Modern history


Chapter 34


While Narbona’s sons were burying their father, the Washington Expedition pressed on, north and west, toward the literal and metaphorical heart of Navajo country: the extraordinary sandstone labyrinth known as Canyon de Chelly.

No Americans had ever penetrated this fabulous carved maze, and records left by several Spanish explorers were spotty, describing it ominously as “a fearful chasm” and “a place of awesome grandeur.” It was widely believed that the Navajos had built an enormous citadel down in the canyon’s recesses—turning what was already a natural stronghold into a kind of Gibraltar of the Southwest. The fortress was reputed to be fifteen stories high and reachable only by a network of ladders. To subdue the Navajos, it was thought, one had to probe the full length of the canyon and destroy their great bastion—something no other army from Santa Fe had ever done. For the Washington Expedition, Canyon de Chelly had an aura of impregnability that, of course, made it irresistible.

The name had a French ring to it, but Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-SHAY) was neither French nor Spanish in origin. It was derived from the Navajo word tsegi (“rock canyon”) and was thus redundant: Canyon of the Rock Canyon. Over the centuries Spanish explorers had tried to approximate the unfamiliar sound of the Navajo word, and it came out, in various documents, as Chelli, Chelle, Dechilli, and Chegui, among other renderings—and finally Chelly, which eventually became the preferred spelling.

By whatever name, the canyon—actually a network of several interconnected chasms running nearly one hundred sinuous miles in length—was one of the most splendid landscapes in the American West. Though not as deep as the Grand Canyon, it was, in its own scaled-down way, just as wonderful.

What’s more, it was a rock wilderness with a human pulse. Because it did not have a mighty river raging through it but rather a gentle stream percolating beneath its sandy floor, the canyon had long supported culture, with farming and domesticated animals and huddled lodges tucked safely among its myriad notches and alcoves. Before the Navajos took up residence there sometime around 1600, Canyon de Chelly had been continuously inhabited by various other Indian groups for more than two thousand years—including, and especially, the Anasazi. The entire length of it was strewn with ruins, many of them precariously situated on high ledges. In some places the canyon’s sheer fluted walls rose nearly a thousand feet from the alluvial floor, and everywhere, painted and pecked and patiently scratched high on the luminous gold rock, could be found the art of the ancients.

James Simpson thrilled at the possibility of being the first American to map and describe Canyon de Chelly. He was intent to make a study of “the fabled Navajo presidio,” as he put it, and to puncture the mythology that surrounded the place. The Kern brothers were excited, too, for they had been around Santa Fe long enough to hear the stories about de Chelly. Since no artist, Hispanic or Anglo, had ever captured it on canvas, no one in New Mexico seemed to have the vaguest idea what the canyon looked like. After having stumbled with Simpson on the extraordinary ruins at Chaco, Richard Kern recognized how lucky he was to be heading, only a few weeks later, for another untouched wonder. Lugging their cases of oils and charcoals and sketchbooks, the Kerns itched to get to work.

John Washington aimed to find the Navajo fortress and, if necessary, lay siege to it—and then sign a treaty with any Diné leaders who would present themselves for a council. He was, he insisted, on a mission of peace, not war. But the colonel seems to have had no notion that the recent slaying of Narbona might sour the possibilities of a warm Navajo reception. Washington apparently had nothing to say about the Narbona incident—and certainly he showed no sense of regret. In his brusque report on the expedition, written upon his return to Santa Fe, he would emphatically declare good riddance upon the Navajo leader’s passing. He wrote, “Among the dead of the enemy left on the field was Narbona, head chief of the nation, who had been a scourge to the inhabitants of New Mexico for the last thirty years.”

Washington failed to grasp the mistake his troops had made. In their first encounter with the Diné, they had met and then promptly killed (and mutilated!) the most eminent Navajo alive, and quite possibly the one man who could have brought about an accord with the United States. An opportunity was not only missed, it was scarcely even perceived—and then in an instant it was gone. One Navajo man, who peacefully approached the Washington Expedition on its march, indicated through a translator that Narbona’s death had caused much turmoil among his people. The man claimed he had a cousin who was dying from a gunshot wound sustained in the same fracas that had killed Narbona. “It is regrettable,” the Navajo said, “that so much damage has been done and we have lost our greatest warrior, all for so trifling a thing as a horse.”

