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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Many tourists go to the town of Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, to see the grave site of Billy the Kid. But something far more historically important happened there. In the 1860s, some 10,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache people were forcibly marched to a desolate reservation called Bosque Redondo. Nearly a third of the Navajos held there by the US Army died of disease, exposure or hunger. Earlier this month, NPR's John Burnett went to the opening of a memorial that formally recognizes the experience that nearly wiped out the Navajo Nation.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

The year is 1863. While the rest of the nation is focused on the war between the states, General James H. Carleton, commander of the New Mexico territory, decides to solve, once and for all, the Navajo problem. He plans to stop their raiding by evicting them from their homelands in the Four Corners area and turning the Navajo into a tribe of peaceful flatland farmers. A scorched-earth campaign led by veteran Indian fighter Kit Carson is devastatingly effective. Some Navajos escape into the massive sandstone canyons, but most surrender. And then commences what has come to be called The Long Walk.

Ragged lines of defeated Navajos leave in batches from Ft. Defiance, Arizona. Men, women, old people and children walk 450 miles in frigid winter and baking summer. Stragglers, the old, the sick or the pregnant, are shot or left behind. Scores drown crossing the Rio Grande. Their new home is a million-acre reservation at Ft. Sumner: short-grass prairie and thorn desert bisected by the Pecos River, along whose winding course stands a grove of cottonwoods called Bosque Redondo.

Unidentified Man: I'd like to welcome all of you here today to the grand opening of the Bosque Redondo Memorial. We're here to commemorate the history of the Navajo Long Walk and the exile of the Mescalero Apaches here during the 1860s.

BURNETT: A hundred and forty-one years later, the great-great-grandsons and granddaughters of survivors of The Long Walk sit impassively in folding chairs under a turquoise sky. They're mostly Navajos here to pay homage to the estimated 3,000 of their people, a fifth of the tribe, who perished during the war, the march and the internment. A few Apache decedents have also come to remember the 500 Mescalero Apaches who were forcibly relocated from their lands in southern New Mexico.

(Soundbite of flute)

BURNETT: The memorial dedication ceremony begins with a Native flute player standing in front of the striking museum building designed by Navajo architect David Sloan. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici is midway through a speech when a remarkable and unscripted moment unfolds.

Ms. LAVERNE WALKER (Navajo): (Singing in Navajo)

Senator PETE DOMENICI (Republican, New Mexico): ...between his statement and that observation of continuing anew, it would seem to me...

Ms. WALKER: (Singing in Navajo)

Sen. DOMENICI: OK.

Ms. WALKER: (Singing in Navajo)

Sen. DOMENICI: This is commemorating the march?

Ms. WALKER: (Singing in Navajo)

BURNETT: A Navajo woman named Laverne Walker, wrapped in an Indian blanket and wearing sneakers, walks to the podium. She has been on the road all morning, retracing the last five miles of the arduous walk that her ancestors made.

Ms. WALKER: (Singing in Navajo)

BURNETT: People in the audience begin to weep as the Navajo woman evokes what they're all feeling, a deep mourning, but ultimately triumph. For after four years at Bosque Redondo, the Army declared the experiment a failure and escorted 7,000 survivors back to their homeland. In 1868, a treaty formally established the Navajo Nation as it exists today.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you, everybody. You that are Navajo out there, you should be proud. We're proud! We're here!

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

BURNETT: Modern Navajos have learned about weldi(ph), the Navajo word that means the suffering times, not through books, but from oral histories passed down by elders. Twenty-eight-year-old Leander Kahn(ph) lives in Marianna Lake, New Mexico, where he's apprenticing to be a medicine man.

Mr. LEANDER KAHN: My grandparents, my elders, they always mention to me, you know, about, you know, to wake up early, don't sleep in in the morning. You know, you never know who's going to come, you know, in the morning. That's probably what happened in the past, you know. Maybe they don't want us to live through that anymore, being captured, so...

BURNETT: Navajos at Ft. Sumner lived in crude shelters made from branches and tattered canvas. Firewood was scarce. Pneumonia, dysentery and smallpox were rampant. They tried to farm, but alkaline soil stunted crops and cutworms finished off the corn that came up. The Army had planned to supplement their food supply, but the exigencies of the Civil War prevented enough rations from reaching the Indian internees. What they received was often strange to them, says Delores Vicenti(ph), a cultural instructor at a Navajo tribal college in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

Ms. DELORES VICENTI (Cultural Instructor, Navajo Tribal College): Navajos did not know what to do with coffee. They just, you know, mixed coffee with flour and whatever water they had. They drank it like soup. They didn't know that you had to cook the flour or something, you know, and also that the meat they gave them had, like, worms in them and things like that. And sometimes, if they were desperate enough, they ate it.

BURNETT: Vicenti says she heard these stories from her great-grandfather, whose presence she senses in this place.

Ms. VICENTI: I can still see the spirits, and I can hear it. I mean, the wind is here. My people are talking.

(Soundbite of flutes)

BURNETT: Ultimately, the ordeal of weldi preserved Navajo identity instead of destroying it. They unified and grew into the most populous Indian tribe in the nation, with 300,000 members, whose current president is Joe Shirley Jr.

Mr. JOE SHIRLEY Jr. (President, Navajo Nation): I think we were challenged, we were tested, and we survived. And instilling that knowledge into our young, our grandchildren, I think, makes for a stronger, noble person.

BURNETT: And while the United States Army nearly obliterated the Navajo Nation, it was the Department of Defense in recent times that contributed most of the funds to build the Bosque Redondo Memorial. John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of flutes)

BLOCK: Historic pictures of the long march and photos of the memorial are at npr.org.

(Soundbite of flutes)

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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