“I know that I enjoyed working with so many Native American Artists. Doing the buy and sell volume I was responsible for at the Heard, I made it possible to buy millions of dollars worth of goods from them. This knowledge is a plus for me in my mind and heart. Most of us would like to do good things for other people. This was my opportunity. I know I was able to make life a little better for many Indian families by purchasing goods from them, a very good feeling.”
Byron Hunter, Jr.
A little over thirty years ago, I got a call from Betty Pennington, who had worked as our manager at the gallery before moving to Phoenix to take a job at the Heard Museum.
She said, “Jackson, you need to come down to Phoenix and meet Byron Hunter, the manager at the Heard Museum Shop. I’m sure he would want to buy some things from you, but I think you guys would really hit it off.”
I didn’t get down there until several months later, and Betty had moved to Northern California, but she was right on both counts. The Heard became a big customer for us, and Byron and I became fast friends. I met him not long after my father passed, and he became a mentor, gently offering advice and always available when I had a question.
No one knew more about the Indian trading business in the Southwest. His father had worked at the Ganado Trading Post for famed trader Al Lee and, in 1947, started the American Indian Crafts Store in Phoenix. Byron would work with his father each day after school, where he developed an interest in Native art. At first, he was in charge of grading and shipping Navajo weavings to customers and stores all over the United States, including (believe it or not) Sears and Wards!
In 1948, legendary trader Bill McGee took him on buying trips to the reservation. When Byron got his driving license, he began making the trip by himself, grading and buying rugs from trading posts and eventually delivering them to Glendale, California, the new shipping headquarters for American Indian Crafts. His route around the reservation was 850 miles, mostly on dirt roads, and it connected him with 41 different stores and communities.
It was a time when there were a lot of weavers, but trading posts didn’t have a lot of customers for the rugs. Byron, his father, and his partners made it possible for weavers to continue working by buying and distributing the weavings to retail outlets.
On his buying route, Byron met Joe Lee, who started the Gap and Shonto Trading Posts. Lee taught him to count in Navajo and enough of the language for him to get by. In 1949, Bill McGee offered Hunter a great opportunity. He would run each of McGee’s three trading posts in Keams Canyon, Polacca, and Bitahoche for a month while his managers went on vacation. At the end of this time, Byron knew he wanted to be in some phase of the trading business.
By age 20, he worked at the Ganado Trading Post, where his father had started his Indian trading career. It was the busiest post in the area, surpassing even the famed Hubbell Trading Post. In 1954, he moved to work for the well-known trader C.A. Wheeler who owned the Sunrise Ganado Trading Post, and later moved to the Sunrise Leupp Trading Post, also owned by Wheeler.
He got thrown into the deep end of the trading business at Leupp. Byron said, “Bill Montgomery managed the store and hadn’t had a vacation in two years! I thought when I arrived, Bill would go over accounts, etc., with me. How wrong I was. His family was in their car when I drove up. He gave me the keys and a few instructions: Ask Willy (his Navajo helper) who the good customers were; call Smokey (a cattle buyer in Winslow) when I needed money and information about cattle prices. And then he left. I didn’t see him for two months. And Willy—he was gone after the first week!”
When Bill came back, he asked Byron to stay and help him. When he went home for Thanksgiving, he met Joanie, and love made it seem like Leupp was a long way away. They were married in 1956, and in 1959 they moved to Keams Canyon, a post owned by Bill McGee, where he worked with Clarence Wheeler.
All the time I knew Byron, I never heard him say anything negative about anyone. The closest he came was his explanation about why he left Keams Canyon. “Wheeler,” he said, “was close to being crazy!”
He and Joanie moved to Williams and ran the Grand Canyon Trading Post. After a year, they decided to move back to Phoenix, take a month off, and then decide what to do. Joanie was pregnant, and it didn’t sit well with their parents that Byron was unemployed. A friend from Winslow was in charge of opening a Stuckey store there and hired Byron to manage it. So he and Joanie took off for Winslow and were getting the new store in shape when the vice president of the chain arrived to check the place out.
“Everything was great,” said Byron, “until the VP realized that Joanie was pregnant. He explained that Stuckey’s expected BOTH spouses to work, and being pregnant “wasn’t allowed.” I was fired on the spot. It happened to be one of those twists of fate that turns out for the best.”
They drove to Phoenix and saw Bill McGee, who owned McGee’s Indian Den in Scottsdale. Bill wanted to return to Keams Canyon and remodel his trading post there. Byron took over the Indian Den. It was a good experience, and much of his clientele was fantastic, including Mrs. Wrigley and Mrs. McCormick, top society figures in Scottsdale.
It was a perfect time to be in business in Scottsdale. Lloyd Kiva New set up a group of shops for up-and-coming artists that became friends with Byron. They included Charles Loloma, Beatian Yazz, Andy Tsinnajine, Ed Natay, Pop Chalee, and many more. These relationships were essential when Hunter later became the manager at the Heard Museum Shop.
In 1963, McGee asked Byron to move to the Hopi Reservation to manage the Polacca Trading post, and he was excited to take on the challenge. Hunter was one of only a few who managed trading posts on the Hopi and the Navajo reservations. The store had been owned by Tom Pavatea, a Hopi whose family had leased it to McGee.
“Upon arrival,” said Hunter, “I found several thousand pieces of Hopi pottery, baskets, and kachinas. I spent months organizing half of the store into arts and crafts. I set up the rest of the store to hold general merchandise for local people.”
Hunter developed business with the Fred Harvey Company and other large dealers in Gallup and Albuquerque. He made a lifelong friendship with Fred Harvey’s grandson, Byron Harvey Jr.
