Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable living in a state with so many historic sites.
One site that is weighted with painful history lies about 150 miles southeast of Santa Fe in Fort Sumner. It is called Hwéeldi by the Navajo, or “The Place of Suffering.” Here in an area of 40 square miles, thousands of Navajo were confined under Army supervision for almost four years. This month, they celebrated the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Treaty of Bosque Redondo, which released them to return to their homeland in Arizona.
In an earlier post, I wrote about “The Trail of Tears,” whereby the southern Cherokee were relocated west of the Mississippi by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. So why were the Navajo people exiled in the opposite direction, from Arizona to eastern New Mexico? What was going on?
THE ROLE OF “MANIFEST DESTINY”
Confusion was going on, one concludes from the history. This is because the exile of the Navajo eastward was totally contrary to an idea that had been embedded in American consciousness back in 1845. It was christened “Manifest Destiny” by a newspaper writer named John L. O’Sullivan, and it was the idea that the United States had the God-given right to take over western territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, Native Americans were being pushed west, not east.
This meant frequent and sometimes brutal conflict between settlers and the Native American tribes that had lived here for thousands of years. The scene in New Mexico in 1864 was complicated by the government’s focus on two things. One was the Civil War, which was drawing to a close, and the other was its desire to solve the “Indian problem” and create peace.
Kit Carson was sent first to try to work out an arrangement with the Navajo, the largest tribe, in which they would agree to live peacefully in certain territory under government protection. When that failed, Carson began to kill their sheep and destroy their crops to force surrender through starvation. This succeeded in 1864.
Then began the first half of what would become known as “The Long Walk” to a new home in New Mexico. The exodus was made up of many separate groups walking about 400 miles from Fort Defiance in Arizona to Fort Sumner and the camp called Bosque Redondo in the Pecos River Valley. (A bosque in New Mexican Spanish typically means a river bottom grove of cottonwood trees.) The trek took about 18 days, and some 10,000 Native Americans made the journey—9,500 Navajo and 500 Mescalero Apache.
It is estimated that about 200 Navajos died along the way and another 3,000 once they arrived. Provisions by the military were inadequate, and survival was a daily struggle. Finally, when the Civil War ended in 1865, Washington took a look at what was going on in the Southwest. General William Tecumseh Sherman visited Fort Sumner himself and apparently realized that the whole thing had been a bad mistake. He gave the Navajo the choice of either moving to Oklahoma like the Cherokee or returning to their homeland. They chose the latter.
THE TURNING POINT
The 1868 Treaty of Bosque Redondo providing for the Navajo return was signed on June 1. On June 18, all of the Navajo set off on the return leg of The Long Walk. The story is that they became a more cohesive tribe as a result of this experience. They were initially granted 3.5 million acres in Arizona but eventually increased the size of their reservation to over 16 million acres, now the largest in the country. With a population of about 300,000, they are second to the Cherokee in numbers.
On June 4, 2005, the Bosque Redondo Memorial was opened in Fort Sumner. Financed by the Defense Department, it is dedicated to remembering the tragedy that could have wiped out the Navajo Nation but instead served to unify it.
This is one of those chapters of American history that is painful to read. And at this time, when the media feed us a daily dose of the evidence of “immigrant fear,” this kind of history also provides a daily dose of irony. After all, the ancestors of most Americans were immigrants themselves once upon a time. When we look at our back story, including the account of The Long Walk, we can see how the threat associated with the term “immigrant” began to develop among some.