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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U.S. Military Dregs in the Southwest, 1860s

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 5803-5820, 7087-7098:

The enslavement of captured Indians was an old convention in New Mexico—as was peonage, another form of servitude in which poor, usually Hispanic workers became indebted to wealthy estate owners. Peonage was a kind of feudal arrangement that kept the landed class rich while the majority of the citizens, illiterate and powerless to improve themselves, stayed mired in a financial misery from which they could rarely escape. William Davis, who as the United States attorney for the territory made a close study of the practice in the 1850s, thought that peonage was “in truth but a more charming name for a species of slavery as abject and oppressive as any found upon the American continent.”

Neither Carson nor the better-off New Mexicans he lived among had shown moral qualms about slavery. In fact, the people of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory had, in 1861, seceded from the Union to create their own Confederate state, which they called Arizona. Centered around the towns of Tucson and Mesilla, the population was composed largely of Hispanic landowners who farmed along the Rio Grande, and Anglo Texan transplants who’d moved farther west to try their hand at ranching or mining. (Kit’s own brother, Moses Carson, was now a settler living in Mesilla.) Arizonans vigorously cast their loyalty to Richmond and hoped their New Mexico brethren to the north would eventually come over to the Rebel side. The new territory of Arizona was governed by a bold, ruthless man named John Baylor, who sought to import Southern-style Negro slavery while simultaneously pursuing a stated policy of “exterminating all Apaches and other hostile Indians.” (Among the more sordid outrages in his career, Baylor was once charged with killing sixty Indians by giving them a sack of poisoned flour.)

Many of the army soldiers who lived in the New Mexico Territory were Southerners. Sibley wasn’t the only one who had left the U.S. Army at the first word of war—fully half the officers in the territory had quit New Mexico to fight for the Confederate cause. Officers could resign, but enlisted men in the lower echelons of the department could not without facing charges of desertion (punishable, in some cases, by death). So the ranks of Canby’s army on the Rio Grande were sprinkled with regulars who hailed from Southern states—men whose loyalty and motivation he understandably did not trust.

Lawrence Kelly, who made a thorough study of Carson’s command in his excellent book Navajo Roundup, noted that nearly half of the officers serving on the Navajo campaign were either court-martialed or forced to resign. Lawrence observes that, among other things, Carson’s officers were charged with “murder, alcoholism, embezzlement, sexual deviation, desertion, and incompetence.” Lt. David McAllister was caught in bed with an enlisted man while he was officer of the day at Fort Canby. Capt. Eben Everett was court-martialed for “being so drunk as to be wholly unable to perform any duty properly.” Lieutenants Stephen Coyle and William Mortimer were forced to resign after they bloodied each other in “a disgraceful fight” in front of enlisted men. John Caufield was charged with murdering an enlisted man and held in irons until convicted by a military court. Assistant Surgeon James H. Prentiss was charged with stealing most of the “Hospital Whiskey and Wine and applying it to his own use.” Lt. Nicholas Hodt was found to be “beastly intoxicated” and “in bed with a woman of bad character.” Another officer was found to have offered to secure prostitutes for his men, boasting in all seriousness that he was the “damdest best pimp in New Mexico.” These colorful disciplinary notes go on and on, bearing sad testimony to the morale problems that clearly prevailed among this confederacy of dunces.

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The Puebloan Diaspora, c. 1150

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 4435-4454:

North America had never seen such a florescence of culture. But then around A.D. 1150, just as quickly as they had burst upon the scene, the Chacoan culture ebbed. The agent of their demise seems to have been an environmental collapse brought on, in part, by two devastating droughts in 1085 and 1095, and in part by the impact of a dense population living on a marginal desert landscape. Their expansion had been predicated on a kind of meteorological accident; they had been living in a hundred-year cycle of aberrant wetness, and during that brief window the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon had overfarmed, overhunted, and overlogged. In only a few generations their deforested land became eroded, the topsoil depleted, the drainages choked with salt and silt. The river on which they depended for corn and beans dried up. A third major drought, beginning around 1129, delivered the final blow.

This environmental upheaval led, predictably enough, to a social upheaval. In its death agonies, Chaco Canyon was not a pleasant place. People began to starve. They turned their great houses into fortresses, erecting walls, barricading the first-floor windows, retreating to higher stories at night, pulling up their ladders at the slightest hint of danger. Archaeologists have found evidence of widespread civil unrest, witchcraft, and even ritual cannibalism. Finally, the Chaco Anasazi began to leave in large numbers. In many cases they simply walked away from their great apartment complexes, leaving behind beautiful ornamental pottery, sandals and clothing, and large quantities of dried food neatly stored in granaries.

But the Chacoans did not really “vanish.” They wandered all over the Southwest, resettling wherever they could find water and safety. The Pueblo Indians were their direct descendants. Hosta and his Jemez people had Chaco blood, not Aztec blood, coursing in their veins, and so did the dozens of other Pueblo tribes whose settlements formed a loose constellation across the New Mexico Territory—the Zuni, the Hopi, the Acoma, the Taos Indians. The architecture of the modern Pueblos, though not as technically sophisticated, was strikingly similar to that of the Chaco great houses, with their multistoried apartments, retreating terraces, and underground kivas. From Puebloan rock art to their religious ceremonies to the styles of their pottery, the cultural echoes were clear. The Chaco Anasazi remained alive and well; they had simply undergone a diaspora of sorts. In spreading out and regerminating in smaller hunkered settlements, the descendants of the Anasazi learned the final cautionary lesson of Chaco Canyon: the peril of density in the face of the desert. In a meager landscape, civilization must scatter.

