Historic walk to Washington shaped Navajos

By Vida Volkert
Fort Summer, New Mexico (AP) May 2011

In the spring of 1868, four Navajo headmen rode the train to Washington to meet the Great Father and make a case for the release of their people.

Dressed in their best regalia, which included new moccasins the men had recently sewn in hopes they would soon walk out of confinement in Fort Sumner to their rich lands a couple hundred miles west, Barboncito, Manuelito and two other leaders entered the White House. The Navajo headmen were accompanied by their interpreter Jesus Arviso and the Indian agent Theodore Dodd.

At the White House, they might have very well run into a familiar face. Kit Carson, the very same man who had successfully lead an army into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and forced the Navajo out of their land in 1863-66, was now the Indian agent of the Ute. Like Dodd, Carson had taken a delegation of Ute leaders to meet President Andrew Johnson in an effort to negotiate peace.

Carson raided the Navajos out of their homeland and sent them to a long walk to Bosque Redondo in Fort Sumner, where the soil was unfertile and dry, and people ate the soles of their shoes because they had no food or sold their bodies to the U.S. soldiers in exchange for bread to feed their children, according to Navajo historian and social activist Jean Whitehorse.

Whitehorse, a Crownpoint librarian and educator, has no sympathy for Carson.

She discussed the Navajo’s Long Walk last year at a library talk, telling the audience Carson was the one orchestrating the slaughter of Navajo men, women and children at the canyon. She said the U.S. Army forced her ancestors out, burning crops and houses and shooting at Navajos hiding in caves. Many jumped out of the cliffs to avoid being shot, she said.

But Gallup historian Martin Link believes Carson was not the bad guy portrayed by many historical accounts. Carson "was doing his job," he said. "He was the superintendent at Fort Sumner for a couple of months at the very beginning, and he was aware that (the experiment) was not working as it was supposed to."

President Andrew Johnson assured the party the Navajo will be given top priorities, but he could not negotiate any peace treaties because the only person who could do that was several hundred miles away, Link said. He said Gen. William Sherman had the authority to sign treaties with the Indians, and at the time, Sherman was in North Dakota.

Johnson, however, kept his word and sent a telegram to Sherman: When you are done, go see the Navajo, Link said.

During the short time in Washington, the Navajo delegation visited a photo studio, where the famous photo of Barboncito holding a rifle was taken. In the photo, a proud Barboncito is wearing knee-high moccasins, dark pants and long-sleeve shirt, a traditional Navajo necklace and a bandanna around his forehead.

Whitehorse credits the trip to Washington with the success in the negotiations, and contends that thanks to Barboncito and the other three leaders who stood for their people, refusing to be sent to the reservation in Oklahoma, the Dine (the Navajos’ word for themselves) returned to their land.

Born in 1820 to the Ma’iideesgiizhini clan in Canyon de Chelly, Barboncito had been a warrior as a young man, raiding other tribes and defending his people against Ute and Spanish settlers, according to Virginia Hoffman, author of "Navajo Biographies." Barboncito was also a medicine man, Hoffman writes.

Back from Washington at Bosque Redondo in late April of 1868, Barboncito must have been one of the medicine men that arranged for a Coyote Ceremony. As more than 7,000 Navajo waited for Sherman’s arrival, they needed to know whether their freedom was near.

If Sherman was going to let them go back to their "holy land" among the four sacred mountains, they needed to prepare for the trip. If they were to stay at Bosque Redondo, they needed to start planting their crops. So the medicine men sent the young to catch a coyote.

For the Coyote Ceremony, about 15 men formed a big great circle, each man about 10 feet apart, Link said.

After singing, praying and doing the proper rituals, they let the coyote loose in the middle of the circle, and after the coyote ran around the men and realized that they were not there to harm him, he looked for a way out. The coyote must have run out between two men, facing west, and that’s how the Navajo foresaw their fate.

That spring at Fort Sumner, the Navajo did not plant any crops, and when Sherman arrived to the fort in late May, negotiations began. Once again, Barboncito stood for his people. Eloquent and direct, he demanded the return to their homeland.

Sherman noticed his influence over the Navajos and his desire for peace, and designated him "head chief" of the Navajos, according to historian Gerald Thompson.

"Finally, the United States agreed to appropriate $150,000 for various expenses" to send the Navajo back to their homeland, writes Thompson in "The Army and The Navajo, the Bosque Redondo Reservation Experiment 1863-1868." "Sherman realized that if the Navajos were to reach their country to plant crops, they must leave the Bosque quickly. . By July 14, Fort Sumner had been reduced to a two-company post, and the vast Bosque was a quiet wasteland.

Link said about 2,000 Navajo Indians died during the military campaign against them. The number includes those who walked from their homeland to Bosque Redondo and back, those who died during the four years in captivity and casualties of war.

Link said even after the Navajos’ release from Fort Sumner, Barboncito continued to advocate for peace and chased down young Navajo who were stealing cattle from other tribes, raiding and killing instead of working the land.

"From his lonely outpost on a bluff near the river, he called forth his last strength to halt a small party of Navajos," Hoffman writes. The sick man asked the young men to stop raiding and stealing, and said, "The few cattle you bring home will be gone before you know it, and you will have to risk your lives again and again to steal more. And what is becoming of the small flocks you were given? They are starving because you have been neglecting them."

Barboncito died of pneumonia on March 16, 1871.