A Most Amazing Experience

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On our first visit to the Southwestern states in 2019, I developed an interest in the history and culture of our native Indians (Bob was years ahead of me in his interest). We’ve visited lots of historical sites and read several books on the subject since then. And here we are again in the Southwest.

Our generation grew up with lots of Western TV shows … Rifleman, Roy Rogers, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Maverick, and for those of us in the Boston TV area, Boomtown! In those shows, the cowboys were always the rugged “good guys” wearing a neatly pressed western shirt, bright red bandana, shiny six-shooters in studded leather holsters on each hip and the trademark hat shading their eyes from the bright western sun. The Indians, meanwhile, were portrayed as dirty dark men with greasy black hair acting as either bumbling fools, subservient to their “kimosabe,” or bloodthirsty savages whose main goal in life was to scalp the white man. Fortunately, we are now smart enough to know that these stereotypes are far from the truth. If only schools would teach our children the real story of the native peoples of our country and how their land was stolen from them through slaughters and ultimately relocating them to ghettos.

Before Europeans came to what is now North America in search of riches and religious freedom, there were about 10 million indigenous people living here in about six hundred tribes and speaking very diverse dialects. In many early encounters, the native people and settlers shared seeds and information, even grew crops together. But, the natives’ exposure to the settlers also exposed them to disease and many Indians succumbed to the illnesses that the Europeans brought with them. From 1492 until the Revolutionary War, trade was a central theme of communication between natives and Europeans. It began when the first Europeans offered textiles, glass, and metal products in exchange for beaver pelts and buffalo robes. It ended when the Europeans had virtually stripped the native people of the land that produced the pelts and whatever else the Europeans desired. To complicate matters, the native Indians were dealing with travelers from different nations with varied habits, cultures and languages. Spanish colonists developed a reputation for harsh treatment. The French were supposedly more sensitive to the culture of native peoples, but under their influence the Meskwaki Fox Indians were almost wiped out.

As is still the case, the media presented the conflicts in the most sensational way to sell newspapers, and the colonists’ view of Indians as innocent neighbors soon gave way to an image of a violent group bent on the destruction of white colonists. Europeans actually had scholarly debates on if the Native Americans would fit into the New World. They believed that either the Indians would have to learn European ways, embrace Christianity and give up their traditions, or they simply would not fit. There was no thought to living side-by-side with such different people.

In 2021, we look down on nations who want to “cleanse” their land of less powerful, or less “pure” groups of people, but that is exactly what happened here for hundreds of years. All tribes weren’t warriors, there were tribes of very peaceful, even jovial, people who wished to just get along with these new settlers, but most white men couldn’t tell one tribe from the other. Their skin was dark, their languages were foreign and their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white people’s comprehension. It was easy to consider them inhuman.

Way back in 1539, European soldiers laid siege on the Timucuan people who resisted the push into what is now Florida, overpowered them and promptly executed 200 warriors. This was the first of countless massacres of indians that would take place over the following 300 years. The massacres were brutal shows of European strength involving unspeakable acts, and the killings of Indian women and children far outweighed the numbers of warriors who were killed. Retaliation by the Indians was initially nowhere near equal to what the Europeans were capable of inflicting with their advanced weapons. In an example close to home for us, in 1637 Wongunk and Pequot warriors attacked a white settlement at Wethersfield, Connecticut. Six men and three women were killed and two children were kidnapped. In response to the Wethersfield attack, English colonists launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River where they burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all 600-700 indians present, including the elderly, women and children. There was no regard given to the fact that Europeans were muscling in on humans who had lived here for thousands of years. They looked different, spoke differently, had habits and traditions that the Europeans did not understand, and certainly did not know anything about the white man’s Bible. That made them stupid savages who were very expendable.

