New Mexico museum discovers rare photo of Navajo

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) December 2010

A New Mexico museum has discovered what it believes is an unpublished photograph of a 19th century Navajo war chief that sat in its archives for nearly 50 years.

The photograph of Chief Manuelito is housed at the New Mexico History museum in Santa Fe. Its existence was unknown until earlier this year while employees were undergoing the first major inventory of hundreds of thousands of archival images.

Archivist Daniel Kosharek recognized the man in the photo as Manuelito, distinguished by his height and facial features. An envelope holding the glass-plate negatives confirmed the identity.

“His face stays with you,” said Mary Anne Redding, curator of photography at the museum. “His is a very beautiful, very powerful face, and he’s very easy to recognize.”

The photograph is featured on the cover of the winter edition of a New Mexico-based magazine about the art, history and culture of the Southwest – El Palacio.

“We’re really excited to maybe be the first time this photograph has been published and bringing a little New Mexico treasure to light,” said El Palacio editor Cynthia Baughman.

Kosharek searched the Library of Congress, the National Archives, university collections, the Smithsonian – “all the archives that would make sense to have this image and none of them had it,” Redding said.

The photo taken by photographer Henry Hiester shows Manuelito seated beside another Navajo leader, Cayetanito. Both men are wearing headbands and knee-high moccasins.

Redding said the photograph likely was taken in the 1870s when Hiester worked in New Mexico. The adobe building in the background of the photo and the desert landscape indicates it was taken in New Mexico and possibly at a military fort, she said.

Historian Charles Bennett, who wrote an article on Manuelito for El Palacio, called Manuelito one of the fathers of the modern Navajo Nation. Manuelito is said to have been more than 6-feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds. He was born in southern Utah in 1818 and died in his mid 70s.

His presence at the signing of treaties with the U.S. government and trips to Santa Fe, Washington, D.C., and other places meant “he was in a position to be photographed, and he was pretty famous,” Bennett said.

Manuelito was instrumental in returning the Navajos to their ancestral land after the U.S. government forced thousands of them to march to a desolate tract in eastern New Mexico in the 1860s.

Manuelito had resisted going on what’s known as the Long Walk but ultimately surrendered to U.S. forces.

Jennifer Denetdale, author of “Reclaiming Dine History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita,” said she cried when she saw the museum photo and a second one of Manuelito’s son she that she didn’t know existed.

“It’s just wonderful, you never know what’s going to surface,” she said.

Denetdale said Navajos have a lot of respect for Manuelito, his courage and insistence on education. On the Navajo Nation, a school, children’s home, tribal community and prestigious scholarship are named in honor of Manuelito.

“I’ve seen several references in the military documents saying ‘only until we’ve captured Manuelito will we consider Navajos to be wholly defeated,”’ Denetdale said. “They considered him to be the spirit of resistance and a challenge to American claims.”