Friday, February 3, 2012

Long Walks

At Twin Rocks Trading Post, the Long Walk is often a topic of intense discussion. Many visitors to the store want to know what led to the removal of Navajo people from their traditional lands. Others wish to understand what caused comments like those of Col. Edward R. S. Canby, who, in the early 1860s, concluded, “[R]ecent occurrences in Navajo country have so demoralized and broken up the nation that there is no choice between their absolute extermination or removal and colonization at points so remote . . . as to isolate them entirely from the inhabitants of the Territory. Aside from all considerations of humanity, the extermination of such a people will be the work of greatest difficulty.”

Canby’s extraordinary comments, and the resulting Long Walk, were caused by persistent difficulties between the Navajo people and the federal government. As a result of this conflict, in 1863 the Navajo were ordered to surrender themselves into the custody of the United States Army. When none did, Kit Carson was asked to enter Navajo country and forcibly persuade them to come in. In so doing, Carson engaged in a scorched earth campaign intended to starve them into submission. He succeeded; and in January of 1864 thousands of Navajo men, women and children gave themselves up and were escorted from their ancestral homeland to Bosque Redondo, a wretched location situated on the Pecos River in northern New Mexico, during the time of which, hundreds died.

The government’s goal was to turn its Navajo internees into farmers, but the experiment failed miserably. Water, food and fire wood were scarce; the river often washed out their irrigation systems; and crops repeatedly failed. Finally, after four years of disease, malnutrition and abuse, in June of 1868 the Navajo people imprisoned at the Bosque were released and allowed to return home. The occurrence left such a great scar on the psyche of these people that even today traditional Navajo elders refer to Bosque Redondo as Hwe’eldi, the place of great suffering.

In the spring of 1991, in the midst of my own great suffering, I decided I needed to walk. Realizing I could not go far and maintain the continuity of our business, I decided to explore Cottonwood Wash, which is but a stone’s throw from the back door of the house above the trading post. Sunday was my day off, so that became the time for discovery.

My plan was to start at the mouth of the canyon, where it empties into Bluff, and go as far as possible before returning in the evening. The first time I made it only a couple miles. Scrambling up talus slope, poking into nooks and crannies, admiring petroglyphs and peering into abandoned dwellings took longer than I had anticipated.

The following Sunday, I began where I left off, continuing this pattern for several weeks. A local archaeologist had once informed me that, at the time they abandoned this land, the Anasazi left behind a virtual “hardware store” of pottery, tools, clothing and other daily use items, so I wanted to see what he meant. By the time I began my journey, however, many centuries had passed and the shelves had been picked clean. The pictorial ledgers scribbled on sandstone walls and the masonry structures built into natural alcoves were, however, very much intact and I had no need or desire to own the timeworn inventory that had been abandoned all those millennia before I arrived. The only thing I wished to acquire during these walks was peace of mind.

On one particular outing I found myself in the back of a brushy, wildly overgrown side canyon, wondering how I would extract myself without losing additional patches of cloth and skin. As I glanced about, I noticed three or four cysts and what looked like small tepees carved into the floor of a shallow cave. When I mentioned this to another local archaeologist, he informed me the structures were 11,000 years old. Since he had had one too many beers at the time of our discussion, I assumed he had also added one too many zeros to his occupational assumption. His evaluation was, however, correct. The site was attributable to the Paleo Indians and was indeed one of the oldest in the area.

As I explored the walls of these ancient dwellings, listening for echoes of long dead occupiers, watching the sun travel its linear course across the turquoise sky and imagining what it was like to live in these mud and stone enclosures, I began to understand why the Navajo people incarcerated at the Hwe’eldi longed to return to their mysterious red rock home. I was discovering that this wild and untamed land envelopes and enchants you, leaving you unable to forget its stark, rugged beauty and unable to sever your ties to it.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and The Team

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