[Episcopal News Service] Some of them died of broken hearts.
While Union and Confederate soldiers waged war primarily over perpetuating slavery in the South, a lesser-known tragedy took place in the western territories of New Mexico and Arizona: In what became known as the “Long Walk,” Union soldiers marched thousands of Navajo from their ancestral homeland in the Four Corners region to an internment camp hundreds of miles southeast in Fort Sumner.
The knowledge that thousands of Navajo suffered the trek, four years’ internment and in some cases death so that U.S. government prospectors might look for gold and silver to finance the Civil War represented a sort of “hitting bottom” for the Navajo who visited the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner as part of their theological training in the Navajoland Area Mission.
“Just being here has given me a better understanding of how we Navajo have come a long way with the Long Walk,” said LaCinda Hardy-Constant, 45, a postulant and community organizer working with Asset Based Community Development at the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
One cold, windy day in early November, postulants and aspirants from the Episcopal Church’s Navajoland Area Mission squeezed into a church-owned minivan in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, for the 45-minute drive to Fort Sumner, a small community in the mid-western part of the state. There, a memorial commemorates the spot where some 8,500 Navajo were interned between 1864 and 68.
The previous day, group members each drove four to eight hours to Santa Rosa from Fort Defiance, Arizona, Farmington, New Mexico, and Bluff, Utah, to meet Bishop David Bailey. He organized the Bosque Redondo trip as part of a theological-education experience including both the Navajo and Episcopal Church’s history in Navajoland.
“The goal is to raise up indigenous people for leadership with the intent, in the near future, to elect a Navajo bishop,” said Bailey, 72, appointed by the presiding bishop to serve Navajoland. “And to raise up the lay leadership to allow them to have a larger role.”
Navajoland had one indigenous priest in 2010 when Bailey was elected bishop; he since has ordained one priest, three transitional deacons and identified seven postulants.
“One thing we like to do is invite the community to identify leadership,” said Bailey. “Generally speaking, indigenous people will not put themselves forward.”
Bailey approached potential candidates and asked them: “If the community supports you in this, would you do it?”
“Then I was the advocate with the community; and for the most part it [community support] was unanimous,” he said.
The thought of going from lay minister to transitional deacon initially frightened Deacon Inez Velarde, who serves St. Luke’s in the Desert in Carson, New Mexico, but eventually, she came around.
“The congregation said, ‘You’ve been ready for a couple of years now; we’ll be behind you, Inez, we’ll support you,’” recalled Velarde during the drive along Interstate 40 from Santa Rosa to Farmington via Albuquerque.
Navajoland Area Mission
In 1978, the Episcopal Church carved out sections of the dioceses of Rio Grande, Arizona and Utah – areas within and surrounded by the 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation – to create the Navajoland Area Mission. It was an effort toward unification of language, culture and families. Of the eight bishops to serve Navajoland, one, Steven Plummer, who died in 2005, was indigenous.
Between 125,000 and 150,000 Navajo live on the reservation, which is about the size of West Virginia. Many people work in extractive industries, such as oil, uranium and petroleum, but an estimated 50 percent of the population is unemployed and 50 percent lives in extreme poverty. Addiction, domestic abuse and suicide rates are high. Where the Navajo have struggled, so has the Episcopal Church in Navajoland.
When the Episcopal Church designated the mission, it didn’t provide the necessary resources to build it up, Bailey wrote in a July letter to church leaders.
“Changing times and several internal challenges have contributed to an inability of the larger church to meet the needs or enable the success of the mission. No substantive efforts were undertaken reflective of a long-term commitment to create, implement and build a sound foundation for the future of the church in Navajoland,” he wrote.
Failure to identify and develop lay and ordained Navajo leadership, and the lack of credible, culturally relevant theological training for clergy, contributed to the church’s failure to meet the area mission’s needs, Bailey said. (Click here for a related story on confronting ministry challenges.)
Hardy-Constant and two other transitional deacons study at the Indigenous Studies Center at Vancouver Theological Seminary, in British Columbia, where they receive theological training based on an indigenous model both on site and online. (A fourth seminarian is studying at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal Church-affiliated seminary in Berkeley, Calif.)
