By ROBERT NOTT, Santa Fe New Mexican
FORT SUMNER, NM (AP) – They named the area near this location Bosque Redondo, after a grove of cottonwood trees near the river.
The Navajos who were imprisoned there called it “Hwéeldi”. Some say it translates to “place of suffering.”
It might as well have been called hell.
It was near here, in the land of Billy the Kid, that the U.S. government attempted to strip members of the Navajo Nation and Mescalero Apache Tribe of their language, culture, and spiritual beliefs in the years 1860.
The government had already expelled them from their native lands in New Mexico and Arizona, forcing them to take the Long March, as it was now known – a desperate journey on foot of hundreds of miles during which disease and death have become daily companions. And it wasn’t just a trip; there have been a number of long marches that have taken place over the years from different sites, including Fort Defiance in Arizona and Fort Wingate near Gallup.
Once people arrived here, they found a barren, sandy desert landscape unsuitable for agriculture and lacking in fresh water. They became prisoners, then survivors, struggling first to live, then to return home.
In the end, they succeeded, said Morgen Young, a historian who helped leaders of the Bosque Redondo Memorial/Fort Sumner Historic Site create the exhibit Bosque Redondo: A Place of Suffering…A Place of Survival.
Ultimately, the Apaches fled the fortress reservation one winter night in 1865, and the Navajos negotiated a release and treaty in 1868 that helped them become an influential nation, she said. .
“It’s a place of resilience,” Young told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “People were forced here, they survived, they came home.”
And this attitude is reflected in the exhibition, which attracted more than 500 people on May 28, the day of the official opening. The exhibit, which draws on historical documents and oral histories, takes the visitor on a journey from the 1860s to the present day by telling the stories of people who eventually found their way back home and reclaimed their habits.
It’s not an easy story to tell – or to take in. Photographs, text panels and audio presentations of the oral memories of those who survived the ordeal paint a picture of a government bent on wiping out an indigenous population it saw as a threat.
There are stories of soldiers who shot pregnant women who couldn’t keep up; elders and babies drowning in river crossings; girls aged 12 and 13, fighting starvation, selling their bodies to soldiers for a piece of cornmeal.
It’s an exhibit that can easily bring tears to tears, said Santa Fean Diana Clanin, who said it was a “tough decision” to visit the exhibit. As a guide for the New Mexico History Museum, she knows the history of the site.
“I didn’t know if I could handle it,” she said, adding that the exhibit showed the reality of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
But, she added, “It’s worth every mile (that I’ve driven).”
Wendy Raper, a Navajo from Clovis, said she knew the history of the Long March and the Fort Sumner prison camp all too well.
“That’s where I come from,” she said. “That’s what made me who I am.”
The 6,500 square foot exhibit required decades of preparation and began largely because of a handwritten letter left at the site by young visitors to Diné in June 1990. At that time, the historic site focused on providing information about the fort and famous outlaw who was shot in these parts – Billy the Kid.
The letter – on display at the museum – said the youngsters found the site “discriminating and not telling the real story behind what really happened to our ancestors in 1864-1868”. He then asked museum officials to “show and tell the true story of the Navajos and the United States military.”
Change did not happen overnight, or even in another 15 years. The Bosque Redondo Memorial, as it is now called, opened in 2005, but was just an installation with a few informational storyboards. But talks slowly began around the idea of developing a permanent exhibit – which would include input from Navajo and Mescalero Apache members.
Aaron Roth, the memorial’s historic sites manager, said those behind the creation of the exhibit first met with members of the tribal community in August 2016 to determine how best to present a difficult story that needed to be told.
Five years later, in the fall of 2021, memorial leaders staged what Roth called a “soft opening” of the current exhibit.
Among other features, the exhibit includes period and contemporary cultural artifacts, an 1868 treaty touchscreen between the Navajo and the U.S. government that you can read or hear, and a response room where visitors can record their reactions to the exhibition.
Many of those written responses, said Roth and others involved with the memorial, reflect personal stories, including survivors or children of Holocaust survivors. Several people interviewed on the site on Saturday said it immediately conjured up images of Nazi Germany’s persecution and genocide of Jews.
In that sense, one could say that the Bosque Redondo memorial is the closest thing to a Holocaust museum that Native Americans have.
But Roth, like others interviewed for this story, said he doesn’t believe the majority of the general public knows the story behind the site or the Long Walk.
“For a very long time, even at (Fort Sumner) itself, history wasn’t even taught in schools,” he said. “People who grew up here in the 60s and 70s said to me, ‘It happened in our own backyard, and we didn’t even know it happened.’ ”
Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, and one of the Native American representatives who helped shape the exhibit, echoed that thought.
“It seems the majority of Americans have no idea this even happened,” he said. “When there is this obliviousness, it leads to an indifferent attitude. Once someone understands what happened, their logic and their emotions will help them understand that it was wrong.
He said so many people see the story of the imprisonment of Long Walk and Bosque Redondo as a story of “resilience” that speaks to the fact that “we have come a long way in sacrificing part of our culture. , at the sacrifice of human lives. ”
For Veronica Beck-Ruiz, 17, a member of the Chiricahua Apache Nation, the exhibit touches deep and raw personal emotions. Her great-great-grandmother endured Long Walk and Bosque Redondo.
Beck-Ruiz – who left a number of personal messages on post-it notes and on the exhibit’s many whiteboards expressing how she felt – summed up her feelings in one succinct sentence as she prepared to leave the memorial.
“It shouldn’t have happened, but it did,” she said. “And that made our people stronger.”
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