The History of Navajoland

Part 5 of Northern Arizona

The land of the Navajo is wonderfully varied with high deserts, pinon trees on grassland and alpine forests. The high plateaus, mesas and mountains touch the clouds, reaching out from the desert floor at 2700 feet to mountaintops over 10,000 feet. Volcanoes and wind and water erosion carved the Navajo Nation’s many majestic mesas, mountains and canyons.

The Navajo tribe is the largest one with the largest reservation in the US, with 14 million acres of trust lands, crossing Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico. The tribe astutely manages their land, balancing environmental concerns with leases for farming snd grazing, as well as extracting oil, gas and minerals. Their careful management has made the Navajo one of the most successful tribes in the nation. They constantly balance their assimilation into American society with maintaining their cultural identity as Navajo.

Navajos are believed to belong to the Athabascan Indian group. They originally migrated from western Canada and first came into the American Southwest around the year 1300. Some settled in southern Arizona and New Mexico and later became known as the Apache tribes, but by 1700 most of these Athabascan descendants were living in northern Arizona.

The tribe soon became the most powerful military force in the southwest. They were continually making war with the various Pueblo Indians and with the Spanish as they settled in New Mexico.

The Navajo were such feared warriors that they were an effective barricade between the Spanish settlements in California and the ones in New Mexico. Travelers between the two regions had to go hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid crossing the Navajo homeland. The Navajo did not tolerate trespassers.

They were a constant thorn in the side of the Spanish, but eventually the Spanish were overthrown by the Mexicans. In 1848 the Mexican-American war ended Mexican control of what is now the American southwest. But the Navajo continued to fight everyone – and now their sworn enemies were the Americans.

In an effort to keep the peace, the Americans established Fort Defiance in Navajo country, and eventually tried to move the Navajo to a reservation. but the Navajo had other ideas. In 1858, Manuelito, a Navajo chief, confronted the commander at Fort Defiance and told the officer that the land belonged to him and his people, not to the soldiers. Taking this as a declaration of more unending warfare, soldiers from the fort, with 160 Zuni warriors, torched Manuelito’s fields and village. The chief rallied other Navajo leaders and In 1860, they attacked Fort Defiance. They very nearly overran it, but the soldier’s superior weaponry forced a retreat.

That attack convinced the US Army that only ‘total war’ would make the Navajos submit to American rule. In 1863, Kit Carson was given command and ordered to wage a full-scale campaign against the Navajo. It was brutal. Carson knew that nothing less would work on warriors as proud and tough as the Navajo. His soldiers killed livestock, poisoned wells, burned crops and orchards, and destroyed homes.

The tribe was beaten but not defeated; it went into hiding in Canyon de Chelly. The soldiers bottled up the canyon and patiently waited them out, and the surrender began. In March 1864, the soldiers rounded up thousands of starving natives and forced them to move to Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumter in New Mexico. The Navajo call this forced expulsion in a spring blizzard as the Long Walk, during which many died or were killed.

The Navajo were confined to the Bosque Redondo reservation until 1868. Conditions were hard and their crops failed. They were miserable there, and missed their homeland with the four sacred peaks. In 1868, a new treaty moved the Navajo back their former territory but confined them to a smaller reservation. In return, the tribe consented to live peaceably with the American settlers.

Since those days, the Navajo people have adapted and transformed into a successful tribe, growing to 300,00 members. Through shrewd business and land management their reservation has expanded significantly.

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