Modern history


Chapter 24


The bilagaana were coming. Narbona did not know if their intentions were peaceful or not, but according to his scouts, a small, well-armed group of Americans had entered Navajo country on horseback, aiming due west. They would be marching into Narbona’s domain in less than a week.

It was now mid-October of 1846. The days were growing short and chilly in the high desert. The brilliant yellow blooms of the chamisa had faded to a drab brown and the aspens were losing their leaves. Frost powdered the ground in the mornings, and higher in the Chuskas fresh snow had fallen. Narbona was not well. Perhaps his recent trip to Santa Fe had taken a toll on his decrepit body. His arthritis had flared up in the biting cold, and he was so sore he could not sit a horse.

He was not sure how to respond to the Americans, but he knew their incursion into Navajo land could not be a good development. Probably he was aware that the younger men had been out on raids over the past few weeks—word of their exploits could not have escaped him. It had been a successful raiding season, and there was much rejoicing in Navajo country. For with so many new sheep now in the tribe’s possession, it promised to be a fat and happy winter. The time of the great feasts and nightchants was at hand; now there would be plenty of meat for everyone.

Narbona brooded, however. Like many of the older men, he understood the repercussions of raiding. That the young braves had ventured out and stolen from the hated New Mexicans was of minor concern to him—this was what braves always had done, what he himself had done as a young man. But if the young warriors had stolen from the Americans, too, then that was cause for great worry. He would like to know more, would like to intercept the Americans before they pierced the heart of the Diné territory. But since his health did not permit him to move toward the trouble, he would have to rest in his hogan and await further word from his sentinels.

It must have been a shock for him to learn that these strange white men were now trespassing on the Dinetah, as the Navajo called their ancient lands. During his long lifetime, his wrinkled country had known few interlopers, except for occasional parties of Mexican or Ute raiders bent on some specific mission of theft or reprisal. These raiders typically made superficial incursions, however, creasing only the periphery of Navajo country and then leaving as quickly as they came. Navajo country was a landscape so forbiddingly large that few foreigners risked traversing it, a landscape so harshly intricate that it seemed to swallow up anyone not intimately familiar with its secrets.

But these Americans, whoever they were, appeared to be making a deliberate penetration, as though they had some larger purpose in mind. Narbona was impressed and surprised by their small number: The reports said thirty men. What a tiny, vulnerable party! These Americans must be either extraordinarily brave or else oblivious to the reality that at any moment hundreds of Navajo warriors could descend on them and easily wipe them out.

But now the boundary described by the four sacred peaks had been violated. The bilagaana had stolen past Blue Bead Mountain, and Narbona could only wait.


The thirty American soldiers trekking westward were led by a Capt. John Reid. They had come from Santa Fe on a somewhat quixotic mission. In mid-October, Reid’s men had broken off from the relative safety of a larger contingent of Missouri volunteers along the Rio Grande and ridden for ninety miles, boring straight into Navajo country. Reid’s assignment was to make contact with as many Navajos as possible and impress upon their headmen the importance of meeting in a few weeks for peace talks with the American commander, Alexander Doniphan. They were emissaries, in other words, dispatched to spread the word of the summit that General Kearny had ordered Doniphan to hold. The task seemed straightforward enough, at first, but the deeper they rode into Navajo country, the more Reid and his Missourians realized that this was an absurdly dangerous foray.

People had said as much back on the Rio Grande. Volunteer John Hughes recalled that the New Mexicans they met were “amazed at the temerity of Capt. Reid’s proceeding,” for “to enter the Navajo country with less than an army was considered by them as certain destruction.”

Now hundreds and possibly thousands of Navajo warriors were lurking in the surrounding hills and buttes. With every step of the journey Reid could sense their searching stares, could see them hiding in the shadows or watching from the high remove of the rimrock. Stone-faced and inscrutable, they let the Americans pass through their country, but Reid knew they weren’t happy about it. They must have been intensely curious about these intruders. For some, it was a moment of first contact; many of these Navajos had never seen white men before, certainly not on their home ground.

