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The Long Walk of the Navaho 1864

“The Navajos had done nothing wrong. For no reason they had been taken captive and driven to Fort Sumner. While that was going on they were told nothing – not even what it was all about and for what reasons.....Large numbers of Navajos made the journey. Some tried to escape. Those who did, and were caught, were shot and killed”. Howard Gorman, a Diné elder, told to Ruth Roesse, 1973

“when we had a way of living of our own , we lived happy....” Barboncito, Diné

Canon de Chelly courtesy U.S. Parks Service

Canon de Chelly

The Long Walk of the Navaho 1864

The name Navajo probably derived from the Spanish word for plains, nava , but they called themselves the Diné, or the People. They called their land the Dineteh. Those familiar with the films of John Ford will recognize the area as including Monument Valley, Canon de Chelly. Among numerous other movies Ford chose to film Cheyenne Autumn here, using Diné extras who spoke their own traditional language and who had to learn to fire bows and arrows. (1) Cheyenne Autumn told the story of the epic journey of the Northern Cheyenne from their Indian territory (Oklahoma) reservation to their homelands hundreds of miles to the north. Ironically the Dineteh was the site of a real epic journey equally as historic as Cheyenne Autumn – in 1864 the Diné were marched 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo, which means “round grove of trees”, so named because it is an isolated patch of foliage in an otherwise barren land.

In August 1862 Brigadier General James H. Carleton arrived in New Mexico in command of a column of California Volunteers. Carleton, an arrogant man, had hoped to gain fame in the Civil War, he "decided he would win it in New Mexico by getting rid of the Indians and opening their lands – which he was convinced contained uncountable riches in gold and silver – to prospectors," (2)

In March 1863 Carleton first ordered Colonel Christopher "Kit" “Red Clothes” or “Rope Thrower” Carson, an ex fur trapper, to invade the lands of the Mescalero Apache. By the end of the month more than 400 of them had been rounded up and “relocated” to Bosque Redondo in the valley of the Pecos River” on a forty square-mile – square tract of semi-arid land with a grove of cottonwoods..........Obviously they needed food and clothing at first, but Congress made scant provision, and dishonest contractors kept much of that. Carleton forbade them to leave the reservation to hunt or even to go out and make mescal (made by steam cooking the huge fleshy bulb of the Agave plant), a food so important in their diet that it gave them their tribal name. Their first crop supplied them with food, but it was the only one they ever raised. After that came insects, hail, floods, drought- something every year”.(3) Carson was then despatched into the Dineteh. The land was rich with minerals and Carleton’s idea was to open it up to prospectors.

"For a long time past the Navajoe [sic] Indians have murdered and robbed the people of New Mexico. Last winter when eighteen of their chiefs came to Santa Fe to have a talk, they were warned, -- and were told to inform their people, -- that for these murders and robberies the tribe must be punished, unless some binding guarantees should be given that in [the] future these outrages should cease. No such guarantees have yet been given: But on the contrary, additional murders, and additional robberies have been perpetrated upon the persons and property of unoffending citizens. It is therefore ordered that Colonel CHRISTOPHER ["KIT"] CARSON, with a proper military force proceed without delay to a point in the Navajoe country known as Pueblo Colorado [now Ganado, Arizona], and there establish a defensible Depot for his supplies and Hospital; and thence to prosecute a vigorous war upon the men of this tribe until it is considered at these Head Quarters that they have been effectually punished for their long continued atrocities."

Brigadier General, James H. Carleton,
General Order No. 15, June 15th 1863

Not for the first time in their dealing with native Americans and certainly not the last, the US government and the military treated the Diné as if the nation were one, and the transgressions of the few were blamed on the nation as a whole. Howard Gorman, a Diné elder, reports that it was a group led by the appropriately named Ahsaabinii (Double Face) which was responsible for the attacks on prospectors travelling west, stealing mules, horses and other possessions. (4) However the military did not discriminate or compromise, they insisted that all the Diné move from their homeland to the Bosque Redondo, thereby opening up the Dineteh to exploitation.

