The Navajo Treaty Travels to the Navajo Nation

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, senior registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.

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President of the Navajo Nation Russell Begaye viewing the 1868 Navajo Treaty, 2018. (Photo Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Museum)

On a cool Sunday morning under a cloudless blue sky, I was standing on the loading dock at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. I was there with the museum director, Manuelito (Manny) Wheeler, and Navajo Chief Ranger Stan Milford to meet the truck carrying the Navajo Treaty of 1868.

From the beginning, we knew there would be challenges. Our first concern was a potential conflict with a previous commitment the National Archives had made to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Originally, we had agreed that the Navajo Treaty would be available for NMAI’s “Nation to Nation” exhibition from February 2018 to August 2018. The exhibition has featured a total of nine Indian treaties since it opened in 2014, rotating one every six months.

Without hesitation, NMAI director Kevin Gover quickly cleared the way, agreeing to share exhibit time with the Navajo museum and, equally important, giving up the key anniversary date, June 1, 2018, the 150th anniversary of the treaty signing at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Navajo History

The 1868 treaty was the last in a series of Navajo treaties dating back several decades, but 1868 marked a turning point. In the midst of the Civil War, the U.S. Army forced 10,000 Navajo and a smaller number of Apache to march over 300 miles (the “Long Walk” or Hweeldi) to the Bosque Redondo, a 40-square-mile reservation in western New Mexico. Many died en route, and others suffered thirst, starvation, exposure, and disease. Thousands more hid from government soldiers in Canyon de Chelly and elsewhere. Once at the reservation, conditions continued to grow worse due to horrible weather, poor crops, and mistreatment.

Eventually, the U.S. Government recognized the experiment was a complete failure. In late May 1868, U.S. Peace Commissioners Gen. William T. Sherman and Col. Samuel Tappan arrived to negotiate a treaty to resolve the destiny of the Navajo. Navajo chief Barboncito spoke on behalf of his people.

After three days of conversation and negotiation just outside the walls of Fort Sumner, Sherman offered a choice between moving to Oklahoma, where other tribes had been relocated, or returning home to Navajo ancestral lands. Not surprisingly, the Navajo chose to reverse their steps and soon began walking home.

Treaty Council, May 28-May 30, 1868

Outdoor portrait of Navajo Treaty signers at Fort Sumner, June 1868. (General William Nicholson Grier Collection, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution)

Sherman: The Commissioners are here now for the purpose of learning and knowing all about your condition and we wish to hear from you the truth and nothing but the truth. We have read in our books and learned from our officers that for many years whether right or wrong the Navajos have been at war with us and that General Carleton had removed you here for the purpose of making you agriculturists—with that view the Government of the United States gave you money and built this fort to protect you until you were able to protect yourselves…That before we discuss what we are to do with you, we want to know what you have done in the past and what you think about your reservation here.

Barboncito: The bringing of us here has caused a great decrease of our numbers, many of us have died, also a great number of our animals. Our Grand-fathers had no idea of living in any other country except our own and I do not think it right for us to do so as we were never taught to.

When the Navajos were first created four mountains and four rivers were pointed out to us, inside of which we should live, that was to be our country and was given to us by the first woman of the Navajo tribe. It was told to us by our forefathers, that we were never to move east of the Rio Grande or west of the San Juan rivers and I think that our coming here has been the cause of so much death among us and our animals.

That our God when he was created (the woman I spoke of) gave us this piece of land and created it specially for us and gave us the whitest of corn and the best of horses and sheep. You can see them (pointing to the other chiefs) ordinarily looking as they are, I think that when the last of them is gone the world will come to an end…

At the end of the third day, May 30, 1868, Sherman made the following statement:

We are now ready to commence business, we have it all written down on paper and settled and when agreed on, we will have three copies made, one for you, one to keep ourselves and one to send to Washington. We do not consider it complete until we have all signed our names to it.

Sherman continued:

We have marked off a reservation for you, including the Canyon de Chelly and part of the valley of the San Juan, it is about (100) one hundred miles square, It runs as far south as Canyon Bonito and includes the Chusca mountain but not the Mesa Calabesa you spoke of. That is the reservation we suggest to you, it also includes the Ceresca mountain and the bend of the San Juan river, not the upper waters.

Barboncito responded:

We are very well pleased with what you have said and well satisfied with that reservation. It is the very heart of our country and is more than we ever expected to get.