After 300 years of the Europeans pushing the native peoples further and further west, there was no place left to push them. In the 1800’s, the US Army of the West initiated President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which called for the removal of Indians from their native lands by any means necessary, even if it meant total slaughter and extinction. By 1864, the Navajo were the last holdouts. Most Navajo who had not been killed or captured fled to the 100-mile long Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de Shay) in what is now Arizona and hid among the cliff dwellings that had been built hundreds of years earlier by the ancient Pueblo tribes. The Army demanded that either all Navajo would surrender and move to remote reservations for the remainder of their lives, or they would be assassinated. The buffalo had already been slaughtered, so when the Navajo continued to resist, the Army killed all of their livestock and burn all of their planted fields. The Navajo were starved into surrender. The remaining 8,500 Navajo were marched 400 miles in the middle of winter to a reservation in eastern New Mexico which they were told would be paradise. Two hundred died along the way. There, they continued to starve, freeze and succumb to white man’s diseases. And for what? In the case of the Navajo, the Europeans considered their land (modern day Arizona/New Mexico) to be the ugliest, most desolate place they had ever seen, and when gold wasn’t found they abandoned it. Stories were surfacing back east about the deplorable conditions in the New Mexico reservation. Wanting to save their reputations, four years after marching 8,500 Navajo to New Mexico the US Government agreed to send the remaining 6,500 Navajo back to where they came from. The legend is that the Navajo people lined up days in advance of the march, thankful to be returning to their homeland.

The Navajo people of today are all descended from the roughly 6,000 who made it back to their homeland. The word “Navajo” is a name given to them by the European settlers, not what they call themselves. This is probably true of most tribes. The Sioux tribes of the Dakotas call themselves the Lakota. Similarly, the Navajo call themselves Dine’ which means “the people.” They believe they came from the center of the earth, emerging into this land in the middle of four sacred mountains. Because they are from the earth, they are one with everything else that is from the earth … the trees, the rocks, the insects and animals. They refer to all of these things as “people” … the tree people, the insect people, etc. This gives them an appreciation for everything around them as also being born from the earth mother, giving them a respect for everything around them.

Canyon de Chelly was always sacred land, but it is even more so because of the actions that took place there when the Army found, starved and killed them, and also because they were allowed to return. The book Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides drew a very complete and unforgiving picture of the atrocities that took place on both sides of the US/Indian war and created such a living picture in my mind of the Canyon that I had to see it for myself.

We booked a four-hour jeep tour with a local Navajo guide named Ben of Beauty Way Tours. He was born and raised four miles into the canyon, a homestead now occupied by his aunt. He pointed it out to us as we passed. The backdrop of the property is the sheer red rock canyon wall containing a cave some 100’ high. The remains of an Anasazi dwelling with petroglyphs on the ceiling were visible. Since the floor of the canyon is covered in fine sand with water just a few inches beneath, four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary, and driving is very difficult. I asked Ben how often his aunt left the canyon for errands and such, and he said only about once a month. This made me wonder how Ben, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s (he is about our age) went to school every day. We take for granted that the school bus will collect our children at the end of our driveways or very close by, but there are still people living in very remote areas!

Over the course of four hours, Ben gave us a very educational tour of the canyon, explained a lot about the beliefs of the Dine’, how the ancient Anasazi lived in their cliff dwellings, the meaning of petroglyphs, and how time and history can change a people. It was very interesting and satisfied my curiosity. We both highly recommend a tour of Canyon de Chelly to anyone interested in Native American history.

I guess the bottom line is that what happened to the indigenous people of America is what happens any time there is war … people die, and often those people are innocent citizens. It would be simple to say that this was no different than Japan bombing Pearl Harbor and killing 2,400 US soldiers and citizens and our retaliation by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and killing 66,000 Japanese. I think it would be more like al-Qaeda bombing the towers, Pentagon, and US Capital, and then invading the country on foot killing everyone who didn’t share their beliefs and wasn’t willing to convert. Whatever way your thinking leans, there is no going back to the old ways for our Native people.

Pictographs showing antelope and a sheep. To the left is a human figure displaying a “welcome” sign (arms down).
The normally sandy canyon floor was muddied by rain the previous day. Only a 4×4 vehicle could drive here.
Cat Rock, an aptly-named nature rock formation in the canyon.
Millions of years of rain pouring down the cliffs have permanently stained the rock in beautiful ways.
Bob photographing ancient cliff dwellings.
Cliff dwellings were hidden everywhere.
A beautiful display of petroglyphs.
Navajo Nation is a “free range state.” Cattle, horses, dogs … all roam freely. Be careful driving!

3 thoughts on “A Most Amazing Experience

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