Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Place of Suffering

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.

The next map shows the travel route of the Navajos.

There was some variation in the routes taken by different groups, especially after passing through the area of present day Albuquerque. Fort Canby was an earlier name for Fort Defiance.

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.

On the day of our visit we arrived to an empty parking lot and departed leaving it just as we found it. A congenial woman who was volunteering at the small gift shop was a life-long resident of Fort Sumner and observed that when she was growing up there was no mention of the importance of this location to the Navajo people and the area  of the Bosque had been used for recreation. There was awareness of the military history, and an effort had been made to restore some of the walls of the old fort.

But since the establishment of the Bosque Redondo Memorial, the real history of the place is now taught in the schools. The park ranger indicated that many Navajos now visit the site, but that many others are reluctant to do so because of the strong negative feelings the place has for Dine' people. Some who come bring rocks, stones, and other items from their homeland in Dinetah to honor the ancestors who may have survived or perished in the experience.

Between this spot of prayer and offerings and the memorial building in the background is the site where the treaty of 1868 was signed which released the Dine' people to return to their homeland.

The nearby Pecos River, quite unattractive in its muddy, silty and sluggish flow, perhaps gives some inkling of why this experiment in relocation was doomed from the outset.

The trunk of this large cottonwood tree is preserved near the memorial in honor of the Navajo people that would have planted it during their incarceration.

Cottonwood trees generally have a life expectancy of 70 years. This tree lived 141 years and seems to be a testament to the strength and resolve of the people who planted it.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing all this important and interesting piece of history. I wish I could read more. I appreciate immensely all your writing John, thank you for all your time and effort...
    Blessings from Australia

  2. Thanks for this blog, I visited this memorial as part of our road trip through the states, looking for Billy the Kids grave but this was a richer experience. More than one Trail of Tears in the Native American experience.