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The Navajos

Updated on January 13, 2012
The Navajos
The Navajos | Source

The Past & Present of a Great People

To find out about the Navajos it might be a good idea to just ask a Navajo. After all, they comprise the largest tribe in the U.S. They are not that numerous, however, and their history, like most Indian histories, requires an effort. Who were the Navajos? Who are they now? John Upton Terrell's 1970 book reveals a great deal about these very significant Native Americans. It begins approximately 30,000 years ago. Naturally, there is no way to be absolutely sure, but the best evidence is that the predecessors of the Navajos, Athapascans, migrated to the Southwest from Canada. In any event, their four sacred mountains can still be seen. Quickly enough, Terrell's history moves ahead past the Anasazi to the arrival of the Spanish.

The Navajos are wrapped up in so many other histories that it is almost impossible to disentangle them. These include Mexican, Gila Apache, Hopi, Ute, and Comanche histories. There are also Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon influences to consider. Later, Santa Fe comes into existence, the seat of government for (New) Mexico, then the U.S. It is there that chiefs go to protest their children being carried off and sold for up to $200 apiece. Later, Navajos agree to move east of Chaco, but do not collect promised annuities. Things happen. The U.S. Military shoots dozens of cattle for grazing on non-Navajo land. An officer's attaché is shot by an arrow and the culprit, it turns out, is not an Indian. Time and again, Ft. Defiance is fortified in expectation of trouble.

President Jackson was determined to conquer the Navajos. 300 men under Colonel Bonneville were sent out. Later, Major Simonson was commissioned along with 700 men. Each made progress but failed to humble the Navajos. Interestingly, Mormons voluntarily fought alongside Navajos and advised their allies not to sign treaties. 1,000 strong, Navajos attacked Ft. Defiance. Their objective was the arrival of a supply of meat. Upon occasion, Navajos rose. But often enough, they fell. Indian agents looked the other way as they were taken captive. In 1864, over 800 Navajos, destitute, surrendered to an erstwhile friend, Kit Carson.

The Long Walk to Ft. Sumner was perhaps the single most dramatic moment in U.S.-Navajo relations. Awaiting transfer at forts, the prisoners suffered from dysentery and exposure. Provisions were inadequate. Having surrendered their arms, they were helpless against Comanche intimidators. On the forced march flour was mixed with water. Many succumbed to cramps, collapsed, and were shot and left to vultures. In 1865, the government bought the survivors along the Pecos $30,000 worth of useless farming tools. Later, Navajos were subjected to peonage, paid $5 per month, with obligations above that amount.

This is a worthwhile history insofar as it relates the story of the Navajos in accordance with historical records. What is to be done is a speculative and subjective matter. It would seem that in order for the U.S. to be a stronger nation, not just in terms of missiles, an official acknowledgment of wrongdoing might be in order. Today, Navajo tribal affairs are reported at


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