At first Carson was not very successful in fighting the Diné, but he encouraged their traditional enemies, the Ute, to raid, by paying them for stolen livestock and allowing them to keep any prisoners taken. Then in August 1863, Carson initiated a scorched earth policy. He led his men into the Dineteh, subdividing them into smaller groups which destroyed every hogan they could find. Few prisoners were taken – only about 50- as the people managed to hide from the aggressors. But the outcome of the destruction of crops – corn, squash and beans-, age old orchards of peaches, and livestock- sheep and horses - by the Ute and US army was that soon the Diné were starving or close to it. Some bands like that led by Delgadito (Tall, Painful One) were forced to come in to Fort Defiance to surrender. Barboncito ( Little Beard or Moustache), Delgadito’s brother, was determined to resist, and when Carson was ordered to attack the Canon de Chelly in November, his band ran off the army’s mules which were needed to transport the army’s supplies. Carson was delayed by snow and the Diné butchered and ate the mules.

On January 6, 1864, in the freezing depths of winter, Kit Carson led nearly four hundred troops into Canon De Chelly. Deep snow covered the mesa and valley below. The soldiers rode through the valley destroying anything in sight: hogans, corrals, and food supplies. Water holes were contaminated as they were filled with rocks and dirt. When they reached the Chinle area Carson set up a temporary camp and waited for the Diné to surrender, which many did out of desperation. However, about three hundred remained on the top of Fortress Rock, Canon Del Muerto, led by Barboncito and Manuelito. Fortress Rock was impregnable, only accessible by ladders which the Diné pulled up behind them.

Those who surrendered had little choice but where to do it. Some appeared at Carson’s camp while others went in to Forts Defiance and Wingate (formerly Fort Fauntleroy its name was changed when the Colonel for which the fort was named fought with the confederacy). The Diné were surprised to receive food and blankets and as the word of this fair treatment filtered out to those still free, more chose to surrender to the US forces.

Delgadito returned from Fort Sumner with a similar tale of good conditions and gradually resistance buckled and the Diné numbers in the forts swelled far in excess of what General Carelton had reckoned. However, when Kit Carson withdrew Barboncito travelled towards the Little Colorado River and Manuelito returned to the Chuska Mountains.

By March 1864, more than five thousand Diné had surrendered, and they began the long journey on foot to Fort Sumner, three hundred miles to the south east. They were escorted by troops who were accompanied by a few supply wagons.

“Soon the Navajo's moccasins fell apart and their clothes and blankets turned to rags. During the walk, snow fell on the people marching. Many people became sick and died. They also became sick from the different foods that the soldiers gave them. The Navajos did not how to use white flour and coffee beans. They mixed the flour with water and drank it. Then they tried boiling the hard coffee beans in stew. This combination gave the people severe stomach cramps. Old people and young people fell along the trail. If they did not get up the soldiers either shot them or left them to freeze to death.

Half way through the march the people had to cross the Rio Grande river. Many were forced into the river by soldiers on horseback and were seen as they washed away and drowned. Many women did not want to cross the river and sacrificed themselves and their babies and disappeared into the river. The surviving Navajo's pleaded with the soldiers and the Navajos were allowed to cut down tall trees of cottonwood. With the branches of the trees cut the people began to swim across the fast moving river, again many people drowned and were washed away.

The tired and ragged people struggled to get to Fort Sumner. Coyotes began to follow the Navajos and crows circled over their heads. They were waiting for somebody to die. The line of weary prisoners became so long the Army could not protect all the people from enemy attacks. New Mexican raiders attacked the Navajos and took their children. The soldiers made the people continue their march to the fort. The people were than forced to march to Santa Fe, N.M. into the streets, to be made an example to the Pueblo people who were having an uprising, and revolting against the government. Many people were stoned to death by revenge seekers while young women and children were captured for slave trade.” (5)

Howard Gorman’s ancestors were on the walk, including their pregnant daughter.

“Somewhere beyond Butterfly Mountain on this side of Belen, as it is called, south of Albuquerque, the daughter got tired and weak and couldn’t keep up with the others or go any further because of her condition. So my ancestors asked the Army to hold up for a while and to let the woman give birth. But the soldiers wouldn’t do it. They forced my people to move on, saying that they were getting behind the others. The soldiers told the parents they were to leave their daughter behind. The soldiers told the parents that they had to leave their daughter behind. ‘Your daughter is not going to survive, anyway; sooner or later she is going to die,’ they said in their own language.

