiched between Little Caesars Pizza and the entry to the local Diné College campus, merchants use their cars as their stalls and there's no cost to anyone who wants to set up and sell.

Leandra, who usually occupies a gap in the fenceline that separates the market from the Little Caesars parking lot (she jokes that it's her drive-thru window), served in the U.S. military for 3 years in the early 2000s. Now she comes comes every day to serve biscuits and gravy, burritos, boiled
Leandra ladling gravy on her biscuits
eggs, coffee and soda. She keeps her food warm by connecting her hot plate to her car battery through a small direct current-to-alternating current power inverter.

The hood of Victoria's car won my prize for 'best retail display.' She said she was selling off many things she had kept in storage for years. (System D typology note: the use of car hoods to display products is also a facet of street vending in Lagos, Nigeria.)

Other vendors sell video cassettes and dvds (one merchant even repairs old VCRs), used clothing, power and hand tools, jewelry, and all sorts of household cast-offs.

Victoria's award-winning curiosity shop
According to a study by the Diné Policy Institute, more than half the vendors at the markets are women. And, with unemployment in the Navajo Nation hovering at 42 percent and an approximately equal percentage of the residents living below the poverty line, more than half the sellers told the Institute that they rely on their street sales as their main sources of income. Many of them travel as much as an hour -- 60 miles -- each way for the privilege of vending their wares.

finding a tiny bit of shade at the everyday market

all photos by Andrea Haenggi

(big thanks to Heather Fleming & Carole and Tim Fleming.)

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