The world in which the Navajo live, their Dinehtah, lies cradled between four sacred mountains; The La Platas of the North, Sierra Blanca and Pelado Peak in the East, Mount Taylor and the Zuni Mountains in the South, and the San Francisco Peaks of the West. Archaeological study until recently maintained that the Navajo were relative newcomers to the area. There is no mention of them in the earliest accounts of Spanish explorers to the region and it has been maintained that these Athapascans were still migrating south from their original crossing of the Bering Strait as late as 1600. Still there is evidence of much older structures dating to 1000 AD attributed to the Navajo. Navajo tradition and religious history tells us that the Dineh – the People – have lived within the boundary of these mountains for at least a thousand years and perhaps much longer.Ancient Navajo history is an oral history, passed down through generations of stories and more importantly through generations of Singers (medicine men) who have learned verbatim the religious history of the Dineh and the various ceremonies and songs attached to each history as they pertain to the ceremonies of healing. The Navajo creation story begins virtually the same as all cultures. In the beginning there was only darkness. There were no people, only a cosmic consciousness that sought to create. To properly tell the full story of the Navajo creation and emergence would require four nights in a Hogan, so it must suffice to say that The Dineh emerged into this fifth world from four consecutive concentric worlds within. Each emergence was necessitated because The People had failed morally in some way and each emergence symbolized a cleansing and a rebirth – another chance.
It is impossible to say how long the Navajo lived their lives before written history, surrounded by their sacred mountains. Certainly the gods reckon time differently than do we. But their lives and their fate were to be forever changed with the arrival of the Spaniards. The Navajo shared their lands with the Puebloans and while it is probable that raiding and slavery were not unknown to either peoples, it is also probable that they lived together in relative peace and enjoyed trading relations despite historical views to the contrary. As to the coming of the Spaniards, it is noteworthy that the Maya, the Aztec, and the Toltecs had similar legends to the Hopi of a white-skinned god that was fated to return to them. The Dineh had a similar legend too, and this prophecy may have proved as deadly for the Navajo as it did to Moctezuma. The Spanish did come, spurred by rumours of seven fabulous cities made of gold. The gold found in Mexico and Peru certainly made this rumour at least a possibility. In the mid 1500’s the Spaniards began to colonize near Dinetah. The Puebloans, being a sedentary people, were quickly enslaved and made to produce for the Crown. The Navajo were not so easily subdued and there began a war that was to last for centuries.
The Spaniards, along with their greed, brought also livestock which had hitherto been unknown; sheep, cattle, pigs, and most importantly to the Native Americans, the horse. Although originally native to North America, the horse had been absent from the continent for many thousands of years. The reintroduction of evolution’s rather changed version of this animal created a cultural revolution among all of the Nomadic and semi-nomadic Native American tribes of North America. Not the least of these were the Navajo who quickly came by their horses through raid, trade, and any other means at their disposal. Just as quickly the Navajo, as their close linguistic cousins the Apache, became expert horsemen and the bane of Spanish, Mexican, and later White settlers.
While the Navajo were feared as fierce raiders and warriors, they were not without provocation. The Spanish colonies began a system of encroachment, agreement, breech, and warfare that the new Americans would come to perfect. By the time the Americans arrived on the scene, the Navajo had been at constant war with the Spanish and Mexican colonies who themselves raided the Navajo mercilessly, taking their women and children as slaves. The new American settlers were as interested in land as in slaves and had no qualms about taking both from the Navajo. In 1846, through bribery and good timing, New Mexico became a territory of the United States without a shot fired against Mexico. As the United States stepped in it began its well-known cycle of treaty breaking and encroachment. The Anglo and Mexican settlers of the New Mexico territory took full advantage of every peace agreement to raid for more slaves, the demand for which seemed endless. Through this long history of conflict many Navajo leaders distinguished themselves, Narbona, Barboncito, Manuelito, Zarcillas Largo, and Ganado Mucho among them.