On October 15 a group of Navajos came forward and suggested to Reid through a translator that the person he needed to see was an old man named Narbona, their great leader. Narbona was sick, they said, and could not travel. But the headman’s camp was only a day’s ride away. Encouraged, Reid decided to stay overnight and push to Narbona’s camp the next day.

Soon the Missourians were approached by thirty braves wearing eagle feathers and helmets fashioned from the skinned heads of mountain lions. Jacob Robinson, a volunteer who kept a thorough, perceptive journal of this historic first meeting between the American military and Navajos, thought these men looked like formidable warriors, but their intentions appeared to be peaceful. They were “all well-mounted on beautiful horses,” Robinson said, “and had been sent forward to guide us to the heart of their country. They were very active in all their movements, mounting and dismounting their horses in an instant.”

With them were ten Navajo women “dressed in splendid Indian attire and fine figured blankets.” Robinson found the Navajo women beautiful, with small, delicate feet, long black hair, and brass bracelets jangling on their arms. Impressed with their equestrian skills, he found “the one sex apparently as good at riding as the other…The women of this tribe seem to have equal rights with the men, managing their own business and trading as they see fit; saddling their own horses, and letting their husbands saddle theirs.”

The following morning these Navajos led Reid’s party forward, and as they rode deeper into the Diné country, more and more locals joined the procession. By the end of the day, however, Reid’s hosts informed him that Narbona’s camp was still another day away. Suspicious but grateful for their seeming hospitality, Reid decided to risk it and continue on. By now the parade of curious Navajos had swelled to several hundred.

After the third day of riding the Diné guides said they still hadn’t reached their destination, that Narbona’s outfit was yet a ways off. Reid now feared a trap but realized he had come too far to turn around now—he was utterly at the Navajos’ mercy. This was, Reid said, “the most critical situation in which I ever found myself placed—with only thirty men in the very centre of the most savage and proverbially treacherous people on the continent.”

As Reid’s volunteers pitched camp on the afternoon of October 18, they realized that they were now surrounded by thousands of Navajo. And then to their horror, they discovered that their horses were nowhere to be seen. The Navajos said they had turned them out to graze in a meadow five miles distant and promised to return them when they were needed. Now the Americans were not only encircled, they had no means of escape. They felt like captives—and maybe they were. The situation was, Reid said, “eminently precarious,” and he found it distasteful to have to put “such great confidence in the honesty of…these notorious horse stealers.” He and his men sat glumly in the sinking October sun, trying hard to keep their faces from registering fear. “To have showed any thing like suspicion,” thought Missouri volunteer John Hughes, “would have been insulting to the Indians’ pride and wounding to their feelings. It was safer to risk the chances of treachery than to use caution which would serve but to provoke.”


Then, to everyone’s surprise, Narbona rode into view. The old man was in terrible shape, obviously in great pain and just barely propped on his horse. His camp was only a few miles away, it turned out, but it seemed a matter of pride for him to be initially seen on a horse—and for him to ride the last distance to greet Reid rather than have the visitor come to him. Narbona had white hair down to his shoulders, and his tall, lanky frame was wrapped in his finest animal skins and polished jewels. He was a giant man, standing more than six-feet six-inches tall in his prime, but his body was considerably hunched and twisted by old age. Captain Reid could tell that although Narbona was “held in great reverence by his tribe,” he was now “a mere skeleton of a man, being completely prostrated by rheumatism.” Reid was amazed and faintly repulsed by Narbona’s clawlike fingernails, which he estimated to be nearly two inches long and sharp enough to serve as “formidable weapons.”

