Friday, August 26, 2016

Experiencing a Site of Conscience: Bosque Redondo and the Navajo Long Walk

Many have not heard about "The Long Walk" and Bosque Redondo at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Sometimes it is easier to forget painful chapters of our past.
 
I volunteered for five years with the traditional Navajo elders on the Navajo Reservation. Through the Adopt a Native Elder program I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with elders as old as 100 years during my twice-yearly food runs. We did bring clothing, food and medical supplies. But the Adopt a Native Elder Program is about building bridges of hope and understanding between our two cultures. 

So we talk and learn about each other. I have been moved by their mentions of "The Long Walk," a forced relocation from their homeland in Arizona to the Bosque Redondo area of New Mexico. Some of the elders recalled their older family members talking about the relocation with great sadness.
 
Bosque Redondo Museum and Grounds
I also had the pleasure of seeing unusual brightly colored weavings done by some of the Navajo women. The weavings were called "Germantown" style. I was told that the Navajo only used the commercial yarns to weave when the natural yarn and dyes were unavailable. Before the Navajo were relocated to Bosque Redondo, the beautiful Churro sheep they had used for wool yarn were destroyed.

I was both horrified and perplexed by what I heard. I was determined to find out more and wondered why many people had not heard about "The Long Walk." Or was it that people didn't want to talk about what they knew? I decided that I needed to go to the memorial site at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, both to find out more, to see what the area looked like and to try and piece together what I had heard about "The Long Walk."  

Brief History of The Long Walk
Stories about "The Long Walk" have inconsistencies. Some say that the U.S. Army had experienced hostilities from groups of Apache and Navajo people and needed, somehow, to pacify them. Others say that there were valuable minerals to be mined on the lands. For whatever reason, it was decided that the Native people were a threat and should be moved. The Mescalero Apache were moved to the Bosque Redondo area and then the Navajo. I was told that the Navajo, who lived on vast lands, decided to hide so that they could not be captured and relocated. Kit Carson and the U.S. military retaliated by destroying their homes, fields and livestock. With no food, no means of survival and having no shelter, the Native people ended up coming to forts out of necessity. They were then banded together and relocated, being promised at the end of the journey, fertile farmland.  

This ‘scorched earth’ campaign of Carson’s “designed to starve the Navajo into submission” would be aptly called by the Navajos “The Fearing Time.” (Bosque Redondo Memorial Website History)

The walks started in January 1864. Groups of Navajo led by the Army were relocated from their traditional lands in eastern Arizona Territory and western New Mexico Territory to Fort Sumner in an area in the Pecos River valley. The journey was 450 harsh miles and many died during the trek.

Ultimately, by mid-1865, between 8,000 and 9,000 people were settled on an area of 40 square miles. After much hardship, the fleeing of the Apache people, and finding that the saline condition of the Pecos River flowing through the Bosque was not conducive to growing corn, beans and squash, the Navajo negotiated a treaty. The Treaty of Bosque Redondo between the United States and many of the Navajo leaders was concluded at Fort Sumner on June 1, 1868. The treaty provided for a return to the Navajo lands, supplies so that they could re-establish farming, compensation to tribal members, education for the children and provisions to protect the Navajo from having something like this happen in the future.
Treaty Rock is a good place to leave an offering.
Navajo Ghost Beads
Going to the Memorial at Bosque Redondo
Not many people travel to the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument. The Navajo people don't want to go as it represents a very dark chapter in the history of their people. The rest of us may not know about "The Long Walk," and if we do, we find that the area is very out of the way. You have to want to learn more and to experience the area to drive out to the memorial. It is off the beaten tourist path.

On a sunny autumn day I headed from Santa Fe, south on 285 south through Clines Corners and east on I-40 through prairie land. The drive was primarily on lightly traveled roads and so it gave me time to reflect on the Navajo people, their love of their land and four sacred mountains. How could anyone believe they had the right to move the Navajo? And, as I drove, I considered how it would be to walk through this high desert with no shelter, open to the elements. Men, women, children and elders endured this walk.
This painting is a moving depiction of the
horrors of the Long Walk across open high desert.
At Santa Rosa, New Mexico, I turned off the interstate and headed for the little town of Fort Sumner. The area was open, there were few trees except for cottonwoods and there were some large ranches. It felt like west Texas. It was so different from the Navajo's homeland dotted with herds of sheep and surrounded by the four sacred mountains. The land and their lives and culture are so intertwined. I could not imagine them apart from their lands.

