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The Australian: Sacred soil on the Navajo Nation
Friday, October 31, 2008
Filed Under: National

"By the time soldiers arrived, the Navajo knew their fate. They came on a cold morning, in the first week of January 1864. Silhouetted against the low winter sun, lines of cavalrymen split in two groups, fanning out along the rim of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, one heading to close the eastern end, the other the western.

They had been dispatched by general James Henry Carleton, who was seeking a final solution to the "Navajo problem". The Navajo knew Carleton as a man with "a hairy face, fierce eyes and a mouth that never smiled". For his part, Carleton described the Navajo as "wolves who run through the mountains and must be subdued". His orders were to present the tribe with two options: to abandon its lands and surrender to life on a reservation, or to suffer the full wrath of the US Army in a scorched earth campaign. In the end the Navajo people would suffer both fates.

"The people had got wind of the army's approach," Dave tells me. He and I are standing in the canyon leaning on the front of his pick-up truck. Over his shoulder, I see the shadows of kite hawks gliding across the canyon walls.

"Many of our warriors had retreated north towards the Little Colorado River. Others climbed Fortress Rock here (he points to a tall free-standing butte behind us) and pulled their ropes and their ladders up behind them. In the canyon the soldiers found mostly women, children and old people."

Dave is a burly Navajo with a copper-coloured face and narrow piercing eyes. All morning he has been guiding me through the Canyon de Chelly. In the Navajo phrase for this remarkable place, we had been "walking in beauty" or, at any rate, driving in Dave's battered Chevy. We lumber through flooded stream beds. We skirt cottonwood groves and fields of planted corn. In the still morning we stop to admire the clouds disappearing over the canyon rim.

Dave is not a man of many words. His commentary on the canyon has been on the succinct side. But beneath the Fortress Rock, as he begins to tell the story of the Long Walk and the great tragedy of Navajo history, the words begin to flow more freely."

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Sacred soil (The Australian 10/31)

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