With Narbona slain, angry young warriors of the tribe would gain ascendancy—impatient men like Manuelito who had no use for accommodating these arrogant foreigners. Washington’s mission to secure peace had thus ensured its opposite: a new front in an old war, and one that would last the better part of twenty years. The Navajos had only expanded their venerable conflict with the Mexicans; now they were also at odds with the bilagaana.

The Washington Expedition, blind to the trouble it left in its wake, marched blithely onward toward Canyon de Chelly. Predictably, Lieutenant Simpson hated the parched and arroyo-riddled Chuska Valley through which the soldiers passed. Reading his journal, one can almost see him squinching his nose in distaste. “The country is one extended naked, barren waste,” he wrote. Everything was “dead and lifeless, the soil an all-pervading dull, yellow, buff-color.” This land, he declared, was “under a curse.”

Simpson was not unlike most of his countrymen in failing to appreciate such spare terrain. The desert was an unfamiliar—and furthermore, uninviting—world to most Anglo sensibilities. By outlook if not by profession they were still farmers, most of them; their idea of beautiful land was never far removed from valuable land, and valuable land was any that could be used. Those from back east who tended to hold more sentimental notions about scenic beauty were in the thrall of a landscape aesthetic that had been passed down from European Romanticists and filtered through New England artists, such as the painters of the Hudson River School. They were used to finding beauty in greens and blues, in mountain streams, plunging waterfalls, sailboats, and flowery meadows full of fat cows.

But here was a landscape of upheaval and bright finality, forged in an unforgiving furnace: a cursed land. If the Great Plains was regarded as the “Great American Desert”—as it was often labeled on maps—then this stark realm was Hades itself. The scale of it dwarfed a man, not only spatially but also chronologically; it suggested gulfs of time that mocked human relevance in the terror of creation. A good Episcopalian (and future deacon) who doubtless believed his Maker had fashioned the world in six consecutive days not very long ago, Simpson could not understand this land’s logic—let alone declare it lovely. What he did understand, he probably found unsettling.

Even the sketches and lithographs done by the Kern brothers show an awkward uncertainty about how to render the Navajo countryside; the scales and proportions often seem slightly off, the perspectives cramped, the foliage unmistakably Eastern. The Pennsylvanian artists loved the challenge of painting this queer country. They found it endlessly fascinating, clearly, but rarely sublime. It would take many years before American enthusiasts—writers, photographers, and painters—would begin to champion the Navajo land, or indeed any of the desert Southwest, as a place of singular beauty. “Buff” was no color for a country, Simpson’s generation apparently felt. It was as though they lacked the retinal nerve that allowed them to see the land for what it was; they could see it only for what it refused to be—namely, the green picturesque scenery and tillable farmland of the settled world from which they had come.

But then the expedition climbed out of the broad desert valley and up into the Chuska Mountains, a jagged ten-thousand-foot-high range where elk grazed in the meadow grasses beneath stands of yellow pine and Douglas fir and quaking aspen. In short order they had entered a distinctly different world, one that Simpson would respond to with something approaching glee. In the desert, the lieutenant was learning, the flora and fauna changes dramatically with even modest gains in elevation, the thickening moisture greening everything (so much so that today, botanists of the Southwest refer to aloof mountain ecosystems like the Chuskas as “sky islands”).

The men of the expedition camped beside a clear, swift stream, where they drank “pure, wholesome water” and spotted, to their amazement, a grizzly bear. Lieutenant Simpson was thrilled by “the towering pines and firs, the oak, the aspen, and the willow; and bordering the streams, the hop vine, loaded with its fruit. Flowers of rich profusion, and of every hue and delicacy, are constantly before the eye—upwards of ninety varieties have been picked up, the wild rose being among them.” He was surprised and relieved to behold “a rich, well-timbered, and sufficiently watered country, a thing I have not seen since I left the confines of the United States.”

