In Context

After the United States defeated Mexico in 1846 and took control of the Southwest, the Navajo were forcibly removed from their land. Colonel Kit Carson and his army implemented scorched-earth tactics, which included the burning and destruction of crops, homes and livestock. Many of the surviving Navajo were already suffering from starvation when they were ordered to march hundreds of miles to the Bosque Redondo reservation near Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, a mass movement known as the "Long Walk." The Navajos remained on the Bosque Redondo reservation for four years while the United States attempted to facilitate development of sedentary farming techniques. Many died on the Long Walk and during those four years of imprisonment.

On June 1, 1868, the Treaty of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, established a reservation for the Navajo. The treaty allowed the Navajo to return to their homeland, allotting them approximately 3.5 million acres of land around Fort Defiance on the border of Arizona and New Mexico. The near elimination of livestock, the loss of previous trade networks and difficulties growing crops on the arid land forced many Navajos into depending on rations distributed by the military. (Fry-bread, now a staple of the Navajo diet, was actually developed from those meager rations.) The U.S. government also supplied small livestock, such as sheep and goats, as well as marketing outlets for the Navajo to sell their goods.

The Navajo population on the reservation grew from approximately 8,000 after the Long Walk, to approximately 20,000 at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1969, one year after the 100th anniversary of the reservation, the Navajo Nation was granted tribal sovereignty. American Indian tribes are recognized by United States federal law as possessing sovereignty over their members and their territory. Sovereignty means that tribes have the power to make and enforce laws and to establish courts and other forums for resolution of disputes.

The Navajo Nation government has a three-branch system (executive, legislative, judicial) and is considered one of the most sophisticated American Indian governments.

Caption: Navajo, New Mexico
Credit: Photo still from Up Heartbreak Hill

» Canyon De Chelly. "The Navajo Long Walk."
» From Revolution to Reconstruction. "Navajo Treaty of 1868: Fort Sumner, New Mexico, June 1, 1868."
» United States Department of Agriculture. "2010 County-Level Poverty Rates for New Mexico<
» Volk, Robert. "Red Sales in the Sunset: The Rise and Fall of White Trader Dominance in the United States." American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 24 (1), 69-97, 2000.