Navajo Exile & The Treaty of 1868

First Peoples of North America

Since the settlement of Euro-Americans in North American territory and the establishment of the United States as an independent nation, Native American people have been greatly impacted by foreign politics. Euro-Americans and the United States government interacted mostly with these Native American tribes though the establishment of treaties, which were supposed to benefit both parties involved. However, indigenous tribes found themselves taken advantage of, not respected as a nation by foreign politics and slowly losing their way of life to the dominating Euro-American culture. One tribe that was greatly impacted by treaties and foreign policy were the Navajo people in the Southwest. Like the other indigenous tribes of North America, the Navajo people were slowly negotiated out of land and independence.

The Navajo people originate from Southwest, most specifically northwestern New Mexico. They call themselves Dine, meaning “the people” and refer to their land as Dinetah, meaning “land of the people”. Their way of life included hunting, farming, tailor-made garments and in later years turned to herding as their major economic focus. Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico on February 2, 1848, the Navajo people interacted mostly with Mexico since they were colonized by the Spanish. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States gained more than 1.2 million square miles of territory (what we now refer to as New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California) in exchange for $15 million. However, the confrontations between the Navajo people and Mexico were now something that the United States inherited. On August 31, 1849, U.S. representatives James Calhoun and Colonel John Washington met with a group of Navajo people to explain the United States government’s plans to build forts and settle peacefully in the region. Unfortunately, the ended in an outburst of violence and U.S. soldiers shot and killed seven Navajo’s after a dispute over a Mexican guide’s horse being stolen. Needless to say, news of the tragic event made its way to the many bands of Navajo people and they each decided where they stand on the issue of American settlement. Different influential leaders of different bands of Navajo people entered into negotiations with U.S. representatives and signed a series of treaties. In the early 1950s, the United States erected their first fort in Navajo country and named it Fort Defiance. The name itself hinted at the tension and uneasy feelings between the United States and the indigenous people of the area.

In July of 1858, a group of Navajos shot and killed the black slave of the fort’s commanding officer, Captain William T.H. Brooks. The slave, known as Jim, was killed in response to the slaughter of Navajo leader Manuelito’s cattle that were grazing on land claimed by both the United States and Manuelito. Captain William T.H. Brooks than demanded that the Navajos bring him the man responsible for Jim’s murder. Instead they killed a Mexican man, brought his body to the fort and identified him as Jim’s murderer. Brooks was not convinced and dispatched his troops to Navajo country where they killed the first band of Navajo people they encountered. Unsettled land disputes and the United States’ interaction with several different Navajo leaders that could not sign treaties on behalf of all bands of Navajo, resulted in the massacre of a group of Navajo people who most likely had no knowledge of the original dispute.

By the 1860s, the United States negotiated a treaty with the Navajo people that would allow members of the Navajo tribe to travel to Fort Fauntleroy and receive rations of food. Eventually, U.S. Army officials began planning a major military campaign to force the Navajo people to submit to federal authority. The Civil War gave the U.S. army stationed in New Mexico the perfect justification to wage battles against the Navajo people. In the fall of 1862, General James Carleton was assigned commander of the U.S. Army in New Mexico Territory and began his campaign to round up the scattered Navajo people and relocate them to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. “On the reservation, they would be a captive audience for whites seeking to “civilize” them by preaching Christianity and teaching them other non-Indian values. Held long enough…the Indians might be compelled to assimilate into mainstream American society” (Iverson, pg. 34). Despite the Navajo peoples’ attempt to flee capture by U.S. soldiers, many bands of the Navajo tribe were rounded up and sent to Fort Wingate to prepare for the long journey to Fort Sumner. By 1864, the U.S. Army captured more than eight thousand Navajo people and forced them to walk two hundred and fifty miles to Fort Sumner. Any members of the tribe that resisted were abused or shot, women who gave birth along the way were given to special consideration as they were forced to continue on the journey, and at least two thousand men women and children died along the way. This large campaign of forced relocation is commonly known as The Long Walk, and something that has never been forgotten amongst the Navajo tribe.

