Students Retrace Navajo Long Walk as Part of U. S. History Class

Rather than sit in a stuffy classroom and experience history as recorded by historians, I decided to teach my students how to be historians. For the first few weeks of fourth quarter students researched and planned a trip that would retrace the Navajo Long Walk.

For many years, the Navajo have remained silent about the Long Walk. For some, the topic remains taboo. Others see it as an important part of Diné history. “By hearing the stories of the past and realizing what our ancestors suffered, young people today will understand that they have a long history of strength and survival against all odds,” Martin Whitehair, one of the parents told me.

Students planned the meals, budget, and places of interest along the route. In addition, they chose and researched topics about the Long Walk and framed questions to ask docents, tour guides, and librarians. 

What IS the Long Walk?

In 1862 and 1863, General James H. Carlton ordered the Navajo people to surrender to Colonel Kit Carson. When no one showed up, Carson and his soldiers proceeded to burn homes and crops and slaughter livestock belonging to the Navajo. By using this ‘scorched earth’ technique, Carson and Carlton hoped to force the Navajo to come to the forts so that the army could force the Navajo to walk to a prison camp at Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo area of New Mexico.

From a National Parks Service guide in Canyon de Chelly, students learned that almost ten thousand Navajo were forced to move to Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner). While known as ‘The Long Walk,’ the Diné did not all travel at once. Rather, over the course of several years, large groups would make the journey as they were rounded up.

Because the United States Government didn’t understand the Navajo, they failed to realize that each clan operated as an independent group, unbound by the treaties and decisions that other groups had made.

Students retracing Navajo long walk

Each clan had a headman who represented the people who had chosen him—but each headman made decisions independently from other headmen. This caused confusion because the whites would make a treaty with one headman and assume it applied to all of the Navajo.

The guide led us across a river engorged by melting snow. We removed our shoes and socks and set off across the canyon. The cold water tugged at our legs and the sand gripped at our feet if we stayed still too long. On the other side, we walked a quarter of a mile down a sand and dirt road—our feet still bare.
“This is what your ancestors experienced,” I told my students.
“But in the winter time, with snow on the ground,” the guide reminded us.

Although many of the students had visited Canyon de Chelly many times, walking barefoot over a section of it helped them understand the hardship their ancestors faced.

The Holding Fort and Humiliation

When tribe members realized that they couldn’t survive the harsh winter months without food, shelter, or livestock, they made their way to Fort Defiance

As we made our way to Fort Defiance, the road lead through high elevations. We imagined the difficulties of traveling on foot with very little food, water, or shelter. Water seemed scarce, and most of the land lacked trees. Many of the walks took place during winter months, and the army did not provide tents as shelter for their prisoners.

In Fort Defiance, we searched for the site of the old fort, but all we only found general area where the fort had stood. Someone (likely not a Native) had named one of the main streets in town Kit Carson Avenue. The hills in the area looked brown and depressing because spring hadn’t reached the high elevation yet.

The next day, as we traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, we drove through the Malpais—a section of land scattered with fields of lava that stretched for miles. Many of the Navajo had traversed this on foot—and not everyone had moccasins or shoes, either.

When we visited Old Town Albuquerque, we remembered what our guide had said the day before, “As each contingent of captured Navajos neared a city or town, the soldiers would march them through the main plaza so everyone could see them.”

“I felt bummed just imaging myself in that position while walking by shops and people who were selling things outside the shops. It would have been embarrassing!” Adrienna, a senior, said.

I could imagine the captured and confused Diné (many who had done nothing more than live out their lives providing for and taking care of their families), forced to detour through Albuquerque so that crowds could jeer at them and cheer for the soldiers. 

Their plight, brought on by the circumstances of a general grasping for glory, highlighted the need for education. Without knowledge of other cultures, languages, and the rights affording a citizen of a country, anyone can become a victim. 

Higher Education

Afterwards, we stopped at the University of New Mexico’s Southwest Research Center and met with Paulita Aguilar, the librarian for American Studies, Anthropology, and Native American Studies. She gave us a tour of the Southwest Research Center and explained how historians conduct research with old documents.

Ms. Aguilar also helped students find information pertaining to their research topics and showed them how to search digitized copies of old newspapers so they could continue researching back in the classroom.

Davarena, a senior, said, “The UNM Library was important to stop at because they have books and old documents about the Long Walk.”

By visiting a research library as a high school student, students will feel less intimidated when they enroll in a college or university and need to conduct research.

Bosque Redondo—the Place of Sorrows

The long drive to Bosque Redondo and Fort Sumner took us through more high elevations and lonely country. Occasionally, we passed through pine forests, but everyone noticed the lack of vegetation. Snow dotted the landscape as we went through mountain passes.

About ten miles before Fort Sumner we pulled over at a veteran’s memorial for World War I and II soldiers. The undulating ground had a few crops, pastures, and very few trees. We had already traveled ten miles into the area designated as Bosque Redondo—a prison camp on barren ground with nothing to use for shelter.

Students walk Navajo long walk

Over 10,000 Diné lived in captivity in this 400 square mile area of wasteland for three or more years. While successful farmers in their homeland (which comprised over 27,000 square miles), the disheartened, starving Diné had no tools with which to farm on land that lacked a ready water supply. In addition, the Diné shared the land with their historical enemies, the Mescalero Apache.

The next morning, we arrived at Fort Sumner Historical Site/Bosque Redondo Memorial as they opened. As we toured the site, students learned information from the guide that they had never heard before.

“Some of the Navajos had to build the barracks for the soldiers while the Navajo had to build small huts by piling brush over holes they’d dug in the ground,” Marklynn, a senior, exclaimed. “That’s not right!”

Shawnewa, a junior, couldn’t believe how few supplies the army gave the Navajos. The only water source had a high alkaline content, which made many of the Natives ill. “The Navajo had a hard time physically because they didn’t have the right resources to nourish their bodies. I felt badly for them,” she said.

As we walked through the long, curving hallway inside the memorial and saw the larger than life mural of the long walk (one by a Navajo artist and one by non-Native) on each side of the hall, many of us had tears in our eyes.

One side showed an endless line of ragged Navajo, bent and burdened with their worldly possessions. The other side had an endless line of soldiers, guns pointed at the viewer and the line of Diné on the opposite wall. Most faces depicted hardened soldiers, anxious to keep their prisoners in line and subservient. The artist showed one soldier reaching out to help, and another soldier preventing him.

Fort Wingate and the Treaty of 1868

On the drive back to Holbrook Indian School, we made one last stop. This time at Fort Wingate, near Gallup, NM. The fort, established in its current location in 1868, served as the relocation center for the Diné as they made their way back home from Bosque Redondo after the Treaty of 1868.

As part of the treaty, the government promised to supply each family with tools, seeds, livestock, and food. Many Navajo had to camp outside the fort for months awaiting their allotment. Part of the treaty also promised that the Diné would send their children to the white man’s schools to learn English and how to farm (the irony—they were already successful farmers in their homeland). Fort Wingate has served as both and army post and boarding school for Native Americans since 1868.

“The trip was important because some kids nowadays don’t know what our people had to go through just for us to be here [living back in their homeland],” Marklynn said.

Cherie, a junior, stated, “It was a fun learning experience for me.”

As we approached home, we all felt grateful for our present circumstances. “Today the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States.” Deidra shared. “We will never forget that our ancestors survived through pain and suffering.”