Modern history


Chapter 20


Narbona was worried about the Americans. Throughout the late summer and early fall of 1846, the Navajo leader kept hearing stories about these new conquerors, troubling accounts circulated by messengers from other tribes. Their armies fired lightning bolts, he’d heard. They had magical little boxes that caught the light and allowed them to see things far away. They had overwhelmed the Mexicans without needing to fight them, and now they were building a mighty new fortress on a hill overlooking Santa Fe. They had strong medicine, these people. But Narbona did not understand what they wanted with this part of the world, or why they had bothered to come from such a long distance—from somewhere far to the east, beyond the buffalo plains—to leave their mark in a place so far from their ancestors.

For Narbona, the United States of America was not even the vaguest of abstractions. He had no concept of Washington, D.C., or James K. Polk, or Manifest Destiny. He scarcely had a concept of white men at all and could not fathom that there existed on this earth a people who looked and behaved and spoke and worshiped their gods and organized themselves so differently—a people not quite like the Spanish, or even the Mexicans, indeed not like any other race he had ever encountered. The Navajos came to call the Americans bilagaana, a word that apparently derived from their own mispronunciation of the Spanish “Americano.”

Along creeks and rivers, Navajo warriors had glimpsed a few strange-looking men with white skin and bushy whiskers—trappers, usually Frenchmen, who had blundered to the edges of Navajo country. Tribes of the Southwest had long held legends and prophesies that told of a new conquering race coming from the east. A few glancing encounters with white men had begun to inspire incredible stories among the Navajos—stories like the one about the giants who had floppy ears that reached down to their ankles.

“A certain people are going to come to us,” went the story (later recorded in a classic work of anthropology titled Navajo Texts). “From below where the sun rises, they are going to come to us. Their ears are enormous. They extend all the way to their ankles. At night, these people build fires on their knees and cover themselves with those ears of theirs and lie down to sleep.”

Other wild variations of these stories abounded. Some Navajos believed white men lacked anuses, and that because of this they could not eat normally—that instead they could only inhale the steam rising off boiling food. Still others believed that white men had a strange growth protuding from their foreheads, almost like a horn, and that they could strike a slender stick on their asses and make fire. “Our country,” frets one man in Navajo Texts, “is about to be taken away from us by men such as these.”

Although Narbona was perhaps the most eminent figure among the Navajos, he was not, in fact, a chief. The Navajos did not have leaders in any official sense. Their style of social order was too fluid, too haphazard, and too relentlessly democratic to allow for a single man to rise to any such vaunted position of authority. The Navajos discussed everything at great and often frustrating lengths, rarely confronting an issue but rather dancing elliptically around its edges until the true topic at hand was struck and some sort of consensus reached.

In the end, everyone had a say. In theory and in practice, Navajo women enjoyed a degree of power unusual among Native Americans. Some of the most important deities in the Navajo pantheon were female—including the benevolent matriarch, Changing Woman, and the wise old hermit Spider Woman, who, among other things, taught the people how to weave. The Navajos were both matrilineal and matrilocal; descent was traced through the mother, and when a girl got married, her husband came to live with her people. Women owned property and usually ran the intimate affairs of home life. Children owned things as well (they even had their own livestock) and often were consulted about the minute decisions of daily life. Even the slaves—women and children stolen in raids—could become full citizens, with all the rights of full-blooded Navajos.

In a society this stubbornly egalitarian, it was impossible to designate a single person as the chief of even a single clan, let alone of an entire tribe of twelve thousand people that extended over millions of acres of remote land. But if one man held a status that approximated that of “chief,” it was Narbona. A tall, slender man with sharp chiseled features and a mane of long white hair, Narbona always presented a fine and formidable appearance, dressed in his beaded buckskins, jeweled in his best silver and turquoise. The great warrior was now the headman of a widely known and extremely prosperous “outfit”—an extended family of relatives working together and living within shouting distance of one another that formed the basic unit of organization in Navajo society. Narbona and his outfit ranged over large stretches of land along the eastern slopes of the Tunicha Mountains.

