By Lance Chilton
It’s a long drive to Bosque Redondo on the outskirts of Fort Sumner, 167 miles from Albuquerque. It was a much longer walk from Navajo lands to imprisonment there for some 10,000 Navajo people, and for the 400 Mescalero Apaches, who, like the Navajos, had been pushed out of their homelands in the 1860s by federal troops led by General James Carleton.
Hundreds of Native Americans died on the “Long Walk” through the cold winter of 1864; hundreds more died during the harsh years they spent, inadequately provisioned, often freezing without shelter on the banks of the Pecos River, hundreds of miles from their sacred mountains. With the cooperation of the two tribes, whose flags fly at its entrance, the Bosque Redondo Memorial center on the site creates a place where all Americans can learn of the despicable, ill-considered plan to remove the people (Diné in the Navajo language, Ndé in Apache) and to kill any males (and women and children) who attempted to escape. As reported in the June 13 Albuquerque Journal, the story will be told even more vividly at the Bosque Redondo Memorial when a new, more comprehensive exhibit is opened in a few weeks.
Some tend to think of genocide as something that happens in other places: Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Myanmar or Armenia, for example. But if the Long Walk or the Cherokee Trail of Tears were not examples of genocide, they are certainly evidence of then-prevailing attitudes that non-white lives didn’t matter, or perhaps those lives mattered only if they could be assimilated into white culture.
Of course, genocidal, white-centered policies have not only been directed at Native Americans. But since Native Americans were “in the way” of manifest destiny–the belief that white Americans were destined to take over the entire continent as a heaven-mandated right–they were among the first egregious examples of genocide. English settlers started pushing Native Americans off their land in Virginia as early as 1607.
Unfortunately, the record of genocidal and racist behavior in our country continues: The first slaves arrived in the American colonies in 1619, and one might add in centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and mass incarceration as regards African Americans. Similarly, one might consider the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans starting in 1942, and the salon killings of 2020 regarding Asian Americans. Or perhaps the “murderers and rapists” comments about Hispanic asylum-seekers used to justify separation of parents and children in 2017 or to consign those waiting for asylum hearings to squalid, cartel-ridden Mexican border towns.
Some among us believe that we must “make America great again” without referring to an era where “we were great.” To my way of thinking, we, collectively, have done some great things over the past 245 years even beyond the erasing of some of our previous discriminatory policies (making it possible for African American persons, women, and Native American persons to vote, for example). We helped to save the world from Axis domination in World War II and then helped Europe to recover through the Marshall Plan. We have helped the less-developed world deal with AIDS and other serious infectious diseases through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). And we have promoted democracy, at least when it’s in our interest to have done so.
We have a new Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, who, herself a Native American from New Mexico, can continue the reversal of policies discriminatory toward Native Americans. All of us can visit the Bosque Redondo Memorial much more comfortably than the Navajo and Apache people forced to go there. Or we can taste the fruits of another truly great (in my estimation) American innovation, our national parks. There are 18 National Park Service units in New Mexico, all of them well worth a visit, and they’re all being watched over by Secretary Haaland, in whose department the National Park Service resides. And we can work to make sure that no one is submitted to a Long Walk or to any of our other past and present inequities again.