A national tragedy like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor or the Battle of Gettysburg prompts grieving people to gather for public memorial services, followed by weeks of mourning and ultimately, museums and monuments commemorating the lives of the fallen.
But another seminal tragedy in U.S. history will go virtually unnoticed this year: the 150th anniversary of the Long Walk, the forced exile of thousands of Navajos from their homelands in what is now Arizona and New Mexico to a forlorn encampment at Bosque Redondo in the Pecos River Valley. They were held there at gunpoint by the U.S. Army. Hundreds died en route and during captivity from starvation and exposure, as well as disease.
Yet no known official observations are planned by the Navajo Nation to mark one of the most horrific chapters in American and tribal history.
In 1968, the Navajos held a yearlong observance of the 100th anniversary of their ancestors’ return from Bosque Redondo. And some of them attended the dedication of the Bosque Redondo Memorial at the Fort Sumner State Monument in 2005.
But many Navajos don’t feel comfortable publicly discussing the invasion of their land — a period they referred to as the “fearing time” — and their removal to Fort Sumner by the U.S. military.
“There are people who feel, yes, we need to remember this and discuss it. And then there is the other viewpoint that you don’t visit [the memorial] and you don’t commemorate it,” said Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
Wheeler, who was named for Manuelito, one of the principal Navajo leaders and war chiefs at the time of the Long Walk, said he hasn’t planned any events this year at the museum, although he might prepare something next year on Treaty Day, June 1, as long as the observation “represents all viewpoints.”
“There are people who feel this should be marked in our history and not forgotten, and others who feel, ‘We’ve moved on, let’s keep moving forward,’ ” he said.
Jennifer Nez Denetdale, an assistant professor at The University of New Mexico and author of The Long Walk and Reclaiming Diné History: The Legend of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita, said she didn’t find out until her mid-20s that her great-great-great-grandmother was Juanita, one of Manuelito’s wives.
“I went to school in the late ’60s and ’70s,” Denetdale said. “At that time, there was really no information on Navajo history or culture in the public schools. This is the experience of many Navajo people of my generation.”
She said her mother told her that she just didn’t listen to the stories told by her grandmothers about the Long Walk.
But Denetdale was interested and went on to became a historian, believed to be the first Navajo to earn a doctorate in history. She interviewed her grandmothers and grandfathers about the stories they had been told.
Denetdale said she learned that when her family left Bosque Redondo after a treaty establishing the initial boundaries of the Navajo Reservation was reached between the U.S. government and the Navajos, they stopped at Zia Pueblo, where they were “revived and refreshed” before continuing home. “From then on, my great-great-great-grandmother [Juanita] took on the Zia people as her clan.”
In the late 1990s, Denetdale said, she went to her grandfather’s home to show him photos of Juanita and her two daughters. In Navajo, he said to her, “It’s well you bring me these pictures of my grandmothers. I was just thinking of the Long Walk last night.” Denetdale said they sat together silently looking at the images with “hope and thankfulness that our grandmothers had endured a tragedy beyond our imagination.”
She learned more about Juanita, including that Manuelito depended on her for advice and counsel. He listened to her, and she went with him to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant to talk about Navajo land requests in 1874.
Denetdale’s father also told her that one of his grandmothers had been captured and taken to Zuni Pueblo, where she was being held until she could be sold into Mexico. She managed to escape and made her way to Bosque Redondo, where she joined other members of her family.
“I think it’s still very much a powerful memory. Once you bring it up, you get stories about loss and loneliness and heartsickness and tragedy,” Denetdale said. “And that,” she added, “raises questions about the U.S.’s treatment of Navajo and indigenous people.”
Wheeler said he knew that his great-great-great-grandmother had been on the Long Walk, but according to another family story, two of his male ancestors were in a cornfield when they spotted the soldiers and fled to safety in the nearby canyons.
Wheeler said Navajos definitely have respect for that period of time in their history. “And by respect,” he said, “I mean we understand the tragedy and hardships — and the attempted genocide on our people.”
But Wheeler said he’s still “on the fence” about whether to visit the memorial at Fort Sumner himself. “It’s a heavy subject for me,” he said.
Speaking for some from his tribe, he said, “There’s definitely the tragedy they don’t want to remember or commemorate. But also, from a traditional standpoint, it’s thought of, if you commemorate that or go back and visit it, then you’re asking for those things to happen again.”
Wheeler said when the Navajos left Bosque Redondo, they appealed to the holy people and deities to help them. “By returning to that place, you have a conflicting request. That’s not good in terms of Navajo traditionalism,” he said.
Tony Joe, an anthropologist with the Navajo Nation’s Historic Preservation Department, doesn’t have mixed feelings about the subject. “In our department, we don’t acknowledge anything that has to do with the Long Walk, nor do we emphasize anything that has to do with the Long Walk. That’s just part of Navajo tribal history. We don’t bring anything back.”
Joe said when someone proposed building a hogan, a traditional Navajo home, at the memorial at Fort Sumner, “We told him, ‘Don’t do it, man.’ It’s not a good thing to talk about.”
Navajos, he said, aren’t supposed to go to the Bosque Redondo memorial because “people died there. It’s something we don’t want to talk about. Not even my grandparents talk about it.”
‘Go to the Bosque Redondo’
Brig. Gen. James Carlton, commander of the Department of New Mexico, believed the Navajos (and the Mescalero Apaches) were causing unrest in the region. In September 1863, he announced his plan to remove them to a desolate area near Fort Sumner where, he said, they would learn to be farmers and be instructed in Christian virtues, and their children would be educated in the ways of white America.
Carlton ordered the Indian fighter Christopher “Kit” Carson to take his message to the Navajos: “Go to the Bosque Redondo, or we will pursue and destroy you. We will not make peace with you on any other terms.”
Carson dispatched forces to burn crops, destroy food supplies and hogans, poison water and shoot livestock. By late 1863, thousands of destitute Indians had surrendered, although Manuelito did not turn himself in until 1866.
The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo was actually a series of marches over four different routes from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner, distances that ranged between 375 miles and 425 miles. The journey was arduous. People were shot for complaining about being tired or sick, one storyteller said. “If a woman became in labor with a baby, she was killed.”
In her book, Denetdale relates a story told by Manuelito’s son-in-law about Bosque Redondo in which he said, “Many of them [Navajos] died from starvation. The kind of food they had to eat, many died from that. Also I think a larger percent of deaths was caused from homesickness. They wept from day-to-day.”
On June 18, 1868, after the signing of the treaty, people set off for home, forming a line said to be 10 miles long. Upon getting there, Denetdale wrote, they conducted “cleansing ceremonies to remove the taint of the foreign from their spirits, minds and bodies.”
It was difficult for many to talk about their experiences, however.
In The Long Walk, Denetdale quotes Gus Bighorse, a member of Manuelito’s band, as saying, “We take our tragic story with us, but we can’t talk about it. It is so terrible. Only if somebody would ask us a question, then we talk about it.”
“For Navajos,” Denetdale writes, “this time in their history was so traumatic and horrific that many refused to speak of it for decades. In fact, elders’ narratives first became public when the Navajo tribe was preparing its land claims case before the U.S. Indian Claims Commission in the 1950s, when researchers began recording oral testimony to be used in the hearings.”
The Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz., has an exhibit on the Long Walk, known as Hwéedi in Navajo, that focuses not on the hardships but on the 12 Diné chiefs and 17 council headmen who signed the treaty. The exhibit also shows how, when Navajos came back home, they returned to their traditional way of life.
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.