Ellis Tanner started his business, the Ellis Tanner Trading Company, in Gallup, New Mexico, more than 50 years ago — the seemingly natural outcome of growing up among four generations of Native American art traders. His gallery walls are decorated with murals of prominent Navajos within the community, and lining the space are glass cases of Native American jewelry and crafts. But there’s one other, more ephemeral portion of the business that makes Tanner’s eyes light up, even after half a century of experience with it: buying and selling tiny, dark-as-earth piñon nuts. “I have made and lost a lot of money trading piñon,” he says.
Tanner’s gallery is located on Highway 602, just north of what is locally known as the Checkerboard. The land bordering the winding highway looks sparse, and is dotted with thickets of forest-green piñon pines and gnarled cedars. But once the curves of the road calm, it opens into breathtaking downhill vistas of rocky bluffs en route towards the Zuni Pueblo. Up close, the trees multiply and resemble, in their own high-desert kind of way, a lush canopy.
Parcels of land in the Checkerboard are, as the name might imply, mixed — there is tribal-owned, state-owned, or privately owned land in close proximity to each other. “Checkerboarding” dates to the mid 1800s, when Navajos were forced onto reservation lands and assigned individual plots for subsistence farming, while other parcels were sold to railroad companies and private citizens. If you take a few steps in any direction today, you may end up on property that is in an entirely different jurisdiction than where you started. Pragmatically, the land designation is a challenge — getting the proper permits for construction or utility installation quickly becomes complicated. But one perk of the land in this particular area, one that makes it so very valuable to locals who visit it in the summer, is the wealth of bushy piñon trees.
Piñon pine trees are indigenous to the high desert of the Southwest and produce nuts that are simply called piñon. The small, dark brown nuts ripen and fall from the pines each summer and autumn across the intersection of the Four Corners states: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. To eat them, you must crack the shell of the piñon between your canine teeth, peel open the shell, and pull out the pale meat within the nut. The process is similar to munching sunflower seeds or pistachios, except that the shell can’t be mechanically loosened ahead of time for easy snacking — the hard exterior must always be cracked and shucked by hand. Though piñon closely resemble pine nuts to the untrained eye and palate, a local around Gallup will quickly correct you. “Pine nuts are big and bland,” Tanner says. “Piñon are small and sweet.”
The area around Gallup — which occupies the unceded traditional homelands of the Zuni, Pueblo, and Diné Bikéyah and other Indigenous tribes — isn’t the only place where piñon can be harvested. The trees also grow in western California, veer east across New Mexico to northern Texas, range north across southwest Colorado and even pop up in Wyoming — but in New Mexico, the culture of foraging for piñon is particularly deep-seated because of the sheer abundance. For centuries, Mescalero Apaches, Navajos, and Puebloan communities, among others across the Southwest, relied on piñon as a staple source of fat and calories. They also steeped the pine needles for tea and chewed the inner bark to ward off starvation in lean times. The wood of the piñon tree is still burned today as a form of incense and is a favorite souvenir from a visit to New Mexico.
During boom years of piñon drop, late-summer Gallup transforms into a massive center for piñon commerce. Gigantic signs outside of gas stations, restaurants, and trading posts advertise that they are buying piñon. Vans toting brokers from outside of the region park along Highway 602 and set up tables and chairs with their own handmade signs: “BUYING PINON.” And, depending on the year and the yield, strings of cars will be parked along highways, National Forest roads, or within rural communities with dense vegetation, their passengers flocking to bursting piñon trees with their families. People lay blankets on the ground and sift through the ripened nuts that have fallen from sticky pine cones, as part of this tradition-turned-robust seasonal economy for many New Mexicans.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Almighty put piñon here for the Navajo people,” says Tanner. “If you ever have a chance to watch a Navajo family go out and harvest piñon, stop what you’re doing, get some lunch, and watch. It’s a family event.” Per local lore, especially large yields of piñon only occur once every four years. Precise movements are required to pick the very best nuts: The piñon must be rolled gently between three fingertips. If the nut feels heavy through the rolling motion, you have a good piñon. If, by touch, the nut feels light, it is a dud. The only reliable way to pick piñon requires spending long hours beneath trees, perhaps with a small stool, and feeling each individual one by hand. The value of piñon also stems from the timeliness of the drop: The nuts are only good for about a month once they hit the ground.
