Category Archives: language

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, food, language, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, migration, North America, U.S.

The Navajo Arrival in the Southwest

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 4454-4474:

Interestingly, about the same time that the Chaco Phenomenon was imploding, the Navajo began to move into the region. For centuries they had been slowly pushing southward from Alaska and northwestern Canada, working their way down the spine of the Rockies. These nomadic warriors were the epitome of a scattered civilization. Supple, adaptive, refusing to tie themselves down to any one place or way of life, they moved freely with the seasons, following the game or their own whimsy.

When the first Navajo saw the ruins at Chaco Canyon, they must have been stunned. Everything about Chaco represented the antithesis of their own life. The Navajo must have instantly recognized that Chaco culture had been advanced beyond anything they had ever seen. But they also intuitively understood that something terrible had happened here, that this ghost city contained the seeds of destruction. They refused to go into the great houses, believing they were places of evil and death. They would never live this way—in cities, clustered in permanent buildings, trapped in a close environment. They would always leave themselves an out.

The timeline is murky, but it is possible that there was some overlap in the two cultures—that is, that the Navajos flooded in just as the Anasazi were leaving, and that for a brief time they had direct dealings with one another. It’s also possible that the Navajo’s arrival hastened the unraveling of Chaco culture—either through direct warfare or competition for resources. The word anasazi, in fact, is a Navajo word, meaning “ancestors of our enemies,” and it’s a term modern-day Pueblo Indians understandably detest (they prefer the designation “ancestral Puebloans”). Whatever the nature of their relationship, the Navajo clearly filled the void left by the Anasazi departure. They would remain masters of this region, living their roving kind of life in the midst of these crumbling rock cities, incorporating stories about the ruins into their own mythology, but always leaving them alone.

By the time Simpson and Dick Kern wandered through, the Navajo had been the de facto custodians of Chaco Canyon for at least five hundred years. Much of our early understanding of Chaco would be refracted through a Navajo point of view. The word chaco is a Spanish approximation of the Navajo tsekho—meaning “canyon,” or literally, “an opening in the rock.” And even as Simpson had been examining the ruins with his men, Navajo scouts had been watching him from afar, puzzling over his intentions, and possibly wondering whether this bewhiskered little man was a witch.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, migration, North America

Mountain Man Fur Trapper Culture, 1830s

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 320-341:

From his new comrades, Carson learned to savor beaver tail boiled to an exquisite tenderness—the trapper’s signature dish. He became expert with a Hawken rifle and a Green River skinning knife. He began to pick up the strange language of the mountain men, a colorful patois of French, Spanish, English, and Indian phrases mixed with phrases entirely of their own creation. “Wagh!” was their all-purpose interjection. They spoke of plews (pelts) and fofurraw (any unnecessary finery). They “counted coup” (revenge exacted on an avowed enemy), and when one of their own was killed, they were “out for hair” (scalps). They said odd things like “Which way does your stick float?” (What’s your preference?) They met once a year in giant, extended open-air festivals, the “rendezvous,” where they danced fandangos and played intense rounds of monte, euchre, and seven-up. Late at night, sitting around the campfires, sucking their black clay pipes, they competed in telling legendary whoppers about their far-flung travels in the West—stories like the one about the mountain valley in Wyoming that was so big it took an echo eight hours to return, so that a man bedding down for the night could confidently shout “Git up!” and know that he would rise in the morning to his own wake-up call.

From these men, too, Carson began to learn how to deal with the Western Indians—how to detect an ambush, when to fight, when to bluff, when to flee, when to negotiate. It is doubtful whether any group of nineteenth-century Americans ever had such a broad and intimate association with the continent’s natives. The mountain men lived with Indians, fought alongside and against them, loved them, married them, buried them, gambled and smoked with them. They learned to dress, wear their hair, and eat like them. They took Indian names. They had half-breed children. They lived in tepees and pulled the travois and became expert in the ways of Indian barter and ancient herbal remedy. Many of them were half-Indian themselves, by blood or inclination. Washington Irving, writing about Western trappers, noted this tendency: “It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures, and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave.”

