Daily Archives: 20 August 2016

The Navajo Joyful Walk Back West in 1868

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 8215-8256:

General Sherman rose and spoke first. “The Commissioners are here now for the purpose of learning all about your condition. General Carleton removed you here for the purpose of making you agriculturalists. But we find you have no farms, no herds, and are now as poor as you were four years ago. We want to know what you have done in the past and what you think about your reservation here.”

Barboncito stood up to answer for the Navajos. The Diné had finally come to realize the importance the bilagaana [< Span. Americana] placed on having a leader, a single representative of the whole tribe. They regarded Barboncito as their most eloquent spokesman. He had great poise, a calmness at the center of his being. But an unmistakable passion also rose from his words and gestures. As he talked, his long whiskers bristled and his tiny hands danced. He spoke for a long time, and Sherman let him go on without interruption.

Barboncito said that he viewed General Sherman not as a man but as a divinity. “It appears to me,” he said, “that the General commands the whole thing as a god. I am speaking to you, General Sherman, as if I was speaking to a spirit.”

The medicine man continued. “We have been living here five winters,” he said. “The first year we planted corn. It yielded a good crop, but a worm got in the corn and destroyed nearly all of it. The second year the same. The third year it grew about two feet high when a hailstorm completely destroyed all of it. For that reason none of us has attempted to put in seed this year. I think now it is true what my forefathers told me about crossing the line of my own country. We know this land does not like us. It seems that whatever we do here causes death.”

Barboncito then explained to Sherman his aversion to the prospect of moving to a new reservation in Oklahoma, an idea that the government authorities had lately been floating among the Navajos. “Our grandfathers had no idea of living in any other country except our own, and I do not think it right for us to do so. Before I am sick or older I want to go and see the place where I was born. I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own. This hope goes in at my feet and out at my mouth as I am speaking to you.”

Sherman was visibly touched by Barboncito’s words. “I have listened to what you have said of your people,” he told Barboncito, “and I believe you have told the truth. All people love the country where they were born and raised. We want to do what is right.”

Then Sherman said something that gave Barboncito his first stab of hope. “We have got a map here which if Barboncito can understand, I would like to show him a few points on.” It was a map of Navajo country, showing the four sacred mountains and other landmarks Barboncito immediately recognized. Sherman continued, “If we agree, we will make a boundary line outside of which you must not go except for the purpose of trading.” Sherman carefully showed Barboncito the line he was considering and warned him of the dire consequences of straying beyond it. “You must know exactly where you belong. And you must not fight anymore. The Army will do the fighting. You must live at peace.”

Barboncito tried to contain his joy but could not. The tears spilled down over his mustache. “I am very well pleased with what you have said,” he told Sherman, “and we are willing to abide by whatever orders are issued to us.”

He told Sherman that he had already sewn a new pair of moccasins for the walk home. “We do not want to go to the right or left,” he said, “but straight back to our own country!” A few days later, on June 1, a treaty was drawn up. The Navajos agreed to live on a new reservation whose borders were considerably smaller than their traditional lands, with all four of the sacred mountains outside the reservation line. Still, it was a vast domain, nearly twenty-five thousand square miles, an area nearly the size of the state of Ohio. After Barboncito, Manuelito, and the other headmen left their X marks on the treaty, Sherman told the Navajos they were free to go home.

June 18 was set as the departure date. The Navajos would have an army escort to feed and protect them. But some of them were so restless to get started that the night before they were to leave, they hiked ten miles in the direction of home, and then circled back to camp—they were so giddy with excitement they couldn’t help themselves.

The next morning the trek began. In yet another mass exodus, this one voluntary and joyful, the entire Navajo Nation began marching the nearly four hundred miles toward home. The straggle of exiles spread out over ten miles. Somewhere in the midst of it walked Barboncito, wearing his new moccasins.

