Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Troubles with the U.S. Government

There was an intermittent state of turmoil between the United States and the Navajos in the years preceding the final battle in Canyon de Chelly and their subsequent removal from their homeland. One of the causes was the slave trade in the Southwest, which had existed for generations, but it had become so extensive by 1850 that it was estimated that thousands of Indians were laboring in New Mexican homes. A young Navajo could go for as high as $200 on the auction block. Those involved in the trade found it to their advantage to keep things stirred up between the United States and the Navajos so as to gain official sanction for their trading activities. Activities by these traffickers in human flesh served to keep relations in turmoil.

General James H. Carleton arrived in New Mexico in September 1862 with orders to destroy the Navajo and Apache threat to the white settlers there. To carry out these orders he picked Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson. His orders to Carson were simple: kill all the men who resisted and capture the women and children. Skirmishes went on intermittently until January 1864 when the Navajos made their last stand against Carson and the U.S. Cavalry in the massive Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. With its thousand foot walls all around and only one entrance it seemed the ideal stronghold. However, Carson and his men rode across Navajo lands and into the canyon burning hogans, destroying crops, uprooting fruit trees, and killing livestock. By winter the canyon sanctuary had become a prison for the surviving Navajos who had taken refuge there, and without food or shelter from the cold, they had no choice but to surrender.

The defeat at Canyon de Chelly brought the greatest tragedy in Navajo history. They were forced to leave their homeland and make what became known as the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo. Hundreds died during the 300-mile journey, and upon arrival they found the area already occupied by the Mescalero Apaches, among others. Many more died in the strange and crowded land that was to be their home for the next four years. Approximately 8,500 Navajos began the Long Walk, and only 6,000 returned to their homeland.

The Kit Carson era was the most tragic in Navajo history. The Long Walk was to the Navajo nation what the Holocaust was to the European Jews. The survivors never forgot what they experienced, and they passed the stories on to their children and grandchildren. To the Navajos, the Long Walk and the years at Bosque Redondo were the worst things they had to endure in the name of Manifest Destiny.

Next: Statehood and More Troubles

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