The fur trappers knew firsthand that Native Americans were ferocious fighters—some legendarily so, like the Blackfoot and the Comanche. But they also knew that the Indian style of battle was often very different from European warfare, that it was difficult to engage Native Americans in a pitched battle, that their method was consistently one of raid and ambush, attack and scatter, snipe and vanish. The mountain men said that Indians were often like wolves: Run, and they follow; follow, and they run.

1 Comment

Filed under labor, language, migration, North America, U.S.

Wordcatcher Tales: Minidoka, Owyhee, Spudnik

On our recent Overland Trail roadtrip through Oregon, Idaho, and other northwest states, the Far Outliers encountered more than a few unusual names. Here are three of them.

hunt-roadsign
Minidoka is a Dakota Sioux word that means ‘water-spring’. The same root meaning ‘water’ occurs in the names Minnesota, Minnetonka, and other places where the Dakota Sioux once roamed. It occurs in several placenames in Idaho, including the name of Minidoka County, the eastern neighbor of Jerome County in south central Idaho. On our way through Jerome County, we got off the Interstate to visit the Minidoka National Historic Site. In 1942, nearly 10,000 people of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from Alaska, Washington, and Oregon and interned in Jerome County at a place locally known as Hunt. The historic marker (above) that directed us to the camp did not call it “Minidoka” but did mention Japanese internment. The internment camp built in Jerome County was soon renamed for neighboring Minidoka County to distinguish it from another Japanese internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. There is lots of new signage within the Idaho site now, but only the one historic marker to help strangers find their way there.

Owyhee is an old rendering of what is now spelled Hawai‘i, the name of the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. How did it come to name so many features of the region where Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada come together? According to the Owyhee County Museum in tiny Murphy, Idaho, the name honors several Hawaiian fur trappers who worked for the North West Company of fur trader Donald MacKenzie, who explored the area between 1818 and 1821. The Hawaiians disappeared, but an echo of their homeland graces Idaho’s first incorporated (and second largest) county, as well as a city, a desert, a mountain range, a river, a lake, and a dam far into the interior of the Pacific Northwest.

Spudnik is a cutesy name for many different things. A few of them even have something to do with potatoes. In the quirky but informative—and sometimes corny—Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho (the “Potato Capital of the World”), we saw an early model of a potato-scooping machine invented by local potato farmers Carl and Leo Hobbs about the time the first Sputnik was launched in 1958. They decided to market their new line of potato harvesting equipment under the name Spudnik. Now they sell the largest-scale potato planting and harvesting equipment in North America.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hawai'i, Japan, language, travel, U.S.

Choices Facing the Czech Legion, 1918

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 252-285:

FOLLOWING RUSSIA’S WITHDRAWAL from the war in March 1918, Moscow began shipping home more than 2.3 million German and Austro-Hungarian POWs aboard trains from camps across all of Soviet Russia. More than 200,000 of the men in Austro-Hungarian uniforms hailed from the more obscure corners of the Habsburg realm, and they were known to their rulers—but almost no one else—as Bohemians, Czechs, Moravians, or Slovaks. They and their leader, a philosophy professor named Tomáš G. Masaryk, wanted a nation of their own. And they were willing to fight for it. From his London exile, Masaryk had traveled to Russia under an assumed name early in 1917 to persuade the men to fight for France on the Western Front, in return for which the Allies would consider creating a new nation, Czecho-Slovakia. Between 50,000 and 65,000 of these Czechs and Slovaks would throw in their lot with Masaryk.

On May 14, 1918, in Chelyabinsk—a Russian frontier settlement on the steeper, more fractured, eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, the gateway to Siberia—about eighty Hungarians, hardened survivors of war and imprisonment, former POWs being returned to the Austro-Hungarian Army, sat waiting in the last three cars of a westbound train otherwise full of refugees.

Their steam-powered locomotive was replenished with wood and water. The bored, brooding veterans awaited the sudden jerking motion that would bring the creaking wood-and-steel train back to life and resume its languid journey west through the Ural Mountains, in the direction of Austria-Hungary. They had survived the Eastern Front, hellish conditions in Russia’s POW camps, and several Siberian winters. And now many of the men—still loyal to the Habsburg dynasty—understood that they would be thrown back into combat. If no longer imprisoned, they may have felt doomed.