My mood became more introspective as I neared Ft. Sumner. I had heard so much about the history there and it was all very dark. Ft. Sumner is an interesting small town with vintage buildings and a few historical landmarks. The legend of Billy the Kid seems to be the main draw with a commercial museum and gravesites. But I was focused on reaching the historic Ft. Sumner site and Bosque Redondo. Signs led me a few miles out of town through farmland (mostly alfalfa is being grown there). I reached a sign leading me into an area of cottonwoods and a building with a teepee shaped entrance.

In 1991, New Mexico State Monuments, the Museum of New Mexico, Navajo, and Apache leaders, began the creation of a memorial to truthfully acknowledge the history at Bosque Redondo. The Bosque Redondo Memorial opened at Fort Sumner on June 4, 2005, with New Mexican, Navajo, and Mescalero Apache leaders present. The memorial, designed by Navajo Architect David Sloan is shaped like a Navajo Hogan and an Apache teepee, and provides an interpretive trail and in-depth information about the history of Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation.  

At the Memorial
I had to realize, as I entered the memorial building, that the Navajo people no longer are in the area and most choose not to visit. I was greeted by a friendly Anglo man who proceeded to give a young couple from Dallas and myself an oral history of the area and "The Long Walk." He was knowledgeable, engaging and objective about the history.

I learned much from him including that the "Walk" was not one, but multiple treks along different routes. And I learned that corn could not be grown in the area once the people arrived due to water quality and an infestation of moths. So the military ended up trying to feed and clothe the people there, albeit poorly. I learned that the Apache and Navajo did not get along due to the difference in their lifestyles (the Apache were not farmers), and pictured that the encampment must have been a total disaster. Crops couldn't be grown, people didn't want to be there, the two tribes did not get along and for what purpose?

After the talk, I explored the grounds. You can take an audio tour as there are numbered stations on the memorial grounds. I was drawn to the Pecos River and found a nature trail along the water. I found peace along the river as I walked along the golden paths. I imagined the Navajo coming to the river for water.
The beauty of the bosque and river provided some peace
in an otherwise troubling setting.
On the grounds I found a reconstruction of the Fort Sumner ruins. The original fort was burned years ago and there is little that you can see from that era. Also on the grounds is a memorial to the treaty that the Navajo negotiated with the U.S. Government and a place where rocks have been placed that represent all the areas of the Navajo Reservation.

Not much is on the grounds but the feeling of despair remains. Aside from my walk along the river, I had the same feeling visiting those grounds as I did when I visited the remains of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. That is a strong statement to make but it is the way I felt.
From the four corners of the Navajo Reservation, these rocks were brought.
The Navajo people still prefer not to return to this area.
The Visitors Center
After touring the grounds I returned to the Visitors' Center. There are educational displays about the "Long Walk" and Bosque Redondo and a video to watch. But what I found significant were the haunting paintings and murals. They depicted this dark era well and were a good representation of what "The Long Walk" must have looked like. The memorial continues to grow with a new phase being added.
It is through the murals and paintings at the Visitors Center
that the story of The Long Walk can be understood.
When You Go
The drive to Bosque Redondo is about two and a half hours from Santa Fe. And, it is a rather short trip for anyone passing through Santa Rosa on I-40. It is important to go to this site to truly understand our history and the tragedy which was part of it.

The memorial has been dubbed a “museum of conscience” and it is compared to other sites established in recent years to recognize such tragedies as the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

Allow an hour or two to go through the memorial, walk the grounds and contemplate what was done to the Apache and Navajo people. Once I traveled to the memorial, I was glad that I did. I understood more than ever why bridges need to be built between people such as the Navajo elders I visited in northern Arizona and my culture. The visit made me even more aware of what these people had endured in their history and why waking at dawn each day to see their land and sacred mountains is so important to them.  

Writer's Note: There are many opinions and thoughts about visiting the Bosque Redondo Memorial and about The Long Walk. The opinions and impressions here are solely my own. I would invite comments, your impressions and your story about this significant event in our history. Please use our comments section.  

More Information
Treaty of Bosque Redondo  
Bosque Redondo Memorial  
Navajo Rugs and Germantown Weavings  
Adopt a Native Elder Program
International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

Reading:   
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West  
Books about the Navajo and The Long Walk