To cross the Chuskas, however, the men had to crawl up through the same rocky passage that several Spanish and Mexican military expeditions had squeezed through in generations past. In truth, it was the only practical way to ascend these imposing mountains, and the narrow, winding path had for centuries been a well-trod highway of the Diné. Colonel Washington pronounced it “the most formidable defile I have ever seen.” His artillerymen and their animals struggled to pull the mountain howitzers through the tight space. Realizing that they were dangerously exposed, the soldiers marched in fear of a Navajo attack from the high cliffs. Richard Kern wrote that “a fight was expected…At nearly every point stones can be rolled on the passers by.” The Pueblo Indians who served as Washington’s scouts were so worried about an attack that, according to Simpson, they reached into their medicine bags and rubbed warrior herbs “upon their heart, as they said, to make it big and brave.” Periodically the soldiers could spot Navajo sentinels watching down on them from high above, but the feared attack never came.

The Navajo strongly associated this place with Narbona, for this was the “Narbona Pass,” where in 1835 the great leader’s warriors routed a thousand Mexicans in a well-executed ambush.

Lieutenant Simpson, naturally, did not know the Navajo history of this place—but to his thinking, it was the sort of distinctive landmark that cried out for a name. In his journal, Simpson decided to pay his commander an eternal compliment by calling the defile “Pass Washington,” and he carefully marked it as such on the official map he was preparing for his superiors back east.

If renaming is the first act of conquest, then Simpson had struck a lasting blow. The new place-name stuck, and today this deep cleft in the Chuska Mountains, Narbona’s old stomping ground, is known as Washington Pass. The irony is not lost on the Navajo.

Simpson did not stop with one renaming, however. He took a long look at the great peak to the south, the one the Navajos called Blue Bead Mountain. Perhaps because it was old and craggy and majestic-looking, it reminded Simpson of Zachary Taylor, the Mexican War general who had become such a national hero that he was easily elected president in 1848, succeeding James Polk. Unbeknownst to “Old Rough-and-Ready,” who now sat in the White House, an obscure topographer had decided to name a Western peak after him. The name appeared on Simpson’s map and continues to this day: Mount Taylor.


On the back side of the Chuskas, the Washington Expedition saw no Navajos for several days, but detected fresh signs of their presence. The Navajos were deft at disappearing and lived in a country riddled with good hiding places—concealed caves, box canyons, high mesas reached by inscrutable paths in the sandstone. Clearly, Navajos far and wide had been forewarned of the expedition’s approach, and they had scattered with scarcely a trace. There was something eerie about how completely they and their belongings had vanished from the scene—warriors and women and children and even their herds, all gone—leaving nothing but vacant hogans and strewings of sheep dung.

“Innumerable signs of stock, principally sheep, have been seen along the route,” Lieutenant Simpson wrote. “The road we have been traveling looks as if it might be one of the great thoroughfares of the nation.” The lieutenant seemed confounded by the Navajo, and their knack for living a life “thoroughly scattered and locomotive.” It did not seem to occur to Simpson that the Navajos, having heard the details of Narbona’s death, were also terrified of the approaching American army and thought it best to keep themselves scarce.

At night, however, Navajos in small parties were seen and heard—or at least sensed—by Washington’s soldiers. The Americans knew they were being watched, could almost feel the bore of Navajo stares. Several times, their pack animals mysteriously disappeared in the night. When it came to livestock, the Diné were incorrigible. Animal theft was the provocation that had brought the American army into their midst in the first place, and, of course, it was a stolen horse that had got Narbona killed. Yet the temptation was irresistible—they kept on stealing, or tried to, yards from Washington’s sentries.

The Navajos had no qualms about robbing from the Americans. They had many causes to be angry at these invaders, not the least of which was that everywhere Washington’s army went, it helped itself to the Navajo gardens and melon patches and turned its animals loose in the cornfields to devour and trample the Diné’s source of winter food. Simpson notes that one night the army camped right in the fields and enjoyed “an abundance of forage for the animals and fine roasting ears for the men.” From the Navajo point of view, it was the Americans who were doing the real stealing.

