STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This month marks the 150th anniversary an event known among the Navajo and Mescalero Apache people as the Long Walk. In 1864, the U.S. Army forced their ancestors to walk more than 400 miles from their traditional lands in northern Arizona to a desolate reservation in eastern New Mexico. Thousands died along the way.
Here's Laurel Morales of KJZZ.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: So many Navajos like musician Clarence Clearwater have moved off the reservation for work.
CLARENCE CLEARWATER: (Singing in foreign language)
MORALES: Clearwater performs on the Grand Canyon Railway, the lone Indian among dozens of cowboys and train robbers entertaining tourists.
CLEARWATER: I always tell people I'm there to temper the cowboys. I'm there to give people the knowledge that there was more of the West than just cowboys.
MORALES: Clearwater retraced his great great-great-grandfather's footsteps 50 years ago for the Long Walk's 100th anniversary. Along the way, he learned this song.
CLEARWATER: (Singing) Shenasha. Shenahsha. Shenahsha.
MORALES: The song translates: I'm going home. It's a long ways, but I'm happy I'm going home.
CLEARWATER: When we were on that Long Walk, that was a song I heard all the way over there and back, and it was very powerful.
MORALES: Clearwater says the stories he heard as he walked are haunting: A Navajo family gave away their baby to a non-native family, so the infant would have a better chance at survival. Many drowned crossing the Rio Grande.
CLEARWATER: Some of the older people were talking about how elders like themselves had just been left out in the desert, you know, left where they fell.
JENNIFER DENETDALE: The consequences of the long walk we still live with today.
MORALES: Jennifer Denetdale is a historian and a University of New Mexico professor. She says severe poverty, addiction, suicide, crime on the reservation all have their roots in the Long Walk.
DENETDALE: So, I think it's really been a struggle to believe in our own ability to create, on the Navajo Nation, institutions and structures that will bring about prosperity and a way to live well.
MORALES: They walked to Fort Sumner, which was essentially a prison camp where Colonel Kit Carson attempted to, quote, "tame the savages." Today, a giant mural there commemorates the Long Walk. On one panel, swirls of red and orange, the desert heat, a long line of families, a child on his mother's back, a fallen elder, his son helping him up. Behind them a soldier on horseback cracks a whip. Navajo artist Shonto Begay painted the mural.
SHONTO BEGAY: I could feel and hear the cries of the people, the trail, the heat, the cold. Just to walk the grounds, a lump in your throat, like something bursting forth. I felt all the anguish of the ancestors.
MORALES: The Navajo culture is intrinsically tied to the earth. Begay says many live or frequently return to the place where their umbilical cords are buried.
BEGAY: When your umbilical cord is buried in the earth, and you know the ground where it is, you know, you feel at home and welcome anywhere in the world.
MORALES: The Long Walk was among many attempts by the federal government to wipe out native culture. Others include sending native children to boarding schools to eradicate their traditions. Begay says he was five years old, out herding sheep when a man driving a flatbed truck gave him candy and hauled him away.
BEGAY: I grew up with a different name, a government name: Wilson. There was a lot of dead presidents and generals. In the early 1980s, I reclaimed my great grandmother's name, Shonto.
MORALES: Shonto: It means light dancing on water. It is also the name of his town, his home where he remains connected today. He wants his children and grandchildren to know their ancestors' suffering and determination meant something.
BEGAY: You know, hey, their forefathers survived. Make something of it. Honor it.
MORALES: For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales, in Flagstaff.
INSKEEP: That story came to us from our friends at the local news initiative Fronteras: the Changing America Desk. This is NPR News.