When they reached the Rio Grande and saw Blue Bead Mountain for the first time, the Navajos fell to their knees and wept. As Manuelito put it, “We wondered if it was our mountain, and we felt like talking to the ground, we loved it so.”

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The Navajo “Long Walk” East in 1864-65

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 7477-7499:

Thousands more Navajos were now assembling at Fort Canby and Fort Wingate and preparing to head east. Nearly the entire Navajo nation had surrendered—or was on the verge of doing so. For most of the Navajos the march took about three weeks, depending on the weather, trail conditions, and the exact route followed. It was not a single migration, but a series of them carried out in many stages, the ungainly process stretching out over many months. But taken all together, it was a forced relocation of biblical proportions, one of the largest in American history—second only to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees. Throughout 1864 and on into 1865, nearly 9,000 Navajos would emigrate to Bosque Redondo; approximately 500 would die along the way.

The Navajos had their own name for the great exodus, one that was eloquent in its understatement: The Long Walk.

For most of the Navajos, the last desolate stretches of the march were the hardest. In those final miles the land grew sparer and flatter and less like home. The sunbaked ground seemed to crackle underfoot, and the uninviting country, whose elevation was several thousand feet below that of the Navajo lands, was studded only with cholla cactus, mesquite, and creosote. The featureless plain was uninhabited, although in the distance one might see the occasional javelina or pronghorn antelope moving in the heat shimmer. Finally, the marchers dropped down into the valley of the Pecos, and like an apparition, there it was—the bosque, a great clump of shimmering green, guarded over by a new adobe stronghold called Fort Sumner.

It did not look so terrible at first. A shady place along a not inconsiderable river, with loads of firewood and plenty of room to move around. It did not resemble a prison at all—there were no fences or walls, no guard towers, no captives shuffling around in irons. The Diné’s movements were to be policed only by “pickets”—small encampments of soldiers placed strategically, but loosely, along the perimeter. And what a perimeter it was: The reservation, the Navajos were told, was a giant parcel of land stretching out on both sides of the river as far as the eye could see. It was, in fact, forty miles square, an area nearly as large as the state of Delaware. The proportions of this alien place were at least familiarly huge—almost Navajoan—in scale.

Within days of their arrival, the Diné were put to work digging a seven-mile-long acequia madre on the east side of the river—with numerous lateral ditches—to irrigate the many thousands of acres of fields that Carleton planned to sow. Other Navajos helped army engineers build a dam six miles upriver to control the annual floods, while still others helped the soldiers construct the adobe brick buildings of Fort Sumner—the barracks, the sutler’s shop, the officers’ quarters, the jail. The Navajos were not unmindful of the fact that by doing so, they were only giving the bilagaana [< Americana] a more powerful and luxurious headquarters from which to rule over them.

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The Navajo as Most “American” of Native Americans

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 451-469:

The Navajos, with their linguistic cousins, the Apaches, had ventured down the spine of the Rockies from the bitterness of Athapaska, in what is now northern Canada and Alaska. It’s tempting to imagine that they simply held a council in some godforsaken snowdrift beneath the northern lights and decided, once and for all, that they’d had enough of the cold. But in fact, their southward migration does not appear to have been a determined exodus; rather, it was undertaken slowly, in many haphazard and circuitous waves. The Athapaskans began flooding into the Southwest sometime around A.D. 1300. Late arrivals to the region, the Navajos split off from the Apaches and then quickly evolved from a primitive culture of hunter-gatherers to perhaps the most supple and multifarious of all the Southwestern peoples. Over a few short centuries, the Navajos improvised a life that borrowed something from every culture they encountered, spinning it into a society that was entirely their own.

