Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez gazes at a life-size mural of U.S. soldiers displayed on the wall at the Bosque Redondo Memorial during a tour of the historic site on last Thursday.
Published March 20, 2018
FT. SUMNER, NEW MEXICO — Vice President Jonathan Nez on Thursday 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.
Diminished in numbers and struggling with the effects of four years of internment at Fort Sumner, the million-acre military camp in modern-day eastern New Mexico, the Diné began the long walk home. Of the 9,000 Navajo men, women and children forced to leave their homes and ways of life in the mid-1860s, roughly one-third did not return.
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.
“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 on Thursday. “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 three branch chiefs on Feb. 9 signed a proclamation declaring 2018 as the Year of Naaltsoos Sáni’ (Year of the Treaty), and executive and legislative leaders on Feb. 20 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.
“This will be a historic moment for us when the treaty, for the first time in history, will be on the Navajo Nation for us to see, read and know that we are a sovereign nation,” President Begaye said. “Think about what our ancestors did for us when they signed their X’s on the treaty. Only 6,000 or so Navajos returned from Bosque Redondo, but today we are more than 300,000 with the biggest land base in the country. Always be proud that by signing this treaty, our ancestors made sure we would continue to grow and prosper.”
The Thursday visit at 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. Tsosie also attended the 1994 Treaty Day commemoration with former President Peterson Zah, during which leaders toured the site and dedicated a plaque.
“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.”
Vice President Nez used his visit to start new conversations about what it means to be Diné. He is encouraging Navajos to use the Year of Naaltsoos Sáni’ to consider the significance of the Treaty of 1868 and the resiliency of their ancestors.
“We are opening the door so we can have frank discussions about our history,” he said. “If we tell our young generation not to talk about Hwéeldi or not to return, how will they know who we are? If we don’t share our stories, how will they continue? It is our responsibility to tell the whole story—not just about the devastation and death, or about the signing of the treaty, but what happened after our ancestors signed it. We need to tell the story of resiliency and of not giving up.”
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.”
By visiting Bosque Redondo, Vice President Nez hopes to open the door for other Navajos to stand on the sacred ground.
“When we talk about Bosque Redondo on the Navajo Nation, it’s different, it’s removed,” he said. “When we stand here at the memorial, we can feel the emotion of the place and the strength of our people. I am here to start the conversation.”
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, who also attended the Thursday tour, only recently decided to visit Bosque Redondo. Although he recognizes the historic value of visiting the site, he said the decision to go should be personal.
“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.”
|Vice President Jonathan Nez visits “Treaty Rock” at Bosque Redondo, the plaque former Navajo leaders dedicated in 1994.
|Vice President Jonathan Nez, right, and Aaron Roth, facilities manager for the Bosque Redondo Memorial, use a model of Fort Sumner to determine where Navajos lived during their incarceration in the mid-1860s.
|The Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner honors the Navajo and Mescalero Apache who were forcibly removed from their homelands in the 1860s.
|Using maps and other historical data, Aaron Roth, left, points out the location Navajo and U.S. leaders likely gathered to sign the Treaty of 1868. Also pictured are Vice President Jonathan Nez, center, and Manny Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum.