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Horse Tradin'

Family presides over successful tourist empire

Navajo Times, News feature, Cindy Yurth Posted: Sep 24, 2008

LUPTON, Ariz -You would think the patriarch of the Yellowhorse trading empire could come up with some words of advice for young entrepreneurs. But Frank Yellowhorse seems stumped.

"That's a tough one," says the 75-year-old, furrowing his brow. "I don't know what to say. In my family, business is just what we did."

Here at his family's network of stores along Interstate 40, for example, Yellowhorse is not averse to donning a Plains-style headdress when a tourist wants to snap his photo.

"This is our Navajo style," he says, pointing to his plain cloth headband. "The tourists don't want to see that. They look at Indians, they want to see some feathers."

large Yellowhorse's colorful-old-Indian shtick seems hopelessly dated, yet if you hang around the trading post long enough, there is no denying that it works.

"Native Americans are so awesome," coos a young Anglo woman outside the post, showing off her bag of freshly purchased items.

Most of it, Yellowhorse admits privately, is made in Hong Kong. But his customers can safely boast they bought it from a real three-quarter-blood Native American.

"If they want authentic stuff, I send them next door to my daughter Tasbah's," Yellowhorse says. "If her customers say, 'This stuff is too expensive!' she sends them back to me. It's a good arrangement."

Dave, Tasbah and Frank Yellowhorse in front of Frank's trading post at the New Mexico-Arizona state line in Lupton, Ariz.(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Tasbah, 30, isn't the only other Yellowhorse in this cluster of brightly painted clapboard shops. Two stalls down, her brother Alvin, 42, is crafting one of his award-winning one-of-a-kind inlay bracelets. It'll go for a couple thousand, he estimates.

Brother Bryon, on the other side of Alvin, is also a silversmith. Brother Dave's small assembly line, meanwhile, is filling orders for his limited-edition inlaid knife handles, which cost $250 to $3,000 apiece.

Their uncle, Frank's brother John Yellowhorse, has his own trading post on the compound, as does Frank's wife Elsie, from whom he is separated.

"They get along fine as business partners," Alvin says. "The personal side, that ended a long time ago."

Business genes

The family comes by its business savvy honestly. Or dishonestly, if you will.

Frank's granddaddy William Frank Beasley was an Irish whiskey maker who immigrated to Tennessee during Prohibition and set up a series of illegal stills in the hills.

He made a good living until Prohibition was repealed and the bottom dropped out of the moonshine market. He packed up his Ponca bride and moved west, where he'd heard there were still a few dry states.

The family did well in Arizona until the state, too, went wet. The only dry spot left in the area was the Navajo Reservation, and there the Beasleys homesteaded near Lupton and found a thirsty clientele.

By all accounts, the Beasley corn liquor was pretty good, and family legend has it that even gangster Al Capone, who was something of an expert in such matters, once stopped by to sample it.

Meanwhile, Frank's father, Arthur David Beasley, was coming of age and eventually married a Navajo woman, Anna Marie Tahe.

The couple got jobs at the Painted Desert Motel but it wasn't long before the Beasley entrepreneurial streak kicked in.

Beasley kept hearing the customers complain that they had gone to Petrified Forest National Park and the rangers had prevented them from taking home any petrified wood.

Beasley did some nosing around and found a lot of private ranches adjacent to the monument. He offered to clear the ranchers' land of rocks for free.

"They said, 'Sure, come get all these damned rocks,'" Yellowhorse says. "The grass can't grow through 'em."

Yellowhorse estimates Beasley ended up with 100 tons of petrified wood. He invested in some lapidary equipment, and Wonderview Petrified Wood was born.

By this time, Route 66 had been completed and cars were getting faster. Beasley needed a way to catch motorists' eyes, so he went to Mexico and picked up a truckload of colorful blankets.

"My brother and I, it was our job before school to hang out the blankets," Yellowhorse recalls.

This was no small task as the clothesline used to display them was easily 100 yards long.

"The tourists would see all that color waving in the breeze and it was impossible for them not to stop," Yellowhorse says.

It was a lesson he never forgot, as you can tell from his eye-assaulting store facades.

Going Native

Yellowhorse went to high school and then the Korean War. He came back and spent a few years in California learning the carpentry trade. But the Beasley genes were not to be ignored.

Eventually he came back home, gradually taking over the curio business from his father, along with his six siblings.

The younger generation of Beasleys had an advantage. They were three-quarters Native, and most of them could pass for full bloods. This was the era of John Wayne westerns, and that revived the public's interest in Indians.

En masse, the seven Beasley siblings decided to change their last name to Yellowhorse in honor of their maternal grandfather, another sly old trader.

Hastiin Yellowhorse allegedly got his name after a clever business deal. While traveling in Utah, he met a Mormon rancher with a herd of palomino horses.

He had never seen horses that color on the reservation and he knew a few flashy old warriors who would pay well for such handsome mounts.

The Navajo traded everything he had on him for enough horses to start his own herd, took them back to Din Bikyah, and made a comfortable living for years.

Like every other decision the Beasley clan ever made, the name change made good business sense.

As Yellowhorse says, "Nobody wants to buy Indian stuff from a guy named Beasley."

Expanding empire

Yellowhorse's older brother, Juan "Chief" Yellowhorse, started the jewelry stand near the west entrance to Grand Canyon National Park that still bears his name although he died a few years back. His kids run the stand now.

Frank started small, operating out of a faux covered wagon he built on an old model T frame.

"Dad would put headdresses on us and make us dance around in front of the wagon," Alvin recalls.

If cute little Indian boys in feathers didn't catch the tourists' eyes, Frank's burros did. He had bought the trio for their curb appeal from a rare spotted herd in Oatman, Ariz.

"We would give the kids donkey rides while Dad cornered their parents and showed them his wares," recalls Dave. "It was pretty smart of Dad, when I think back on it. It kept me and Alvin out of trouble and kept the tourist kids out of the way so their parents could shop."

The boys always split their tips with the burros, buying them treats of oats and hay.

Eventually, the wagon gave way to brush arbors and then the clapboard stands of today. And the tourists keep right on coming.

While tourists may love the Yellowhorses, some of their neighbors wish they'd go away. They accuse the clan of bulldozing Anasazi sites and encroaching on traditional home sites that were there long before the first Beasleys showed up with their still.

But John Yellowhorse, who also happens to be an attorney and a former Navajo Nation district court judge, says the family owns 56 acres fair and square. And there's little chance of them moving on now.

To the contrary, a fourth generation of Yellowhorse traders is emerging to carry on the legacy. Dave's sons are designing their own knife handles, and Tasbah says she's confident at least one of her kids will go into the family business.

As for Frank, his wrinkled face is more photogenic than ever, and he's not even thinking about retiring.

"This business has been fun from the start, and it's still fun," he declares. "If you're a person like me who likes meeting people, I can't imagine a better line of work."

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