June 2007

Slavery in the southwest

By Connie Gotsch

In mid-February 1862, Confederates clashed with the Union Army on the Rio Grande near Fort Craig, New Mexico Territory, in the Battle of Valverde.

The Confederates claimed victory, and took control of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. At the end of March, the Union Army confronted them again, at Glorietta Pass near Santa Fe. A Union victory drove the Southerners out of the Southwest.

Yolanda Nava, director of Marketing for the New Mexico State Monuments Division of the Museum of New Mexico, finds irony in that history. “The Union was trying to eliminate slavery, and we had it right here in the Southwest,” she says quietly in a phone conversation from her Santa Fe office.

She’s referring to the 1863 incarceration of Navajo and Mescalero Apache people near Fort Sumner. The U.S. military leader in the New Mexico Territory, Gen. James H. Carlton, directed Col. Kit Carson to kill all Mescalero Apache men, and to take women and children as prisoners to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation, on the Pecos River near Fort Sumner.

Carson also launched a scorchedearth policy against the Navajos in the Four Corners, taking livestock, and crops, burning houses, and poisoning water. When some 9,000 Navajos surrendered to him, his forces marched them 450 miles to Bosque Redondo, on a brutal midwinter trek, known as The Long Walk.

The Bosque proved disastrous to the captives, one-third of whom died while they were there.

But Carlton believed land at the Bosque would be good for raising crops, and though the Mescelaro Apaches were not farmers, he decided they would learn to be.

“Things didn’t grow well there,” says Nava. “The captives were forced to live in squalid conditions, with not enough food. The water was salty. The stress on the provisions was exacerbated by the high number of people the area just couldn’t sustain.”

Even the soldiers recognized the captives’ suffering and sarcastically dubbed the camp “Carletonia.”

Eventually, the Mescelaro Apaches, who considered the Fort Sumner area their territory, escaped the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation in darkness. The Navajos remained, until the Treaty of 1868 established their nation.

Fort Sumner became a New Mexico State Monument in the early 20th Century, with the purpose of interpreting the Civil War. Then in the late 1980s, the New Mexico Monuments Division began developing the idea of a memorial at Bosque for the people incarcerated there.

Both the Navajos and Mescelaro Apaches had mixed emotions when the Bosque Redondo Memorial at the Fort Sumner State Monument opened in 2005.

“It’s a very painful period to recall,” explains Nava. “Both tribes were conflicted in terms of whether they wanted to look back at this situation.”

But they also realized that young people wanted to know and understand their history.

“It helps to heal,” she says, because by studying history, people can understand the dynamics behind it.

Manifest Destiny was the dynamic that created Bosque Redondo. Eastern pioneers believed they had to expand coast to coast to create a great nation, regardless of the consequences to cultures already present.

Nava believes people need to talk about the tragedy at Bosque Redondo in order to heal from it. “There hasn’t been an opportunity to close the wound, and to be able to transcend the pain that took place in the 1860s, and throughout the Eastern settlement of the Southwest.”

To help develop a healing climate, the Bosque Redondo Memorial became a member of the Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience. Now it is seeking affiliation with the coalition. Affiliation will allow the memorial to join places like Britain's Workhouse and New York’s Tenement Museum, to create a public dialogue on human rights and culture.

To achieve affiliation with the coalition, Bosque Redondo will present shows, workshops, and seminars. The permanent exhibit will expand to tell more of the Mescalero Apaches’ experience in the camp. Right now, the emphasis is largely Navajo because more Navajos were incarcerated, and more of their descendants helped create the memorial.

Recently, the memorial hosted the exhibit “Anne Frank: A History for Today” to help people connect Fort Sumner’s tragedy with atrocities across the globe.

“We are looking to frame the events of Bosque Redondo within the larger context of the violation of human rights,” says Nava.

Bosque Redondo developed age-appropriate materials for teachers bringing students to learn about Anne Frank, her 25 months hiding from the Nazis in Holland, and the journal she kept before the SS caught her and sent her to a concentration camp to die.

On June 23, the memorial will host the Long Walk Symposium, designed to help social-studies teachers learn to talk about human rights violations in ways that fit student levels of understanding.

Before the symposium, Liz Sevcenko, director of the Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, will lead a workshop to help teachers understand how to lead class activities on human rights and presentation of cultures.

How should they deal with people who deny that atrocities happened? What advice should they give students to help them cope with painful issues themselves? How should they say other cultures want to be presented?

“We haven’t had tools to work with this kind of material, and events and encounters,” Nava asserts. “We haven’t learned that we’re all part of one human planet.”

She believes that books, museums, and activists are heading people in that direction. But work still needs to be done. Everyone must come to terms with the diverse cultures that make up America and the world.

“In the 21st Century we have to learn to live harmoniously with one another,” she states.