The Navajo Concentration Camp at Bosque Redondo

by A. Jay Adler on February 4, 2011
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The premise from which I write about American Indian issues is that while some Americans are ignorant, callous, and self-justifying about the nation’s history with Native America – and sometimes, still, clearly racist – most people are ignorant in the innocent sense of simply lacking knowledge. Most Americans, one can learn merely from raising the topic in conversation, just do not even think about American Indians and what happened to them and how they live today.

What are referred to as “reservations” today, as when they were created, were often in the nineteenth century actually concentration camps, in just the manner in which we understand that term today – and were intended to be so.

During the six weeks that Julia Dean and I spent on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in 2008-09, I wrote a number of times about the concentration camp that Old San Carlos was originally. The Navajos had one, too, roughly a decade earlier, at the end of their “Long Walk” in 1864, at Bosque Redondo in south eastern New Mexico, purposely far from native Navajo lands to the northwest, for it was the American government’s expressed plan to take that land from the Navajo for its natural and mineral wealth.

Navajos at Bosque Redondo 1863-1868

Here is an account of Bosque Redondo and of U.S. policy from Dee Brown’s seminal work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. In it, Brig. General James Carleton, the brutal commander of the New Mexico Department is both deceptive about the character of the Bosque and frank about the nature of U.S. policy.

During the autumn, Navahos who had escaped from the Bosque Redondo began returning to their homeland with frightening accounts of what was happening to the people there. It was a wretched land, they said. The soldiers prodded them with bayonets and herded them into adobe-walled compounds where the soldier chiefs were always counting them and putting numbers down in little books. The soldier chiefs promised them clothing and blankets and better food, but their promises were never kept. All the cottonwood and mesquite had been cut down, so that only roots were left for firewood. To shelter themselves from rain and sun they had to dig holes in the sandy ground, and cover and line them with mats of woven grass. They lived like prairie dogs in burrows. With a few tools the soldiers gave them they broke the soil of the Pecos bottomlands and planted grain, but floods and droughts and insects killed the crops, and now everyone was on half-rations. Crowded together as they were, disease had begun to take a toll of the weaker ones. It was a bad place, and although escape was difficult and dangerous under the watchful eyes of the soldiers, many were risking their lives to get away.

Meanwhile, Star Chief Carleton had persuaded the Vicario of Santa Fe to sing a Te Deum in celebration of the Army’s successful removal of the Navahos to the Bosque , and the general described the place to his superiors in Washington as “a fine reservation . . . there is no reason why they [the Navahos] will not be the most happy and prosperous and well-provided-for Indians in the United States. . . . At all events . . . we can feed them cheaper than we can fight them.”

In the eyes of the Star Chief, his prisoners were only mouths and bodies. “These six thousand mouths must eat, and these six thousand bodies must be clothed. When it is considered what a magnificent pastoral and mineral country they have surrendered to us–a country whose value can hardly be estimated–the mere pittance, in comparison, which must at once be given to support them, sinks into insignificance as a price for their natural heritage.”

And no advocate of Manifest Destiny ever phrased his support of that philosophy more unctuously than he: “The exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers is not only an interesting but a touching sight. They have fought us gallantly for years on years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with a heroism which any people might be proud to emulate; but when, at length, they found it was their destiny, too, as it had been that of their brethren, tribe after tribe, away back toward the rising of the sun, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race, they threw down their arms, and, as brave men entitled to our admiration and respect, have come to us with confidence in our magnanimity, and feeling that we are too powerful and too just a people to repay that confidence with meanness or neglect—feeling that having sacrificed to us their beautiful country, their homes, the associations of their lives, the scenes rendered classic in their traditions, we will not dole out to them a miser’s pittance in return for what they know to be and what we know to be a princely realm.”

When the Bosque’s grain crops failed again in the autumn of 1865, the Army issued the Navahos meal, flour, and bacon which had been condemned as unfit for soldiers to eat. Deaths began to rise again, and so did the number of attempted escapes.

The superintendent examined the soil on the reservation and pronounced it unfit for cultivation of grain because of the presence of alkali. “The water is black and brackish, scarcely bearable to the taste, and said by the Indians to be unhealthy, because one-fourth of their population have been swept off by disease.” The reservation, Norton added, had cost the government millions of dollars. “The sooner it is abandoned and the Indians removed, the better. I have heard it suggested that there was speculation at the bottom of it. . . .Do you expect an Indian to be satisfied and contented deprived of the common comforts of life, without which a white man would not be contented anywhere? Would any sensible man select a spot for a reservation for 8,000 Indians where the water is scarcely bearable, where the soil is poor and cold, and where the muskite [mesquite] roots 12 miles distant are the only wood for the Indians to use?. . . If they remain on this reservation they must always be held there by force, and not from choice. O! let them go back, or take them to where they can have good cool water to drink, wood plenty to keep them from freezing to death, and where the soil will produce something for them to eat. . ..”

For two years a steady stream of investigators and officials from Washington paraded through the reservation. Some were genuinely compassionate; some were mainly concerned with reducing expenditures.

Ultimately, Carleton was replaced by General W. T. Sherman, famed scourge of the Confederacy, who finally allowed the remaining Navajo to return home.

But

When the new reservation lines were surveyed, much of their best pastureland was taken away for the white settlers. Life would not be easy. They would have to struggle to endure. Bad as it was, the Navahos would come to know that they were the least unfortunate of all the western Indians. For the others, the ordeal had hardly begun.

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