(Bailey and the Episcopal bishops of Alaska, South Dakota and Utah, all of whom serve large indigenous populations, have formed the “Bishops Native Collaboration” to develop a core curriculum for indigenous peoples and to help identify scholarship opportunities for seminary study.)
The area mission is unique as the only truly indigenous mission in the Episcopal Church, and the Hogan Learning Circle, a blending of traditional and Christian beliefs developed by Plummer, is part of what distinguishes Episcopal identity in Navajoland, Cornelia Eaton, a seminarian and the bishop’s administrative assistant, said during a drive from Farmington to Bluff.
The Long Walk is just one of the atrocities the U.S. government committed against the Navajo that led to intergenerational trauma: Others include government-run boarding schools that separated children from their families, culture and language; and its livestock-management policies of the 1930s and 40s that drastically reduced the Navajo’s herds because of the fear of overgrazing, said Bailey.
“From my perspective, I don’t think you can separate the Long Walk from the boarding schools and the slaughter of livestock,” said Bailey. “In many ways they are all connected in the devaluing of a people.
“Part of that is a sense of shame that leads to abuse. You end up having a system that builds upon itself to the present day. Generations have never talked about the pain, there’s no way to heal.”
“Intergenerational trauma” describes the long-lasting effects of suffering, violence and abuse, particularly in reference to the historical sufferings of indigenous people These effects, in turn, feed the high rates of alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence found in the Navajo nation and other Native-American communities. As in other Native-Americans communities, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence rates are high in the Navajo Nation. Three of Eaton’s five brothers died alcohol-related deaths.
“It’s a tough disease, and it passes from generation to generation,” said Eaton.
Indian Social Services has “all kinds of programs” but often lacks the funding to implement them, she said. And not unlike the church, only a few people are involved in them, which Eaton blames on lack of education in the communities.
“There’s a lack of education that can hold people back, and maybe personal stuff that people have to deal with before they can get involved to help a community,” she said. “I think people need to understand the personal transformation part of the process; there is a lot of knowledge gained out of personal discovery.”
Many Episcopal Church leaders in Navajoland are cradle Episcopalians, with many families having been involved with the church for generations. But people served by the Episcopal Church in Navajoland come from varied backgrounds: mixed families, those who closely follow native cultural traditions, Pentecostals and those from other evangelical churches where Navajo traditions have been abandoned. The Navajo nation is located in Mormon country.
“It’s a requirement for ordained people to know the history of native people in America and native people in the Episcopal Church,” said Bailey during the drive Albuquerque to Santa Rosa. “If you are going to be ordained, you need to respond to those in our midst and address questions in a coherent manner.”
“The Long Walk is such a fundamental piece of the intergenerational problems that contributes to the social ills that they feel today,” said Bailey. That is part of the reason it’s important for the leaders to visit Bosque Redondo and know what happened there, he said. “What has surprised me is the number of people who I have talked to who have not experienced Bosque Redondo and indigenous history.”
Into the silence
The group passed nary a car on the drive from Santa Rosa through the high desert to Fort Sumner, population est. 1,000. Besides the six postulants, aspirants and Bailey, perhaps one or two other people visited the memorial that day.
“This place is a real problem for Navajo people to visit, or to come here,” said C.J. Law, who manages the memorial. “A lot of people died here and on the way down. There was a hospital, but no cemetery, so no one knows where the dead are buried.”
An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 people died, with some accounts putting the figure higher, added Law.
Not all the Navajo took the Long Walk; some hid in the vast Navajo country.
“So not all of them came here, and no one knew how many there actually were,” said Law. Those who came, he added, entered voluntarily – that is “true but not true … they didn’t come in front of a gun, Mother Nature brought them here.”
He meant the Navajo were starving and desperate. Soldiers burned their crops and fruit trees and slaughtered their livestock. Still, food wasn’t always plentiful on the Bosque Redondo reservation. And the army expected 3,000, but 8,500 came. The amount of food varied with drought and poor agricultural conditions, and not everyone stayed.
“Seventy-five hundred went home. So if you do the math, 1,000 of them died or escaped,” Law said. “Some came and went. The army never had a handle on how many came and went.”
Hundreds of Mescalero Apache also were interned at the Bosque Redondo reservation beginning in 1863, but by 1865 they’d all left by their own accord.
