Athapaskan-speaking peoples ancestors of the Navajos and the Apaches began filtering from the north and west into the deserts and southern prairies of North America some five to possibly 10 or more centuries ago, at some point during the flourescence of the Puebloan peoples.
The Athapaskan-speaking Hunter/Gatherers
We know that the newcomers had remnant cultural and linguistic affiliations with Athapaskan-speaking peoples of Alaska, western Canada and coastal California.
For instance, in a 1999 research paper "Mortuary Beliefs and Practices of the Northern and Southwestern Athapaskans," Simon Fraser University student Lindsay McArthur pointed out that the southern and northern Athapaskans shared the "cultural standard of fear and avoidance of the dead." Both recognized taboos associated with death. Both refused to speak the names of the dead. Both avoided lodgings in which someone had died.
A linguistic affiliation "?has been proved," said Ruth M. Underhill in The Navajos, because "?the Athapaskans of the Southwest can actually understand some words used by Indians of British Columbia, the Sekani, Beaver, Carrier, Slave and Chippewyan." For one example, she said, the southern Athapaskans used the same word for a gourd dipper that their northern kin used for a horn spoon. Moreover, the southern and the northern Athapaskan-speaking peoples both refer to themselves as "Dine," or "The People."
If we have some notion of the origins of the southern Athapaskan-speakers, we know very little about their long journey from the north. According to Linda Cordell in her Archaeology of the Southwest, "there is no consensus about when Athapaskan-speaking peoples entered the Southwest, which route they likely traveled, or what their traditional material culture looked like prior to their interactions with Pueblo peoples and Europeans in the Southwest."
Plausibly, however, the cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the Yukon around A. D. 720 may have prompted a "series of migrations that culminated in the formation of the Pacific Athapaskans in British Columbia and of the Apache and Navajo of the southwestern United States," according to Stephen L. Harris in his paper "Archaeology and Volcanism," Encyclopedia of Volcanoes, 2000. "Athapaskan lore," he said, "transmitted orally for more than 1200 years, refers to fiery explosions and a collapsing mountain that caused the people’s ancestors to abandon their original homeland and, in small bands, eventually drift westward or southward to the present locations."
We can speculate that a vanguard of nomadic Athapaskan hunting and gathering bands extended families appeared in the Southwest and southern Great Plains within a few centuries after the volcanic eruption. Other bands followed over time, some possibly arriving as late as the 16th century, about the same time as the earliest Spanish incursions into the region.
The earliest immigrants probably lived much like the Archaic, or hunting and gathering, peoples of the desert two millennia earlier, although the newcomers almost certainly used bows (reinforced with sinew backing) and arrows, not the Archaic hunters’ spears, for weapons. In recalling her tribe’s oral histories about these early people in her paper "Dine, the People," (in America’s First Nation Collection: American Indian Social Studies Curricula), Navajo Suzanne Eltsosie said, "They wore clothing made from skins of animals. For their food, they hunted deer and antelope, and ate wild plants."
In their prolonged migration from North America’s western Subarctic region to the more southern deserts and prairies, the Athapaskan hunting and gathering bands evolved culturally as they interacted with resident populations and adapted to new environments.
By the time the Spanish came, in the 16th century, the Colorado Plateau Athapaskans the ancestors of the Navajos "had been in the process of mixing both racially and culturally with other groups of Indians [primarily the Puebloans] for some time, possibly centuries," said Raymond Friday Locke in his The Book of the Navajos. "They lived in primitive forked-stick hogans and [like the Puebloans] grew patches of corn, beans, and melons. Their communities were comprised of extended family groups and were located on high mesas near the fields."
Adding another dimension to the portrait, David M. Brugge said in his paper "Navajo Prehistory and History to 1850," which appeared in the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians, Southwest, Volume 10, that the Colorado Plateau Athapaskans often "moved to areas distant from their fields for hunting; traded meat, hides, and mineral products, primarily salt and alum, to the Puebloans
they had clothing with feathered headgear, arrows tipped with stone points; had many local headmen including war chiefs
practiced polygamy; and were quite skillful in war."
