American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Long Walk (Navajo)

The Long Walk of the Navajos is the most intensely traumatic experience in Navajo history. An estimated 8,000 Navajos were starved into submission by a prolonged scorched-earth campaign led by Colonel Kit Carson of the New Mexico Volunteers in 1863 and 1864 and then forced to walk several hundred miles to a forty-square-mile reservation on the Texas–New Mexico border that had been established for them and a few hundred Mescalero Apaches. There the Navajos were held captive under starvation conditions until 1868, when they signed a treaty and were allowed to walk back to their homeland, Dinetah.

For centuries, the Navajos were in intermittent conflict with the Spanish in New Mexico as well as with the Pueblos, Utes, and other Indians in the Southwest. In this they were very successful, gaining the title of the Lords of New Mexico. After the United States gained control of New Mexico territory (which then included what is now Arizona) in 1846 from Mexico, sporadic warfare with the Navajo continued, with occasional efforts at maintaining peace. Navajo headmen agreed to make peace, but the Navajos had no unified leadership, and a peace agreed to by one or more groups was not seen as binding by other Navajo-speaking groups. New Mexico colonists found profit by raiding Navajos for livestock and captives to serve as slaves. Navajos retaliated to recover their stolen wives, children, and livestock. Despite laws against slavery, it is estimated that in 1860 there were 5,000 Navajo slaves in New Mexico.

During the Civil War (1861–1865), the U.S. government sought to end the rebellious behavior of the Navajos through a large and prolonged military operation under the direction of General James Carleton. Carleton also hoped that gold and silver might be found on Navajo lands. Luckily for the Navajo, none was found, as it was in the Black Hills in 1874.

As happened elsewhere in the West, troops were initially sent eastward to fight in the Civil War, leading to a resurgence of raiding. Navajos' homes and crops had been destroyed in an all-out war in 1860. Following the withdrawal of troops who had been deployed to enforce the peace, Navajos were beset by raiding Utes, Pueblos, and New Mexicans. As soon as the threat from Texas was ended by John M. Chivington's victory at Glorietta Pass in 1862, the New Mexico Volunteers turned their attention to the Navajos.

Over time, the U.S. military learned from fighting Navajos that only a prolonged campaign against them had any chance of success. Carleton ordered Colonel Kit Carson, an experienced "Indian fighter" who resigned as Ute Indian Agent and enlisted in the New Mexico volunteers in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War, to lead an army in the field. Carson first fought an invading Confederate army from Texas and then was ordered to move against the Navajos with 261 soldiers, a number that eventually reached 736, the largest military operation ever waged against the Navajos. Carson was a somewhat reluctant commander, having enlisted to fight the Confederacy and wishing to be with his wife in Taos, New Mexico. While known as an Indian fighter, Carson wrote a very critical letter in 1866 regarding Chivington's massacre of Cheyennes at Sand Creek in 1864 that included the killing of many women and children.

Carleton's goal was to end Navajo raiding once and for all. He ordered the building of Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo on the New Mexico–Texas border, where he idealistically thought that Navajos under the watchful gaze of the Army would become Christians, be civilized, and settle down as peaceful farmers.

Helped by Ute and Pueblo allies, Carson started a scorched-earth campaign in the summer of 1863 to starve the Navajos into submission, using Navajo crops to feed his men and horses. Unlike previous campaigns, Carson kept his troops in the field throughout the winter, harassing the Navajos in their camps. He rebuilt Fort Defiance in Arizona and renamed it Fort Canby in the middle of Dinetah (the Navajo country). He then used it as a staging point for repeated raids that continued throughout the winter and into the following summer and that destroyed Navajo crops and captured, killed, or scattered their sheep, goats, cattle, and horses.

The Navajos were escorted to Fort Sumner in as many as fifty-three groups between 1863 and 1866. Navajos were gathered at Fort Canby, then moved about fifty miles to Fort Wingate (just east of present-day Gallup, New Mexico), After that, they took part in the Long Walk of 250 miles to Bosque Redondo during the spring of 1864.

