Buckskin robes and cradleboards brush against intricately beaded moccasins and pipe bags displayed behind glass at the 1892 Mohawk Lodge Indian Store & Trading Post. Carved totems and historic photographs balance precariously on a nearby mantle, while a row of kachina dolls suspends unceremoniously from the rafters in Oklahoma’s oldest trading post, arguably one of the most authentic in the country.
Colorful Pendleton blankets soften gunmetal-gray shelves like wildflowers scattered across a sunburned prairie in the unassuming redbrick building off old Route 66 in Clinton, Okla. (pop. 8,833). Pat Henry sits in a weathered easy chair—one of three anchoring a moderately tranquil bay surrounded by the tumultuous sea of American Indian artifacts. Her husband, Charles, is seated next to her, while a battered chair facing the door marks the roost of the late N.B. (Napoleon Bonaparte) Moore, crowned head of Oklahoma’s oldest trading post before he sold it to Henry’s mother.
“N.B. loved to sit in that chair and visit with the Indian people,” Henry explains, almost reverently. “He was the local newsletter,” she says, adding that Moore was as much a repository for intertribal gossip as Mohawk Lodge Indian Store is for the hand-crafted items stockpiled there during its 111-year existence.
Many Indian trading posts are sprinkled throughout western Oklahoma, even more throughout the Southwest. Along the Interstate 40 corridor west of Oklahoma City, roadside signs advertise the Cherokee Trading Post and Restaurant on the outskirts of town. And nearby Weatherford (pop. 9,859) sports a sign for Doc’s Longhorn Trading Post & Antique Mall. Rooted in a tradition that pre-dates statehood, Mohawk Trading Post began life not far from Clinton in Colony, Okla.
The Dutch Reform Church of New York established the store so that Plains tribes could sell their handicrafts to Eastern markets. Operating under the name Mohonk (after a lake in New York state), the trading post moved to its present location in 1940. In 1950, Moore—a member of the Creek tribe—purchased the business and began adding to its substantial collection.
Several years later, Henry’s mother—a part-Comanche and Cherokee woman by the name of Nellie Stevens—came “a’rollin’ in here,” says Henry, looking for antiques. Stevens decided to set up her own shop in a building that formerly served as the trading post’s beading house. By 1964, Stevens and Moore were trading places when she took over Mohonk (changing it to Mohawk), while Moore moved into the smaller house next door.
“Mama owned the store during Route 66’s heyday,” adds Henry, who took over after her mother’s 1992 death. And although the interstate usurped some of the Mother Road’s traffic, travelers still seek out the shop’s historic Indian wares. In addition to a stream of international motorists who flock to Clinton’s Route 66 Museum each summer, the trading post attracts its own pilgrims who view the store as a home away from home.
Many come to buy. Some, like the Indians whose crafts Henry sells, trade materials—hanks of colored beads and the softest of goatskins—for their handiwork.
Mohawk Trading Post is more than a store. It is, in effect, a museum. And Henry is its curator.
Henry points to a beaded vest with a flying geese pattern that came from the Tingley Collection in Anadarko, Okla. (pop. 6,645). On another wall, a king-sized buffalo-hide vest decorated with American flags hangs beneath the picture of its former owner: 6-foot-8, 450-pound Apache Ben. And then there’s the 1840 Crow saddle, stenciled with roses on stretched rawhide, and the 1915 drum used in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.
Most of the antique items aren’t for sale, although cases of 19th-century moccasins and trunks of black-and-white photographs barely contain their contents. Henry wouldn’t have it otherwise. “If I don’t buy and keep them here,” she says of such museum-quality treasures, “they’re gone from the area forever.”