Someone helped the old headman from his horse, and Reid and Narbona sat down for a long talk, through a Spanish translator, about the recent spate of thefts along the Rio Grande. The captain liked Narbona despite his odd style of manicure, and assessed the leader to be “a mild, amiable man.” Narbona said that he was impressed by all that the Americans had done in Santa Fe in such a short time, and that he was ready to meet with Doniphan and hold a council. The meeting would be held a month away at a place well known to the Navajos called Bear Springs. Reid judged Narbona to be so ill that he thought himself not long for this world and therefore wished to leave a legacy as a diplomat.

“Though he had been a warrior himself,” the captain said, “he was very anxious before his death to secure for his people a peace with all their old enemies—as well as with us, the ‘New Men,’ as he called us.”

Some of the other Navajo leaders spoke their minds, and most of them seemed to agree with Narbona: It was time for peace. Robinson records that a headman came forward to declare that he had something special to show Captain Reid. It was a treaty, he said, one that their forefathers had made with American leaders sometime in the distant past. “Seven hundred winters ago,” he said with much solemnity and then brought forth a large roll of buckskins that he “commenced unrolling, taking off skin after skin.” At last, writes Robinson, the headman “came to a blanket, which he proceeded to unfold” and there lay the precious document carefully preserved inside. “With a grunt,” the chief handed the piece of paper to Reid’s interpreter. Upon inspection, however, the “treaty” turned out to be nothing but a yellowed receipt from an American trader—an old bill of sale.

Reid’s men all erupted in laughter at this odd farce, and then there was a long, awkward moment as the translator tried to explain. It was not altogether clear whether the headman had been spoofed or was himself spoofing—and if it was the latter, then what the point of the joke might have been. Something surely was lost in translation. Robinson writes that “when the chief was informed that the treaty had nothing to do with us, he tucked it away, its value having apparently departed.”

Then, according to a Diné account of the meeting, a woman rose to speak. She was one of Narbona’s three wives, and the sole woman present at the council. She spoke only in Navajo so that the translator, and thus Captain Reid and his men, could not understand her.

Narbona’s wife surveyed the encampment and said she was confused. There were very few of these Americans present, she said, scarcely more than twenty-five. On the other hand, there were several thousand Navajos. These bilagaana would be pitifully easy to overpower, she suggested. Then she adopted a shrill tone: Why are you men being such cowards? Why not fall upon these uninvited guests right now and kill every one of them?

Narbona and his wife began to argue about the merits of this proposition. One imagines Reid and his men watching innocently, their heads swiveling as they tried to follow the spirited repartee while remaining oblivious to its deathly import.

Then Narbona angrily told his wife to sit down. What did she know about it? She had not been to Santa Fe, she had not seen their armies. These men here were just messengers, behind them were many thousands more. They had come from beyond the buffalo plains and had conquered Santa Fe without firing a shot. If they were provoked, the New Men could surely obliterate the Diné.

No, he insisted. These bilagaana were not to be harmed, but lavished with Navajo hospitality.


After Captain Reid and Narbona finished their talk, the Diné suddenly seemed in a mood to celebrate. Music erupted in the camp. The warriors stashed their bows in the limbs of a cottonwood tree and began to dance.

Other Navajos descended on the Americans in friendly curiosity, eager to inspect the American clothes and goods—and to barter for their buckles, buttons, forks, straps, lockets, and books. Said Robinson: “The principal chiefs continually exhorted them to come away and not molest us, but we found it impossible to keep the Indians from our encampment. There was almost a continual trading going on between our men and the Indians—a tin cup for a buckskin, a small piece of tobacco for a butcher knife.”

The Missouri volunteers eventually traded off most of their clothes, so that in due time, Robinson said, “we had dressed ourselves pretty nearly in the Indian style.” Reid noted that the Navajos were “delighted to see our men adopting their costume” and soon the confab took on “much pleasurable excitement.”

The Diné seemed intrigued by anything metal—weapons especially. “They were curious to examine our guns,” wrote Robinson, “and were astonished when shown the properties of a revolver. One of our men wore a watch, which excited great attention; on placing it to their ears they would start as from a snake.”