After three more days of determined marching, Washington’s troops dropped out of the high timbered mountains and found themselves at the silty mouth of Canyon de Chelly. Here the stone margins of the canyon were scarcely higher than a man and the soft sand floor was broad and flat. But looking ahead, the soldiers must have felt a sense of imminent claustrophobia, a tingling awareness that the walls were steadily closing in, the sheer faces of rock climbing higher with every coming bend.

Water braided through the canyon, yet most of the flow was subterranean, oozing just a few inches beneath the sand. The men had to be extremely wary, for the sloughs were wet and deep enough in places to swallow a horse to its withers. (Even today, Canyon de Chelly is famous for its greedy quicksand, which can cause a pack horse to become so deeply mired that it must be pulled out with a winch, with the animal often breaking a leg in the trauma and having to be put down.) To find water, Washington’s thirsty men dug holes in the muck five feet deep and filled their buckets with the turbid brown liquid, which they made potable by repeatedly straining through linen cloth until it was tolerably clear.

As they pushed deeper into the canyon, the expeditioners began to realize that Navajos were watching them from every ledge and outcrop. “The enemy are hovering around us,” Simpson wrote, but they would not present themselves. In broad necks of the canyon, the soldiers encountered hogans clustered around cornfields or peach orchards, yet the occupants refused to come into the light of day. To flush them out, Washington ordered his troops to set fire to the hogans in his path—yet another action that might have convinced the already skeptical Navajos that this army of peace was actually on the warpath. Simpson found the sight of the burning lodges thrilling. It was “exciting,” he wrote, “to observe the huts of the enemy, one after another, springing up into smoke and flame, and their owners scampering off in flight.”

Yet the torching may have had its desired effect: The following morning two Navajos came into camp and consented to talk. One of them, who went by the Spanish name of Martinez, wore a great blue coat made of blankets and called himself, absurdly, “the principal chief of the Navajos”—or at least he did not seem to disavow the title when Washington’s interpreters suggested it. Colonel Washington was characteristically curt.

WASHINGTON: Are he and his people desirous of peace?

INTERPRETER: He says they are.

WASHINGTON: Tell the chief the stolen property which the nation is required to restore is 1,070 head of sheep, 34 head of mules, 19 head of horses, and 78 head of cattle. When can the chiefs collect here to make a treaty with me?

INTERPRETER: He says the day after tomorrow.

WASHINGTON: Tell him that if they do not enter into a treaty in good faith, it will result in their destruction.

INTERPRETER: His people will do all he has promised.

With an effusive show of emotion, “Chief” Martinez and his companion bid the colonel adieu and vanished into the unseen folds of the canyon, vowing to return in two days.

Then Colonel Washington was visited by a Mexican captive of the Navajos. He was a thirty-year-old man who said he had been kidnapped seventeen years earlier. He had been a boy herding sheep in a field on the outskirts of Santa Fe when the Navajos came spurring out of the west and whisked him away with his flock.

Colonel Washington naturally assumed that the man had come to petition the Americans to take him back home, that he was relieved now to be free of his Indian captors. Several Mexican volunteers on the expedition had apparently recognized the young man, and they wanted to bring him home to his family. But to their disbelief, and then to their frustration and fury, this son of Mexico wanted to remain a savage here in a heathen land. This was his home now, the man insisted. Bright and energetic, he spoke and carried himself and dressed like a native-born Navajo. His Spanish had grown thick and faltering.

“He did not wish to be restored to his people again,” Simpson records in mild consternation. “Indeed, he did not as much as ask about his friends living at Santa Fe.”


All this time, Lieutenant Simpson seems to have been looking over his shoulder, peering distractedly down the canyon reaches, desperate to explore. Washington’s dreary negotiations did not hold his attention. Simpson was not much interested in people anyway—especially not when he had a puzzle of geology spread before him. So on September 8, having a couple of days to kill before the treaty talks were supposed to commence, Lieutenant Simpson pushed east to make the first American reconnaissance of Canyon de Chelly. He brought the Kern brothers with him and, for protection, an escort of about sixty men.

