Among the many tragedies suffered by Native Americans over the course of U.S. history, none may be less well understood and known than the Long Walk of the Navajo. While many Americans are aware of the Trail of Tears, in which the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the south to what is now Oklahoma, but the Long Walk does not get nearly as much play in the American mind. Beginning in 1864, near the end of the Civil War, the Navajo people were forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands in Arizona to eastern New Mexico in order to make room for white settlers. While not as genocidal as the Trail of Tears, the Navajo were so collectively scarred and traumatized by the Long Walk that it has permanently influenced them as a people. Understanding the Long Walk is key to not only understanding the state of the Navajo, but also the nature of Native Americans’ long and complicated relationship with the white federal government.
Due to the nature of political boundaries in North America in the 1800’s, Arizona—and the land of the Navajos—was one of the last lands that was invaded by white settlers. Originally part of New Spain, the region became part of Mexico following that country’s war of independence. In the 1840’s, much of what is now Arizona was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War, in which the U.S. stripped Mexico of nearly half of its territory as a land grab to support the expansion of slavery. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase resulted in the U.S. gaining control over what comprises the remainder of modern-day Arizona and New Mexico. Due to Arizona’s remoteness and arid climate, European settlers had expressed little interest in colonizing it, until the U.S. took control.

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In the years leading up to the Long Walk, tensions between American settles and the Navajo had reached a fever pitch. Despite the Navajo and the military signing several agreements guaranteeing peace and protection, in practice, the military allowed American settlers to steal Navajo property and enslave individual tribesmen. Tensions temporarily halted with the Civil War, as the Confederacy claimed parts of Arizona and New Mexico for itself; however, following the Confederates’ ousting from the area, the military turned its attention back to the Navajo.

Colonel Kit Carson was assigned to deal with the Navajo in 1864, beginning an assault on their holdings in January of that year with the help of the Utes and other rival tribes. Carson engaged in scorched earth warfare against the Navajo, wiping out their villages and threatening to starve them out. Following the surrender of the Navajo in spring, they were rounded up and forcibly relocated to Fort Sumner (also known as Bosque Redondo). The military deliberately refused to give any supplies to the Navajo, tell them where they were going, or why they were being moved; many Navajo died of starvation or exposure because of this. All totaled, about 200 Navajo died and just shy of 10,000 Navajo were forcibly relocated on the Long Walk.

Because of the nature in which they were moved, the Navajo were permanently traumatized by the Long Walk. Being exiled from the land they’d lived on since time immemorial, relocated to a new place they had never seen, and being starved and beaten along the way wounded the Navajo in such a fashion that they’ve never recovered. While the Navajo were allowed to return to their native lands in 1868, the psychic wounds inflicted by the Long Walk have remained with them to this day. The sheer amounts of death experienced on the walk also severely reduced the Navajos’ numbers. There is no other term that can be used to describe the Long Walk aside from genocide

  • Acrey, Bill P. Navajo History: The Land and the People. Toohnii Press, PO Drawer C, Shiprock, NM 87420, 1979.
  • Denetdale, Jennifer. The long walk: The forced Navajo exile. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
  • Johnson, Broderick H. “Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period.” (1973).