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Along Navajo Trails
Recollections of a Trader, 1898â"1948
By Will Evans, Susan E. Woods, Robert S. McPherson
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2005 Utah State University Press
All rights reserved.
Views of History around the Four Corners
Will Evans's life as a trader spanned some of the monumental events in Navajo history. For more than fifty years, he shared an insider's perspective with the Navajo people as these events unfolded. He also recorded the reminiscences of elders whose experience hearkened back to the early to mid-1800s. Up-front and personal, these stories, even though filtered through Evans's eyes, are an invaluable source to the Navajo past.
Take, for instance, the events leading to, comprising, and following the Long Walk period. This episode is one of the most traumatic and important mileposts for the People. It has been heavily studied by scholars and almost mythologized by the Navajos. The further one is removed from the time and events, the easier it is to generalize and offer facile explanations. Evans provides eyewitness accounts by men who were there. They point out that raiding by the Navajos was, at least in part, a reason for the devastating "Fearing Time," when surrounding tribes and the United States military wreaked havoc on them. The mistreatment of those who went to Fort Sumner is also addressed.
For those who want to believe in the ease of life before the white man became prevalent, there are some points to consider. Food was scarce; danger from competing tribes and the constant pressure to survive provided challenges. Agapito and Yellow Horse testify that perhaps "the good old days" may not have been that good.
Evans also provides a wealth of information concerning the establishment and ownership of trading posts in the Four Corners area. His anecdotal information gives a feeling for the hardships and bright spots of this life and what it meant to the Navajos. Traders were instrumental in improving local economies. From introducing new strains of sheep to marketing a finished blanket, these men and women fostered craft development and offered products that dramatically changed a way of life. The Navajos willingly embraced a good part of this change or else the posts never would have had their characteristic appeal. This symbiotic relationship prodded and enticed the People into the market economy of the twentieth century.
Still, conflicts arose between customer and trader, which Evans duly notes. Nothing provides a better symbol of the tension that accompanied change than the episode at Beautiful Mountain. With strong personalities like Agent William T. Shelton, Bizhóshí, and Little Singer, something like this was bound to happen and not just there. The Tol Zhin (Tó Lizhini) Affair (1905) in Arizona and the Ba'illi incident (1907) at Aneth, Utah, provide two other examples where challenges to traditional practices and conflicts over the authority of government agents erupted into armed resistance. Evans's contribution is one of a local perspective that emphasizes the role of the trader in quelling the discontent. Absent or barely mentioned in official reports, these men provided a peaceful link between warring factions and probably saved lives on both sides.
Loss of livestock in the 1930s was one of a number of culminating events in the transition of the Navajo from traditional ways into midcentury American culture. Second only to the Long Walk period, Livestock Reduction is still a hated symbol of government intervention and insensitivity. By reducing sheep, goats, cattle, and horses as much as 50 percent, in some instances, the dominant society redirected Navajo lifestyle forever. While Evans discusses some of these events, he is surprisingly kind to the government programs and Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, who is blamed by the Navajos as its evil architect. Considering the impact of Livestock Reduction on the posts, the entire episode is treated mildly.
Of all of Evans's writings, his recording of events is probably the most significant. As a participant or willing listener, he provides an unparalleled view on a local level that will benefit generations to come. Observant and interested, Evans offers rich detail found in few other traders' accounts.
Agapito Remembers the Old Days
On a long, low, arid ridge near the south bank of the dry Escavada Wash, there stands a small, male-Navajo hogan. The humble home is about seventy-five miles south of Farmington and a few miles east of the ancient ruins of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. The structure is surrounded by a dry country of rolling hills and waterless arroyos. Desolation encompasses the region from horizon to horizon no matter the direction one travels in the penetrating waves of summer heat.
The hogan is the home of a toothless old Navajo man, who is nearsighted and well-nigh deaf. With him live his aged wife and two grandchildren, a boy and girl, who assist in tending his pitifully undernourished sheep and goats.
Thousands of acres of soil bore lush grass when the rains came and the snow fell deep; abundant clumps of brush sustained the animals when rain did not come plentifully. That was in the old days. Though the Navajos are great lovers of home, family ties, and their native soil, today the rich grass no longer grows. A vital cycle has been broken, and the dead and dying grass seems beyond resurrection from the parched earth.
Water for the family's needs is obtained by scraping a shallow hole in the bed of the wash near the bank, into which an old rusty tub, its bottom beaten out, has been placed to prevent caving. A battered metal pail fastened to a short rope draws the water. Two other battered tubs lie near the primitive well, providing water for the sheep, goats, and bony, sore-backed horses. When water for washing is needed, these old horses pull a battered wagon with a 50-gallon wooden barrel. It takes time to fill the barrel when the tub is empty because the water has to seep into the "well."
