Musician Clarence Clearwater, like so many Navajos, has moved off the reservation for work. He performs on the Grand Canyon Railway, the lone Indian among dozens of cowboys and train robbers entertaining tourists.
“I always tell people I’m there to temper the cowboys,” says Clearwater. “I’m there to give people the knowledge that there was more of the West than just cowboys.”
About fifty years ago, Clearwater retraced his great-great-great-grandfather’s footsteps along what Navajo and Mescalero Apache people call the Long Walk. In a series of marches starting in 1864, 9,500 Navajo and 500 Mescalero Apache were forced by the U.S. Army to walk 400 miles from their reservation in northeastern Arizona to the edge of the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico; like the forced march known as the Trail of Tears, thousands died.
Clearwater says the stories he heard as he walked are haunting: A Navajo family gave away their baby to a non-Native family so the infant would have a better chance at survival. Many drowned crossing the Rio Grande.
“Some of the older people were talking about how elders like themselves had just been left out in the desert, you know, left where they fell,” Clearwater says. “In cases of them trying to rejoin and soldiers didn’t want them, they shot them and killed them.”
But it’s not just the stories; 150 years later, the consequences of the Long Walk are still present, says Jennifer Denetdale, a historian and associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. She says severe poverty, addiction, suicide and crime on the reservation all have their roots in the Long Walk.
“I think it’s really been a struggle to believe in our own ability to create, on the Navajo Nation, institutions and structures that will bring about prosperity and a way to live well,” Denetdale says.
They walked to Fort Sumner, which was essentially a prison camp where Col. Kit Carson attempted to “tame the savages.” Today a giant mural there commemorates the march. In one panel, swirls of red and orange represent the desert heat; behind a long line of families, a soldier on horseback cracks a whip.
“I could feel and hear, you know, the cries of the people, the trail, the heat, the cold,” says Navajo artist Shonto Begay, who painted the mural. “Just to walk the grounds [brings] a lump in your throat, like something bursting forth, and all the anguish of the ancestors.”
The Navajo culture is intrinsically tied to the earth. Begay says many live or frequently return to the place where their umbilical cords are buried.
“When the umbilical cord is buried with honor among the Navajos, this is what holds you,” Begay says. “When your umbilical cord is buried in the earth, and you know the ground where it is, you know, you feel at home and welcome anywhere in the world.”
The Long Walk was among many attempts by the federal government to wipe out native culture. Others include sending native children to boarding schools to eradicate their traditions. Begay says he was out herding sheep at the age of 5 when a man driving a flatbed truck gave him candy and hauled him away.
“I grew up with a different name — a government name — Wilson,” Begay says. “There were a lot of Johnsons, a lot of Washingtons. There were a lot of dead presidents and generals. In the early 1980s I reclaimed my great-grandmother’s name Shonto.”
Shonto means “light dancing on water.” It’s also the name of his town — his home — where he remains connected today.
He wants his children and grandchildren to know that their ancestors’ suffering and determination meant something.
He tells them, “Hey, your forefathers survived. Make something of it. Honor it.”