Modern history

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Chapter 10

WHEN THE LAND IS SICK

In 1818, when he was fifty-two, Narbona led another campaign against the Spanish, this one far more successful than the earlier assault on Cebolleta. He made his war plans from atop a Navajo stronghold called Yoo Tsoh, or Beautiful Mountain, where he assembled hundreds of braves to make arrows and shields and other implements of war. He was sure of his timing; most of the Spanish soldiers had left the region to put down a major rebellion deeper in Mexico. When Narbona’s warriors were ready, they mounted their horses and swooped down on the valleys, plundering the unprotected ranches and slaughtering anyone who tried to resist.

But Narbona’s bloody campaigns of 1818 were successful in a wider sense beyond the great bounty of stolen property they yielded: The following year the Spanish drafted a treaty that for the first time established tribal boundaries and recognized many of the Navajo grievances. The Spaniards, in turn, demanded a stop to all raids. They further insisted that the Navajos convert to Catholicism and build permanent villages so that they might settle down beside their churches and become full-time farmers like the Pueblo Indians—a notion that would crop up over and over again in the Navajos’ later dealings with Spanish, Mexican, and American authorities. Narbona would do what he could to halt the raiding, but he knew his people would never agree to this latter sweeping request—which amounted, in the Navajo view, to cultural suicide.

That year, however, Narbona had far bigger concerns than the Spanish. A terrible drought had descended over the Southwest, and the Chuska Valley, semiarid even in good times, turned a crackly brown. The grass dried up and a pall of fine dust hung over the land. On the surrounding mesas, a species of bark beetle began to ravage the shriveling stands of piñon trees that were now unable to produce enough sap to discourage the invading insects. Narbona’s sheep and other livestock began to starve.

The situation became so severe that Navajos all over the region were forced to abandon the Chuska Valley. They collected their belongings, wrapped up bundles of seeds, gathered their herds and flocks—and left. For months Narbona and his people wandered westward, looking for a new place they might graze and farm, but everywhere they went, the Navajos were similarly famished. It seemed that the Diné prayers no longer held their magic.

The Navajos always said that “when the land is sick, the people are sick,” and it did seem as though the people themselves were now accursed. They began to eye each other suspiciously, wondering who among them had gone astray and displeased the gods and upset the delicate order of things. It must have saddened and humiliated Narbona to see his once affluent outfit reduced to such a desperate refugee existence, leading their dwindling flocks, depending on the generosity of ever more distant circles of friends and relatives, until they had passed out of familiar country altogether and into the red rock wilderness of what is now northern Arizona.

As the drought worsened, Narbona had no choice but to keep moving in search of a better place. The sheep had become so skinny, it was said, that “their bones stuck out like handles for us to carry them by.” They were approaching the western periphery of Navajo country—to the southwest they could see the giant peak they called Light Always Glitters on Top. It was another of the four sacred mountains, this one anchoring the southwestern corner of the Navajo lands (the mountain is now known as the San Francisco Peaks, which rise to an elevation of more than twelve thousand feet near present-day Flagstaff, Arizona). For Narbona, the mountain loomed as a forbidding landmark; he realized he could not lead his people farther west without angering the gods.

Here and there Narbona encountered pockets of life, little communities clustered around a feeble river or an underground spring. He found one such place in a well-watered valley below the Hopi settlements of Black Mesa. Narbona climbed up to the mesa to seek the Hopis’ permission to squat on their land until the drought had passed. An unchristianized tribe of Pueblo Indian farmers little influenced by the Spanish, the normally peaceful Hopis were ancient foes of the Diné—they called the Navajos the tasavuh, or “the head pounders,” for their brutal habit of bashing in skulls with stone axes.

Certainly the Hopis had good reason to be skeptical of Narbona’s proposed living arrangement. But for some reason the Hopis assented, and Narbona’s people settled down. It was a testament to Narbona’s diplomatic skills that he was able to secure safe haven among ancestral enemies—he doubtless sweetened the deal with many sheep and goats and other gifts, and promises of more when the drought ended. He may have also floated threats at the Hopis, who perhaps feared that more Navajos were coming to reinforce Narbona’s warriors. (Visionary artists and inspired metaphysicians known for their elaborate dances and their fine kachina dolls, the Hopis were inferior fighters; so ingrained was their habit of running that the Navajos called them “little rabbits.”)

