August's Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial is world-famous. But that's not the only reason to stop in this Southwestern town

Most mornings, Bill Richardson has his breakfast at the Eagle Cafe in Gallup, New Mexico, where they’ve been serving hotcakes and green chile since 1917. Out front, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rumbles by on tracks parallel to Route 66, a stretch of the Mother Road that still serves as Gallup’s main street. Shops line the avenue, each storefront a showcase of silver and turquoise jewelry handmade by Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and other Native American craftspeople.

Like the Eagle Cafe or Route 66, Richardson is a Gallup landmark. He’s proprietor of Richardson’s Trading Co., the oldest Native American trading post in a town famous for them. “In the old days,” he recalls after 50 years in the family enterprise, “you bought wool, hides, cattle, and sheep and traded for dry goods, sugar, and coffee. Now the rugs, pottery, and jewelry we buy may come from the old families who traded with us on the reservation.”

Shopping for fine Southwestern jewelry is one of the main reasons visitors come to Gallup, in northwestern New Mexico. But there’s more: August’s Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial; an intriguing history; a setting bordered by cloud-shadowed red rock mesas; and that quality called character. If you’re headed toward destinations like Canyon de Chelly or Chaco Canyon, Gallup is an essential stop. 

Railroad men and movie stars

Gallup got its start in 1881 with the arrival of the railroad. Workers would say they were “going to Gallup’s” to collect their wages from railroad paymaster David L. Gallup. Descendants of Japanese, Slavic, Mexican, and Italian immigrants who built the railroads and worked the coal mines still live in this community.

Later the town became a travelers’ oasis along Route 66. Gallup’s stretch of highway inspired such classic roadside architecture as the El Rancho Hotel, which became home-away-from-home for movie stars (Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, and Alan Ladd among them) who were filming on location during the heyday of the Hollywood western. The El Rancho is still decked out in Old West style; inside, you can gaze at autographed pictures of the stars or spend the night in the John Wayne room.

The Native American world long ago designated Gallup its busiest trade center. Locals claim that 80 percent of all Native American jewelry has passed through Gallup. While it’s impossible to calculate that figure down to the last squash blossom necklace, on weekends Gallup’s population of 22,000 doubles as Native Americans from the nearby Navajo Reservation come in to shop, trade, and visit.

And, of course, in August, Gallup hosts the rodeos, dances, and markets of the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, now in its 81st year. One of the largest gatherings of native peoples in the United States, this is an event that anybody who considers her- or himself a Westerner needs to experience. The Indoor and Outdoor Marketplace showcases Native American pottery, jewelry, basketry, and rugs. There are four days and nights of dances, rodeos, and a Saturday downtown parade. 

Downtown Gallup has pretty well recovered from its reputation as a rough neighborhood by closing many of its bars, making the district a pleasant place to walk and shop. Standout shopping opportunities include Richardson’s Trading Co., where the sheer array of Navajo rugs and silver and turquoise jewelry may make a collector out of you, and Shush Yaz Trading Co., which has grand displays of all things Native American. Ellis Tanner Trading Co. is perhaps the closest thing to a genuine trading post of old, where the essentials of reservation life are still bought and traded.

Shopping is not downtown’s only draw, though. In the Chamber of Commerce building, the Navajo Code Talker Museum commemorates the Navajo soldiers who employed their native tongue to baffle the Axis during World War II. More local color can be found at the galleries of the Gallup Cultural Center, housed in the city’s old railroad station, and the exhibits of the Rex Museum. And it’s worth catching a flick at the 1928 El Morro Theater just to admire the superb pueblo deco architecture.

Back at his trading post ― which is stocked to the rafters with Navajo weavings and old-fashioned jewelry cases ― Bill Richardson consults with the first customers of the day. Before they head out to Canyon de Chelly, they need to find the perfect bracelet. It’s clear they’ve come to the right place to find the genuine article.

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