HWÉELDI, 1864-68, THE NAVAJO's LONG WALK AND DEPORTATION
By Christine Prat
Original in French at:
In the second half of the 19th century, the conquest of 'The West' intensified. In 1846, the United States attacked the recently independent Mexico and acquired a huge portion of territory through the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty of 1848. For a long time, settlers mainly wanted to acquire agricultural lands and were not interested in the rocky desert lands of the Southwest. However, in the second half of the 19th century, people started looking for gold and other resources.
In the 1860's, the American Army had military posts in the Southwest, on the ground that Navajos and Apaches often raided the area. In the region corresponding to present day Arizona and New-Mexico, settlers captured Native women and children as slaves, rather than buy African slaves from traders. Native warriors tried to free the captives and raided the area. However, in the 1860's a rumor spread among white people that there would be gold in the Navajo Territory. One who is said to have believed in the rumor was Colonel Kit Carson. He managed to convince General Carleton that it was necessary to get rid of the Navajos.
The Army attacked the Navajo Territory, while Fort Sumner – named after General Edwin Vose Sumner - was being built, on a site called Bosque Redondo by the Spanish. In the winter 1863-1864, Carson's Army killed, destroyed crops, and rounded up all the Navajos they could. In the Canyon de Chelly, where people hid in caves, the Army destroyed everything that grew, like the peach trees Navajos were so proud of. Some warriors managed to hide in the many caves and canyons of the region. But the thousands of Navajos taken prisoners were forcibly marched for some 400 miles, in the winter, to Bosque Redondo. Many died underway. Especially children and old people died of hunger and exhaustion or drowned while crossing rivers.
At the site where they were to be detained – called 'reservation' but in fact the first concentration camp, with extermination intentions – they were supposed to care for their own needs. They were supposed to plant crops. However, the place was particularly unhospitable, wood was scarce, and the water of the River Pecos was alkaline, thus not suitable to drink, making them sick, and not suitable for irrigation either. A few hundred Mescalero Apaches were also detained in the camp.
Although the soldiers in the Fort were supposed to guard the camp, and certainly to prevent the prisoners to run away, they hardly interfered when Comanches, then enemies of the Navajos and the Apaches, attacked them.
After a few years of bad crops, in which the Army had to provide minimal food rations to the prisoners, which still cost money to the Army, it was decided that it would be cheaper to let the survivors go back home, to a reservation drawn as a rectangle on a map, in the Treaty of June 1st 1868. The survivors were probably 'lucky' that their ordeal mainly took place during the Civil War. It made the Army's budget even tighter, and many militaries of the region had gone over to the Confederates.
The survivors just went back home, where they came from, as they had not learned to recognize an arbitrarily drawn rectangle in the landscape. Since then, the Navajo Reservation has been enlarged several times, but they are not yet back to their whole territory between the Four Mountains.
The story of Hwééldi has been told through the generations. In 2009, Camille Manybeads Tso has been telling the story of her great-grandmother, who managed to hide with her baby and escape the Long Walk, in a movie, "In The Footsteps of Yellow Woman", which has been shown in France, during the Festival AlterNatif in Nantes. In Klee Benally's movie "Power Lines", first shown in the US in 2015 and in Paris in 2016, allusions to Hwééldi run all along the movie.
The pictures below have all been taken on the site of the camp. It has been declared a New Mexico State Monument in 1968. A memorial housing a museum, designed by Navajo architect David N. Sloan was opened on the site in June 2005. The place being now managed by the New Mexico Historic Sites division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, the story is probably softened and you can be sure that in reality, it was worse. The site is situated close to Billy the Kid's grave, on Billy The Kid road, and in tourist guides and signs on the roads you will find only "Billy the Kid's Grave". Racists will always prefer a white thief than murdered Natives.