The Navajos emerged as a distinctive culture in northwestern New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries, when scattered Athapaskan bands formed a coalition of their own peoples and forged an alliance with Puebloan war refugees. The peoples all joined for the common purpose of defending themselves, first, against Spanish oppression and, later, against Ute raiding. The Spanish, who had been driven from their New Mexico colonies and missions by the Puebloans in a bloody revolt in 1680, had returned to northern New Mexico to reassert control with a vengeance in 1692. The Utes, pirates mounted on horses stolen during raids on Spanish haciendas, came southward like a plague from their Rocky Mountain range to ravage the Athapaskan and Puebloan villages.
In the arid, wooded mesas and canyons of the upper San Juan River basin, the Athapaskans and their Puebloan allies built a carefully planned, ingenious network of more than 100 small villages called "pueblitos," the Spanish word for "small villages" and outposts designed specifically for defense (see the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management publications Defensive Sites of Dinetah and Rethinking Navajo Pueblitos). Drawing on a stunningly detailed knowledge of their 1600-square-mile area (a region a third again larger than Rhode Island), they were able to choose building sites which met, not only their needs for defense, but also the multiple requirements for commanding views, farmland, water, construction materials, firewood and visual or audible inter-village signaling and alarmsan accomplishment which archaeologists have not been able to duplicate, even with sophisticated computerized mapping programs.
Using locally available stone and timbers, the Athapaskans and Puebloans built villages with fortified wall structures, maze-like entrances and dead-ends to frustrate attackers. They built towers (presumably defensive), much like those of the Anasazi Hovenweep ruins in southeastern Utah or the Mesa Verde ruins in southwestern Colorado. They built portals in wall structures, allowing shielded defenders to fire on their enemies. They camouflaged many structures so effectively that they could scarcely be seen from a distance. Both the Athapaskans and the Puebloans left their specific imprints on the pueblitos. Within the same living complex, the Athapaskans built their traditional lodges of forked poles and brush, and the Puebloans built their traditional masonry room blocks with stone and mud walls. Surprisingly, like the Spanish, the Puebloans sometimes built hooded fireplaces in the corners of their living quarters.
"Much of what we now think of as Navajo culture was born in this time," said James F. Downs in his book, The Navajo. Not only did the newly unified bands achieve a sense of nationhood, they absorbed the Puebloan cultural influence, which was "very strong," said Brugge. We see it expressed, for instance, in pottery, basketry, tools, sandals and ceremonial artifacts. We see it embodied in Navajo rock art, which includes images of Puebloan-style kachina masked dancers, deities, sun shields and macaw figures. Apparently, the pueblito period gave rise to the Navajo system of clans, which took root from earlier Athapaskan bands, Puebloan refugee groups and even captives. In addition, said Brugge, "European traits introduced through the [Puebloan] refugees were
of great importance, including cattle, sheep and wool, probably goats and cheesemaking, new crops including peaches and cotton, perhaps improved gear for use with horses
" Intermarriage reinforced the Puebloan influence still more. In A History of the Navajos: The Reservation Years, authors Garrick and Roberta Glenn Bailey said that "
we prefer to see [the Navajos] as biological and cultural hybrids, neither Athabaskan nor Puebloan, but a product of both."
When the pueblito system dissolved in the latter third of the 18th century, possibly because of a decline of resources and disputes within the alliance, the Athapaskans, welded together by adversity and touched by another culture, began their new life, as Navajos, the Dine. They would thereafter call the land of the pueblitos, the heart of their range, the "Dinetah," the "old homeland." It is here, the "Navajo equivalent of the Holy Land," said the Bureau of Land Management in Defensive Sites of Dinetah, "that the Navajo creation story is focused."