Navajo oral history tells of the weak and young who could not keep up being taken behind hills and shot. Some drowned crossing the Rio Grande. Hundreds died en route, while several thousand took refuge in the extreme west and northwest of the Navajo homeland (Dinetah) and avoided the Long Walk altogether. One of the leading Navajo head-men, Barboncito, did not surrender till 1864, fled Bosque Redondo in 1865, and surrendered again in 1866. Another prominent leader, Manuelito, remained free even longer, but, harassed by Utes and Hopis and with his followers starving, he surrendered on September 1, 1866.

On the reservation at Bosque Redondo, the Navajos and several hundred Mescalero Apaches were expected to take up farming and thousands of acres were planted, but the alkali soil, insects, and drought-ridden, harsh weather led to repeated crop failures and starvation. The lack of timber in the area also made it difficult to build shelters and keep warm in the winter. Comanche raids became more frequent, averaging one a week, in the spring of 1866, and government corruption in providing rations added to the misery of the Navajos.

Carleton had not realized how many Navajos had been forced to march, and his plans were inadequate to properly care for the thousands his troops captured. The Navajos who had the strength and supplies fled in the summer of 1865, even as those remaining behind were allowed arms to defend themselves from Comanche raids and to hunt. Game was scarce, however. That summer the Doolittle Joint Special Committee of Congress visited and found disease and malnutrition. In September 1866 the Long Walk's architect, General Carleton, was transferred, and the experiment of relocating the Navajos to Bosque Redondo was recognized as a failure. In 1867, authority over Navajos shifted from the War Department to the Indian Bureau.

Many Navajos died of malnutrition and sickness at Bosque Redondo, and in April 1868 Navajo leaders went to Washington, DC, asking President Andrew Johnson to allow them to return to their homeland. Investigators from Washington backed up Navajo complaints, and General William T. Sherman and Colonel S. F. Tappan were sent to negotiate a treaty. Sherman wanted to send the Navajos farther east to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), but the Navajos were adamantly opposed. Barboncito, a Navajo leader declared at the treaty negotiation, "Our grandfathers had no idea of living in any other country except our own. . . . When the Navajos were first created, four mountains and four rivers were pointed out to us, inside which we should live, that was to be our country, and was given to us by the first woman of the Navajo tribe" (Iverson, 2002, 63).

Treaty negotiations began on May 28, and a treaty was signed on June 1, 1868, allowing the surviving Navajos with their remaining horses, mules, and sheep to walk home in a ten-mile-long column with their children in wagons. The treaty, patterned after other Indian treaties of the time, called for the end of all warfare, the compulsory schooling for Navajo children, and the provision of farm implements to heads of families willing to take 160 acres of land for raising crops. On July 6, 1868, the column of returning Navajos crossed the Rio Grande, and they were again in Dinetah, never to leave again.

The captivity at Bosque Redondo helped unite the Navajos and convinced them of the overwhelming might of the U.S. government, ending the chronic raids that had characterized the previous centuries. The distribution of rations at Fort Defiance until 1879 and the continued presence of troops helped keep the peace.

Jon Reyhner

Further Reading
Ackerly, Neal W. 1988. "A Navajo Diaspora: The Long Walk to Hwéeldi." Available at: bloodhound/longwalk.htm. Accessed April 25, 2005.; Bailey, Lynn R. 1988. The Long Walk: A History of the Navajo Wars, 1846–68. Tucson, AZ: Westernlore Press.; Bial, Raymond. 2003. The Long Walk: The Story of Navajo Captivity. New York: Benchmark Books.; Roberts, David. 1997. "The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo." Smithsonian 28, no. 9: 46–52, 54, 56–57.; Roessel, Ruth, ed. 1973. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press.; Thompson, Gerald. 1976. The Army and the Navajo: The Bosque Redondo Reservation Experiment, 1863–1868. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.; Trafzer, Clifford E. 1982. The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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