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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.

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Kit Carson’s Skillset

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1271-1293:

If Fremont had become a household name, so had his scout. By 1845, thanks to the expedition reports, Kit Carson’s name, with its sturdy alliterative snap, had crossed the threshold of the national imagination. Fremont painted Carson as an explorer of nearly mythic competence and perspicacity on the trail. He consistently came across as courageous but never rash, a person with a sure presence of mind. And also, crucially, a person who seemed to have enormous stores of luck on his side: Time after time, the stars smiled on Kit Carson. In nearly every contretemps Fremont got himself into, Carson found the way out.

The special thing that Carson had couldn’t be boiled down to any one skill; it was a panoply of talents. He was a fine hunter, an adroit horseman, an excellent shot. He was shrewd as a negotiator. He knew how to select a good campsite and could set it up or strike it in minutes, taking to the trail at lightning speed. (“Kit waited for nobody,” complained one greenhorn who traveled with him, “and woe to the unfortunate tyro.”) He knew what to do when a horse foundered. He could dress and cure meat, and he was a fair cook. Out of necessity, he was also a passable gunsmith, blacksmith, liveryman, angler, forager, farrier, wheelwright, mountain climber, and a decent paddler by raft or canoe. As a tracker, he was unequaled. He knew from experience how to read the watersheds, where to find grazing grass, what to do when encountering a grizzly. He could locate water in the driest arroyo and strain it into potability. In a crisis he knew little tricks for staving off thirst—such as opening the fruit of a cactus or clipping a mule’s ears and drinking its blood. He had a landscape painter’s eye and a cautious ear and astute judgment about people and situations. He knew how to make smoke signals. He knew all about hitches and rope knots. He knew how to make a good set of snowshoes. He knew how to tan hides with a glutinous emulsion made from the brains of the animal. He knew how to cache food and hides in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. He knew how to break a mustang. He knew which species of wood would burn well, and how to split the logs on the grain, even when an axe was not handy.

These were important skills, all of them, though they were hard to measure and quantify. But in the right person, a person who was also cheerful on a trail he already knew well, who had a few jokes up his sleeve and possessed an absolute honesty—they were invaluable.

Fremont’s nickname, The Pathfinder, was a misnomer several times over. For it was Carson, not Fremont, who had usually “found” the path—and often as not he was merely retracing trails that had already been trod by trappers, Indians, or Spanish explorers. In Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series, the main protagonist, Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Hawkeye, a.k.a. the Pathfinder, wears buckskins, lives with the Indians and follows their ways. It was Carson, not Fremont, who actually lived a life that resembled Cooper’s hero.

He was multilingual but illiterate.

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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.

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Gen. Kearny, Frontier Diplomat

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 551-568:

Kearny perceived, with a clarity rare among frontier soldiers of his generation, that alcohol was destroying the American Indian. Everywhere he went on the prairies, in his summits with the Plains tribes, he made “firewater” one of his central themes. “You have many enemies about you but this is the greatest of them all,” he once said in council with the Sioux. “Open your ears now and listen to me. Whenever you find it in your country, spill it all upon the ground. The earth may drink it without injury but you cannot.”

Kearny’s experience with Plains Indians was vast and yet, so rare in the brutal history of the West, his encounters were happily uneventful. Among the Plains tribes he was known as Shonga Kahega Mahetonga, Horse Chief of the Long Knives. He’d dealt with the Crows, the Blackfeet, the Chippewa, the Mandan, the Pawnee, the Winnebagos, the Potawatomi, the Sac and Fox, and scores of other tribes and moieties—almost always without bloodshed. Sometimes he fought against them, but more often he tried to referee the various Plains tribes in their time-honored wars against one another—or in their newer wars against the freshly arrived Cherokees, Chickasaws, and other so-called “civilized tribes” that the United States had force-marched from the East in the 1830s to live in the immense, if vaguely defined, Permanent Indian Frontier. Not surprisingly, the tragic U.S. policy of transplanting woodland Indians with an entirely alien culture and grafting them by fiat onto the unfamiliar world of the prairie had pried open a Pandora’s box of tensions—tensions that Kearny spent the bulk of his years as a young officer trying to understand and, to the extent possible, resolve. As one historian succinctly put it, Kearny and his contemporaries in the frontier army were charged with the thankless task of “imposing a Pax Americana on the entire artificial, ill-amalgamated Indian nation which the government had created.”

A diplomat by nature and an officer possessed of a Job-like patience, Kearny was the right man for this kind of work. His career was marked by persistence, discretion, and tolerance. There was about all his actions a distinct “absence of swashbuckling,” as biographer Dwight Clarke phrased it. It was that quality, perhaps more than anything else, that kept his invasion of New Mexico in 1846 from devolving into a disaster.

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