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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter V:

EARLY TREATIES As part of the campaign for conquering New Mexico for the United States, General S. W. Kearney sent Colonel A. W. Doniphan, in 1846, to impress the Navaho with the authority of the United States. After marching around Navaho territory, Doniphan met some of the headmen and warriors at Ojo del Oso (Bear Spring), where a treaty was signed. The old and honored Narbona was spokesman. There was much oratory, an accomplishment at which the Navaho excel. Narbona's wife, who attended the council, almost incited the warriors to massacre the Americans. Chief Largo, in an oft-quoted speech, asked the Americans why they themselves killed Mexicans, yet demanded now that the Navaho cease defending themselves against their ancient enemy (Connelly, 1907:306).

The treaty was soon broken. The Navaho had begun their brilliant career in diplomacy under the Spanish; now it was in full bloom. Their raids continued until harvest time drew near, when there was danger of the Americans spoiling the crops, so the Navaho then sued for peace, signed a treaty, and gracefully accepted gifts. The Americans made perennial marches farther and farther into the country. Major Washington drew within eight or nine miles of Canyon de Chelly in 1849 to make a new treaty and obtain the release of prisoners. The friendly settlement was marred by the killing of Narbona by Washington's men during an argument over a stolen horse. Before Washington had returned to his Santa Fe headquarters, the Indians were raiding again, the new treaty broken. In 1851 Sumner negotiated with them.

Calhoun's collected letters (edited by Abel, 1915) cite the daily reports of murder and stock running by Navaho, Mexicans, Apaches, and Utes during Calhoun's career as Indian Agent, Indian Superintendent, and finally as Governor of New Mexico. Prosperous towns were abandoned because of Navaho attacks (Davis, 1857:357). In 1863 the murders and robberies committed by the Navaho in five counties of the territory amounted to 55,040 sheep; 4,178 cattle; 224 horses; 5901 goats; and several human beings.

In 1851, a fort, appropriately named Fort Defiance, was begun at an Indian crossroad, Canyon Bonito, to hold the Navaho in check. Major Backus was put in charge, and H. L. Dodge was appointed the first Indian Agent of the Navaho. Peace prevailed from 1851 to 1859 because of the tactful and authoritative control of the fort and agency by Backus and Dodge.

War broke out in 1859 after a change in the personnel of the fort. Conflicting reports of the direct cause have been given, but apparently the strained feelings existing between the Navaho and the new head of the fort were contributing factors. A Navaho killed a Negro servant belonging to the fort and Major Brooks demanded that the Navaho surrender the murderer. They refused, but offered either to substitute another Navaho for the murderer or to pay for the servant killed. This was consistent with their tribal custom of dealing with murder, but the fort rejected such a compromise and continued to demand the murderer. The Navaho in vain pleaded that the murderer had acted according to accepted tribal custom in committing the murder, and that their attempts at settlement also followed their customs. It seems that the murderer's wife had quarrelled with him and left him. (There has been great equality between men and women among the Navaho ever since their history has been known, and a wife has considerable freedom.) The husband felt disgraced, and as was customary among his people, sought to wipe out his disgrace by killing anyone handy; the Negro servant of the fort was unhappily the victim. In 1860 strained feelings were climaxed by a Navaho attack on the fort. Colonel Miles and Colonel Bonneville led expeditions into the country; later General Canby attempted to subdue the Indians.

NAVAHO CULTURE IN 1855 This period between the arrival of the Spanish and the end of the American Civil War was the Golden Age of the Navaho. Davis, in "El Gringo" (1857: Chap. 17), tells of his trip in 1855 as secretary to Governor Meriwether, who was treaty-making with the Navaho. On this occasion "Head Chief" Largo resigned his medal and staff, symbolic of his position as representative of the United States, and declared that he could not control his people and stop their depredations. Manuelito was appointed by the governor to take his place.

Davis states that the Navaho were better dressed than any other tribe he had seen. They had good woolen blankets, for this was the period of the finest weaving, when bayeta blankets were made. The men wore knitted stockings and fitted buckskin trousers and shirts, fastened at the waist with broad leather belts trimmed with much silver and brass. Coral was also a popular trimming. The men knitted their own stockings and made their own clothing. They were expert blacksmiths and manufactured bridles, saddles, bits, and other equipment.

PLATE III. BLANK OF BAYETA STRIPED WOOL. Museum of Anthropology, University of California.