A New Cultural Fabric
Although the bands did not form a formal political union, the Navajos now began to weave an intricate new cultural fabric from the traditions of their ancestral Athapaskans, their interactions with Puebloan allies, livestock from the Spanish herds, the vitality of their own new identity and spirituality, and their new sense of "oneness." In an epic sweep of lore about their creation, the Navajos laid spiritual claim to a vast region bounded by four sacred mountains: San Francisco Peak in north central Arizona, Mount Hesperus in southwestern Colorado, Mount Blanca in south central Colorado, and Mount Taylor in central New Mexico. They revered the land of their cultural birth, especially two Dinetah promontories, Huerfano Mesa and Gobernador Knob.
In an elaborate ceremony called the Blessingway, they told the labyrinthine stories of their long, stage-by-stage emergence from phantasmagoric underworlds to earth’s surface and their corresponding evolution from beasts and creatures into their human formthe Dine. They told of the Navajos’ eternal search for harmony and beauty, the creation of First Man and First Woman, the rise of a pantheon of deities, the magical appearance of a sacred medicine bundle, the construction of the first Navajo lodges, or hogans. They spoke of the origins of the benevolent Changing Woman, her Hero Twin sons, the Holy People, all life forms, the sun and moon, corn, and the four original Navajo clans. "While it must be remembered that there are many and widely varying stories of the cosmic creation and the origin of the Navajo people," said Sam D. Gill in his paper "Navajo View of Their Origin," Handbook of North American Indians, Southwest, Volume 10, "these accounts are nonetheless central to the Navajo world view; indeed, they are primary statements of it. The order and character of the world and of the place of human beings in that world, including their relationships with one another and with all other living things, [are] defined in these stories."
Suffused with their tribal lore and beliefs, the Navajos thought of their lodges hogans not only as homes, but as sanctuaries for ritual and as symbolic representations of their spiritual world.
"The first Hogan was the ‘forked stock’ or ‘male’ Hogan?," said Suzanne Eltsosie. "It contained a vestibule in the front and was only for sacred ceremonies inside? ?the basic framework?is usually three forked poles, the bases of which are set in the ground at the north, south, and west cardinal directions of a circle with the forked ends interlocked at the top to brace them in place. Two poles?laid up against the interlocked forks from the east, or the ‘first light of dawn,’ form the entryway. After poles to fill the openings between the main forks and the entry are set in place, the structure is covered with earth except for the entry and a smoke hole?"
The second type of hogan was the one-room circular or polygonal dwelling, or "female" hogan. "The basic structure is built," said Eltsosie, "by placing succeeding layers of logs or poles horizontally upon the other to form a circular buildingleaving an opening for the entry, of course. At a suitable height, smaller logs are used and the circumference is diminished gradually until a domed effect is achieved. The entire structure, except for the smoke hole and entry, is then covered with earth to seal all cracks and openings." Like the male hogans, the female hogans faced the east and the rising sun, an invitation to the spirits to visit in the morning. To the Navajo, the "domelike hoganwith its enfolding quality, central hearth or stove, and skylight-like smoke hole is extremely reassuring and homelike, especially when the sound of the mother batting down the wefts on her loom the heartbeat of the hogan is in the background," said Stephen C. Jett in "Territory and Hogan: Local Homelands of the Navajo," Archaeological Society of New Mexico journal No. 24.
As they spread westward after the abandonment of the pueblitos, the Navajos redefined themselves, as herdsmen, whose daily material lives would revolve primarily around herds of sheep, goats and horses descended from Spanish seed stock. Navajo bands bound by the familial relationships of their women and the informal leadership of men with specialized ritual expertise maintained their herds near their hogan villages during the winter. They drove their livestock to different and distant pastures during the growing seasons, moving frequently as the animals depleted water supplies and forage.
