November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from DongEun Kim, a conservator at the National Archives.
Just under two years ago, I joined the staff of the National Archives as a conservator to focus exclusively on records and documents. It was a departure from my previous experience in museum work and fine art conservation. At the time, I may have felt a secret fear that the work would somehow be less interesting. Instead, I have found the opposite to be true.
The notion of “preserving history” has become literal, and it is constantly exciting to be a part of such an infinite challenge. One specific difference stands out in particular—this work is personal. There is a direct and immediate correlation between the treatment of a document and the use of that record in enriching someone’s knowledge of their own history. I was recently privileged to experience the personal nature of our work in a profound way.
I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea, and became an American citizen in 2016. In order to become a U.S. citizen, one has to learn a bit about American history and government. It was not an extensive study, but enough that I thought I had an appreciation for the importance of what we do here at the National Archives. When I started working here on a project to digitize NARA holdings of treaties, I had a very basic understanding of the history of the United States and the hundreds of Native American tribes.
In July of this year, I visited the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, to bring back to NARA the 1868 Navajo Treaty, which was the centerpiece of an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the treaty between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Government.
When I arrived in the Navajo Nation, saw Window Rock and the Navajo Nation Museum, and met the people who came to meet and work with me (they were all Navajo), I realized that I’d had no idea—no idea how or where the Navajo people lived, no idea of their culture, and most importantly, no idea how deeply they value this culture and history, and consequently, this treaty. I was about to gain new understanding.
Upon my arrival at the museum, I walked through the gallery space to check the environmental conditions and exhibition displays. I noticed boxes of tissues placed by the entrance and exit doors. Manuelito Wheeler, the Director of Navajo Nation Museum, explained that the Navajo people become emotional viewing the exhibition, and many people cry as they walk through the gallery.
This exhibition was quite short, and the total Navajo Nation population is roughly 350,000, yet the month-long showing saw 26,000 visitors through the galleries. That’s a lot of tears.
The exhibit itself described the history of the Navajo and the Nation’s struggles culminating in the 1868 treaty:
By the early 1860s, Americans of European descent began settling in and around Navajo lands, leading to conflict between Navajo people on one side and settlers and the U.S. Army on the other. In response to the fighting, the Army created a plan to move all Navajos from their homeland.
The forced removal of the Navajo, which began in January 1864 and lasted two months, came to be known as the “Long Walk.” According to historic accounts, more than 8,500 men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. In the dead of winter, they made the 300-plus-mile trek to a desolate internment camp along the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico called the Bosque Redondo Reservation, where the military maintained an outpost, Fort Sumner. Along the way, approximately 200 Navajos died of starvation and exposure to the elements.
Four years later, having endured overcrowded and miserable conditions at Bosque Redondo, the Navajo signed the historic U.S.-Navajo Treaty of 1868. The treaty allowed the Navajo to return to only a small portion of their original homeland in Arizona and New Mexico. The U.S. government promised basic services in exchange for peace, and the Navajo began the long walk home on June 18, 1868.
Humbled and solemn, I proceeded to the space where the document condition checking and packing would be carried out the next day, then concluded my first day at Navajo Nation. It had been emotionally overwhelming.
My education resumed early the next morning. I went to the museum to deinstall the exhibition. There were still many people waiting to see the treaty, so we decided to postpone deinstallation until after lunch. Manuelito Wheeler, the museum’s director, introduced me to Stanley Milford, who has been a Navajo Nation Ranger there for 20 years. Stan invited me for a tour of Navajo Nation.
He drove me around, showed me beautiful Window Rock, introduced me to Navajo people as “a conservator from the National Archives; she is going to take the treaty back to Washington.” I was welcomed with enthusiasm and generosity, treated like some kind of visiting dignitary!
The treaty itself is a sacred document to the Navajo, and I was viewed as a guardian of that object. They embraced me like family, told me stories, taught me a little about their culture and the land where they live, and changed forever the way I feel about the work we do. Their overwhelming warmth and kindness touched me deeply and will always serve as a reminder to me of the importance of our work at NARA.
Soon we were back to the museum, and deinstallation was finally begun. I supervised every step and was impressed with their handling of this small document. Two big grown men (Ben Sorrell and Stanley Milford) handled each piece of the mounted 8” x 12” document together—in order to both be touching it—so carefully, with reverence, literally handling their shared history.
Even as I checked the condition of the document, Ben and Stanley wanted to be near it to see everything one more time before they packed the pages in the crates. The crates were sealed, and the treaty stayed in the secured vault one last night.
Early the next morning, I met the staff by the loading dock. I was told that Stanley led a small ceremony by the transporting truck before I arrived, to pray for safe travel.
We went to the vault, placed the packed crates on carts, and slowly moved toward the truck. They asked me to take photos of each step until the crates were tied securely inside the truck. They wanted every moment to be recorded. With the truck ready for departure, each of us prayed at that moment for safe travel. No one said anything aloud; the words were unnecessary. Even as the truck was moving away, Stanley followed along for a while.
My work there was then complete. I left Navajo Nation inspired with heightened appreciation for the importance of the work we do as conservators here at NARA.
After telling American family and friends about my visit to Navajo Nation, I realized that I had been welcomed into the Nation in a way very few Americans actually get to experience. I wasn’t a tourist. I was family. I wasn’t a stranger. I was there to work alongside the Navajo. They shared with me in a way that touched me deeply, and I will remember it forever.