By whatever methods of persuasion, Narbona lived among the Hopis for much of the 1820s, more than a hundred miles to the west of his beloved Tunicha foothills. During their exile, his people became close friends with the Hopis—learning their elaborate songs and dances—and three of his children even married members of the tribe.

But sometime in the late 1820s, news reached Narbona that the Tunicha Mountains were packed with fresh snow: The drought was over. Soon the people gathered their things and made the happy exodus back to the Chuska Valley.

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The province of New Mexico had seen one major change during their absence: The era of Spanish rule was over. In 1821, Mexico had won its independence from Spain, and now all official affairs were run by a fledgling government out of Mexico City that had no relationship to the crown. The import of this development was lost on most Navajos, and in practical terms they saw no difference between Mexican New Mexicans and Spanish New Mexicans; by whatever name, they were still the enemy.

In fact, while Narbona and his followers were away in Hopi country, the violence between the Hispanic settlers and the eastern Navajos who stayed behind had only escalated. During times of drought the cycles of violence always seemed to intensify, and the drought of the 1820s was particularly harsh. While Narbona was away, some 250 Diné women and children had been stolen in raids and, presumably, sold into slavery.

Certainly the Navajos had struck back wherever and whenever they could. But in March 1822, having grown weary of the bloodshed, a group of sixteen Navajo emissaries had accepted an invitation from the new government in Santa Fe to hold a peace council. Some Navajo leaders understood that the timing was fortuitous—only a month earlier the authorities in Santa Fe had celebrated their independence from Spain. If there were ever a promising moment to strike a chord of peace, it was now, with fresh new leaders lodged in Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors.

The Navajo emissaries set off for the capital with high hopes. But when they passed through the Jemez Pueblo, en route, they walked headlong into a trap set for them by the Mexican commander stationed there. Thomas James, an American trader then living in Santa Fe, documented the episode.

The [Jemez] commander invited them into the fort, smoked with them, and made a show of friendship. He placed a Spaniard on each side of every Indian as they sat and smoked in a circle, and at a signal each Indian was seized by his two Spanish companions and held fast while others dispatched them by stabbing each one to the heart. A Spaniard who figured in this butchery showed me his knife, which he said had killed eight of them. Their dead bodies were thrown over the wall of the fort and covered with a little earth in a gully.

A few days afterwards five more of the same nation appeared on the bank of the river opposite the town, and inquired for their countrymen. The Spaniards told them they had gone on to Santa Fe, invited them to come over the river, and said they would be well treated. They crossed, and were murdered in the same manner as the others.

There again appeared three Indians on the opposite bank, inquiring for their chiefs. They were welcomed across, taken into the town under the mask of friendship, and also murdered in cold blood.

In a few days two more appeared, but could not be induced to cross, when some Spanish horsemen went down the river to intercept them. Perceiving this movement, they fled and no more embassies came in.

In all, twenty-four Navajo leaders were treacherously murdered, many of them esteemed elders of the tribe. When news of this three-stage massacre filtered back to the Diné, they prepared for full-scale war. If the Navajos had entertained any vague hopes that the new government in Mexico might treat them any differently than had the Spanish crown, those hopes were shattered. And so that spring of 1822, the Navajos went on an unprecedented rampage of revenge, slaughtering countless Mexican settlers at Valverde, Las Huertas, and many other communities strung along the Rio Grande.

“They killed all of every age and condition, and burned and destroyed all they could not take away with them, and drove away the sheep, cattle, and horses,” James wrote, adopting an almost Armageddonish tone. “They came from the South directly towards Santa Fe, sweeping everything before them and leaving the land desolate behind them. They crossed the Rio Grande below Santa Fe and passed to the North, laid bare the country around the town of Taos, and then disappeared, with all their booty.”

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