Over time, some bands flourished, with their wealth measured by the sizes of their herds, often tens of thousands of animals. They became entrepreneurs, merchants who frequented pueblo and frontier trading festivals. Using sheep and goats as the primary currency of their economy, they traded wool and their famous blankets masterpieces of the weaver’s art to the Puebloans and the Spanish colonists. Some Navajos supplemented their pastoral economy with crops of corn, beans and squash and sometimes peaches and cotton. Men hunted deer, using tanned hides in trade. Women wove baskets, offering them for trade. True to their ancestry, the Navajos called on their adaptability and relied on their resourcefulness to prosper.
Raiding, Warfare and Slavery
Powerful as it was, the flourishing energy of Navajo entrepreneurship did not overwhelm the spirit of an ancient and more visceral human occupation: raiding and warfare. Unlike the Apaches, however, the Navajos raided, not specifically for tribal or personal honors and glory, but generally as a business venture. "The Navajo were cool-headed, hard-fighting filibusterers who raided the Spanish and the Pueblos and sent parties well into northern Mexico," said Downs.
"The most frequent goal was to capture livestock, sheep, and horses in particular
" which would, of course, supplement the Navajo herds. "In addition to livestock," Downs said, "the Navajo sought slaves, particularly young men and women of enemy peoples and whatever other goods they might find. Enemy prisoners were often adopted immediately and treated as Navajo. Others served in a mild sort of domestic slavery. Still others were sold to the Mexicans and Spanish as slaves
"?even when raiding for revenge the Navajo seldom neglected to take livestock, slaves, and movable goods."
"They made freebooting their profession," said Ruth Underhill.
A proven and respected warrior would instigate a raid, recruiting a party from his friends and neighbors. He earned his eligibility to lead by knowing how to perform a ceremony called the "Enemy Way." He had to be able to "Step into the shoes of Monster Slayer," according to Underhill. In preparation for a raid, he and his followers purified themselves and sang sacred songs. They prayed to their deities. They armed themselves with bows, lances, stone-headed clubs and war shields. They wore war caps and and possibly like the northern Athapaskans three- or four-ply leather armor. Like the Indians of the Plains, they often left their village on foot, confident of returning on horseback, and like the Indians of the Plains, the Navajo raiders followed a choreographed ritual on the trail. As Underhill pointed out, they adhered to prescribed rules for the foods they ate, the words they spoke, even the way they slept. Just prior to an attack, they painted their bodies with the emblems of their power. At a mystical sign of bad luck, they might abandon a raid, postponing it until a more propitious time.
The Navajos instilled fear in their enemies, especially in the early days. Underhill said that an old Navajo warrior told her that "There were good large ranches in Mexico where we always got our sheep. Sometimes we would find great flocks of them out on the mesa with only a Mexican to guard them. So we took them without any troubleoh, of course, we had to kill the Mexican."
"By 1775," said Underhill, "the herds of New Mexico were so depleted that the province had to send to Spain for fifteen hundred horses?" Within a decade and a half, between 1846 and 1860, said Downs, Navajo raiders stole nearly half a million head of livestock in New Mexico alone. In a single instance, on March 28, 1862, Navajo raiders stole 11,000 head of sheep from the New Mexico ranch of Manuel Antonio Chaves, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Union forces during the Civil War, according to Ruben Salaz Marquez in his New Mexico: A Brief Multi-History.
The Navajos inflicted and suffered blood-letting and plundering through intermittent conflict with the Spanish during the colonial period, from 1598 to 1821; with the Mexicans during the post-colonial period, from 1821 until the Mexican/American war in 1846 through 1848; with the Americans after the Mexican/American War; and with their neighboring tribes throughout the centuries.
Contributing to one of the most squalid chapters in the history of the deserts, Navajo raiders took captives and sold them into slavery, and, not surprisingly, the Navajos lost their own people to kidnapping and slavery. In fact, "?the Spaniards looked upon Navajo women and children as theirs for the taking?," said Locke. During the mid-19th century, "?Indians were bought and sold in New Mexico much like Negroes elsewhere," according to Underhill. The Navajos, almost unbearably bitter and enraged, lost some 2500 to 4500, perhaps 25 to 35 percent of their people, mostly women and children, to slavers. The Navajos lost some three times more people than all the other tribes combined.