Inside the hogan, the beds — sheepskins which are rolled up during the day and laid down at night — are spread on the earthen floor. Cooking utensils consist of a cast-iron frying pan, enameled coffee pot and cups, a few plates, and silverware. Meals are cooked over a central pit, the smoke from the fire rising through a hole in the roof. The room has no partitions; the open space serves as kitchen, dining room, bedroom, weaving and sewing room. Usually there is very little to eat. Bread and coffee are staples with an occasional sheep sacrificed for food, hide, or a bedroll. Leanness is the rule, and want is everywhere. The people hope for a better way of life.
Each day, the old patriarch, Agapito, calls his grandchildren, then helps them drive the grazing sheep and goats to water. The animals browse along the banks of the dry wash, where underground moisture beneath a fine cover of windblown sand has forced green buds to appear on small clumps of greasewood. This plant cannot be called handsome, but in this sea of sand and desolation it seems lovely. The small animals nibble the tender shoots and obtain a degree of sustenance. What the frail horses live on is a mystery; their jutting bones testify of a life-and-death existence.
The struggle is not an isolated case in the drought-stricken wastes of Navajo land. Efforts are continually made by government and tribal workers to develop sources of water, but this work needs to increase.
John Arrington, from Farmington, and I visited the Escavada camp on July 7, 1951. We sought Agapito who, we had heard, was probably the sole survivor on the reservation of the eight thousand or more Navajos rounded up by Kit Carson and his troops, then marched to Fort Sumner in 1864 for four years of incarceration.
The roundup and exile occurred because the Navajos were making frequent raids upon white and Mexican settlements, robbing and kidnapping individuals, and destroying property. Complaints poured in to Washington; so Carson, after being commissioned, exerted disciplinary action upon the tribe.
Agapito was born on the Escavada Wash and had lived there continuously except for the Fort Sumner period. He was three years old when he made the trek and seven when he returned. Although he has little memory of the experiences of that arduous period, his recollection of stories related by family elders is keen.
We found Agapito and his small granddaughter herding sheep across the arroyo from his makeshift well. The boy was drawing water for the famished horses, when his grandmother sent him to tell the old man that visitors had come to see him. Agapito, with crude staff in hand, hobbled across the sandy wastes towards us. His niece by marriage, Ella Cly, was with us and served as interpreter when difficult phrases had to be shouted in his ear. Ella — very intelligent, pleasant, and obliging, and a former school girl — lives about five miles from her uncle.
After he extended his hand to the visitors and his niece in a very gentle clasp, he asked what we wanted. Before answering, we moved into the shade of a six-foot-high bank with a clump of greasewood growing above. There the four of us sat or squatted, sheltered from the blistering sun. Once seated, Ella answered the old fellow's question, carefully telling him that we were there to listen to his story about the Fort Sumner days. We also wished to look over the land to see if there was sufficient water underground to provide a better water supply for his family. John Arrington was a trader in this area years ago and was convinced that there was plenty of water below the ground's surface. We would do all we could to inform the proper authority.
Agapito's eyes lighted up as he quietly listened, filled with hope. Once he launched into his story, however, his words and phrases came in such abundance that Ella frequently had to restrain him while we made notes. His parents and their peers had told him, as a young man, of their experiences at Fort Sumner. Every family received a small ration of corn and flour, each of which would probably fill a one-pound coffee can. Sometimes there was meat, a small chunk of sowbelly, and perhaps a few beans. This was the ration for one day. Navajo clans and families were usually large so this food did not go far, and it was customary to eat only two meals a day. "Just enough," said Agapito, "to keep them alive." The small amount of coffee given them was in bean form, so they roasted it in a skillet, then ground it on a metate used for corn.
The people received a little seed corn at planting time, "Very little," said Agapito, but the scant crop of roasting ears tasted sweet when they were ripe, satisfying, for a while, the Navajos' craving for green food. A ration of buffalo meat sometimes eased their desire for meat.
The soldiers allowed the Navajos to keep what few rifles and bows and arrows they owned. Occasionally, Navajo hunting parties drifted over the Texas border into Comanche territory where bison were plentiful. Once they killed a buffalo, they brought back every edible part and the heavy skin to tan in camp; I knew one or two individuals who owned buffalo hides which came from Fort Sumner. The flesh of a buffalo meant that the clan members who formed the hunting party and their families, who camped in separate groups, would feast for a while.
