Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Navajo Long Walk

Growing up in school, I read about the Cherokee Trail of Tears, part of the tragic Indian Removal Act enacted by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. But it wasn’t till more recent years that I’ve learned most Native American peoples have their own “Trail of Tears.”

For the Navajo, the largest First Nations people group in the Southwest, it was The Long Walk.

Edward S. Curtis: Navajo child, ca. 1904, Public Domain
My friend's grandfather was about this age on the Long Walk.
When I started researching my first novel, set at a Navajo mission boarding school in 1911, I had never heard of The Long Walk. The first Navajo friend I interviewed in my research told me about it. For another close friend and mentor of mine, his grandfather experienced it as a six-year-old boy. And the more I learned, the more this piece of history broke my heart.

In 1863, amid the crisis of the American Civil War, the U.S. government decided they were fed up with the Navajo. While the Navajo, or Dine ́, as they call themselves, were never a violent tribe, scattered raiding and disputes between New Mexican settlers and the Navajo were a thorn in the army’s side. And so they decided to put a stop to it once and for all.

Under the leadership of scout and army colonel Kit Carson—who till now had been a friend to Native peoples—the Navajo were systematically persecuted and rounded up. Their cornfields, orchards, homes, and livestock were destroyed, burned to the ground. In the winter of 1863-64, the last resistors were finally driven into Canyon de Chelly, to this day a sacred place to the Navajo and then a fertile valley full of peach orchards and family farms.

The Navajo held out long, bunkered in the canyon walls. But the soldiers destroyed their food sources and hogans and filled their water holes with stones. The Dine ́ were hungry, cold, and starving. At last, in January of 1864, various groups of Navajo began to surrender to Kit Carson in hopes of saving their families.
By Mario1952 - derived from [1], CC BY-SA 3.0,
Wikimedia Commons

In several groups, between 8,000 and 10,000 Navajo were marched up from Fort Defiance, Arizona, roughly 400 miles through bitter cold and snow to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. Hundreds of people sickened and died along the way, from exposure, sickness, or improper food, since the Navajo were unfamiliar with the provisions given, like white flour and coffee. The flour they mixed with water and drank, the coffee beans they tried to cook like pinto beans, leading to caffeine poisoning.
Those who couldn’t keep up along the way were left to die or shot in the snow…the old, the young, the infirm, even pregnant mothers.

When they finally reached the camp at Fort Sumner, called Bosque Redondo—or Hweeldi by the Navajo—it was more a prison than a reservation. The water from the Pecos River was bad, and while the army hoped to turn the Navajo into Anglicized farmers, the corn they planted would not grow. Firewood was in short supply, and the land was arid. Up to 2,000 more Dine ́ died at the camp.

Navajo Prisoners from the Long Walk, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Nearly five years after Carson’s campaign began, however, the few hundred Navajo who had managed to escape the Long Walk, under their leader Barboncito, managed to negotiate a treaty—according to one Navajo source, through a shooting contest betting that a skilled Navajo warrior could hit a tiny leather target placed high in a cottonwood tree.

The Treaty of 1868 at last released the Dine ́ people from Bosque Redondo and allowed them to go back to a portion of their original land, making them one of very few tribes ever allowed to return to their own land. When they came in sight of the first of their four sacred mountains, the Navajo wept. They had suffered much, but at last they could begin to rebuild, though the pain of The Long Walk left wounds that still remain today.

Have you ever heard of The Long Walk before? What about similar stories for other Native peoples? Which part of this story struck you most? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her novel manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony.


  1. I had not heard of The Long Walk before.

    1. Not many of us have, if we aren't touched by it. Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Connie.

  2. I was not familiar with this part of Navajo history, but am aware of similar tales from the Cheyenne (fleeing their reservation only to be incarcerated at Fort Robinson, NE), the Cherokee (the infamous Trail of Tears), and the Ponca (returning to their homeland in Nebraska, guided by the amazing Chief Standing Bear). So much pain.

    1. I remember reading about the incarceration of the Cheyenne in one of your Pine Ridge Portraits novels, Stephanie...I think it was one of the first books that made me cry over the history of Native Americans. :( And I read about the Poncas' story in Cathy Richmond's novel Through Rushing Water. I'm sure there are still many I haven't heard much pain, indeed. Thank you for helping tell some of these stories through your books, though!

  3. I was not familiar with this Navajo story. It's heartbreaking to think all they endured because they were not accepted. I've listened to individuals who work on their reservations today and the past pain is still there. Thank you for sharing The Long Walk! HHH is a great blog for reading history that is not taught.

    1. That's true, Marilyn. Thanks so much for listening, and sharing.

  4. And to you, dear friend. I feel I only scratched the surface go far deeper in your books I know, which I pray and believe will someday be out for the world to see!