by John Aldrich
Hwe'eldi, a place of suffering, holds a special meaning for the Navajo people. Although I can not speak on a personal level to what this special meaning might be, I have heard several Navajos relate what those terrible years meant to their forefathers and how this deplorable chapter in our history has impacted the psyche of subsequent generations of Dine'.
Most of us who have had exposure to Dine' history and culture are aware of the Long Walk, the period from 1863 to 1868 when the Navajo people were rounded up and forced to march roughly 400 miles, on foot and in winter, to a wretched site in eastern New Mexico, called the Bosque Redondo, which had been set aside for them. The surrender of the people to this fate was more or less inevitable following the scorched-earth campaign that Kit Carson waged across the Dine' homeland. Seven to eight thousand men, women, and children participated in this journey with several thousand dying en route or during the years of incarceration.
On a recent trip to visit friends in Albuquerque, I wanted to take the opportunity to see this site for myself. One of the surprises for me was the realization that Fort Sumner was quite a bit further east than I had imagined. We set out from Albuquerque on a grey, gloomy day that seemed fit for such a journey. The trip of 150 miles via modern roads took three hours and frankly seemed relatively interminable. That alone provided ground for reflection on what it must have been like for the people forced to do it on foot over many weeks, and heading to a destination altogether unknown to them.
This map shows the location of the Bosque Redondo reservation, the outlined square in the lower right, and reveals what was another surprise to me - the size of the place. It was forty square miles. Click on the map for a larger image with more detail.
Fort Sumner today is a sleepy rural ranching and farming community showing the signs of decline that are typical of such places. If it weren't for the railroad passing through town, it might even seem disconnected from the modern world. The citizens of Fort Sumner bank on the notoriety of Billy The Kid to bring in visitors more than the old fort and its history. Billy was killed at Fort Sumner and is buried nearby.
Bosque Redondo and the site of the original fort are several miles south. Although the Pecos River is nearby and supports a number of cottonwood trees, the area is flat and otherwise desolate except for places that have received some irrigation. The promise of the U.S. Army to the Navajos was that their new home would offer great opportunities for farming and that they would enjoy a new era of self-sufficiency. Instead, the soil was alkaline, and the river water of poor quality, so efforts to farm were mostly unsuccessful, and the people were forced to rely on rations supplied by the army. The army, in turn, had underestimated the population that would ultimately arrive there, so there were widespread shortages of food, clothing, shelter, and other basic supplies. Although the army should have provided security, plains Indians were able to raid the Navajo settlement, further adding to the privations.
In 2005, after years of neglecting this part of their local history, the Bosque Redondo Memorial was dedicated as a New Mexico state monument and is housed in a building incorporating a rather striking tepee element which was designed by Navajo architect David Sloan of Albuquerque.