‘Go ahead,’ the daughter said to her parents, ‘things might come out all right with me.’ But the poor thing was mistaken, my grandparents used to say. Not long after they had moved on they heard a gunshot from where they had been a short time ago.

‘Maybe we should go back and do something, or at least cover the body with dirt,’ one of them said.

By that time one of the soldiers came riding up from the direction of the sound. He must have shot her to death. That’s the way the story goes” (6)

Over three thousand Diné had died on the journey, their plight callously ignored by the US authorities. At Fort Sumner there was little respite, for they were “relocated” in a position next to their Mescalero Apache enemy and unprotected from Comanche raiders. Despite the hardship the Diné struggled to raise crops in adverse growing conditions. They dug irrigation ditches but the corn would not grow owing to the aridity and consequent poor soil.

“We think we were born to live in our old country. Disease is more prevalent here than there. The water does not suit us here. We think we were not born to be here” Ganado Mucho, Diné (7)

All the while the bands of about 500 people led by Barboncito and Manuelito had remained free in the Dineteh, although they were subject to attack by the Ute. In a epic fight in Canon Del Muerto twelve heroic decoys led about 200 raiders into a box Canon where rocks and large pieces of wood were rained down on them from the heights above before they were attacked by the Diné warriors.

In the summer of 1866, the two leaders travelled to Fort Sumner, and witnessing the suffering of their people they resolved to return them to their homeland.

“Barboncito would exploit the greed and gambling nature of the commanders in charge. The great chief would gamble that his warrior would outshoot the best Ute warrior in an archery contest. The chief guaranteed the delivery of the rest of the Navajo still left on Navajoland. The soldier's placed a small six inch target made of leather upon the cottonwood tree branches. Sticks were drawn and the Ute warrior had to shoot first and missed the centre of the target by an inch. The chief chooses Inoetenito ( K'aa K'ehi - Man like shooting arrow ) form the Folded arm people clan, also known as "Under his clover or cover clan", and the skilled warrior hit the centre of the leather target and won the freedom of the Navajo people. “(8)

On 1 June 1868 two of the same peace commissioners who had overseen the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie negotiated the return of the Diné to a reservation which was a small part of their original homeland. Each man woman and child was given three sheep or goats to restart their herds. In addition to raising these animals the Diné raised crops wherever there was fertile irrigable land and traded their beautiful blankets and jewellery. Before the Long Walk they had been a disparate group of small bands of extended families with little interrelationship to galvanize them as an entity. The experience of the Long Walk had brought them together and the new reservation, although only a fraction of their original land, gave them a clearly defined border. “Their political boundaries had been established: the Navajo nation had begun.” (9) The numbers of the Diné grew – by 1870 it was 15,000 and by 1900 30,000 – and the reservation expanded too – from 1878 to 1886 five additions to the original 1868 boundaries quadrupled the Navajo’s territory. “Most significant, the Navajo reservation was never split up into individual allotments. The Diné had escaped the deleterious results of the Dawes Act and its successors.” (10)

1. It seems that the Diné spoken in the film is somewhat profane and defamatory towards the white Americans, a source of amusement to the Diné such that Tony Hillerman in his excellent novel Sacred Clowns, 1993, (pages 111-113) writes of the movie being popular among the Navajo:when they watched it. “ Scenes came in which sombre –looking Cheyenne leaders responded to serious questions in sombre-sounding Navajo. When converted back into English by the translator the answers made sombre sense. But they produced more happy bedlam among the audience”

2. Raymond F. Locke, The Book of the Navajos

3. Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States, 1970 (page 199)

4. Howard Gorman, The Long Walk, told to Ruth Roessel (Ed) Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period, 1973 (pages 23-32)

5. Adam J. Teller - stories of my Grandma May Thompson and Grandpa Chee Draper

6. Howard Gorman, The Long Walk, told to Ruth Roessel (Ed) Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period, 1973 (pages 23-32)

7. From the Heart : Voices of the American Indian, Lee Miller (Ed), 1995, page 271

8. Adam J. Teller - stories of my Grandma May Thompson and Grandpa Chee Draper

9. The Navajo Nation, 1981 Peter Iveson

10. National Initiatives, Clyde A Milner in Oxford History of the American West, Milner, O’Connor and Sandweiss,(Eds) 1994 (page 181)

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© Chris Smallbone March 2008