The population was estimated at 12,000, of which 2,500 were mounted warriors. There was no central government other than that which the Americans imposed so ineffectually at that time. Councils were held in large circles made of cedar boughs. The people lived in hogans of grass and poles of the kind used today, and abandoned them after a death in the family. Other customs which have survived into the present day were observed by Davis. The marriage ceremony consisted in having the couple eat out of the same basket. Every white visitor of the period commented with wonder on the high position and wealth of the Navaho women, for the position of women was much higher among the Navaho than among the White people. Slaves did the menial work, and Davis relates that if there were not a slave to saddle a horse, a man would saddle his own, never expecting his wife to do so. The property of women consisted of goods and herds over which the husband had no control. When a wife wished to get rid of a husband, she put his possessions outside the house. He could then return to his mother's home or to the home of another wife. A woman, no matter how old, with a flock of sheep and the ability to weave fine bayeta blankets could always get a husband.

Other accounts of the tribe at this period are in Schoolcraft's "Archives," which has essays by Backus and Eaton. Letherman, Simpson, and Gregg also are important writers of this time.

THE PUEBLOS SUFFER The badgered Pueblos quarreled among themselves and fended off the Navaho. Repeatedly and hopelessly, they begged the Government, which had forbidden reprisals, to protect them from the Navaho. Calhoun (1915:31) wrote that the Navaho were perversely "gathering their winter supplies where they have not sown," though they had excellent fields of their own. The Pueblo of Jemez, as usual, was undecided in its loyalties; now it fought the Government, now the Navaho (Davis 1857:83). The Navaho were also divided among themselves. Bands of vagrants, encouraged by unscrupulous itinerant traders, flouted the treaties and the counsel of headmen. Reverend Weber (1914:4) tells of how renegade Navaho, called Dine Ana'i or "Navaho enemies," acted as guides for the Mexicans in raiding Navaho bands. Chusca Mountains and Canyons de Chelly and del Muerto were the strongholds of the wilder sections of the tribe. The eastern division, represented by Sandoval, "chief of the Pueblo Navaho near Cebolleta," offered to help Calhoun punish the unruly kinsmen, but Calhoun could not trust any Navaho.

NAVAHO DOWNFALL The American Civil War began; the Texans invaded New Mexico, and the American army had to leave the wild tribes to their own devices. The Pueblos were once again at the complete mercy of the nomad Indians. After the Civil War Brigadier-General James H. Carleton was appointed Department Commander of New Mexico. He sent Colonel Christopher Carson to subdue first the Mescalero Apache and then the Navaho. The orders were always the same: kill all men capable of bearing arms; bring the women and children into the fort; make no more treaties. In 1862 Fort Wingate was established; then Fort Canby, a temporary post, was erected near Ganado. Carleton gave the Navaho until July 20, 1863, to surrender and come peacefully to the reservation, Bosque Redondo, on the Pecos River, where Fort Sumner was located. After that date, Carson with the aid of liberal bounties to Navaho enemies--Utes, Pueblos, Mexicans, and Whites--killed Navaho, and destroyed crops and herds. The Government paid a bounty of $20 for a horse, $1 for a sheep or goat. No Navaho could be taken as a slave. Carson followed them in midwinter into supposedly impenetrable Canyon de Chelly, where the Navaho had hidden in the shelter of its walls, which rise to a height of more than 700 feet in some places. The starving Navaho surrendered and were sent to Bosque Redondo; some of them, who had fled to the west or to the Pueblos, including a band under the great leader Manuelito, straggled in later. The Government now had the problem of caring for about 400 Mescalero Apache and over 8000 Navaho, while outside the reservation the fierce Comanche lay in wait to pounce on the beaten tribes.

Repeated crop failures, no wood, alkaline water, poor food, Comanches, homesickness, quarrels, illness, boredom--all weakened Navaho spirit, until at last they refused to plant another crop, and begged to go home. In 1868 General W. T. Sherman offered to ship them to an eastern reservation where they could learn to be small farmers. The horrified war lords and shepherds exaggerated the wealth and productivity of their deserts and mountains until Sherman agreed to send them home. He still hoped to make farmers of them, and in the treaty offered each head of a family a title to 160 acres of homestead land, implements, and seeds; besides, provision was made for clothing, supplies, and schools. Each of the 9,000 Navaho who left Fort Sumner were given sheep and goats--animals which formed the nucleus of the great flocks now to be seen on the reservation.

Despite the hard times which followed, the Indian Agent was able to report ten years later that the Navaho "have grown from a band of Paupers to a nation of prosperous, industrious, shrewd, and (for barbarians), intelligent people." They were estimated at 11,800, with 20,000 horses; 1,500 cattle, and 500,000 sheep; comparable development has characterized the years following. The history of the Navaho since this time can be read in the annual reports on Indian Conditions, issued by the Indian Commissioners. The Indian Report of 1867 gives the correspondence of Carleton, Carson, and others involved in subduing and rehabilitating the Navaho; see also Sabin's "Kit Carson Days."

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