It was in retrospect a "scorched earth" policy. After decades of conflict between Diné warriors and white colonists, the United States military decided enough was enough.
So, in 1863, Kit Carson — famed mountain man, trail blazer and hero of dime novels — was ordered to find a way to defeat the tribe and march during the dead of winter 8,500 men, women and children to incarceration at the Bosque Redondo Reservation, near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, 400 miles away from their homeland in northern Arizona. Along the way, 200 Diné people died of exposure and starvation.
This became known as The Long Walk, and for the Diné it was an epic tragedy that became ingrained as part of their generational memory.
The "Navajo Campaign of 1863" will be the subject of a discussion between Nonabah Sam, curator of the Ned A. Hatathli Cultural Museum at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, and C.J. Law, director of the Kit Carson Historic Museum, in Taos. The talk, which will be centered on Carson's involvement in the campaign, is planned Saturday (March 16), 6 p.m., at the Kit Carson Home and Museum, 113 Kit Carson Road. Admission is free.
Law, whom we spoke to Monday (March 11), said, "What we're trying to do is better inform people about what actually happened and what that interaction was between Kit and the Navajo." To that end, he said he plans to give an account that offers a picture of why Carson and the military reacted the way they did. But, even 156 years after the fact, many people are unclear on what really happened, he said. "There are people around Taos who believe that Kit was an Indian killer, when in fact quite the opposite was the case."
Sam, curator at the Diné College Museum for the past seven years, said she is looking forward to what she hopes will be an "interesting conversation." It is certainly one that is rare and has probably never happened in Taos. With the 150th anniversary of The Long Walk of the Navajo being talked about, Sam said, "What I'm going to look at is probably more or less the history and the struggle the Navajo people endured at Fort Sumner and how the government played into that."
Once installed at Bosque Redondo, the Diné were forced to live among about 400 Mescalero Apaches who were already there. The food given to them was often substandard if not spoiled, causing illness and famine. Seeds often had rot. Plus, the psychological effect of being imprisoned far from their homeland was devastating. Deprivation, disease and death plagued the Diné who tried everything they could to survive. Eventually, the military was forced to conclude this effort was a complete failure and on June 1, 1868, a treaty was signed allowing the Diné finally to return to their homeland, the first time the U.S. government chose to do so with Native Americans.
Law said the Diné were sent to Bosque Redondo "to keep them out of trouble."
A brigadier general at the time, Carson was approached by the military to deal with the Diné problem because of his long personal experience with Native people (he reportedly had three adopted Diné children), but he was reluctant to do so. In fact, Law said he refused three times before he was finally threatened with court-martial and agreed. "Ultimately, he decided that if it was going to happen, somebody was going to do this, and that being the case, it would probably be better for the Navajo if it was him," Law said.
He contends the Diné were not "fighting Indians as much as they were 'raiding Indians.' It does not mean they never killed anybody, but their primary objective was to take materials, possessions and livestock to help sustain their lifestyle in the Four Corners area. They were having and had had a significant economic impact on the Southwest. They had been having that impact since the days of the Spanish colonization in this part of the world. In other words, for 250 years, they had been a pain in the neck."
Once assigned, Carson set about using a "scorched earth policy," Law said, in which he burned their crops and destroyed their stores, in an effort to ruin their ability to sustain themselves. "After that, he began to hunt these people," Law said. "Literally. But, it didn't work. The hunting part did not work." Because of this sustained attack, Law said the Diné eventually gave up and started showing up at military forts. "They couldn't win."
Sam said, "We're so used to hearing the non-Native perspective of what The Long Walk was about." Few paid attention or considered this alternative to recorded history. Law said Sam will present the Diné point of view and "their collective beliefs about what happened. The information that I will present will be based upon military archives and the records that we have."
Sam said, "I think when we look at the history — you know, today, we talk a lot about the missing and murdered indigenous women … but little do we know that is a huge part of our history as well. During these times when the cavalry was coming onto the reservation, the women were being murdered, the women were being raped and they weren't categorized as missing and murdered then. In some of the books I have read in regard to historical stories and some of the research that has been done we don't really take time to think about how that has really affected us. It's still is something happening today."
The discussion, she said, has the potential to be fruitful, mainly because after hearing two differing perspectives, the public may walk away with something finally approaching the truth.
For more information, call (575) 758-4945 or visit kitcarsonmuseum.org.
Editor's note: Rick Romancito is of Taos-Zuni Pueblo heritage.