Sherman’s reference to having “three copies made” is very interesting. The National Archives has the official government copy sent to Washington and the fate of the Navajo copy is uncertain. But what about the third copy? I reached out to the Library of Congress in the hope it might be in Sherman’s papers, but alas it was not there. However, the library was in touch with a descendant of Colonel Tappan, Sherman’s co-commissioner and treaty signer, who contacted me directly. In a subsequent post, the descendant, C. P. “Kitty” Weaver will explain the travels and the ultimate survival of the third copy.


Advance visit to Window Rock

On February 22, 2016, President Begaye and other Navajo leaders made a special visit to the National Archives to view the treaty in person. The 20 treaty pages, the Senate’s advice and consent, and President Andrew Johnson’s ratification (all encapsulated in mylar) were laid out on long white tables in the Conservation Lab. The Navajo visitors were enthralled to see the original document, which meant so much to them individually and as a people. They pored over the handwritten text and the marks of Barboncito, Manuelito, and other names made known to them in stories from their parents and grandparents.

Many conversations and emails later, National Archives exhibits conservator Abigail Aldrich and I had the opportunity to visit the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock. We toured the museum, viewed the exhibit space, and met with Manny and his team: the indispensable Shanidiin Jeff, curator Clarinda Begay, and Ben Sorrell, gift shop manager and jack of all trades.  

We reviewed Manny’s preliminary designs for the exhibit and went over in detail National Archives exhibit standards and other loan requirements. More than anything, this was a chance to strengthen our working relationship and to build confidence in each other. After our meeting, Manny took us on a tour of Canyon de Chelly, which had served as a hiding place for thousands of Navajo who refused to go on the Long Walk.

In the weeks and months to come, Abigail, Manny, and I talked on the phone and exchanged hundreds of emails. In December, we met again in Washington to go over the latest design drawings and worked out more installation details.

In February, the treaty went on exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, and in March, Jay Bosanko of the National Archives and President Begaye signed the loan agreement that would send the treaty on another long journey, this time to the west.

Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo

Before heading to Window Rock to meet the treaty, I had to first make a visit to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo, where Sherman, Tappan, Barboncito, Manuelito, and all the others had gathered on a hot New Mexico day so long ago.

The most moving part of the tour of the museum and the grounds was when the historic site manager, Aaron Roth, brought me to a small circular memorial where visitors leave small tokens. Aaron explained that in the 1970s a young Navajo student had remarked after visiting that “there is nothing Navajo here.” The response was this very simple memorial, where often just a stone is left but on this day there was also a Purple Heart.

The next day, Aaron and talked about the various archival records they had used to piece together the fort’s history, many of which came from the National Archives.

Of particular interest to me were the photographs. A few years ago, a photograph was found at NMAI showing a large group of Navajo at Fort Sumner during treaty negotiations. It includes Barboncito, Manuelito, and dozens more. The photographer was a young Swede named Valentin Wolfenstein, and historians are grateful he left a diary recording his experience there. In his entry for June 1, 1868, Wolfenstein wrote:

…The day is cloudy which helps me greatly. General Sherman puts the camera in order, arranges the group and himself. I take the best pictures I have so far. General Sherman leaves for Santa Fe. He says farewell to me and asks me to send some pictures to Fort Union.

I have been unsuccessful so far in tracking down Sherman’s copies, but a collection of Wolfenstein photographs can be found at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Prayer Ceremony and Treaty Installation

After the treaty arrived at the Navajo Nation Museum, we allowed it to acclimatize for two days to the drier Arizona environment. Navajo leaders were anxious for the treaty to receive a blessing on the same day that it arrived,so the ceremony took place with the treaty still in its crates. In the early evening, medicine man Lorenzo Max and two assistants arrived to say special prayers. The ceremony took about two hours, and then the medicine man invited guests to speak about what the treaty meant to them. As you might imagine, this became a very emotional and fraught moment for many.

Treaty Day

Navajo girl at Treaty Day event, June 1, 2018. (Photo by Jim Zeender, National Archives)

Treaty Day 150 came on June 1, 2018. It was combination community celebration, political event, religious revival, and exhibit opening. In the morning and early afternoon, politicians, community leaders, and entertainers dominated the stage outside the museum.

Meanwhile, a thousand or more milled around, stopping at booths manned by political groups, community workers, and food vendors.

Finally, the speeches and the entertainment ended, and the big moment arrived. President Begaye, other Navajo leaders, and Manny headed inside, where hundreds of Navajo were in line waiting for the ribbon to be cut.

On the first day alone, over a thousand stood patiently for their few moments with the treaty. A total of more than 20,000 saw the treaty before it returned to Washington, DC, in early July.