During this time, when so many leaders emerged for the Navajo, there was only one Anglo leader who distinguished himself as a friend to the Navajo and a levelheaded ambassador for them to the United States Government. This man was Henry Linn Dodge, appointed Special Agent to the tribe in 1853 and the first not to be corrupt in or corrupted by that position. Red Shirt, as the Navajo knew him, soon proved himself a friend who understood their plight and their culture. The settlers constantly encroaching on Navajo land despite recent treaties that promised to protect them. Promises of livestock and goods in exchange for those lands never materialized. Many Navajo bands were angry and wanted war. While some bands of young, idealistic Navajo continued to raid, Red Shirt was the buffer that kept the Navajo Nation from the War Trail. The Navajo respected him. Dodge himself had taken a Navajo wife and it is quite probable that he used most if not all of his 1500.00 annual salary toward the aid of his charges. He provided farming implements to The People who were most pleased with their produce and for once began to realize the viability of working the land, which the government had so often demanded that they do but never provided the means. To bring actual peace between the US Government, the New Mexican settlers, the Utes, and the Navajo would have been a miracle, yet it seemed that Henry Linn Dodge was on the brink of that miracle when in 1856, while hunting, Dodge was surprised and killed by a band of Apache marauders. The Navajo were heart-broken over the loss of their “Red Shirt”. With his death came also the end of any chance for peace.
Slave raids and encroachment by the settlers continued unchecked. The Navajo were at odds among themselves, some leaders wanting peace while others having had enough of false promises for security and payment for lands taken by treaty. These latter took again to the war trail in retribution. Slave raids, and raids of retribution by both sides of the conflict increased. The Americans, using also New Mexican settlers and Ute braves, had the Navajo out-gunned, but always to their frustration, the Navajo had their stronghold of Canyon De Chelly deep in the heart of Dinetah. Indeed, there seemed no other safe place for the Dineh when at any time a man could return from huntinmg to his home only to find it burned, his women and children gone. The People warred with the United States and their opportunistic allies, but by 1863, after a long drought, harassment on all sides, the death of many of their leaders, and a third of their tribe enslaved by the New Mexican colonists, their spirit began to break. The United States brought the famed Indian fighter Kit Carson in to finish the job. Carson succeeded in traversing the hitherto impregnable Canyon De Chelly, scorching the earth behind him burning fields and homes wherever encountered. And, perhaps more than anything to finally break The People’s hearts, he razed the Navajo’s huge orchard of peach trees. My grandmother remembered some of the old Navajo weeping as they told of the deed. Faced with starvation in the middle of winter, those bands that had not surrendered before began to straggle in to Fort Wingate and Fort Canby to put themselves at the mercy of the military. Only one band, led by Manuelito, refused to surrender and continued to raid.
General James Carleton, the virtual ruler at the time of the territory of New Mexico was also the man in charge of the military experiment against the Navajo. He had selected a reservation for them along with certain bands of Apache at Fort Sumner built at Bosque Redondo, in spite of reports that the area was a wasteland. The surrendered Navajo bands were force-marched to the fort at Bosque Redondo, 15 miles a day for 300 miles. The state of the Navajo, already hungry and ill became worse with fatigue and dysentery. Slave raiders and enemy Utes also took their toll. Eight thousand Navajo were marched to the Bosque with crows and coyotes bringing up the rear to take their pick of the fallen. Hundreds died en route to the fort, but perhaps even worse than the journey was the destination. It is hard to say whether General Carleton really expected the Navajo to become subsistence farmers in that blasted land of alkali and mesquite. It is known that he purposely reported low estimates of the number of Navajo that were expected to surrender and approved the influx of more prisoners even while food was insufficient for those already interred. It is also known that he believed there to be great stores of gold and precious minerals on the previously occupied Navajo lands.