When Navajos went afield to hunt buffalo, they sometimes met Comanche war parties determined to keep Navajos away from their herds. Battles became inevitable. Agapito recalled one hunting party that encountered Comanches; and after a protracted battle, the Navajos fell back, having had a pair of youthful twins killed. There was great mourning over them, because twins are a rarity and loved by the Navajos.
The exile at Fort Sumner was marked by mourning on every side. Smallpox laid its spotted hand upon the people, with so many dying that the living could not bury the dead fast enough. Some were thrown into unused ditches or arroyos and buried in mass graves.
Once the pestilence finished, the survivors felt time hanging heavily over them. They began to chafe and cry aloud the names of localities they called home, then tearfully begged their captors to let them go. I asked Agapito and others I knew if any escaped from the camps and made their way back to their homeland. I did not find any survivors who recalled this.
At long last the government and Navajos signed the Treaty of 1868. The tribesmen symbolically laid down their arms, signifying they would not take them up against the government and "Wááshindoon." Agapito's family returned to the Escavada, where he has been ever since. The return trip was by way of Fort Defiance, Arizona, where the government gave each Navajo two sheep. A few plows, harrows, horse-drawn scrapers, grubbing hoes, shovels, and axes were also issued to people from each locality. Then the families departed to where they formerly lived.
We asked Agapito if there were any white people in the area. He replied that there were none except at Forts Wingate and Defiance. "How did the Navajos manage to survive on just two sheep for each individual?" He replied that during the years preceding this time, and also within his own memory, great herds of deer and antelope roamed through the Four Corners region, especially in the San Juan and Animas River valleys. Even bighorn sheep were occasionally seen on the Hogback.
Those were the days of venison and antelope steaks, and although there were no firearms, snares captured these fleet-footed animals. The people made these traps of yucca fiber cord, then killed the deer with arrows or clubs, cutting the animal's throat with an obsidian knife. A genuine feast followed the snaring and killing of a deer. The Navajos also used the blood from the animals. Deer and antelope were so actively hunted that they eventually disappeared. Agapito said that throughout his homeland, grass grew stirrup-high to a horse. Plentiful brush retained snow and rain, and there were only a few deep arroyos. The people lived on the fat of the land until their flocks multiplied.
In the past, when Manuelito was a leader, Navajos warred against Apaches. One day a government representative from Fort Defiance called a meeting with Manuelito and his Navajos. The official asked them to take up arms against the renegade Apaches. Agapito quoted Manuelito: "You surely know that we laid down our arms, our guns and bows and arrows at Fort Sumner before we came back home and promised never to take them up again in war?" The government man replied, "Will you not take them up for the sake of the government and benefit of the settlers? The Apaches are killing too many settlers; when they rush back to their hideouts in the mountains, we need good trackers to find them."
Navajos are some of the best trackers in the world. I have heard it said that they can track a deer and strangle it. Some people believe that a Navajo could identify most of his acquaintances by their footprints. This is generally true in the case of family members and of his horses.
Finally Manuelito agreed. A group of young Navajos set out for north-central Arizona under his direction. In due time, they came close to the hostiles. When they reached the area of the Apache hideout in the timbered foothills, Manuelito told his men to tie their horses and seek the Apaches on foot. They spread out, kept in close touch, eventually surprised the Apaches, and captured their leaders. The Navajos killed some and took others prisoner, tying their hands with rope, then walking them down the mountain to be turned over to the Army. Agapito had suffered loss of memory, so he could not recall the names of the captors or captives.
He did, however, tell us that the representative of the government promised them an extension of the reservation lands in return for their assistance against the Apache. This extension was to cover a considerable amount of land including the Escavada and Pueblo Bonito area. The promise was never kept, like many other agreements made by "Wááshindoon." Some allotments of land have been made to individual families on the eastern edge of the Navajo country; however, these are not worth much without additional water resource development.
Yellow Horse and the Long Walk
Yellow Horse was a man of great power amongst his people for many years. When he was approximately ninety years old, bent and infirm, he could still hitch his ponies to his rickety old government-issue wagon received at Fort Defiance and drive in to the Shiprock Agency. He was a frequently honored visitor to my trading post and always carried an old butcher knife in a scabbard of rawhide looped to his belt. This old man had graying shoulder-length hair, bound about his brow by a rolled kerchief. His laugh was gruff but ready.
Excerpted from Along Navajo Trails by Will Evans, Susan E. Woods, Robert S. McPherson. Copyright © 2005 Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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