Yet things would get worse.
Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo, a Return to the Underworlds
After the Americans came, the Navajos turned increasingly from raiding for profit to battling for survival.
They contested the Anglos’ and Hispanics’ high-handed appropriation of choice Navajo pasture and farm lands and the relentless search for gold and silver. Authorities paid no attention to the encroachments. The Navajos despaired as they lost their women and children to slaving parties. Authorities ignored the outrage, even as the Union prepared to fight a great war in the east to free black slaves. Indeed, the New Mexico superintendent of Indian affairs owned six Indian slaves of his own, according to Robert A. Roessel, Jr. (See his paper "Navajo History, 18501923," Handbook of North American Indians, Southwest, Volume 10.) The influential Navajo chief Narbona, who tried to promote peace with the Americans, fell to U. S. troopers’ bullets in a cold-blooded murder in northwestern New Mexico’s Chuska Mountains at the end of August, 1849, said Roessel. Authorities never pressed charges. A dozen Navajo women and children died under troopers’ gunfire at Fort Fauntleroy, near Gallup, New Mexico, in September, 1861. The commanding officer, Colonel Manuel Chaves, an "experienced Indian fighter" and a past slave raider escaped punishment. Authorities never court marshaled him.
In frustration, the Navajos struck back desperately, going so far as to attack Fort Defiance in northeastern Arizona, north of Window Rock, in the spring of 1860, but Navajo bows and arrows could never match American firepower.
In late 1862, the Union Army appointed James Henry Carleton, a sanctimonious brigadier general with a venomous hatred for Indians, as the new commanding officer for New Mexico. Almost immediately he put a force in the field, under Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson, with orders to crush the Mescalero Apaches in the Sacramento Mountains then turn on the Navajos in their homeland. Carson, a reluctant but obedient warrior, defeated the Mescaleros within five months, according to Roessel. He dispatched some 400 of them as prisoners to a dismal concentration camp at Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo, on the Pecos River in east central New Mexico.
On June 15, 1863, Carleton, eager to satisfy his troops’ appetite for battle against the Indians, issued his famous "General Order Number 15," which directed "Colonel CHRISTOPHER CARSON, with a proper military force [to] proceed without delay
prosecute a vigorous war upon the men of this tribe [the Navajos] until it is considered at these Head Quarters that they have been effectually punished for their long continued atrocities
" Say to them, Carleton told Carson, that "This war will be pursued against you if it takes years
until you cease to exist or move" to the Fort Sumner/Bosque Redondo concentration camp.
As Sherman would do in his march through Georgia in 1864, Carleton mounted a "scorched earth" policy against his enemies, said Roessel. "?troops destroyed cornfields, peach trees, hogans, water holes, animals, and people?" The policy began "to pay dividends as the Navajo had nowhere to hide and little or nothing to eat." Simultaneously, Carleton tacitly encouraged free-lance slaving parties to raid the Navajos.
During frigid and snowy weather in January of 1864, Carson led his command of 375 troopers and Jicarilla Apache and Ute auxiliaries into northeastern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, which Locke referred to facetiously as that "notorious stronghold of the Navajos." At the same time, another commander, Albert W. Pheiffer, led some 100 troopers into another branch of the canyon system, said Locke. Pheiffer’s soldiers, marching along the canyon floors, watched Navajo warriors, perched on high canyon rims, hurl down stones and curses, acts of frustration. "?the height was so great," said Pheiffer, "that the Indians did not look larger than crows?" Pheiffer, Carson reported, "found the bodies of Indians frozen to death in the canyon." Marching through the canyon, the troopers of Carson and Pheiffer demolished thousands of peach trees, fields of corn, herds of sheep and goats, the homes of families, and, ultimately, the spirit of the tribe. Starving, the Navajos began surrendering.
