Modern history


Chapter 5


Throughout his long lifetime, the esteemed Navajo elder Narbona had always known war. The Navajos had been in nearly perpetual conflict, if not with the Spanish, then with the Utes, the Comanches, or various combinations of the Pueblo tribes—and often with all of these groups at the same time. To be sure, his people had enjoyed times of relative peace, but the cycles of attack and reprisal, escalating and abating with the seasons, had been an aspect of Navajo existence ever since he was a boy.

By the summer of 1846, Narbona was nearing eighty. At his senescent age, he found it increasingly hard to perceive change, let alone react to it. What he knew was that his people were survivors. The ancient rhythms of their culture had persisted through myriad conflicts, through drought and want, since the time of myth and legend. But now a new kind of foe was marching inexorably west across the plains, an enemy he could scarcely imagine.

Narbona was born in 1766 to the Red-Streaked Earth People, his mother’s clan. He spent his first years in the embrace of his mother’s people, who lived and herded in the Chuska Valley on a sweep of land in present-day northwestern New Mexico that extended from the crest of the Chuska Mountains all the way to the Chaco River. He was not known as Narbona then—that was a Spanish name, given to him many years later. His Navajo name has been lost to history, and subsequent generations of Diné, leery of uttering the names of dead people for fear of stirring up their ghosts, have seemed to prefer that the identity of their greatest patriarch remain comfortably murky. Even when he was alive, the Navajos would not have called him by his own name to his face—the people considered such directness rude.

As a baby in his cradleboard, Narbona probably was not called anything at all, for Navajos, who tended to view early infanthood as an extension of gestation, did not usually give names to their children until specific personal characteristics began to show themselves—Hairy Face, Slim Girl, No Neck, Little Man Won’t Do As He’s Told. Although Navajo parents followed few hard rules about how to name their children, it was generally agreed that the watershed moment when a baby could definitively be said to have passed from infanthood into something more fully human was the child’s “first spontaneous laugh.” First laughter was an occasion for much celebration, and it was the time when many Navajos held naming ceremonies for their young; it is likely that this is when Narbona received his original “war name,” whatever it might have been.

Strapped to his mother’s back like all young Navajo children then were, the infant Narbona saw the world from a jouncing cradleboard that, in lieu of diapers, was lined with shavings of cedar bark. For good luck and protection in case of a fall, his cradleboard may have been festooned with the customary squirrel’s tail—the squirrel being an agile animal deft at landing on its feet, unharmed. For his first five years he would have been surrounded mainly by women: aunts and sisters and girl cousins and grandmothers. Raised by so many mothers, Narbona began to learn the singsong language of the Navajo—with its thousand finicky inflections and its delicate glottal stops and its vague echoes of Siberia—while also cultivating the Diné’s famous sense of humor, their unslakable appetite for teasing and puns, their delight in any incongruous or absurd situation.

Narbona received his first pony when he was six, and it was at this early age that, like most Navajo boys, he was taken from the daily attentions of the women to spend more time with the men, preparing himself for a life of hunting and war. Before dawn, he would rise and run for miles toward some distant point in the bitter cold, wearing only a leather thong and moccasins stuffed with sand to toughen his feet. To strengthen his wind, he would run with his mouth full of water, breathing only through his nose. He would jump in a freezing spring or roll in the snow, hollering at the top of his lungs to develop his warrior voice. Then, as the morning sun nudged over the horizon, he would race back to the hogan, covered in a rime of ice that cracked with his stride.

With other boys, he wrestled and competed in broad-jumping, stone-throwing, and archery contests. There were all kinds of traditional games of chance and amusement—stick dice, cat’s cradle, the moccasin game. Narbona learned to hunt rabbits and other small game. Every day he practiced his horsemanship, the quintessential Navajo skill. The Navajos were always holding races, often gambling on the results. They rightly prided themselves on their riding prowess—a tradition that continues to this day. (A journalist in recent times noted that “getting bucked off a horse is one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to a Navajo.”)

When he turned twelve Narbona was given his first sinew-backed bow, and arrows made expressly for him (the bow stood exactly his own height), and he began to range over the country on his first hunts. Narbona’s world was defined not by cities, villages, or roads, but rather by many thousands of natural landmarks spreading out haphazardly over many thousands of acres, little quirks of geography with names like Bank Caving Down, Lake Between the Shoulders, White With Reeds, Aspens Coming Down, Two Red Rocks Pointing Together. These were the ordinary places of his life, the places of daily hunting and grazing, but there were larger and more spectacular places, too—immense red buttes and deep gorges, moraines and lava flows. The Dinetah, as the Navajo called their land, was a wrinkled country studded with monumental rock formations that conjured up the shapes of animals or mythic monsters.

