In the late 1850s, Manuelito, a Navaho leader, made a treaty with representatives of the U.S. government. The treaty arranged for the Navaho to live peacefully with white settlers in the Southwest. But soon, whites raided Manuelito’s farms and killed his livestock to avenge the actions of “a few wild young Navahos.”
The pattern that Brown is establishing almost always begins with a treaty between Native Americans and white representatives of the U.S. government. Then, white settlers violate the treaty, leading to conflict of some kind.
Tensions escalated in Navaho territory in the 1860s because of raids Navahos conducted on Mexican villages. Navaho warriors had been raiding Mexican villages for centuries: they believed that doing so was the proper retaliation for the Mexicans’ policy of kidnapping and enslaving Navaho children. But after the Mexican American War, the U.S. began protecting residents of the New Mexico territory.
As the U.S. gained more territory, it increased its military presence in the Southwest. Notice, also, that Brown portrays the Native Americans’ own acts of violence as retaliatory, if not wholly justifiable.
In early 1860, Manuelito led a raid on U.S. soldiers’ supply trains. In retaliation, U.S. soldiers began to attack Navaho villages. On April 30, Manuelito led a raid on the U.S. Fort Defiance. While the raid failed, the U.S. considered the attack an act of war and deployed additional troops, led by Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, to the Southwest. In 1861, a coalition of Navaho chiefs met with Canby and signed a treaty. The tribe began trading with U.S. soldiers.
Conflict kept bubbling up between the Navahos and the U.S. military; however, for the time being, both sides were able to use political means to preserve the peace.
Unfortunately, the treaty didn’t last more than a couple months. On September 22 1861, Navaho chiefs made a series of bets with U.S. soldiers concerning a horse race. After the Navaho rider lost the race, it was discovered that his bridle rein had been cut with a knife. The Navahos were furious, but they still lost the bet. This spelled the end of the treaty.
This seemingly trivial incident actually mirrors the injustice that all Native Americans had to endure: white settlers claimed to be “playing by the rules,” even though they’d actually manipulated the rules to be in their favor. Upset with the state of things, many Native Americans, including the Navahos, abandoned legal and political means altogether and turned to violence.
In the spring of 1862, the Confederate and Northern armies arrived in New Mexico and crossed the Rio Grande. Union General James Carleton believed that there was gold on native land. He ordered his soldiers to massacre any Apaches found near the river, with the goal of clearing the land for white settlers. A delegation of Apache chiefs met with Carleton and begged him to stop. Carleton replied that the chiefs’ only option was to leave. Outnumbered, the chiefs relocated to the reservation of Bosque Redondo.
Brown makes clear the link between genocide (massacring Apaches) and economic expansion: the U.S. wanted the resources on Apache land, and so the military was involved in slaughtering any Apaches who might interfere with this plan. Furthermore, the military was involved in relocating Apaches to ensure that they wouldn’t be able to fight back when white settlers stole their crops, livestock, gold, and other resources.
On June 23, Carleton ordered that all Navahos be relocated by force to Bosque Redondo. He ordered one of his lieutenants, Kit Carson, to march through the territory and prepare for war with resisting Navahos. Carson had married a Native American woman, but he chose to obey Carleton’s arrogant orders. Over the next few months, Carson and his soldiers systematically burned Navaho fields and slaughtered Navaho livestock in order to force Navahos off their lands. He even offered his soldiers twelve dollars for every horse they stole from the Navaho.
Some U.S. soldiers bore the Navahos no personal animosity. Nevertheless, many of these soldiers, including Kit Carson, agreed to follow their orders and carry out what was, in effect, a genocidal policy—they destroyed Navaho food to ensure that Navahos wouldn’t be able to survive in their old home.
By September, Carleton ordered that all Navahos be slaughtered or arrested on sight. By the end of the fall, Carson had enacted Carleton’s orders: he’d killed many Navahos and virtually cleared the territory of all crops and livestock. Most of the remaining Navahos surrendered and relocated to Bosque Redondo.
The military accomplished its horrific mission: it murdered the vast majority of the Navaho population, leaving the survivors so weak and frightened that they could easily be moved to Bosque Redondo.
Carleton next ordered Carson to move into the Canyon de Chelly region and wage a similar campaign: burning fields, slaughtering livestock, and killing or capturing any Navahos he met. Navahos resisted by throwing stones at the American soldiers. However, Carson’s forces killed many Navahos. Shortly after the campaign began, Navaho leaders in the area surrendered to Carson. Carson accepted, but still ordered the destruction of all Navaho property.
