The colonial Southwest was a place where indigenous peoples successively encountered three different foreign cultures: the Spaniards, the Mexicans, and finally the Americans, each of which sought to impose their ways of life on the indigenous peoples. Pueblo peoples like the Santo Domingo, the Acoma, and the San Juan, among others, appeared to accept imposed values and policies of the colonizers; however, they practiced their own way of life, including their religion, in secret. The Diné, who were different from their Pueblo neighbors in lifeways, openly thwarted colonial expansion, including that of the Americans, beginning in 1846.
One of the most enduring legacies that shaped southwestern cultures was the slave trade, which intensified with the Spanish and then peaked in the 1860s under American rule. Slave traders targeted Navajo women and children; as a result, cycles of peace and conflict characterized Navajo relationships with colonizers. By the 1860s, Navajos could no longer resist American westward expansion and were subjected to an all-out war, in which they were defeated. In 1864, more than 10,000 Navajo were sent to an internment camp near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Following the U.S. federal policy of forcing indigenous peoples to relocate to reservations and exterminating them if they resisted, Gen. James Carleton conceived an assimilation plan for the Navajo. They would be removed to an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner in northeastern New Mexico. There, they would become farmers, would live in villages, and would be instructed in Christianity and other American practices. To force Navajo surrender, Carleton enlisted the Indian fighter Kit Carson, who literally scorched Dinétah (the Najavo homeland). In 1863, Carson and his men traveled through Navajo country destroying cornfields, slaughtering livestock, burning hogans, and cutting down peach orchards. By 1864, the Navajo were rendered destitute, and they turned themselves in at the American forts. Thousands of Navajo made the journey, the Long Walk, to Carleton's prison.
The Navajo suffered immensely on the Long Walk, for slave raiders waited to steal unsuspecting women and children, and soldiers shot the elderly and pregnant women who could not keep up with the rest. As they crossed the Rio Grande River, many were swept away by the rapids and drowned. The journey ended at the prison camp, where they endured starvation, poverty, sickness, and cold for four long years. Manuelito remained free until 1866 when, ill and starving, he and his band turned themselves in and also made the journey to the prison. The Diné were unsuccessful at farming because of the poor soil and water. Outside the fort's perimeters, Comanches and New Mexicans waited to steal women and children for the slave trade.
Finally, in 1868, the United States admitted that the assimilation plan was a failure. They were also no longer willing to pay the cost of keeping the Diné at the internment camp. At first, it seemed a possibility that the Navajo could be sent to Indian Territory, where many other indigenous peoples had been sent. Barboncito, a respected peace chief, spoke on behalf of his people: "I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country than my own." Eventually, Navajo leaders persuaded the military officers to allow them to return to their homeland.
On June 1, 1868, Navajo leaders signed a treaty with the United States. Navajo leaders agreed to peace between their people and the Americans. Most important to the Navajo was that they would return to their homeland. Other stipulations included the restoration of property seized in times of conflict, trade provisions, and 160-acre land allotments for Navajo families. Navajo leaders promised not to obstruct the building of a railroad that would slice through their best pasturing lands. They promised that their children would go to American schools.
The United States promised to keep the peace as well. They also promised annuities as compensation for lands taken and agreed to provide sheep, goats, and horses so that Navajos could reestablish their pastoral economy. The treaty of 1868 is the last one the Navajo signed with the U.S. government, although a number of executive orders increased the size of the Navajo Reservation up to the early 20th century.
On June 18, the People formed a column that stretched at least 10 miles long. They were going home. The old people wept in relief. Back home in Dinétah, Navajo families returned to their former homes and reestablished their lives. Their prayers to the Holy People had been answered. The Diné prospered. Their livestock increased. They continued to follow the teachings of their ancestors. They have not forgotten the Long Walk and the prison camp at Bosque Redondo. They also remember the courage and bravery of their leaders during those dark times. Today, the Navajo Nation government continues to remind the U.S. government of the treaty of 1868 and its agreement to recognize and uphold Navajo sovereignty.
Jennifer Nez Denetdale
Iverson, Peter. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002; Bighorse, Tiana. Bighorse the Warrior. Ed. Noel Bennet. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990; Roessel, Ruth. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press, 1973; Tapahonso, Luci. Sáanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.