Once they reached Fort Sumner, the U.S. Army quickly realized how ill equipped they were to house and feed so many captives. Their initial plan to make the natives grow their own food and farm the land failed, as the farming conditions and insect problems led to crop failure. The U.S. Army eventually negotiated contracts with non-Indians to provide food for the Navajo people. Corrupt suppliers sold them spoiled food, and many of the natives suffered digestive problems and dysentery (an inflammatory disorder of the intestine that causes diarrhea). The campaign was a complete and utter failure that resulted in the Navajo tribe losing their land, being torn away from their natural way of life, and eventually being put under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in January of 1867. The BIA was established in 1824 as an agency in the Department of the Interior for the sole purpose managing governmental relations with indigenous people.

The construction of the transcontinental railroad brought more and more American settlers and caused the United States government to rethink its Native American policies. To make way for American settlers, the United States entered into new negotiations with Native American tribes that would lay out the terms of their confinement on reservations in Indian Territory. Out of this, the United States Peace Commission was established to negotiate treaties with the various tribes. The two members chosen to visit the Navajo tribe at Fort Sumner were Colonel Samuel F. Tappan and General William Tecumseh Sherman. In the spring of 1868, Tappan and Sherman spoke with ten representatives of the Navajo people at Fort Sumner and explained the federal policy of relocating tribes to reservations in Indian Territory. The Navajo representatives expressed the tribe’s desire to go back to their homeland, and one representative named Barboncito told the visitors, “The bringing of us here had caused great decrease of our numbers- many of us have died, also a great number of our animals… Our grandfathers had no idea of living in any other country except our own… When the Navajos were first created, four mountains and four rivers were pointed out to us, inside of which we should live; that [which] was to be our country was given to us by the first woman of the Navajo’s tribe. I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country than my own” (Iverson, pg. 38). Sherman then explained that he would be willing to consider the option of the allowing the Navajo people to return to their homeland, but that the tribe would have to live peacefully within the boundaries designated by the United States government. On June 1, 1868, the Navajo tribe signed a treaty with the United States government that would allow them to return home. Once ratified by the government, the treaty laid out the initial boundaries of the Navajo Reservation that was made up of 3.5 million acres of land that spread across northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. Another part of the treaty involved the United States providing one teacher for every thirty Navajo children between the ages of six and eighteen that had a desire to attend school. “The U.S. government also pledged to give the Navajo people seeds and farming equipment and to purchase fifteen thousand sheep and goats and five hundred beef cattle for their use. In turn the Navajos agreed not to oppose the construction of any railroad or roads through the reservation, not to raid non-Indian settlements, and not to block the building of any military posts in their midst” (Iverson, pg. 42). With the signing of this treaty, the Navajo people became one of the very few native tribes of North America that were able to return to their ancestral homeland, while other tribes were forced to endure permanent removal from their homeland and live in Indian Territory.

Although the Navajo tribe was able to return to their ancestral homeland, dealings with the United States government and the tribe did not end with the signing of the Treaty of 1868. The tribe was still only allowed to return to a portion of their homeland, and land disputes between white settlers and Navajo people seemed to be never ending. Navajo sheepherders and white ranchers both wanted use of public domains and white settlers wanted to settle on land at the boundaries of Navajo land. Also, other tribes constantly raided Navajo land and the so called protection the U.S. Army pledged to provide was almost non-existent. However, there were good things that came from The Long Walk. Because the United States government dealt with the Navajo people as a whole, and not individual bands within the tribe, they began to see the need to work together. This sense of unity for the Navajo people continued in the years that followed, and as the Navajo tribe grew in numbers; they eventually entered into negotiations with the United States government for more land. Between 1878 and 1884, the Navajo people were able to convince the United States government to give them an additional 3.6 million acres of land to accommodate its people. While most Indians were losing their land to American expansion, the Navajos were demanding more territory through their government appointed Indian agents. However, in 1882 the United States government established a reservation for the Hopi Indians that included land already given to the Navajo people. The executive order that established an Indian Reservation for the Hopi Indians stated that “Hopi land could be occupied by ‘other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon’ ” (Iverson, 45). The United States expected both tribes to share land, overlapped previous land negotiations with the Navajo tribe and resulted in problems between the Navajos and Hopis many years later.

In 1933, the Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted a policy of livestock reduction among the Navajos due to overgrazing and much damage to Navajo land. John Collier, commissioner of the BIA, was able to get a few small additions to Navajo land if the tribe reduced some of their livestock at the same time. Although Collier initially attempted to carry out this policy with the cooperation of the Navajo people, he was forced to make decisions as the tribe was very hesitant to give up their livestock. Some Navajos were taken to jail for refusing to round up livestock or for fighting the agents who were part of the reduction program. “…they resented the loss of their livestock- especially for their sheep- because they saw it as an attack not only upon their means of support but upon their very culture” (Iverson, pg. 61). After 1936, agents began forcibly taking livestock without explaining why and with very little sensitivity towards their importance to the Navajo people. During a public hearing in 1936, Chee Dodge warned the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs by saying, “You take sheep away from a Navajo, that’s all he knows. He isn’t going to farm or anything like that; you might give a few acres to the poor ones, but stock-raising is in their heart. That’s their work. If you keep cutting down sheep, after a while the government will have to feed these people, give them rations; you know what that will cost” (Iverson, pg. 65). After the livestock reduction program concluded, many Navajo people had to find work in small towns and big cities off the reservations.

As World War II began, many native people left their reservations to work in war related industries and twice as many Native Americans enlisted in the war. “World War II probably marked the greatest change in the lives of Native Americans since Columbus mistakenly identified the Americas for the Indies” (Holm, pg. 28). There are most likely two major reasons that Native Americans had such an overwhelming turn out to support the United States in the fight against the Axis; one being economic and the other having to do with a somewhat political allegiance to the United States. The United States, not excluding Native Americans, was in an economic depression. The Navajo especially had seen their livestock and livelihood taken away from them, leaving them to fend for themselves and quickly find other alternatives to support their families. Since the military offered room, board, clothing a paycheck; the military was seen as a way to earn money, fight for their land, and send money home to their families. As far as allegiance to the United States was concerned, the Navajo and many other native tribes had to look to the United States to ensure their ownership of what lands they had left over from signing treaties with whites.

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 led to thousands of American and Native American men being drafted to serve in all branches of the United States armed forces. In response, John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Jacob Morgan, chair of the Navajo Nation, called for separate Native American military units. Their reasoning was that Navajos should be in separate units because they shared a common language, meaning no time would be wasted in interpreters translating commands. Also, since Native American tribes were recognized as semi-sovereign protectorates; they were entitled separate and individual Indian military units. To affirm their sovereign status even more, Native American tribes all over the United States began to declare war free of the United States and issued formal declarations of war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Navajo tribal council was the first Native American nation to do so, declaring “…that there was a ‘threat of foreign invasion’ and that ‘any un-American movement among out people will be resented and dealt with severely.’ Moreover, ‘We resolve that Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918 to aid and defend out government and its institutions against all subversive and armed conflict and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognized minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the greatest people of our race” (Holm, pg. 36-37). It was on August 7, 1943 that the Navajo code talkers made their war introduction at the United States attack on Guadalcanal. In Richard Tregaskis’ book titled Guadalcanal Diary, he writes of how a medical officer on the troop ship the night before witnessed the Navajo soldiers “ ‘doing a war dance’ in the hold of the troop ship… ritually preparing themselves for the dangers ahead” (Holm, pg. 53). The Navajo code talkers were called upon to transmit orders, coordinate artillery barrages, and report casualties while at the same time perfecting their code under battle conditions and exposing themselves to the tropical diseases of the area.