For many years, piñon was a central cash crop for New Mexico: “Piñon is like gold,” you’ll hear locals say. Thus, those little nuts are worth a whole lot of cash if you choose to pick and sell them to the highest bidder. In the summer of 2020, piñon pickers were regularly selling nuts to local traders in Gallup for $15 a pound. If a picker finds a particularly rich tree, a pound can be collected in about an hour. Rumors swirled that in outlying areas across New Mexico, piñon was going for upwards of $40 a pound to the end customer. Therefore, the cash earned from picking can be vital for families in the region. According to 2019 census records, 79 percent of residents of McKinley County (which includes Gallup) were Native American, mostly hailing from the southeastern quadrant of the Navajo Nation and the entirety of the Zuni Pueblo to the south. The median household income hovered around $33,000 and 30 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, which is 12 percent higher than New Mexico at large. For these families, harvesting and trading piñon is often about more than tradition: it’s an important financial boost.
“It’s like a seasonal job — I have a family member who picks piñon in the summertime and, with that money, buys silver and stones to work on silversmithing in the winter,” says Jesica Adeky, a local from the Checkerboard region off of Highway 602. Adeky lives in Bread Springs, New Mexico. Her swath of familial land is about 20 minutes south of Ellis Tanner’s gallery and is a parcel of Navajo Nation. During the day, Adeky balances two part-time jobs as an office assistant with the Bááháálí (Bread Springs) Navajo Nation chapter house and at Gallup’s public library. If Adeky is too busy working to pick piñon, she’ll reach out to a family member to pick for her and pay them for their labor.
The farther one gets from piñon epicenters like Gallup, the higher the price gets for the raw product from a picker. Adeky has heard of pickers going as far as Flagstaff, three hours away, to sell their product to a buying middleman. Often, getting out of the hyper-localized piñon epicenter into drier, less piñon-dense regions immediately gives sellers the upper hand to earn more money on the transaction. But more often than not, folks who pick are seeking same-day cash. As that middleman or broker, like Ellis Tanner, sells to the next, the retail price per pound begins to soar as it gets nearer to the final customer.
Brokering piñon is not what it used to be, Tanner explains. “During my watch, it seems like everything has gone downhill. When you get something, you hand it off to the next generation in better shape. With the piñons, the bark beetles have wreaked havoc on the trees. We’re handling 10 percent of what we used to handle in the 1960s. That’s all there is.” In the 1960s, Tanner recalls buying as much as a million pounds of piñon and distributing it from coast to coast. In 2020, even with the boom harvest of piñon, Tanner only purchased about 80,000 pounds of nuts.
Tanner is the first to admit that the majority of his piñon sales come from national wholesale buyers. While he sells some product through his trading post, all piñon goes through the same initial process. In the high season, Tanner buys piñon by the pound from local pickers. From there, he washes the nuts and cures the piñon to avoid rot (though his specific curing technique is a well-guarded secret). Once the nuts are cleaned and cured, he stores them in a ventilated storage space to await the next wholesale buyer. That buyer, once they purchase however many pounds of nuts from Tanner, seasons, shells, or otherwise alters the piñon to their own liking. From there, the piñon either finds its way to the end-eater or is traded through the hands of more middlemen as it makes its way to new, far-flung locales.
Even though retail prices for piñon are high and pickers can earn a decent sum per pound, Tanner clarifies that trading piñon doesn’t always equate to hefty returns on his investment, especially for the labor of drying, curing, and cleaning nuts. “If we make a 20-25 percent margin per pound, we’re doing a grand-slam home run. Most of the time we have a 10 percent margin.”
If Tanner sells the piñon he processes at his retail store directly, he can easily double what he bought the nuts for, but the vast proportion of sales do not come from retail in his shop, even with a community that adores them — he only retails about 5 percent of what he buys. But he still dreams of the boom years of piñon trading. “I wish I could buy in the old quantities. The biggest reason is all of the monetary revenue it would bring to the Navajo people.”