Navajo country has moved modern geologists, ordinarily a reserved lot, to adopt a vocabulary of doom: Paradox Basin, Defiance Uplift, the Great Unconformity. Geological maps of the Navajo lands are ominously annotated with “upwarps” and “cinder cones” and “structural disarrays.” Not far from Narbona’s home lay enormous forests of petrified wood, which the Navajo believed were the bones of Yeitso, a terrible beast slain by the war god Monster Slayer and left to rot on the plains, the creature’s blood congealing into lava flows. Throughout Navajo country could be found canyon walls embedded with the fossils of sea organisms—corals, bryozoa, trilobites—that had lived in the ocean more than 300 million years ago.

To the north of Narbona’s camp, often visible over the Chuska plain, loomed Tse’ Bit’ A’i, or the Rock With Wings. This neck of an explosive volcanic vent had eroded over thousands of years into a breathtaking monolith that looked something like the spiny backbone of an enormous dinosaur. In the 1860s, American explorers, fancying that this strange formation resembled a clipper ship, coined the name by which it is more familiarly known today: Shiprock.

But the most conspicuous landmark in Narbona’s part of Navajo country was a large dormant volcano that hung magisterially over the sagebrush high country to the south of his family’s land. The Navajos called this impressive stand-alone mountain Tsoodzil, or Blue Bead Mountain. Marking the southeastern corner of Navajo country, Blue Bead Mountain rose to eleven thousand feet and was cloaked in ponderosa pines and aspen. Its bald peak was packed with snow during the winter months and green with wild meadow grasses in summer, while the mountain’s lower shoulders of piñon and juniper tapered into enormous lava fields of black basalt.

As he grew up, Narbona could look to the south and see this distinctive landmark hovering steadfastly there, a wispy blue mirage. Like all Navajo children, he learned from an early age that Blue Bead Mountain was one of the four sacred mountains that anchored the Navajo country. There was a mountain for each cardinal direction, each one inhabited by different gods, each one figuring prominently in the creation stories. From any place in Navajo country, a person could always see at least one of the four sacred landmarks. Except to make war or go on raids, Navajos were not supposed to venture beyond the borders formed by these great peaks or else they would face sickness or death. For good luck, many Navajos kept prayer bundles in their hogans, little sacks that contained soil taken from each of the four mountains.

The world in which Narbona came of age was one of strict symmetry and balance. The number four held great power. There were four sacred colors, four sacred plants, four sacred gemstones. After a healing ceremony, a patient was not supposed to talk to anyone or engage in sexual relations for four days. Every Navajo was mindful of the four points of the compass. The hogan was always oriented with the doors facing east. Each direction had its own quality and hue—north, for example, was black, and it was considered the direction of death and the supernatural; a Navajo never slept with his head pointing north. Navajo sandpaintings and blankets, for all of their vivid color and originality, adhered to a tight symmetry, the designs usually divided into equal quadrants representing the four directions.

Their ordered world was further divided and defined by gender. Objects, landmarks, even acts of nature could be either “male” or “female.” A female rain was a gentle, steady mist; a male rain was an angry black thunderstorm. There were male hogans and female hogans, each constructed of slightly different materials and used for different purposes. The lower Rio Grande, muddy and slow and quiet, was a female river, while the boulder-choked San Juan River, full of froth and rapids, was decidedly male.


The San Juan River traditionally marked the border between Navajo country and the domain of the Utah Indians. The Utes, a fierce tribe of hunter-gatherers, roamed in the mountains north of this thunderous male river. Throughout Narbona’s boyhood, the Utes were probably the Navajo’s greatest enemy. The two tribes were constantly at war. The Spanish governors in Santa Fe had learned that it was much easier to set the territory’s hostile tribes against one another than to fight them outright. And so, with the Spaniards smiling on the situation from afar and promising to stay neutral, the Utes stepped up their long-simmering war with the Navajos. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s they stormed into Navajo camps, stealing children to sell to the Spanish at the slave market in Taos.

For young Narbona and his family it was a time of bloodshed and nearly constant worry. To the Navajos the word “enemy” really meant only one thing: Ute. Narbona grew up with countless stories of Ute outrages, and he longed to go on retaliatory strikes led by his father and other Navajo warriors. By the time he was a teenager he had grown to a formidable height—he was said to stand nearly a head taller than most of his comrades—and he was singled out as a promising warrior. When he was sixteen he went on his first raid, and he found that he was good at it. Returning home from his first fight, Narbona no doubt participated, as most raiders did, in a Nda, the Enemy Way ceremony, an elaborate rite designed to purge any bad spirits or foreign influences a warrior may have unwittingly absorbed while venturing off Navajo lands.

