Place of suffering now symbol of survival
Bosque Redondo story continues to evolve
Last updated 5/24/2022 at 3:34pm
Editor's note: Part 1 of this two-part series was published in Sunday's paper. It's also published online:
The letter Navajo students wrote in 1990 – asking "Where is our history?" -- helped Bosque Redondo officials realize they had a lot of work to do in completing their efforts to reflect events leading up to The Long Walk and life on the reservation.
Saturday's unveiling of a permanent exhibit -- Bosque Redondo: A Place of Suffering ... A Place of Survival -- is the culmination of 30-plus years' effort to honor the students' request to tell a more complete story, site manager Aaron Roth said last week.
Anyone who visited the Memorial even pre-pandemic might not recognize the version that will be unveiled on Saturday.
"The structure is the same as five years ago," Roth said, "but floor to ceiling is different. We have new exhibits, everything is repainted."
And Roth said it's still not complete – and never will be.
"We have 6,500 square feet of museum space and even with all that space it's not enough to tell the complete story. We purposely have said this exhibit will never be finished. We don't want to close our ears or our eyes to someone who might come through with a different perspective. We want all people to contribute to this space."
The museum of today, he said, is "in existence because of that call to action by those Navajo youth."
Some still spit on hearing his name
Perspectives about the Indian wars of the 1800s are even today as different as fire and ice. There is probably no more a divisive figure in the conflict than scout and volunteer soldier Kit Carson.
"Christopher Houston Carson (December 24, 1809 – May 23, 1868) was an American frontiersman. He was a fur trapper, wilderness guide, Indian agent, and U.S. Army officer," begins his profile on Wikipedia.
"He became a frontier legend in his own lifetime by biographies and news articles, and exaggerated versions of his exploits were the subject of dime novels. His understated nature belied confirmed reports of his fearlessness, combat skills, tenacity, and profound effect on the westward expansion of the United States."
Many Native Americans, however, don't see any romance associated with Carson's name.
"A lot of (natives) still spit when they hear his name," Roth said. "Definitely not someone people are fond of.
"I've heard stories of people saying they could forgive murder, but could not forgive the fact that he purposely poisoned wells and cut down peach orchards that a lot of people were never able to grow back ... they could never forgive that."
The "scorched earth" policy adopted by the Army and carried out by Carson and his soldiers led to the surrender of 10,000 Navajo and about 500 Mescalero Apache who were marched about 400 miles to Bosque Redondo beginning in 1863.
Even after tribes voluntarily agreed to go with Carson to the 1-million acre reservation at Fort Sumner he still invaded their villages, destroying crops and slaughtering livestock in attempts to ensure starvation of Native Americans less willing to give up their fight.
Dennis Sumrak, on history.net, wrote about the campaign:
"There were Navajo holdouts, and in August 1864 Captain John Thompson and 35 men of the 1st New Mexico Cavalry re-entered Canyon de Chelly," where many lived.
"In his report ... Thompson said he had systematically destroyed more than 3,000 mature peach trees. On one day alone, he reported, he cut down 500 'of the best peach trees I have ever seen in the country, every one of them bearing fruit.' But he had not laid waste to all of them, because later that year Captain Edward Butler, the commander of Fort Wingate in New Mexico Territory, reportedly destroyed another 1,000 of the Navajos' prize Canyon de Chelly peach trees."
After the fruit and other food sources were gone, Navajo headman Standing Bear told Carson: "We've been deprived of raising food on the land that our ancestors gave us. We are tired of starving and wish no more killing," Sumrak reported.
A place of sadness, but also pride
Teddy Draper III is a Clovis resident and Navajo whose family still refers to 1860s-era Navajo Chief Barboncito as "grandfather," though there is no known direct line as a descendent.
Draper's father, Teddy Draper Sr., was among the 400-plus Code Talkers whose knowledge of Native American languages was used as the basis for the United States and its allies to send coded messages during World War II.
Draper himself, 47, is a Marine who served three tours in Iraq before retiring in 2010. Today his passion is painting, from murals to framed art work, often reflecting his Native American roots.
Among his family stories passed through the generations is one from the Kit Carson days:
"When the Army was down there destroying all the crops, there were a group of Navajos who stayed at a place called Fortress Rock," he said.
"They had sneaky ways of getting food and water while the Cavalry stayed below. Those Navajos got away and I think they were my family. My dad said 'We were never captured.'"
Draper III offers a measured response when talking about his feelings toward Carson.
"Coming from the military, I realize he was somebody doing his job. But he had to have some problems showing that kind of hatred and anger (toward the Navajo)."
Draper said he has been to the Bosque Redondo Memorial before and plans to return with family members on Saturday for the grand opening of the new exhibit.
"It will be good to see the museum again," he said. "It's a place where someone can be reminded where they come from and what people did to ensure that we survived and kept our culture."
He said he feels differently about the Memorial today than he once did.
"The military changed everything for me," he said. "I was very biased about a lot of things Native American before that. I wasn't open to the world. When I went into the Marines and saw the world, I started to appreciate everybody more than I did.
"I don't know ... I've changed and so the meaning of the Memorial has changed also. I take pride in who I am now because of that place.
"There is sadness. A lot of sadness. Nobody should have to go through that. For me, there is more pride."
Survival in the face of adversity will produce that emotion, as evidenced by the woman who brought Roth the large rock in 2017 – the rock used to cover a cave where Navajos pursued by the Army hid their most precious belongings.
"Great-great Grandmother did survive," and returned to gather the items behind the rock, Roth said the woman told him. "I leave it here as proof of our survival," she said.
'The Creator gave that land to us'
Donald "Doc" Elder is a history professor at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. He teaches classes on military history and has spent years learning about the events associated with The Long Walk.
"I don't think anybody would argue that the Navajo were 100 percent blameless in all that happened," he said. "Clearly from the United States' standpoint they were not behaving in a way that was legal.
"Traditionally the Navajo had raided people in their part of the world to take things they thought would make their lives a little better, a little easier. But they were also being raided (by the Spanish, Mexicans and other Indian tribes through the centuries).
"There was, from the standpoint of settlers in New Mexico Territory, a clear and present danger from the Navajo."
Draper doesn't argue.
"The Navajo (of the 1800s) were an aggressive tribe," he said. "We had disagreements with other tribes. So we stole and did things like that.
"It all came from us believing that the Creator gave that land to us. For somebody to try and take it, we weren't going to let that happen willingly. So we tried to fight."
Elder said he was involved in a panel discussion about The Long Walk some years ago at Fort Sumner High School.
"I'll never forget it, there was a Native American woman on the stage and when it was her turn to talk she said, 'Your people can never understand ... how my people regard this subject so you shouldn't really even bother.'
"It's been 150 years and it's still a really, really sore subject with the people of the Navajo Nation. Those of us who are Anglo, we can say we screwed up and try to make sure this never happens again, but there is no way we can ever rectify what happened."
Whatever feelings come from the Bosque Rendondo Memorial, Elder said he believes the place serves an important purpose.
"It's saying you can't deal with human beings that way," he said. "It's not the answer. There has to be a better way to do things."