The idea to use the Navajo language as a United States code language during World War II came from Philip Johnston, a civil engineer in Los Angeles and the son of a missionary who lived in Navajo country. Johnston grew up speaking the Navajo language and often acted as a translator during official meetings between the Navajo tribe and the federal government. In February of 1942, United Marine Corps recruiters travelled to Navajo lands to enlist a group of thirty men fluent in the Navajo language. Navajo code talkers only had two months to create the code and be trained on the use of the various kinds of radio equipment. “It not only took a great memory to be a code talker, but also an almost unbelievable ability to use both Navajo and English correctly and quickly” (Holm, pg. 78). Navajo marines were also trained in combat just like their fellow marines, and had to step away from their radio packs and engage in the fight when things became intense. Members of the Navajo tribe traditionally have abhorrence to dead bodies and burial grounds, and anyone who has come in contact with the dead or been around the dead for a while must take part in special ceremonies to be purified. “The Navajo code was never broken and was a great factor in winning the war in the Pacific… ‘Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima! ...The entire operation was directed by Navajo code” (Holm, pg. 83).

Despite the history between the Navajo (and Native American tribes alike) and the United States, the hope of most Native Americans was that the American system of justice would prevail and right the past wrongs done to its Native American citizens. Navajo soldiers, who returned from the war and were exposed to more of the outside world, were convinced that the Navajo nation needed to learn how to better deal with the non-Indian populace. Immediately following World War II, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 to give rulings on various claims made by Native Americans against the United States. This was partly done to give justice to those Native Americans who suffered at the hands of the federal government, while it also was setting things up for the federal government to withdrawal from the affairs of the native people. This new federal Indian policy came to be known as Termination, because its main goal was to end the federal government’s financial responsibilities to Native American tribes and cease with special protection of reservation lands. The Navajo nation opposed Termination, arguing that “…their ancestors had signed treaties and agreements with the federal government, and therefore they were entitled to the unique legal status that these treaties granted them. Although tribes were not always pleased with the way in which the federal government acted toward them, they were even warier of the state governments, most of which in the past had shown little interest in the Indians” (Holm, pg. 74). In 1950 Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act, stating that tribe will receive $88 million over a ten-year period for internal projects such as reservation infrastructure and education. The Navajos knew that if they were survive and prosper as a tribal nation, their children and younger adults needed access to better education. In 1956 and 1957 large oil and gas fields were discovered in Navajo lands, and brought in millions of dollars each year in oil royalties to the Navajo economy. By 1969, the Navajo people were officially referring to their great tribe as the Navajo Nation.

While the Navajo Nation has come a long way since the Long Walk and the signing of the Treaty of 1868, many of the Navajo people still face poverty and unemployment. The signing of the Treaty of 1868 was the first step toward the Navajo people moving forward with a nation while not completely assimilating to their culture. The Navajo Nation has managed to act as a sovereign Indian nation, hold onto a portion of their original homeland, aid the United States in an Allied victory over the Axis during World War II and turn a federal policy like Termination into a chance for them to grow more independent. Though the future of the Navajo Nation is in no way guaranteed to be prosperous and free from conflict, the Navajo Nation still holds onto values and beliefs that helped guide their ancestors through hardships in the past.


Iverson, Peter, and Jennifer Nez Denetdale. The Navajo (Indians of North America). New York: Chelsea House Publications, 2005. Print.

H., Oswalt, Wendell. This land was theirs a study of Native North Americans. Los Angeles: University of California, Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Holm, Tom. Code Talkers and Warriors Native Americans and World War II (Landmark Events in Native American History). New York: Chelsea House Publications, 2007. Print.

Denetdale, Jennifer. The Long Walk The Forced Navajo Exile (Landmark Events in Native American History). New York: Chelsea House Publications, 2007. Print.

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