While never formerly accused, it was also pointed out that the Bosque was strategic, being between the Comanche raid trail and New Mexican settlements that were suffering from the raids of the Comanche. Comanche war parties took to raiding the Navajo at Bosque instead and no military intervention was ever sanctioned. Carleton had influential critics in Washington. He did attempt to secure more food for his starving charges from other posts and had the Navajo prisoners build shelters for the coming winter, Carleton’s overt policy, in his own words , was that “old Navajos would soon die off, and carry with them all the latent longings for murdering and robbing; the young ones would take their places without these longings; and thus, little by little, the Navajos would become a happy and contented people…” This may well have been his true intent., but he did not finish this statement by saying the fine grazing land and rich minerals he believed to be on Navajo land would thereby become open to claims by New Mexican settlers. But conditions were so horrific at the Bosque that congress was forced to intervene. Carleton was removed from duty and an investigation was undertaken. Still, it took three years through government red tape before it was decided that a new reservation should be established, and this would be back in the heart of Dinetah.
And The People did return, but they would be forever changed. Their reservation would grow to become the largest in the United States, though still much smaller than their original territory. The government would officially become their wardens, under the Department of the Interior. The Navajo, promising peace, were given land, livestock, and farming implements in return, though never in the amounts promised.The philosophy that “Christianized” meant “Civilized” was never abandoned. Government boarding schools, the same or worse in many respects as sanctioned prisons, were established and children were legally compelled (often kidnapped at gunpoint from their families) to attend. Children were forced to labour, to cut their hair, and wear “civilized” clothing. They were punished severely for any attempt to speak their Native tongue. Conditions were such at many of these schools that many of children died. Certainly they were imprisoned, returned only after many years not knowing the customs, culture, or even the language of their parents or relatives.
In the 1930’s things began to change. A new Commissioner of Indian Affairs was appointed under the government of FDR. This man, John Collier, was not without his faults but at least perceived the “Indian Problem” in a different light; “If the Indian life is a good life, then we should be proud and glad to have this different and native culture going on by the side of ours.” Collier advocated for the Navajos and for Navajo self-government (although some critics went so far as to call this a Communist ideology). Eventually Navajo self-government did come to pass, with a new leader emerged among the Navajo chosen as Tribal Council Chairman, Henry Chee Dodge.
To look back in history at Chee Dodge, it seems that either the force of fate was at work or the right man had come to fill the right vacuum at the right time. Born in 1860, it was always conjectured despite documentation to the contrary, that Henry Chee Dodge was the son of Henry Linn Dodge. At four years old, Chee Dodge was found alone and wandering near Fort Sumner after his mother had disappeared during Kit Carson’s campaign. After the Navajo’s return from Fort Sumner, Chee Dodge lived with his aunt who was married to a white man. A product of two worlds, he was intimate with the Navajo way and also with the way of the white man. As an adult he was looked upon by most of the Dineh as a leader. He was a shrewd businessman and it was he that became instrumental in brokering the contracts for coal and uranium mining, despite government and private enterprise’s attempts to obtain the lands for nothing. The profits from these contracts gave the Navajo tribe immense resources to carry on for the future.
Most Navajos would say that Bosque Redondo was the darkest point in their history. Even so, it did not serve to destroy the spirit of the Dineh. Perhaps, as though an emergence from a previous world, it even deepened it. The Navajo have always been a people of deep religious conviction to their belief in the Beauty Way – temperance, good thought, and good deed – which creates no conflict in either Traditional or Christian belief. They are also a people known for their survival, adapting by taking what they wanted or needed from the various cultures they encountered and leaving behind what they considered as being of no use. Even during their internment at Fort Sumner at the Bosque, the Navajo were learning; learning how to compromise to their advantage, bettering themselves as artists, and raising themselves higher as religious beings.
More proof could not be evinced than their history since their return to Dinetah. The economic and social relationship they created with the white traders and the ever-increasing American settlement proved invaluable in their transition. They proved their commitment to their new government with renowned heroism during WWII. The remarkable “codetalkers”: those Navajo soldiers who were sought in earnest by the Japanese to be captured or bought at all costs (neither of which tactic was successful) so that the code that was their language could be broken, are now a large part of that war’s history along with the other Navajo men and women who fought for their country in other capacities. The Navajo’s shrewd ability to adapt has succeeded in their assimilation among the new and strange people who took over their land under the auspices of manifest destiny, while never forcing The People to forsake or undermine their own culture. The Navajo, unique of all other tribes, returned to their homeland, their Dinetah, and reclaimed it to walk there still to this day upon the Beauty Trail.