Narbona then began to ride farther afield, striking not only at the Ute camps across the San Juan but also at vulnerable Pueblo settlements and finally, the ultimate prize of all, the Spanish ranches along the Rio Grande. So successful were young Navajo warriors like Narbona in their raids during the late 1770s and early 1780s that the Hispanic villagers finally had to import new horses from Chihuahua—breeding alone could not keep pace with Indian thefts.

When he was in his early twenties, Narbona’s parents arranged for him to marry a girl from the Tzith-ah-ni clan named Bikay-djohl. As was the custom, Narbona went to live with his new bride among her people, who lived on the slopes of the Tunicha Mountains, to the north of his own family’s outfit. He and Bikay-djohl constructed a hogan close to that of her parents. Most likely, the wedding ceremony was held there in the new hogan. Huddled inside with the family, the medicine man said his prayers and bestowed his blessings, and, upon leaving, advised the young couple, with a bodily frankness that would certainly embarrass most Anglo-American newlyweds back east, to attend immediately to the important community business of procreation—and to that end, instructed them not to leave the hogan for four nights and four days.

Then the couple set up housekeeping, probably surrounded by the hogans of Narbona’s mother-in-law and her extended family. Narbona had no choice but to try to get along with his new outfit and acclimate himself to all its disputes and quirks of personality; he was not free to return with his wife to live with his own family’s outfit. The Navajos had come up with a system that minimized the possibility of incest—they could marry neither within their own clan nor their own outfit—but the close and complicated living arrangements required of these small seminomadic groups could seem quite incestuous indeed. (Years later an anthropologist would describe the cohesive and geographically isolated Navajo outfits as tending toward “emotional inbreeding.”)

Observing an old and curious Navajo taboo, Narbona was not allowed to look at his mother-in-law, nor she at him. It was a custom designed to keep the peace and, apparently, to avoid sexual tension. In fact, many mothers-in-law in Navajo country went so far as to wear little warning bells on their clothing so that a son-in-law would not round a corner and inadvertently find himself staring at her. This was no small thing, especially if he happened to look her in the eye: Even an accidental violation of the mother-in-law taboo might require that the family hire a healer to perform an elaborate—and expensive—nightchant to undo all the harm that had been done.

Sometime in the late 1780s, Narbona took a second wife. His raids of Spanish settlements intensified, and he became known as a great war chief. During one raid Narbona captured a young Zuni woman, and she became one of his wives, by all accounts as loyal and happy a member of his outfit as his two Navajo wives.

He proved to have keen political and diplomatic skills and impressed people as someone who, as the Navajo liked to say, “talks easy.” Many young warriors from all over the Chuska Mountains and as far away as Blue Bead Mountain had volunteered to ride and apprentice under him. Over time, the imposing Narbona raised what amounted to a standing army.

The focal point of the fighting was a small fortified village that the Spanish had founded in 1800. The Navajos considered the village, called Cebolleta, an outrageous affront, for it was built on the very flanks of their sacred Blue Bead Mountain, on land the Navajos had controlled for centuries. A group of Spanish settlers fancied the area because of the fine grazing along the mountain’s slopes and had won a land grant from the royal governor in Santa Fe to start a new outpost. The Navajos attacked the new village relentlessly. In the escalating conflict, Narbona emerged as the most prominent war leader.

On one occasion in 1804, he organized a force of a thousand warriors and surrounded the tiny settlement. The siege raged for weeks and was marked by desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Spanish accounts of the battle are vivid and brutal. The Cebolletans passed down one story about an elderly grandmother, Antonia Romero, who managed to kill a Navajo attacker by crushing his head with a metate—an anvil-sized stone used for grinding corn. Another Cebolletan account tells the story of an intrepid defender named Domingo Baca, who was disemboweled by a Navajo lancer. Undaunted by his injury, Baca strapped a pillow around his belly to hold in his guts, then seized his musket and rejoined the fight. When he removed the pillow that night, writes historian Marc Simmons, Baca’s friends “were aghast, and quickly made the sign of the cross as for one already dead. But Baca returned the dangling entrails to their proper place, called for needle and sinew, and sewed up the wound himself. These crude ministrations proved effective, for he recovered and lived to fight again.”

Narbona and his thousand warriors might have succeeded in finally dislodging the hated settlers had the Spanish governor not brought in seasoned troops from Sonora. The Spaniards, too, led many counterraids into Navajo country, but few of them made much of an impression on the elusive Diné.

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