Manuelito, a Spanish name given him by Mexicans, is noted for his resistance to Mexican and American invasions of Navajoland, or Dinétah. During his lifetime, Hastiin Ch'iil Hajiin (his Native name) was committed to Navajo sovereignty and strove to maintain possession of Navajo lands.
Manuelito was born into the Bit'ahni Clan (Folded Arms People) near Bear Ears, Utah, around 1818. Following the teachings of the ancestors, Manuelito trained as a medicine man who followed hózhó, the path of harmony and balance to Old Age, the path that Navajos had been following for many generations. Manuelito's marriage to the daughter of the headman Narbona provided him with the wise leader's insight. In later years, Manuelito also found his wife Juanita to be a valuable companion.
Beginning in the late 1500s, Spaniards and then Mexicans came into the Southwest seeking their fortunes and establishing colonies. Navajos experienced cultural changes that made them herders and warriors. With the horse, Navajos ably impeded the foreigners' advances. Manuelito witnessed the shifting relationships of peace and conflict between Navajos and Mexicans. In the 1830s, Mexicans rode into Navajoland determined to break Navajo resistance and to capture women and children for the slave trade. Slavery had been known in the Southwest, but the slave trade intensified with Euro-American invasions. Slave raiders targeted Navajo women and children. In fact, raiding for Navajo slaves reached a peak during the 1830s. In a battle at Copper Pass in 1835 in the Chuska Mountains, warriors led by Narbona and Manuelito successfully defeated the Mexicans. At that time, Manuelito was a young man.
By the time the United States claimed the Southwest in 1846, Manuelito was a respected war chief, and the cycle of peace and conflict among Navajos, other tribal peoples, and the U.S. immigrants began anew. In 1851, the establishment of Fort Defiance in Navajoland preceded a war that would end in the Navajos' defeat. The conflict began over the pasturelands that lay outside the newly established fort. In 1858, General William Brooks asserted control of the pastures for U.S. Army use. In defiance, Manuelito continued to pasture his livestock on the disputed lands, whereupon Brooks ordered the livestock slaughtered. Soon afterward, a Navajo killed Brooks's black slave, and Brooks demanded that the Navajos produce the murderer for American justice. Eventually, Navajos produced a body, most likely that of a Mexican captive. Enraged at what he considered Navajo arrogance, Brooks called for a war. In 1860 Manuelito and 1,000 warriors struck at Fort Defiance several times but were unable to take the fort.
The American Civil War turned the U.S. Army's attention away from Navajoland, and Fort Defiance was abandoned. After the war, European-American settlement again threatened the Navajos. Manuelito led the resistance and urged his people to have courage. Finding Navajos to be obstacles to white expansion, General James H. Carleton ordered their removal to a reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where the Navajos would learn the arts of civilization.
General Carleton enlisted Indian fighter Kit Carson for the campaign against the Diné. Carson and his men literally scorched Navajoland. They destroyed cornfields, peach trees, hogans, and livestock. By 1863 destitute Navajos began surrendering to the Americans. As prisoners, they endured a 300-mile journey to the internment camp. Some Navajo leaders went with their people, encouraging them to keep heart. Navajo bodies littered the trail. The old and sick were abandoned if they held up the march. Pregnant women were shot and killed if they could not keep up. Many drowned when they tried to cross the Rio Grande. At the prison, the Navajos barely survived.
Manuelito, however, vowed to remain free. The U.S. Army, fearing that he served as inspiration to others who eluded their enemy, wished to either capture or kill him. In 1865, Navajo leaders, including Herrera, met Manuelito and gave him the army's message to surrender. Manuelito refused, declaring that "his mother and his God lived in the West and he would not leave them." He would not leave his native home and the United States could kill if they pleased, but he would not leave.
Finally, in 1866, wounded and ill, Manuelito surrendered and was interned at the Bosque Rodondo prison. After four years, General Carleton reluctantly admitted that his plan was not working. There was talk of returning the Navajos to their former homes. On June 1, 1868, Manuelito and other leaders signed a treaty so that they could return to Dinétah. The treaty stipulated a peaceful relationship between Navajos and the United States, defined a boundary for a reservation, and required education for Navajo children. Seventeen days later, over 8,000 Navajos began the journey home. About 3,000 Navajos had died during the war.
Upon return to Dinétah, Manuelito remained an influential leader who articulated his concerns for the return of his people's land. He was appointed head of the first Navajo police who would keep order on the reservation. In 1874, he traveled with his wife and other Navajo leaders to Washington, D.C., to meet President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1894, Manuelito died from disease and alcoholism. His widow Juanita and his daughters carried on his messages about the importance of land for the coming generations.
Jennifer Nez Denetdale
Iverson, Peter. 2002. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Kelly, Lawrence. 1970. Navajo Roundup: Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson's Expedition Against the Navajo, 1863–1865. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Company.; Roessel, Ruth. 1973. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press.; Sundberg, Lawrence D. 1995. Dinétah: An Early History of the Navajo People. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press.