Surface Skimmer

Lawrence Cheek's book about the tragic Navajo Long Walk is well-done--what there is of it

According to the bio blurb, author Lawrence Cheek "has published nearly a dozen books and more than 600 articles about the American West."

And in the flyleaf of his latest, The Navajo Long Walk, Cheek gets right to the point in setting his editorial stage: "In the midst of the Civil War, the U.S. military decided to move the Navajo people forcibly from their traditional homeland to a tiny reservation on the high plains of east-central New Mexico. Colonel Kit Carson broke Navajo resistance with a series of military raids, then herded the people in large groups across distance of (up to) 500 miles in what became known as the Long Walk. From 1864 to 1868 more than 8,000 Navajos attempted to live at the crude camp (Fort Sumner) on the Pecos River. Up to a fifth of the Navajo population at the time died either en route or in the camp."

Just as Cliff Notes give those with little time or short attention spans a surface glimpse of a particular subject, this 64-page book from Rio Nuevo's new Look West series barely skims the surface, leaving readers with more questions than answers. Not that Cheek, who has been a professional writer from the age of 15 and knows how to write detailed and emotionally stirring features, had much choice. Full-page color photos, maps and other illustrations take up almost half the fits-in-your-hand mini-book, leaving scant space to really explore what it was like to be part of that ponderous river of humanity that flowed into the 40-square-mile compound at Bosque Redondo.

Within the few thousand words of editorial comment possible, Cheek (former editor of Tucson's long-defunct City magazine and former essayist/critic for the Tucson Citizen) notes, "The story played out as it always did in the Indian wars: a reel of treachery and misjudgments on both sides, leading to a decisive punch with all the military muscle the U.S. could afford to throw into it."

When U.S. Army General James Henry Carleton assumed command in 1862, the entire Navajo culture was threatened with annihilation because of his "might is right" credo. "Carleton believed the Navajos would understand nothing but the direct application of force, for they were 'a people that can be trusted no more than you can trust the wolves that run through their mountains,''' relates Cheek. "In retrospect, the decision to launch an all-out offensive seems amazingly reckless, but it reflected the nation's mood and might be seen as an extension of the Union's political determination to firmly re-establish authority all across the continent."

That's one perspective. For those who walked that walk, many died from exposure, dysentery, dehydration and starvation. Cheek quotes Ruth Roessel, author of Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period, relating a ranching family narrative that while the Army had enough corn to feed its horses, marchers were forced to dig in the equine manure for undigested corn kernels that could be mixed with hot water and made into meal.

The agrarian Navajos worked the land relentlessly, primarily motivated by fear of starvation. In the first summer, 3,000 acres of corn, beans, wheat, melons and pumpkins seemed to be maturing nicely until an army of cutworms devastated the corn and fall storms destroyed most of the wheat. Even when the Navajos could grow food, they had no way to cook it. After the first year, they found it necessary to dismantle their own dwellings for cooking fuel or conduct a miniature Long Walk of up to 12 miles just to locate firewood.

Cheek seeks out and quotes those who can see two sides in what history has called a travesty of justice--the Southwestern counterpart to the Cherokees' Trail of Tears. Medicine man Johnson Dennison speaks of tribal disharmony: "Relationships were the key to living in harmony, relationship with self, the earth, neighbors. At the time of the Long Walk, people were doing whatever they wanted. There was no order. They were out of harmony. The Long Walk brought us back together." Navajo anthropologist Harry Walters of Din`e College in Tsaile draws parallels to contemporary events: "If you take into consideration international laws, human rights--there was a great wrong done. You read today about ethnic cleansing--that's what was done to us."

"The irony--no, the lesson--of the Long Walk is that it preserved Navajo identity instead of destroying it," concludes Cheek, who notes that today the tribe numbers more than 200,000 members and that the Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States.

The story of one of the West's most horrendous tragedies is well-written, but needs more pages, more pictures and lots more detail in order for readers to truly grasp the concept that what doesn't kill you can sometimes make you stronger.