Within a few miles the canyon walls began to “assume a stupendous appearance,” Simpson said. “Almost perfectly vertical, they look as if they had been chiselled by the hand of art…. They are laid with as much handsome precision as can be seen in the custom-house of the city of New York.” He was dazzled by the facets of “red amorphous sandstone” ranged tightly about him and towering over his head, each block cracked and riddled with “imperfect seams of stratification.” The immense stone slabs held the day’s heat, so that hours after the sun dropped behind the rim, the peach orchards and cornfields on the canyon floor basked in the long-lingering hothouse effect. In many places the golden-pink sandstone was streaked with a brown patina that curled like a witch’s fingers down the massive alcoved walls.

Richard Kern immediately set himself to work sketching and would produce the first known illustration of Canyon de Chelly, a work that, if not exactly lovely, comes close to capturing the enveloping grandeur of this natural labyrinth. Kern seemed stunned by the canyon’s magnificent intrigues, its whispers of an epochal wrath, with so many twisted monoliths and crumbled heaps of talus testifying to the steady violence of erosion. The “fabulous rocks,” as Kern put it, “became wilder at every turn.” Simpson, equally amazed, wrote that he was “highly delighted” by “this wonderful exhibition of nature that will always command the admiration of its votaries, as it will the attention of geologists.”

The expeditioners pushed nine miles into the canyon, taking rock samples and measurements and making sketches as they went, but then Simpson realized they could go no farther, for Colonel Washington expected them back by the following day. Already the lieutenant was beginning to suspect that the “much-talked about Navajo presidio” was a myth. Although he was premature in saying so—the expedition had explored only a fraction of the one-hundred-mile canyon complex—his suspicions were correct. “The mystery of the Canon of Chelly is now, in all probability, solved,” he confidently asserted. “The notion that the canon contains a high fort is exploded.”

And yet Simpson kept seeing stone structures everywhere—not fortresses, but formidable-looking cliff dwellings stashed in odd places high along the walls. The structures all appeared to be uninhabited (and indeed the local Navajos never ventured into them, out of respect for the spirits of those who had once lived in them, and out of fear of the corpses that were often buried nearby, in rock fissures and secret caves). The lieutenant correctly surmised that these ruins were built by the same Indians who constructed the marvelous pueblo complexes he and Richard Kern had studied two weeks earlier at Chaco Canyon. He wrote: “I observed upon a shelf fifty feet above the bottom of the canyon a small pueblo ruin of a style and structure similar to that found in the ruins on the Chaco.”

But Simpson wrongly assumed that the present Navajos were direct descendants of the builders of these pueblo-like cliff dwellings, which led the lieutenant, perhaps inevitably, to make disparaging comparisons to the crude simplicity of the Navajo lodges seen all about the canyon. Simpson did not think much of hogans. “How is it that they have retrograded in respect to their habitations when they have preserved it in their manufactures?” Simpson wondered. “It seems anomalous to me that a nation living in such miserably constructed mud lodges should, at the same time, be capable of making, probably, the best blankets in the world!”

The “ancient ones” had left other signs of their presence. Scotched into the canyon walls, following faint cracks and meandering fissures, were numerous hand-and toe-hold routes that the Anasazi had cut into the rock many hundreds of years earlier. When the Navajos moved here sometime in the early 1600s, they had made use of these vertiginous routes, too, and had expanded on them, so that now all the various canyon branches were dimpled with improbable paths dotting up the sheer rock hundreds of feet to the rim. At one point Simpson spotted a couple of Navajos standing on a high shelf, and then was astounded to see them “tripping down the almost vertical wall as nimbly and dexterously as minuet dancers.” Simpson thought the spectacle of these human crabs scuttling over the rock faces was “one of the most wonderful feats I’d ever witnessed.” In general, the Navajos hid from the expeditioners, but on one occasion a woman presented herself and laid out several blankets on the ground for the soldiers. When she unfurled them, they were delighted to find generous piles of ripe peaches from the Navajo’s prized orchards.