Carleton, ignoring the advice of his advisors, gave the Navajos no choice other than trekking 300 miles eastward, leaving their beloved homeland, to join the Mescalero Apaches at Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo. The bleak riverine landscape, the advisors had told Carleton, had poor water, inadequate wood and flood-prone fields. It could not support both the Navajos and Mescaleros. Carleton would send his prisoners there anyway in a march of the damned, intermittent and ragged columns of a broken and starving people, a torturous ordeal which the Navajos would call the "Long Walk."
As the winter passed, hungry and despairing Navajos streamed into Fort Canby (previously Fort Defiance) and Fort Wingate to surrender by the thousands, hoping they could find provisions for their suffering families prior to undertaking the Long Walk. At the forts, the Navajos began to die almost immediately from dysentery, contracted from unfamiliar and incorrectly prepared foods such as white flour, according to Locke. Once they took to the trail, those who collapsed in sickness usually died, not of their ailments, but by the bullets fired by their soldier guards. The aged and the lame fell behind the column and, abandoned, died of starvation and exposure. Skeletal and spent Navajo horses, remnants of once great herds, stumbled and lay where they fell, unable to carry their burdens any farther. Slavers from the settlements and scavengers from the earth and sky preyed on the columns.
The arrival of the survivors at the desolate Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo encampment must have felt like a return to the underworlds of their tribal lore, a descent into a strange nether land of aliens and hopelessness. The Navajo people ached for the wooded drainages and mesas which harbored the monuments of their cultural origins, the sacred peaks which towered above their home range, the sculpted red sandstone canyons and buttes which evoked a sense of the eternal, the river and stream bottoms which had nurtured their crops of peaches and corn, the sage and high desert grasslands which provided pasture for their livestock.
At the peak, more than 9000 Navajo men, women and children far more than Carleton anticipated arrived as prisoners of war (joining the 400 Mescaleros) at Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo, according to Roessel. As Carleton’s advisors had suggested, the mineral-laden water of the Pecos River made the Indians sick, investing them with chronic diarrhea. The supply of wood soon gave out, forcing the women to dig mesquite roots for fuel. Crops planted in limited and marginal fields failed because of storms, drought or insects. Malnourishment, squalor and exposure led to disease. New Mexico settlers and Comanches raided the encampments of the distressed Navajos like sharks attacking a school of fish. In fact, Locke believed that Carleton deliberately used the helpless Navajos as sacrificial lambs, hoping the Comanches would prey on them rather than New Mexico’s Anglo and Hispanic communities. Soon, Navajos by the hundreds began trying to escape Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo, hoping to return to their homeland. Many of them, run down by military patrols or civilian vigilantes, surrendered to slavery or died by bullets. Other escapees died of starvation and exposure in the wilderness. Carleton, said Locke, ordered his forces to kill every Navajo found any place other than in that hateful camp on the Pecos.
At length, Carleton drew criticism, first from federal and judicial officials in New Mexico, then from federal officials and congressional investigating committees in Washington. It reached a crescendo in the spring of 1866, prompting Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to relieve the general of his New Mexico command on September 19, 1866, and to reassign him to new duty in Louisiana. The Santa Fe New Mexican, quoted by Locke, said, "It thus appears that our territory will be relieved from the presence of this man Carleton, who has so long lorded it amongst us. For five years or more he has been in supreme command of New Mexico, and during that whole time, has accomplished nothing for which he is entitled to the thanks and gratitude of our people?" Washington, preoccupied by the aftermath of the Civil War and bogged down in the morass of its bureaucracy, moved glacially to address the anguish of the Navajos.
The aging Navajo chief Ganado Mucho, said Locke, plead with officials: "We want to go back to our own country
We think we were born to live in our old country
we think we were not born to live here." Navajo leader Barboncito, according to Roessel, said to peace commissioners, "I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own
We do not want to go to the right or left, but straight back to our own country."
Finally, in June of 1868, more than four years after Carson’s forces invaded Canyon de Chelly, the United States government freed the Navajos from their bondage.