Their creation story, called the Emergence, is thought by some anthropologists to be an allegory for their long migration from Canada. Retold in nightchants and rituals performed during the winter months, the Emergence captures much that is unique about the Navajo—their sense of having been wandering exiles through most of their early history, perpetual outsiders expelled from one country after another, forced to complete a complicated series of journeys through strange dark lands until they finally lit on the “glittering world,” as they called their present home; their tendency to view themselves as a tribe apart from others—a kind of chosen people of the Southwest, convinced of their special relationship to the gods and confident in the power of their rituals. And yet simultaneously, a tribe eager to absorb the ideas and implements of others, and to mingle with other peoples. If the Navajo indulged in a tribal pride that bordered on arrogance, it was an arrogance cut with an extraordinary impulse to accept other traditions, a natural ease for ushering in new ways and even new blood.

In a sense, the Navajo were the most “American” of the American Indians: They were immigrants, improvisationists, mongrels. They were mobile and restless, preferring to spread out as far as possible from one another over large swatches of country while still remaining within the boundaries of their land. They inhaled the essence of other cultures, taking what they liked and adapting it to their own ends.

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The Navajo as Pastoralists

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 423-451.

The Navajo, almost alone among American Indians of the West, were primarily a pastoral people—shepherds, shearers, eaters of mutton, drinkers of goat’s milk, master spinners of wool. Navajos followed the slow and watchful life known among anthropologists as transhumance, a methodical seminomadism built around the seasonal moving of flocks to higher and lower ground in search of grass. This way of life was, in fact, an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world but nearly unheard of in North America. As pastoralists, the Navajo lifestyle was in some sense more akin to that of ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Arabs than to contemporary tribes of Native Americans.

The famous loomed wool blankets of the Navajos were among the finest in the world, patterned in bold, crisp geometric designs of red and black, and so tightly woven, it was often said, that they could hold water. (On the Santa Fe Trail, one Navajo blanket was worth ten buffalo robes.)

For the Navajos, everything revolved around the sheep. They talked directly to their flocks, gave them pollen to eat, and sang quaint songs to them on cold winter nights to protect them from freezing. “The sheep is your mother,” the Navajos told their children, “the sheep is life.” Most of their implements and artifacts were made from the hides, bones, and sinews of sheep and goats. Navajos slept on sheepskins. They made their carrying sacks from wool blankets sewn together with soapweed stalks. They ate every part of the animal—lung and liver, head and heart—even the blood, which they boiled and mixed with corn mush to make a thin, pinkish gruel. A special Navajo delicacy was sheep intestines tightly wound around a string of fat and roasted directly on the coals.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the Navajos found that the tough and surefooted churro sheep which the conquistadors brought with them was perfectly suited to their harsh rock world. Originally adapted for the spare environment of upland Iberia, the spindly-legged churro could eat nearly anything and travel long distances and climb steep cliffs. The churro’s wool was tight and coarse, and because it contained little natural oil—other breeds of sheep grew hair often greasy with lanolin—it could be spun without needing washing.

The horse, which also came with the arrival of the Spanish, profoundly changed Navajo life as well. Perhaps most significantly, horses gave the Navajos the speed and mobility to become sheep robbers on a large scale, thinning the flocks of the long and vulnerable Rio Grande Valley with impunity. The horse thus accelerated their pastoral culture. Less than a century after the arrival of the Spanish, the sheep had become the Navajo currency, their mark of status, their food and clothing and livelihood, and the centerpiece of their bedouin life—a form of movable wealth.

But the Navajos were far more than raiders of flocks; they also grew crops, tended orchards, carried on a vigorous trade, staged elaborate rituals, and composed epic stories and songs of a fastidious tonal complexity. The Navajos had a hand in everything, it seemed. They were horse people, cattle people, farmers, hunters, gatherers, weavers. They even occasionally ventured out onto the prairie to hunt bison, like the Plains Indians. They were clear-eyed pragmatists and far-out mystics. They were not sedentary, like the Pueblos, but neither were they strictly nomadic, like the Utes. They were the great in-betweeners, hard to pin down, semiwanderers rooted to their land but moving widely over it from season to season to make the best use of a stark desert topography.

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