The canyon walls were scrawled and chipped with untold thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs, often in the unlikeliest of places. For a millennium the canyon had been a canvas for graffiti artists: Basketmaker, Anasazi, Hopi, Navajo. The designs came in a dazzling confusion. Serpents, lightning bolts, elaborate fret patterns, whorls. Star constellations painstakingly inscribed on cave ceilings. Menageries of bizarre creatures—headless birds in flight, humpbacked creatures playing flutes, human figures with insectlike antennae, antelope with crab pincers instead of hooves, bird-headed men, frog-men, turtle-men. Men impaled with arrows, men with enormous dangling penises, alien-humanoid figures with strange protuberances emerging from their left ears. Squatting women with swollen genitalia, giving birth. And everywhere there were palm prints, ancient choruses of hands, hailing from the walls. In places the designs were so densely painted that there seemed to be a kind of frenetic dialogue going on—one such location would later be called Newspaper Rock, for it seemed to archaeologist interpreters to be a gathering place where the ancients came to read the news. Although some of the images had been pecked or chiseled, most had been painted directly onto the rock using mineral dyes mixed with binders made of blood, urine, or the whites of turkey eggs.

If the expeditioners had ventured into another branch of the canyon—an equally spectacular prong known as Canyon del Muerto (“Canyon of Death”), they would have seen a curious tableau scrawled across the walls. Still visible today, it is a quite realistic rendering of a long train of Spanish cavalrymen, wearing flat-brimmed hats, carrying lances and muskets, and riding pinto horses into battle. The ominous-looking figures look like horsemen of the apocalypse, their capes clearly emblazoned with crosses.

The Diné had scratched these haunting images onto the walls some forty years earlier to memorialize a painful event—the only occasion in which the Spanish successfully invaded this Navajo refuge. In January 1805 a force of nearly five hundred soldiers marched all the way from Santa Fe, killing Navajo warriors by the score and collecting prisoners as they rampaged through the canyon’s meandering course. In Canyon del Muerto, not far from where these images were painted, the Spanish troops were surprised to hear the shrill voice of a Navajo woman shouting strange invectives at them. “There go the men without eyes!” the voice screamed. “You must be blind!”

Puzzled, one of the soldiers climbed up the talus and spotted a group of more than a hundred women and children crouched in a high recess of the canyon wall (the warriors, including Narbona, were off fighting elsewhere). These Navajo had climbed up to their hiding place by using an ancient trail of toeholds. The hectoring voice, it turned out, was that of an old woman who had once been enslaved by the Spanish. Hidden with the others, and thinking herself safe, she had lost her presence of mind and hurled abuse down on her hated enemies.

The Spanish scout called down to his comrades and reported that the Navajos were hopelessly trapped. Another soldier began to crawl his way up the steep wall with the notion of rounding up prisoners. When he crossed the threshold of the cave, a Navajo woman wrapped her arms around him and dashed for the precipice; the two figures, locked in a desperate grip, plunged several hundred feet to their deaths.

From the canyon floor, the soldiers, who could not see the huddled Navajo forms above but now knew exactly where they were, began to ricochet bullets off the roof of the cave. For hours they kept firing their old muskets and harquebuses into the high recess, expending thousands of rounds of ammunition. Eventually everyone in the cave was killed but an old man, who would repeat the story to other Navajos. More than 150 years later, the victims’ bones still lie on the cave floor, layered with bits of Navajo clothing and spent bullets.

Today the spot is widely known as Massacre Cave. But the Navajos have long had their own name for it: The Place Where Two Fell Off.


Although he didn’t seem to know it, the treaty that Colonel Washington sought to make with the Navajos was a farce. The man known as Martinez was not the principal chief of the Diné. Only Narbona could have answered to the title, but even that would have been a stretch. What the Navajos wanted was for the Americans to leave as soon as possible, and if putting a mark on a piece of paper would do the trick, they were happy to oblige.

