|Photo from the Long Walk|
It was my very first interview for the story just starting to germinate in my brain and heart. Despite living five years quite near the Navajo reservation, I really knew very little about that nation of people.
But my dad knew a man willing to help—Potawatomi himself, but his wife is Navajo. So, while on the road with her family through Colorado, though we got disconnected a time or two as they drove through mountain passes, she graciously gave me a “crash course” by phone in Navajo history.
She told me of the Long Walk. I had never heard of it before. In 1863, she explained, U.S. government policy had aimed at removing Native Americans from their homelands. I knew of the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears, but not that the Navajo had their own. I didn’t know U.S. soldiers burned their homes and crops, killed their animals, and finally rounded them up for a 450-mile march, in winter, to Fort Sumner—where they were imprisoned until the 1868 treaty finally allowed them to go home to their Diné Tah.
I didn’t know about all those who sickened and died from the bitter cold, illness, and poor food. I didn’t know about the pregnant women, sick, and elderly shot in the snow because they couldn’t keep up.
|One main route of the Long Walk|
This lady told me her great-great-grandmother had been a little girl then. I later learned from my Navajo host in the family who has so taken me and my story under their wing, that his grandfather went on the Long Walk at age six. Though unknown to many Americans today, this episode is so ingrained in the collective Navajo memory that a Navajo college friend told me that even still, whenever her grandmother met a white person, her first thought was “the Long Walk.”
My story, being set in 1911, only touches on the Long Walk through a grandmother’s memories. However, my blogging friend and fellow novelist Jennifer Major deals with it more deeply in her manuscripts. Through her, I’ve learned of a man currently embarking on a journey—literally—to remember the Long Walk and, through chronicling his steps, help others to remember it too—or to learn about this chapter of American history for the first time.
Byron Shorty, author of the “Navajo Word of the Day” website, has just begun retracing, on foot, the Long Walk taken by his ancestors 150 years ago—from the western border of the Navajo Nation near Flagstaff, Arizona, to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, called “Hwéeldi” by the Navajo interned there. You can read his post about this journey here, and follow his progress on facebook as well.
So follow along if you like, with Byron’s journey, as I am trying to…to learn, and to remember Hwéeldi.