Remembering Hwéeldi, the Navajo Long Walk: Why I am walking 500 miles to Bosque Redondo

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My name is Byron Shorty, and I am Navajo.

My ancestors were from the Western part of what is now the Navajo Nation in Arizona. We are the indigenous people, or Native Americans, or American Indians, that inhabited this part of America for centuries before the Colonial Era. What is now Flagstaff is the area we lived, under the San Francisco Peaks which we call Dook’ó’ooslííd (glimmering snow).

During the Civil War Era, my ancestors were targeted for systematic relocation through forced marches, scorched earth campaigns, and outright treachery by the American government. This saw entire clans removed and escorted to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. It was there that the American government intended for us to remain – on a barren holding site – forever.

Through the work of Diné (Navajo for “the People”) leaders Barboncito, Armijo, Delgado, Manuelito, Largo, Herrero, Chiquito, Muerte de Hombre, Hombro, Narbono, Narbono Segundo and Ganado Mucho, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo was created on June 1, 1868, which allowed for the return of my ancestors to their homes. This came after years of captivity in which food shortages were common, conflicts between tribes and the Army escalated, drastic changes in diet leading to malnourishment, and more, ravaged the survivors of the walk to Bosque Redondo.

This moment in our history as Navajo people defined a new era of sovereignty that was paid for by our ancestors and their determination to live independently in the Navajo homeland. They fought and died to keep our way of life intact, and they have created an opportunity for future generations, like mine, to take hold of the inherent right to self-governance. We, the Navajo People, are the descendants of survivors and are heirs to a cultural history that promotes strength and harmony, and a drive to reclaim what could have been lost.

My walk to Bosque Redondo, called Hwéeldi in Navajo, is to remind ourselves of the struggle and of the ability to overcome drastic threats. In this modern day, we are faced with legal battles in dealing with rights to natural resources, societal battles against substance abuse and suicide, economic woes growing out of a history of oppressive outside influences, and more. But just as equally powerful has been our ability to remain a family, and to retain the identity that our ancestors fought so hard to pass on. If we are to secure our futures toward a more beautiful way of life, we must be willing to go that extra mile to remember that we must each make the decision to work towards helping each other. We must remember our ancestors’ strength and resolve to provide for our futures.

I have done what I can, which is what this site reflects. I enjoy – I am passionate about – sharing my Navajo culture with the world. The language, in all my years of studying it as a native English speaker, truly does have the power to give one an entirely different perspective. There is structure and nuance – all of the things that make a language beautiful – that impact the thought process in indescribable ways. And that is what I hope to share.

We must acknowledge a reality, though. The number of Navajo speakers is rapidly declining. A great number are elderly in age, whose children experienced great pressure against speaking the language they grew up with. It is all too common that people were embarrassed to be associated with rural Navajo life, and therefore made the decision to separate themselves. Younger generations feel the pressure to learn the Navajo language, but find it difficult because there is the generational gap that inhibits the passage of comprehension from parent to child. Often all the grandchild wants to do is to be able to speak to the grandparent.

Census numbers tell us that there are approximately 150,000 speakers left. But these speakers are represented by the generations in their mid-40s and later. Elderly Navajo maintained the societal norm of having as many as 8 children throughout their lifetimes, and the generation they gave birth to is the shifting point in that norm. Now, with a modern family typically having only 2-4 children, if any, the sheer number of young Navajo speakers is extremely low, which results in a much lower percentage compared to the older generations who speak Navajo.

So what might seem as a healthy number turns out to be an element left over from before the transition to English language usage. The threat to the survival of our language remains, along with it the survival of the cultural knowledge that has been passed on orally for centuries. We are at a crucial point in our efforts to revitalize the Navajo culture after decades of mistreatment, and we need to recognize that we must be willing to do more to overcome the challenge of learning the Navajo language, and carrying our history forward.

So I am walking to remember our past, to recognize our progress, to promote our futures, and to do everything I can to build upon the legacy of our ancestors. It is my hope that you will support me.

Ákót’éego Diné nishłį́.

Ahéhee’.

Byron S. – NavajoWOTD, Creator