What was paper? Most of the Navajos had never seen it, nor ink pens, nor written words. They had no concept of individual land ownership or constitutions or the rule of law or the delegation of political authority. Their traditions were so radically different that they had no idea what the Americans were really talking about. Nothing would change in their world. The bilagaana would leave and go back to wherever they came from, and the raids against the New Mexicans would resume as usual.

So on the appointed day, Martinez and another Navajo “chief” going by the name of Chapitone showed up as promised and sat down with Colonel Washington to hear his treaty. In the distance more than a hundred Navajo warriors waited vigilantly, their metal-tipped lances and thick buckskin shields at the ready. The headmen brought with them four young captives and a herd of 104 sheep, which they conceded they’d stolen from the New Mexicans—and promised to deliver more later.

Washington’s treaty had been written down ahead of time, a dense document full of lofty ideals and sprinkled with a few firm demands that sounded fair enough for a conquering army to impose on its subjects. Among the treaty’s declarations: “Hostilities between the contracting parties shall cease and perpetual peace and friendship shall exist…. The Government of the said States [has] the sole and exclusive right of regulating the trade and intercourse with the said Navahos…. Should any citizen of the United States murder, rob, or otherwise maltreat any Navaho Indians, he or they shall be arrested and tried…. All American and Mexican captives and stolen property shall be delivered by the Navajo Indians on or before the 9th day of October.”

Although it generally tended to take the side of the Mexicans in their age-old conflict with the Navajos, it was, all in all, a reasonable document—and even, in places, a noble one, attesting to the Americans’ rockbed faith in republican virtues and the primacy of law.

But, like the Doniphan treaty of three years earlier, it was worthless. As they raced through Washington’s various sticking points, one can only imagine how difficult it must have been for either of the two parties to communicate meaningfully with one another—with so many voids in cultural understanding, with the negotiations shifting erratically from English to Spanish to Navajo. From the Americans’ perspective, everything about Martinez and Chapitone must have seemed frustratingly vague and indirect—their roundabout style of conversation, their unwillingness to pronounce anyone’s name out loud, and their odd refusal to point at anyone except by thrusting out the lips. These strange Indians would not even shake hands. (Washington would never have guessed the reason: The Navajos were afraid these foreigners were witches, and that if the Americans drew too close, they might blow corpse powder into their faces. Even today, many Navajos avoid shaking hands unless they know the person, and the tepid greeting is liable to be of the “limp-fish” variety that most Anglos find unsatisfactory.)

The Navajos, on the other hand, must have found Colonel Washington exceedingly strange with all his high-toned talk about undoing the relationships of their known world. The Navajos did not take much stock in abstractions; they were a determinedly practical people who preferred to deal with matters close at hand. It was a tendency embedded in their own language. Navajo is an extremely precise language in conveying certain things like movement and changing spatial relationships between physical objects, but it can be extremely vague in describing concepts of time. In the same sentence, a Navajo might speak of something that happened today and then effortlessly segue into a story that happened thousands of years ago, in the mists of tribal lore. Given this, Colonel Washington’s assumptions about deadlines and jurisdictions, and of legal authority binding from this day forward—all of it must have seemed entirely foreign to the Diné.

Still, they consented. What else were they to do? Washington left them no room for quibbling. Beneath the glowing ochre rocks of Canyon de Chelly, Martinez and Chapitone scrawled their awkward “X”s at the end of the document, alongside J. M. WASHINGTON.

James Simpson, who watched the proceedings unfold, seemed satisfied that a “full and complete treaty had been made by which they have put themselves under the jurisdiction of the government of the United States.” The lieutenant seemed optimistic that the Navajos understood what they had agreed to, and that they would comply. But if they didn’t, the treaty carried another important strategic value in his mind, a rather cynical one.

As Simpson put it in a convoluted but familiar-sounding bit of legalese, the existence of a signed document would help “satisfy the public mind and testify to the whole world that should any future coercion become necessary against the Navahos, it would be but a just retribution and, in a manner of speaking, their own act.”

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