It meant going home, the re-emergence of the Dine from an underworld.
"On June 18," said Roessel, "a column of Navajos 10 miles long left Fort Sumner under escort of four cavalry companies." They knew that the fields of their Holy Land had been laid waste. Their livestock had been slaughtered. Their homes had been demolished. Their lands had been violated. But they were going home. Their sacred mountains were still there.
"I missed my sheep," said the young Navajo woman, a student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. You could see the twinkle of humor in her brown eyes, the look of kindness in her face. "I came home for Christmas vacation and when I went back to school, I put a sheep in the back seat of my Volkswagon Beetle and hauled it back to Albuquerque with me. I kept it in my back yard while I was in school. I didn’t feel so lonesome after that."
One of the annual Navajo Conferences in the mid-1990’s, Farmington, New Mexico.
"I worked as a commercial artist in Chicago for nearly 20 years," R. C. Begay, a middle-age, soft-spoken and gentle Navajo man who lived in northwestern New Mexico, told my wife, Martha, and me. The three of us had driven out into the Dinetah region to visit pueblito and Navajo rock art sites. He showed us the escarpment where a Jemez Pueblo woman had founded his clan the Salt Clan during the 17th century struggle with the Spanish colonists and the Ute raiders. "I felt lonely and disconnected the whole time I was up there in Chicago," R. C. said. "One day, I was walking down the sidewalk, and I passed a Catholic church and a Protestant church, and I suddenly realized that you people can take your religion with you. It’s mobile. My religion is grounded in the landthe canyons and the mesas and the mountains. It’s immobile. I can’t take it with me. I quit my job and came home."
Trip in early 1990’s
"When Kit Carson and his soldiers came into Canyon de Chelly," Gary Henry, a soft-spoken Navajo man from Chinle, Arizona, said, "some of my people climbed up on that ridge to escape." We stood on the red earth on the floor of the canyon and looked up to the top of the sandstone escarpment. "From here," Gary continued, "you can still see the pine tree they used as a ladder to reach the top. You can still see the rocks they piled along the edge. They meant to use those to bombard the soldiers if they attacked." With binoculars, we could see the pine tree still leaning precariously against the ridge, the stone missiles still ready for use. "Carson just starved those Navajos out. They had to come down and surrender. He sent them to Fort Sumner. He had burned all of our peach trees."
Gary had taken my wife and me, with two old friends, Rex and Lorrie Harrington, into Canyon de Chelly to see the magnificent ruins of the late Anasazi, to experience the spectacular sculpted formations of sandstone, and to learn about a chapter in Navajo history. Gary had been raised in the canyon. We camped that night on his mother’s property.
"There was this woman," Gary told us as we sat at the campfire after dinner, "who couldn’t take the life at Fort Sumner any more. Even though she was almost nine months pregnant, she left the camp. She meant to walk, all alone, the 300 miles back home, back to the Dinetah. She knew she would have to get past the military and civilian patrols searching for escapees. She knew that if they found her, they would probably either kill her or make her a slave. A few days out, she went into labor, and she delivered her baby, a little girl. She was afraid the baby would cry and give her away to the patrols, so she tried to suffocate it by pressing her foot across its throat. The baby stopped breathing, and she walked away. The baby caught its breath and began to cry. The woman tried a second and then a third time to suffocate the child, and each time it caught its breath and began to cry. Navajos never do anything more than three times, so the woman picked the baby up in her arms, and somehow she managed to get through all the patrols and return home with her child.
"That child became my great grandmother."
Trip to Canyon de Chelly, early 1990’s.
I used to talk about the history of the desert and the Indians with Mike Watchman, a young soft-spoken Navajo engineer who had graduated from Brigham Young University. I told him about Gary Henry’s great grandmother, how she was born in great hardship and danger, how she survived because Navajos never did anything more than three times.
Mike said, quietly, "I took chemistry four times." I could see the twinkle of humor in his brown eyes.
Conversation in late 1980’s.
Jay W. Sharp