Across the platform stood a train facing east crowded with men who had also worn Austro-Hungarian uniforms, but these strangers appeared to be in better spirits. They were Czechs and Slovaks—part of the more than fifty thousand in Russia who had become followers of Masaryk—washing down stale black bread and blood sausages with kettles of strong tea. Strangers in a strange land, they had reason to be hopeful that they might win a nation for their people. Unlikely as it seemed, this was their moment.

The cars that carried the Czechs and Slovaks had been moved off the main track onto a siding, due to what Russian authorities claimed was a shortage of locomotives. These men, a handful of whom had deserted to the Russians and fought in a special unit of the tsarist army, won the new Soviet regime’s permission to organize their own trains and depart Russia via Siberia, keeping a small number of weapons for self-defense.

Their eastbound trains were destined for Vladivostok, a distant port on Russia’s Pacific coast more than thirty-one hundred miles away. In Vladivostok, the men hoped to board Allied ships that would circumnavigate the globe and deposit them in the trenches of the Western Front alongside their former enemies, the French. In return for fighting with the Allies, it was hoped, they would win freedom for their peoples. At least that was the plan.

If Russia decided to turn them over to Austro-Hungarian authorities, many of them would face certain imprisonment and possible execution. Several hundred of these men had innocently emigrated to Russia long before the Great War in search of jobs or land and had enlisted in the tsar’s armies in 1914 as a prudent obligation. A few thousand more had served in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front, but deserted to the Russians. For these men in particular, firing squads awaited them back home and the Austrian authorities were unlikely to exercise great care in deciding which among them was guilty. Those spared execution and deemed able to fight would be returned to the Austro-Hungarian army, perhaps to die facedown in the mud or snow for the privilege of preserving a German-speaking empire that held them firmly in second-class status.

Most of the Czechs and Slovaks traveling to Vladivostok, however, were newly released captives of the Russians. This motley legion had assembled because one elderly professor from Prague thought it was a good idea.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Germany, Hungary, language, migration, nationalism, Russia, USSR, war

Habsburg POWs in Russia, WW1

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1279-1300:

FULLY 90 PERCENT of the soldiers captured by Russia were Habsburg troops. Of the 2,322,378 total prisoners taken by Russia in the Great War, 2,104,146 were Austro-Hungarian. Russia captured only 167,082 Germans—despite the fact that the number of Germans on the Eastern Front equaled or surpassed the number of Habsburg troops from 1915 onward. These numbers have long fed suspicions regarding the loyalty of Vienna’s Slavic soldiers and the quality of her military leaders. All the more remarkable is the fact that Austro-Hungarian POWs represented more than half the number of soldiers Vienna mobilized at the start of the war—3.8 million—and almost one-third of its total mobilization for the entire war—7.8 million. Among them were 210,000 to 250,000 Czech and Slovak POWs—about 30,000 of them Slovaks. From these few hundred thousand men the Czecho-Slovak Legion would emerge.

Instead of victory, Russia’s offensives brought it more mouths to feed, men to clothe, and bodies to shelter—and burdened it with the care of millions of prisoners, when it could barely care for its own soldiers.

Once captured, Austro-Hungarian soldiers were made to march for days, sometimes weeks, before reaching a railroad station. The absence of harsh military discipline among starving, injured soldiers allowed ethnic animosity to surface. “The national antagonisms, artificially suppressed at the front with difficulty, broke out in full force here,” recalled one Czech prisoner, Josef Kyncl, of his march through Galicia. “The Slavs, Hungarians, Germans, Bosnians, Romanians—everybody was cursing everybody else and people were fighting for the least significant things every day…. We would say that Hungarians like to fight, but we were not any better in those days of hatred and rough passions.”

Reaching a train station, the men were packed into modified boxcars called teplushki. Equipped to hold sixteen to twenty-eight Russian soldiers, each car would often be packed with as many as forty-five POWs. A row of unpadded wooden bunks lined each side, and the men slept two or three to a bunk, lying only on their sides, squeezed tightly together. An iron stove sat in the middle of the boxcar and a single latrine bucket sat near the unluckiest prisoner. The trains deposited the men at one of three sorting camps near Kiev, Moscow, or Saint Petersburg, where they were formally registered. The Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) were separated from Austrian, Hungarian, and German prisoners, and shown preferential treatment. But the Russians were not able to provide the Slavs with better food, clothes, or medical care.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, language, nationalism, Russia, war