Aside from the howling wind on the day of the November visit, the memorial, located outside the already quiet town center, sits under big sky, clouded in silence.
At the start of a conversation that lasted four hours, Law asked those present what they’d heard about the Long Walk and the internment camp.
“I understand that many people died here, on the way here and on the way back, and that the animals ate them, and their bones are scattered here and there,” said Deacon Paula Henson, who also works as a ministry coordinator at the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance.
Many did die on the way to the camp, Law explained, but on the way out, many left in wagons.
“I read that during the Long Walk pregnant women and the old and the sick who could not keep up got shot,” said Velarde, the deacon from St. Luke’s in the Desert.
Law confirmed that the historical record supports what Velarde had heard.
It wasn’t the first time Deacon Catherine Plummer had visited Bosque Redondo. During the four-hour session, she shared the story of how the Navajo who’d stayed behind hidden in the canyons sent “skin walkers,” usually taking the form of coyotes, to check on their family members. It was something Law said he’d never heard before.
The sparsely curated memorial at Bosque Redondo is interpreted mostly through the Anglo-American perspective. Law said he would like to change this by inviting Navajo, like Plummer, to share their stories. For the most part, however, those present agreed that historically families and the Navajo culture at large have not discussed the Long Walk; stories have not been passed down through the generations. This silence hascontributed to the intergenerational trauma that has plagued the Navajo people for more than a century, the Navajo say.
“We need to be the instruments of the healing. That’s why we are here,” said Plummer, widow of Bishop Steven Plummer, who serves at St. Mary of the Moonlight in Oljato, Utah. “I always tell my daughter, we have to hit bottom, get to the bottom of what our people went through. Cry about it, pray about it and rise above it.”
Visiting the memorial, Plummer said she felt like she walking in her ancestor’s shoes.
“I don’t know that I would have survived that,” she said.
Hardy-Constant left the reservation for 14 years because of domestic abuse perpetrated against her by her children’s father. After a bad beating, Hardy-Constant spent a week in the hospital unable to open her eyes. She was “forced” to leave the reservation, she said. “I didn’t want my children to grow up in that environment and suffer the trauma.”
She went to Phoenix, where she received help from the Phoenix Indian Center. She found a job at Arizona State University. She stayed until 2007, when her sense of responsibility toward the people living on the reservation called her home. There, she began volunteering in the community serving women and substance abuse recovery programs.
Later Hardy-Constant spoke to the bishop about bringing Al Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous to Good Shepherd and, through that process, attended the White Bison Wellbriety Training Institute.
“My vision is to help other families in that situation,” she said. “You can leave, you can survive that impact and move forward.”
Visiting Bosque Redondo helped her to understand better the connection between the Long Walk and the struggle to heal.
“To sit there for four hours, I didn’t even realize,” said Hardy-Constant on the drive back to Santa Rosa. “If I didn’t know the words ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation,’ I wouldn’t be here.”
“How could we be in that position just about whether there was gold and silver underground? It begins to come together, and now that we experienced this we can tell the story in our workshops and trainings.”
It was hard to hear the history of her people, Hardy-Constant said, but the visit was about reconciliations and forgiveness and better understanding intergeneration trauma.
Velarde agreed. “I had to come and see it, see where my ancestors were and what happened. I need to be healed from it, too, to do my ministry,” she said, reflecting on the visit the following day.
Following the conversation with Law, the postulants and aspirants moved through the memorial and watched a short film before gathering with Bailey at the prayer circle to receive Eucharist.
Law said he hoped the Navajo could feel the presence of their ancestors at Bosque Redondo.
“This is not an evil place despite the evil that may have taken place here,” said Law. “Those who died here are smiling [in] that they have not been forgotten.”
The U.S. government never found gold and silver in Navajoland. By 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, it had realized the internment camp at Bosque Redondo was a failure. At first the government wanted to send the Navajo to a reservation in Oklahoma, but the Navajo, led by Barboncito and Manuelito, successfully negotiated a return home, a rare thing among indigenous people.
“We are probably one of the few that were allowed to go back to our homeland,” said Eaton. “Some of them died of broken hearts longing to come home.”
– Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.