The road of trading piñon might not be as flush with profit as it used to be, but Tanner is hopeful about the economic opportunities for local pickers in selling their own piñon at retail and taking the middleman, like him, out of the equation. “I’m just here if you need me.”
People have different means of finding their way to the fertile pines of Bread Springs to pick piñon. Some pull off to the side of Highway 602 because they heard through the grapevine that piñon has dropped. Others drive around aimlessly until they see pulled-over cars and then find a tree to pick. And many, like Adeky, have grown up on fertile land where piñon is just a few steps outside and picking each year is akin to retrieving candy left on your doorstep.
“My first memory of piñon is my grandmother shelling it by hand for me when I was 5 or 6,” says Adeky, smiling. “I would go with my grandmother to herd sheep and we’d bring piñon for long drives.”
Because picking piñon off of the ground requires so much time and concentration, modern harvesters have employed a number of contested tactics to expedite the process. One involves picking entire sappy pine cones off of the tree to whack out the nuts that haven’t naturally released just yet. A second involves placing blankets on the ground, grasping the body of a piñon tree, and shaking the whole tree to loosen nuts from the cones without touching them. “Traditionally for us Navajos, we’re told not to shake the trees because that attracts bears — it’s a bad omen,” says Colina Yazzie, the owner of Yazzie’s Indian Art in downtown Gallup.
Yazzie lives in Pinehaven, New Mexico, about seven miles from Bread Springs on the Checkerboard. Her work as a Native American jewelry broker leads her from Gallup to Sedona, Phoenix, and Santa Fe often, and she has a soft spot for local piñon. “They taste like fresh milk. They’re very rich.” For Yazzie, the best way to prepare freshly foraged piñon is to very, very meticulously roast them. “You wash the piñon, and when they’re still wet, you put them in a pan and turn the stove on medium heat. You stir until you can smell them roasting. One will pop — that’s when you know they’re done.”
In the fall of 2020, Yazzie decided to experiment with the products in her storefront by picking, roasting, and bagging her own piñon to sell alongside jewelry and crafts. “Most of the piñon sales were to Navajos — we really love piñon.” But Yazzie also sees piñon as a way to show a loved one a piece of home while they are far away. “My sister lives in Austin and I’ll send her piñon as a present because she doesn’t have access to it there.”
At one point in the glow of her gallery, I ask Yazzie if she is considering making the brokering of piñon — buying from pickers, roasting, and reselling — a bigger part of her business. “I would be, but just enough to roast myself and sell in the store. I just don’t have the space to store them or the muscle to load them around in.”
Adeky describes picking piñon as something existing in the space between hobby, tradition, and custom. “You use picking to bring your family back together. It’s a reason to say, I need help, can you help me? It’s a giving thing, a way to be generous with others.”
On a windy Sunday last spring, I sat with Adeky inside a chain restaurant in Gallup, one of the only open ones in town. Off in the distance, the squat piñons were still mostly closed, waiting for the right moment in the coming months to open up and drop their fruit. At least, that was the hope. As the spring transitioned to a particularly heat-wave intensive summer, Adeky waited patiently to begin picking piñon from around her home. But as August transitioned to September and now as we creep into the cooler late fall temperatures, little piñon has been found on the Checkerboard. Adeky isn’t particularly concerned — she has a stash from the abundance of the 2020 drop. But the lack of piñon, even after a boom year, does make one question how the confluence of bark beetles and heat waves will impact the density of piñon in the region for the years to come. It also leaves the financial fate of many locals, who rely on the seasonal income stream of dense piñon drops, hanging in the balance.
But the boom and bust is all part of the lesson of piñon, says Adeky. “You learn from an early age that there are seasons when certain things happen,” she says. “It’s a type of teaching. In the summertime, you have to prepare yourself to have enough to eat for the winter. At the core, I think people know that. I hope people pick not just for selling, but for the understanding that there is a season of plenty.”
Karen Fischer is a writer living in New Mexico. Adria Malcolm is a photojournalist and cinematographer based in her hometown of Albuquerque, NM, focusing on long-term immersive stories.