“We had a large selection of beautiful merchandise,” said Hunter in 1965, “including Nampeyo pottery and many collector pieces. We were ready for business!”
Then, on June 9, 1965, he was awakened by a knock on his door and was told the trading post was on fire.
“I was able to enter the office area and gather up some pawn pieces before the walls and roof began collapsing. A few pots and Kachinas were salvaged, but everything else was lost. Bill made arrangements to lease a small home/store. The next day we had various salesmen taking our orders for merchandise, and our carpenter was building shelves and showcases. We did open within a week, nothing grand, but we were on our way.
“I think this was a growing experience for me: more self-confidence and a positive thing—starting a business from zero.”
The Hunters liked living in Polacca, and his children, Greg and Stacy, attended the Hopi School system. But when Bill sold his share of the company, they decided to move back to Phoenix, where Byron opened his own business, the Hunters Trading Post. He enjoyed six great years dealing with artists he had met through the years and cultivating collectors. The rents were rising, and he was considering moving to Scottsdale.
Then Byron Harvey Jr. met him for lunch and took him to see Pat Hoolihan, the Director of the Heard Museum. Lavena Ohl, the current shop manager, was retiring, and Hoolihan wanted to know if he would take the job. He met with Sandra Day O’Connor’s committee and several board members to discuss the job.
“They said Ok. I said Ok. Details were worked out, and I was set to start on June 6, 1977.“
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be working for a museum plus about 50 volunteers,” said Hunter. “This was a great thing that happened to me, and I never regretted the opportunity.”
When Byron took over the shop, the Heard was the only Museum in the country using all volunteers in active roles. Museums from around the country sent representatives to study their methods, hoping for similar success.
He had to build an inventory, but he was the right man. He knew all the top artists and traders in the country, and if you bought something from the Heard, it was top quality. The shop did so well the first year that the museum expanded it. The Heard Guild ran the shop, and profits contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Museum.
The business grew over the next four years, surpassing $1,000,000 in sales for one year. Lois Goff joined the Museum as the assistant manager, and Byron’s son, Greg, worked for the shop and as security for the Museum. But they were outgrowing the shop!
The Museum Trustees expanded the Museum and the shop in the early ‘80s; when finished, both could compete with any museum worldwide. In Byron’s first year at the Museum Shop, sales were $500,000. When he left in 1997, sales were $3,500,000, and they had opened a second shop in Carefree.
During this time, the Heard Spring Fair gained recognition and is today one of the top shows in the country where people can interact with artists. Byron’s daughter, Stacey, took over the Museum’s auditorium and set up children’s items to sell.
“We always ended the Fair weekend with a celebratory meal at Durant’s, taking our group and including Bill Malone and his Hubbell Trading Post workers in for the weekend event. We all had stories to tell. Those were good times.”
In 1996, Joan was diagnosed with cancer, and the following year, Byron retired from the Heard to spend time with her. He had enjoyed his 20 years and all the people he worked with, but it was time for Joan and Byron to reminisce about their 41 years together and enjoy each other’s company.
After Joan passed, Byron worked with the acquisition committee at the Heard, and in 1997, a new space opened in the Heard Shop. It was dedicated as the Byron Hunter Trading Post the following year.
In 1999, Byron married Marybeth Weigand, a widow whose husband had been a physician. The two couples had lived on the reservation and had been good friends.
After Byron left the Heard, I continued to call on the new manager, Bruce McGee, a good man who has followed the same philosophy of working with the best artists, treating people fairly, and representing quality in the Museum Shop.
But every time I went to Phoenix, I always made it a point to hook up with Byron.
He and Mary Beth had a good life together. They enjoyed Byron’s family cabin in Pinetop, Arizona. When the heat was oppressive in the valley, they made lots of trips, and, for several years, they spent a month in Durango during the summer. We enjoyed many dinners and lots of beers while swapping stories.
Right before the pandemic, they sold their home and moved into an adult living community. Kris and I had come down to Mesa for Brian Lebel’s Old West Show, and we went to dinner the night before the show started. The next day, Kris drove to Scottsdale, picked him up, and brought him down to the show, where hundreds of exhibitors filled the ballrooms at the Mesa Convention Center. She watched our booth while Byron and I walked around the show.
He had retired from the Heard twenty-two years before, but traders and artists left their booths to greet him and exchange stories as we walked the exhibit hall floor. Customers in the aisles stopped him to say hello. This man built his life on hard work, integrity, and caring about others. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He remembered people, and they remembered him. He was a true gentleman.
That day on the showroom floor was the last time he saw many former friends and fellow dealers. It was a good day.
The pandemic was not good for the Hunters. Marybeth passed last year, and following two lengthy stays in the hospital, and several months at Stacey’s house, Byron could return to the assisted living community in Scottsdale. He worked hard at rehab and was doing well. Last fall, I sprung him from the place, and we visited the Western Spirit Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, whose first director was his good friend and the former business manager at the Heard, Mike Fox. It was a great day.
He had a stroke about a week after his 90th birthday. We were talking on the phone right after his party, and he told me it was one of the best birthdays he had ever had and how much he enjoyed seeing all the grandchildren and spending time with his kids.
I will miss his emails and our weekly phone conversations. It was so good to hear his stories and perspectives of the old trading days. He lived during the evolution of the Indian trading business and was responsible, in many ways, for helping Native artists reach a new level of recognition.
Anyone who worked with or knew Bryon Hunter will always be thankful that they had that opportunity.
Rest in peace, Brother.