Photo Courtesy of Bosque Redondo Memorial Facebook Page.
Bosque Redondo, NM
Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner
By Valerie Tom and Ron Goulet
“The Bosque Redondo Memorial mission is to respectfully interpret the history of two cultures, the Diné (Navajo) and the N’de (Mescalero Apache) during the United States government’s military campaign of ethnic persecution in the 1860’s.”
Today, the Navajo number some 300,000 on the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American tribal land base in the United States (about the size of the state of West Virginia).
American History books used in schools across the U.S., now and in the past, tell of heroic exploratory adventures and military campaigns and heroes. However, much is left out about policies of the United States to take the lands it wanted, outright murder and genocide of Native peoples as the inhabitants of the land, and terminology once used to describe the indigenous peoples – savages.
While there is more awareness today and some more enlightened views and teachings of what happened to Native Americans as new lands were opened up for pioneers, healing has taken place very slowly among Native Peoples. Native Americans struggle with health conditions, addiction, mental health issues and poverty, measured in multiples as compared to the U.S. population as a whole.
The worst chapter in Navajo history is often referred to with a more, simple and softer name – “The Long Walk.”
Between 1864 and 1866, Navajos were rounded up from their homeland in eastern Arizona and forced to walk in bands some 400 miles to Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner, in eastern New Mexico.
American folk hero Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson organized and led the raids and the roundup forcing Navajos to leave their homes, gardens and livestock behind. The march was very difficult and pushed many Navajos to their breaking point, including death. Of 9,000 who began only 6,000 would survive.
Conditions at Bosque Redondo were also terrible, with many hardships. Attempts to plant crops failed, firewood was scarce. By 1867 Navajos simply refused to try to plant crops. By 1868 it was apparent that the experiment to attempt to create the first Indian reservation in the West was a dismal failure.
Treaty of Bosque Redondo
The Treaty of Bosque Redondo between the United States and many of the Navajo leaders was concluded at Fort Sumner on June 1, 1868. On June 18, 1868, the once-scattered bands of people who call themselves Diné, set off together on the return journey, the “Long Walk” home. This is one of the few instances where the U.S. government permitted a tribe to return to their traditional boundaries. The Navajo were granted 3.5 million acres of land inside their four sacred mountains and have been able to successfully increase the size of their reservation since then, to over 16 million acres
Navajo Leaders Visit Bosque Redondo
Elders called this chapter of Diné history Hwéeldi, or simply “suffering,” and counseled the people not to look back. That instruction has guided generations of Diné who have not visited the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument or embarked on personal journeys to understand the shared history of the Navajo people.
On March 15, 2018, Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez stood on the patch of ground where, 150 years ago, Navajo leaders signed the document that ended their exile at Bosque Redondo and allowed them to return to their homeland.
“A lot of our people are hesitant to talk about this because there was pain and suffering, but there’s a larger story here, a different perspective we need to think about,” Vice President Nez said during a tour of Bosque Redondo with a small Navajo delegation. “As Navajos, we want to know who we are. We are struggling today with modern-day monsters, but what better way to instill hope than to tell the stories of our ancestors who almost got annihilated but who instead started a dialogue? Instead of giving up, they asked for a document, a treaty. They asked to go home.”
Vice President Nez’s visit to Bosque Redondo—a first for him—came as the Navajo Nation prepares to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of 1868. The Navjo Leaders signed a proclamation on February 9, 2018, declaring 2018 as the Year of Naaltsoos Sáni’ (Year of the Treaty), and executive and legislative leaders on February 20th traveled to Washington D.C., to view the original treaty at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. The treaty will be displayed at the Navajo Nation Museum during the month of June.
President Russell Begaye has encouraged everyone to view the treaty when it arrives in June, and to read the words that established the Navajo as a sovereign nation. The treaty, signed on paper torn from an army ledger book, included signatures from federal officials and X’s from Navajo leaders.
The recent visit to Bosque Redondo began with a protection ceremony led by David Tsosie, who used medicine bundles and prayer to set to rest historic disturbances and pave the way for individuals to visit the memorial in peace.
“This was a terrible place, a terrible period of time,” Tsosie said. “With a protection prayer, that allows people to come to this place where disturbances occurred.
The Bosque Redondo Memorial, which opened on June 4, 2005, to honor the Navajo and Mescalero Apache interned at Fort Sumner, came partly in response to a 1990 letter left at the site by a group of Navajo students. That letter, signed by 17 individuals, spurred the state to expand the Fort Sumner narrative to include the Navajo story.
Yet one thing still missing from the memorial and museum is the contemporary Navajo voice, said Aaron Roth, facilities manager for the Bosque Redondo Memorial. Visitors from all over the world stop at Bosque Redondo and, upon learning its history, ask whether the Navajo are still alive, Roth said.
“This is your story to tell,” he said. “It’s the stories of the people that give this museum its depth. We want to hear more about your culture. We want to see how the Navajo people are shaped by this. Visitors all the time ask if the Navajo survived this, if they are still alive. Every time a Navajo comes here, we see the resiliency of the people walking through that door.”
According to data at the memorial, about 8,000 people visit Bosque Redondo every year. Of that, about 16 percent are Navajo.
“It’s clear that Navajo people want answers,” said Manny Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum. “For some people, maybe it’s curiosity. For others, maybe they’re looking for closure.”
Wheeler said the decision to go visit, or not visit Hweeldi is a personal choice.
“For people who want to visit, our beliefs will protect us,” he said. “People who don’t want to visit, we respect that, too. We want to let Navajo people know that whatever they choose, however they want to understand our history, we remain united in our respect for each other.”
Visiting Bosque Redondo
The Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument is at 3647 Billy the Kid Road, 6.5 miles southeast of the village of Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Hours and Admission
• Open daily Wednesday through Sunday 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (closed Monday & Tuesday)
• Closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
• Admission: $3 (free to New Mexico residents on Sundays)
Call 1-575-355-2573 for more information or email: email@example.com