As a tribe that generously deferred to elders, the Navajos would have revered Narbona for his longevity alone. He had survived many moons, had lived through wars and famines and times of great bounty, had seen with his own eyes the Spanish period, and the Mexican period—and now the coming of the Americans.

Narbona was one of the richest men in all the Navajo country, probably the richest. He had thousands of sheep, it was said. He had scores of horses and herds of cattle. He had three wives and many slaves. He was blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren and in-laws too numerous to count. His fields in the Chuska Valley rippled with fine corn, and pumpkins and muskmelons swelled on their vines. Stones taken from the wet heat of the sweathouse had been ceremonially set among the plants to prevent them from dying of an early frost. Narbona had many songs, it was said, and he observed all the rites and rituals, taking care to respect the jhozho, the sacred balance of life, and that was why he was wealthy and had so many properties.

Narbona was generous with his wealth, too, and was known for taking in children orphaned from the ongoing wars with the Utes and the Mexicans.

His outfit was a loud and lively place, stirring with prayers and songs and horse races, a loose string of hogans spread out on the grassy slopes, smoke tendriling from the central chimney holes, every doorway facing east to greet the day. Instead of doors, mats woven from yucca twine billowed in the wind. Thin strips of drying mutton and venison hung from the surrounding sagebrush bushes and trees. Women worked at their looms, the bright designs of their blankets growing in the sun as they tamped down each new thread of dyed and carded wool and clacked their shuttles smoothly back and forth. They were a resourceful people, making use of nearly everything they found within their reach; they fashioned thread from the fibers of the agave. They snared birds in nooses made from their own hair. They bathed themselves with the suds that could be coaxed from the soapy stalk and root of the yucca. In the foothills, the medicine men gathered willow wands or sprigs of sumac, mint, and sage to use in healing ceremonies.

Adolescent boys led flocks of bleating churro sheep and Angora goats with their large twisted horns toward brush-arbor camps through mountain passes—the mingled animals made distinct to their owners by signifying marks cut into the flaps of their ears. The older men, meanwhile, might be seen heading off to collect salt at ancient seeps, or to hunt mule deer and elk that grazed in the long shadows thrown by ponderosa pines.


If he had enjoyed a long and abundant life, Narbona now seemed to fear that it all hung in jeopardy. Through couriers sent to him, General Kearny had threatened full-scale war if he did not agree to a peace treaty. The Americans had even stated that they would send a peace emissary into Navajo country to conclude the talks, to save the aged Narbona from having to brave a trip. Narbona was in no position to speak for the entire tribe, but he probably had more powers of suasion than any Navajo alive.

Winter was coming on, the time when Navajos traditionally met in ceremonials and told their stories and discussed their common problems in councils. Winter was the time for conversation, between first frost and first lightning, when the corn had been harvested and stored, when the snakes had gone to bed and the yeis, the gods, would be listening. There would be sandpaintings, nightchants, and ceremonies with hand-tremblers. Around campfires, in hogans and sweat lodges, the conversation would surely turn to the Americans, and Narbona would be called on to render his opinion. How should the Navajos respond to the considerable demands of these invaders?

Narbona did not know, but he was certain he needed to see these large-eared Americans for himself. So one day in the fall, probably sometime in late September, he picked a few close comrades and set off on a roundabout journey east. Over the years he had made numerous trips to Santa Fe to talk peace with the Spanish and Mexican authorities on the plaza, and he knew the trails well. But this time the old man took a network of obscure hunting paths that led across the Rio Grande and then well to the north of Santa Fe, up into the Sangre de Cristos.

From the mountains, he and his party dropped down into the foothills that skirted the town, knowing that if they were caught they would likely be shot. Hobbling their horses and leaving them in a protected place, they crouched quietly in the piñon trees and peered down at the ominous stirrings of the new fort that General Kearny was building.

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