Throughout the Southwest, the U.S. military followed a “scorched earth” policy, destroying any crops or livestock that could nourish the Navahos. Such policies had been commonplace in American military strategy during the Civil War.
Over the next several months, the U.S. military organized a “Long Walk” out to Bosque Redondo, during which thousands of Navajo men, women, and children were forced to walk hundreds of miles. Nearly two hundred Navahos died during the walk.
In passages like this, Brown shows how even the government’s Native American relocation programs had a genocidal component: in practice, they resulted in the extermination of a significant chunk of the Native American population.
In April, Manuelito, one of the last Navaho chiefs to hold out against the U.S. military, met with U.S. military representatives, including Carleton. He asked why the military was forcing the Navaho to relocate: the Navaho, he claimed, had kept the peace they promised to Colonel Canby. Manuelito also raised the possibility that the Navahos were being relocated so that they could be shot. He refused to surrender to Carleton. In the autumn, Manuelito led his people away from the U.S. army.
Manuelito wasn’t entirely wrong when he guessed that his tribe was being relocated so that it could be executed. Government officials of the era wrote extensively about how Native American reservations were designed to “die out” within a couple generations due to the arid land and horrible quality of life. In many ways, Manuelito did the most rational thing: he ran away from the reservation.
To General Carleton, the Navahos were “mouths to feed” and nothing more. He claimed that it was the Navahos’ destiny to leave their ancestral lands, just as it was American citizens’ destiny to inherit the land.
Carleton, it would seem, sincerely believed in the dogma of Manifest Destiny, as well as its ideological twin—the belief that Native Americans are destined to die out.
By February 1865, Manuelito still refused to surrender to Carleton’s troops. The U.S. army arranged for Manuelito to speak to some of the chiefs who were already living in Bosque Redondo. The chiefs warned Manuelito that he was risking his people’s lives by refusing to surrender. But they also confirmed some of the rumors Manuelito had heard about the horrible quality of life on the reservation. Manuelito again refused to surrender. When Carleton heard the news, he ordered his troops to capture Manuelito.
From Carleton’s perspective, Manuelito was an unreasonable nuisance who refused to play along with the military’s rules. But of course, Manuelito wasn’t wrong to think that his people stood a better chance of survival off the reservation—even if his resistance to Carleton endangered his people’s lives in a different sense.
Manuelito managed to avoid capture for half a year. During this time, his resistance inspired Navahos living on the reservation to escape and join him in other parts of the Southwest. In response, the U.S. army was instructed to kill every Navaho found off the reservation. But in September 1865, Manuelito entered Bosque Redondo with his weary, starving people and surrendered.
The military used Manuelito’s resistance as an excuse to murder Navahos found off the reservation for any reason whatsoever. In the end, Manuelito proved to be no match for the military—in no small part because the military had been instructed to slaughter livestock and burn fields, which might otherwise have fed Manuelito and his followers.
Shortly after Manuelito’s surrender, Carleton was relieved of his command and replaced with a new reservation superintendent, A. B. Norton. Norton recommended to his superiors that the Navahos be relocated to a place with clean water and fertile soil, so that the U.S. government could save money and help the Navahos become self-sufficient. For the next two years, many of the government employees who supervised the reservation adopted a similar tone.
Although Brown paints a scathing portrait of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, he also writes about many figures like Norton—mid-level bureaucrats who seemed to want to help the Native Americans they’d been tasked with overseeing. However, notice that Norton’s stated motive for helping the Navahos was to make them self-sufficient (therefore saving the U.S. some money), calling into question how altruistic Norton really was.
In 1868, Navaho chiefs signed a new treaty with the government, the terms of which arranged for the Navahos to return to some of their original lands in exchange for promising peace. At the meeting, the chiefs met the famous General William Sherman. Sherman already had a reputation for killing Native Americans, but the Navahos noticed that he had “the eyes of a man who had suffered and knew the pain of it in others.” The Navaho had suffered greatly, and their lives would be difficult moving forward. Little did they know that they’d suffered less than almost any tribe in the country.
The chapter ends with the Navahos retaining some of their land, which is far more fortunate than most tribes. General Sherman is an agent of genocide who spent his career killing Native Americans, but as Brown points out, he knows “the pain of [suffering] in others,” and on some level he seems to grasp the barbarism of his own actions. For the Navahos, this mitigated Sherman’s depravity, but it’s also arguable that his knowledge of suffering made his cruelty worse.