The Long Walk

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During an era when many Native Nations found themselves forcibly removed from their homelands, the Navajo (Diné) also faced increasing pressure to leave their ancestral home.

In the mid-1800s, the United States emerged as a nation driven to expand its territory west of the Mississippi. Spain controlled much of the land that today is known as the southwestern United States and Mexico.

Following the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States was poised to take more lands and increase settlement in the Southwest. Like many Native Nations, the Navajo (Diné) signed treaties as well as fought against American efforts to create pathways from the East to California.

Despite all their efforts, the Navajo (Diné) people were removed from their homelands by the United States government in the 1860s. However, they maintained an unflinching resolve to return home.

Map of Navajo Homelands

Map by Gene Thorp/Cartographic Concepts, Inc. © Smithsonian Institution.

The traditional homelands of the Navajo (Diné) are marked by four sacred mountains that stretch across modern-day Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

According to tribal stories, the Navajo (Diné) emerged from the lower worlds to this region, which they call Dinétah, or “among the People.” Dinétah is the place where earth people and Holy People interacted; their relationships form the foundation of cultural practices that underlie Navajo (Diné) life today.

After many invasions by Spain, Mexico, and eventually the United States, the Navajo (Diné) mounted campaigns of resistance in order to remain in their ancestral homelands.

Discussion Question

  1. Think of a place that is important to you. What people, stories, or celebrations do you associate with this place? Why are those connections important?

Major General James H. Carleton ordered Christopher (Kit) Carson to defeat the Navajo (Diné) resistance by conducting a scorched-earth campaign across the Navajo (Diné) homelands. Carson burned villages, slaughtered livestock, and destroyed water sources in order to reduce the Navajo (Diné) to starvation and desperation.

With few choices, thousands of Navajo (Diné) surrendered and were forced to march between 250 and 450 miles to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. While intended to be a reservation, Bosque Redondo functioned as an internment camp. The U.S. stationed soldiers there to make sure that the Navajo (Diné) could not leave.

From the beginning the plan was to force the Navajo (Diné) to adopt white American cultural values; however, many Navajo (Diné) resisted cultural assimilation and would continue the fight until they were allowed to return to their homelands.

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If the army placed the Navajo on a reservation far “from the haunts and hills and hiding places of their country” they would “acquire new habits, new ideas, new modes of life.” “Civilizing” the Navajo could be best achieved through their children: “The young ones will take their places without these longings: and thus, little by little, they will become a happy contented people.”

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James Carleton to Thompson, September 19, 1863, in Navajo Roundup: Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson’s Expedition against the Navajo, 1863–1865, ed. Lawrence C. Kelly (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1970), 56–57.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe the United States’ actions against the Navajo (Diné)?
  2. What inferences can you make about why the United States wanted to remove the Navajo (Diné) from their homelands?
Between 1863 and 1866, more than 10,000 Navajo (Diné) were forcibly removed to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner, in current-day New Mexico. During the Long Walk, the U.S. military marched Navajo (Diné) men, women, and children between 250 to 450 miles, depending on the route they took.

Discussion Question

  1. Take a map and find a location 250 miles from where you live. Imagine what it would be like to walk that distance: what challenges would people face if forced to march a distance that far?

“These soldiers do not have any regard for the women folks. They took unto themselves for wives somebody else’s wife, and many times the Navajo man whose wife was being taken tried to ward off the soldiers, but immediately he was shot and killed and they took his wife.”

John Daw, testimony before the Land Claims Commission, 1951, cited in “The Navajo ‘Long Walk,’” by Crawford R. Bruell, in The Changing Ways of Southwestern Indians: A Historic Perspective, ed. Albert Schroeder (Glorieta, NM: Rio Grande Press, 1971), 177.
Navajo (Diné) oral history tells the stories of those who lived through the terror inflicted at the hands of Carson’s men on the Long Walk: they showed no regard for women, children, or families. When the people became exhausted, the soldiers became harsh, sometimes shooting prisoners rather than allowing the Navajo (Diné) to rest.

Discussion Question

  1. What does this testimony tell you about how some U.S. soldiers regarded Navajo (Diné) people?
When the Navajo (Diné) were forcibly marched to the internment camp known as Bosque Redondo, they suffered enormous loss and horrific conditions at the hands of the United States government.

Discussion Questions

  1. What helps people maintain strength in difficult times?
  2. How might the Navajo (Diné) have stayed strong, despite the challenges they encountered?
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Bosque Redondo Case Study