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A Bitter Legacy

It began with one man’s misguided notion of a utopia for Native Americans. It ended with one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the American West. More than a century later, the legacy of the Long Walk haunts the memories of the Navajos as surely as the Trail of Tears haunts the Cherokees.

In 1862, Gen. James H. Carleton, military commander of the New Mexico Territory, envisioned an agricultural reservation at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, where tribes would be held a safe distance from Anglo and Hispanic settlers. His intent, fed by the momentum of Manifest Destiny, was to force the tribes “to give way to the insatiable progress of our race.”

To carry out this plan, Carleton turned to Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson, ordering: “All Indian men of that tribe (the Mescalero Apaches in southern New Mexico) are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them. The women and children will not be harmed, but you will take them prisoners.”

Carson could not bring himself to abide in full. Instead, he took Apache men prisoners, eventually persuading the tribe to surrender and move to the Bosque Redondo. In 1863, more than 400 arrived at an incomplete military fort and were put to work.

Carleton then issued a similar order for the Navajos. In the siege of Canyon de Chelly, the spiritual heartland of the Navajo people, Carson burned the tribe’s crops and peach orchards, shot livestock, and destroyed wells. Eventually, the Navajos surrendered and 10,000 of them began the 350-mile walk to Bosque Redondo. They were poorly clothed and barely fed. One in five died, their corpses abandoned, unburied, along the route. A woman in labor was shot to death because she could not keep up.

The reservation exposed the futility of Carleton’s utopia. The two tribes had longstanding rivalries and different languages. There was little firewood, no shelter, and only one water source, the salty Pecos River. Comanche raids were common. Smallpox infected them. An estimated 1,500 perished in the winter of 1863-64 alone.

In 1865, the Mescalero Apaches escaped. The Navajos remained until 1868, when Gen. William T. Sherman crafted a treaty granting both tribes permanent rights to a portion of their ancestral lands. As June 18, 1868, dawned, a 10-mile-long column of Navajo people began yet another long walk, this time home.

Within a decade after the Diné had returned to their ancestral lands, missionaries of various denominations arrived with plans for a brighter Navajo future. Children were taken from their families and enrolled in boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native language. Stories of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at many of these schools abound.

Methodists started missions in the area in 1891, and the Methodist Mission School in Farmington operated between 1912 and the mid-80s. The Mission School is lauded by some alumni, including Frank Hanagarne Sr., pastor of Shiprock United Methodist Church, for the structure it brought to their lives; others grieve the damage done by such schools to their native culture.

In 2000, then-Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover issued an apology, saying in part: “The trauma of shame, fear, and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many of our people live lives of unrelenting tragedy.”