The exhibit design placed the treaty in a generously sized room enclosed within a much larger gallery, where the large graphics would engage visitors waiting in line. The smaller space not only made it easier to manage the environment around the treaty, but it also offered the opportunity for visitors to bypass the treaty if they thought it would be too much for them emotionally.

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Visitors at the Navajo Nation Museum, 2018. (Photo Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Museum)

Quotes about the Treaty

The importance of the treaty to the Navajo people is evident in the following quote from Russell Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation:

The federal government doesn’t sign treaties with states. . . . It signs treaties with other governments. The Treaty of 1868 recognized our sovereignty and set the foundation for the Navajo to become one of the strongest and most recognizable indigenous nations in the world.

Manny conveyed the treaty’s meaning to the museum’s visitors in this quote published in the Navajo Times, June 1, 2018:

People are coming to have the experience of being with the actual treaty. Most of them have been waiting for this. They’ve only heard about it, read about it, but they’ve never seen it or been with it. People are coming to see our leaders’ actual marks. They want to see [Navajo chief] Barboncito’s actual mark. That is going to be a very powerful experience…

Ann Cummings, Executive for Research Services, echoed the Archivist’s words in her remarks as the National Archives’ official representative at the exhibition opening:

The Treaty of Bosque Redondo, signed on June 1, 1868, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, represents one of the most important records in the holdings of the National Archives that documents the relationship between the United States government and Native American peoples living in North America. It is fitting that the treaty that returned the Navajo people to their traditional lands be seen and remembered here in the capital of the Navajo Nation. 

Ann Cummings speaks at Treaty Day event, June 1, 2018. (Photo by Jim Zeender, National Archives)

Visitor postcards

Visitors were given cards to share information about their ancestors and whether they had any connection to the Long Walk. The following is a sampling from the many hundreds left and posted on the message board. The museum will photograph, transcribe, and archive them.

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Visitor comments at the Navajo Nation Museum, 2018. (Photo Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Museum)

The great-grandfather of an unnamed visitor from the Haltsooi Dine’s Clan “escaped capture with his mom when he was 5 years old and when he started to cry his mom had to cover his mouth to hide from the soldiers.”  

Another unnamed visitor from the Hashtl’ishnii Dine’s Clan (Mud People) wrote that “Great-Grandmother (2X) walked to Bosque Redondo when she was a child and when released carried her little brother on her back to Wide Ruins, AZ.”  

An unidentified visitor left this note:  

“Great-Great Great Grandma—Paternal—immediate family was killed by the U.S. Army—She was the only survivor—at age 12 made her walk to Bosque Redondo—at age 14 she escaped—without food, water, money she made her way back to Chuska . . . ”

Etsitty Begay of the Tachii’nii Dine’s Clan (Red Running into Water People)  wrote that her great-grandfather was “born at Shiprock, NM after arrival from Bosque Redondo. Life span 1868–1966.”

To learn more about Native American records at the National Archives visit our website. Visit our Professional Development Webinars for more information about using Native American records. 

I am most grateful to Manny Wheeler, Shanidiin Jeff, and Ben Sorrell from the Navajo Nation Museum for their professionalism and their friendship on what became a spiritual journey. The museum’s exhibit technicians Lynn Owens and Beau Bennett Carpenter worked carefully and meticulously preparing the exhibit and put in long hours. Navajo Chief Ranger Stan Milford was responsible for overall security planning and made us all feel safe.

I am also indebted to my National Archives colleagues Abigail Aldrich, Jane Fitzgerald, Michael Hussey, Jay Bosanko, Ann Cummings, Gwen Granados, and Archivist of the United States David Ferriero for their support. Rachel Bartgis and Vincent Carney prepared exquisite encapsulations for each of the 24 pages. Jennifer Miller at the National Museum of the American Indian gave words of encouragement and has shared her wisdom in the years that we have worked together on the “Nation to Nation” exhibition.

Kitty Weaver graciously opened her home, the former childhood home of Samuel F. Tappan, and showed me her copy of the treaty and other Tappan papers. Aaron Roth’s tour and my visit to Fort Sumner added new dimensions to my understanding of the Long Walk, Hweeldi and the treaty signing.


4 thoughts on “The Navajo Treaty Travels to the Navajo Nation

  1. What a lovely and moving post. I was born and raised in Arizona yet I had not heard about the Navajo’s own “trail of tears” until reading this. Today I am a freelance writer of educational books for kids. This story would make a wonderful book. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for future posts about it.

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