By late afternoon the Navajo drums began to pound and the piñon bonfires crackled and the scent of roast mutton hung heavy in the air. It seemed that the Missourians and their guests were becoming fast friends. Reid’s men were fascinated by the language of the Navajo—with its thousand finicky inflections and throaty pauses. Through clumsy bouts of translation they began to get a vague idea of the Diné’s sense of humor, their unslakable appetite for teasing and puns, their delight in any incongruous or absurd situation. Everywhere about the camp the Navajo were lost in traditional amusements—broad-jumping, stone-throwing, archery contests, stick dice. It was as though they were throwing a spontaneous open-air festival for the Americans’ benefit.

Reid’s men could see that these spirited people, safe in their own domain, were happy, open, and proud. They were at the height of their power, enjoying the fruits of a particularly successful season of raids. John Hughes described the scene as “truly romantic. Contemplate five hundred dancers in the hollow recesses of the mountains, with the music of shells and timbrels, giving way to the most extravagant joy, and a band of thirty Americans, armed with martial accoutrements, mingling in the throng!”

Jacob Robinson felt thoroughly at home and almost forgot that he and his comrades were more than a hundred miles inside sketchy territory with their mounts nowhere in sight. It didn’t matter—they were captivated, smitten almost, by their hosts. They abandoned all sense of caution. They gnawed greasy lamb shanks together, they fondled each other’s weapons, they danced and sang, they even swapped clothes. The first American encounter with the Diné had become a love-in.

Later, Robinson looked back on all this naïve revelry with a sort of what-were-we-thinking incredulity. “It is astonishing,” he said, “how soon our confidence in each other was almost complete. We were in the midst of a desert, surrounded by a nation of powerful savages, whose numbers were great, and whose friendship was doubtful; who had us completely in their power and who might be treacherous. [But] we mingled in their dance…and they appeared much pleased at our coming to their country.”

All in all, Robinson was deeply impressed with the Navajo as a people, finding them “the most enlightened tribe of wild Indians” he had yet encountered on the continent. “They are of good stature,” he wrote, “and of fairer complexion than any Indians I have ever seen. They are well provided with wool and skins and may be considered wealthy.” Robinson was intrigued by the Diné’s woven blankets, which they “look upon with pride, as a badge of national distinction and superiority.”

Watching the Navajos fuss over their flocks and woolen goods, Captain Reid struck a comparison to the nomadic shepherds of the Mongolian steppes—an analogy that would crop up frequently in subsequent accounts by Americans trying to put an Old World frame of reference on these unfamiliar people so uniquely tied to their sheep. “They are entirely pastoral,” Reid said, “and in their habits very similar to the Tartars.” Above all, the captain observed, the Navajos were excellent horsemen. “These lords of the mountains,” Reid wrote, “may be said to live on horseback. They pay great attention to the breeding of their horses, and think scarcely less of them than do the Arabians.”

At one point during the afternoon a rabbit bolted from the underbrush and a group of Navajos on horseback immediately gave chase. Scores of other riders joined in, and, according to Robinson, “the plain was soon covered with these mounted warriors, with their feathers streaming in the wind, their arms raised as for conflict; some riding one way and some another; and in the midst of these exciting scenes they indulged a shout of triumph, as they succeeded in capturing their prey.”

The Missourians must have relished their last night in Navajo country. At great risk they had tasted an alien culture and completed their mission without incident. It was learned that the American horses were safe and well fed and ready to be saddled up at dawn. They would leave in the morning, and Narbona would even provide them with an escort from the Navajo lands.

Through their dumb luck and blundering good nature, Reid’s volunteers had succeeded in not getting themselves killed. These young farm boys seemed to believe they could do anything, go anywhere, and not get hurt; the ancient cycles of violence did not quite pertain to them.

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