Narbona
(1766-1849)
Tachíí'níí -- Red-Running-Into-The-Water People Clan


A watercolor of Narbona, based on a sketch by Richard H. Kern. The Navajo leader sat for this portrait on August 31, 1849, the day he was killed at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

Narbona was born in 1766, at the beginning of the bloodiest century the Navajos have ever known. He grew up to become a great leader of people, a courageous warrior and the strongest peace leader of his time.

During his first six years, he was sheltered at home by the women, his mother, grandmothers, and aunts. Many times he watched as his father and the other men of the camp rode east to survey their fields of corn, beans, and squash. West, up behind the fields and hogans reached the Chuska Mountains, with snow-fed springs and pine-crested ridges. Narbona's family used the land from the top of these mountains to the east almost to the Rio Chaco.

Sometimes, Narbona's father and his band came home after a long ride, laden with goods they had taken in raids, and occasionally bringing a Mexican or Pueblo woman to help in the family work. Often, these women became wives or sisters in the family.

At other times, the warning cries of owls and coyotes echoed along the trails, passing from one Navajo scout to the next until they reached Narbona's camp. Ute and Pueblo warriors had been spotted, raiders coming to kill, capture, and destroy everything in their path. As the warnings came, the whole family hurriedly snatched food and supplies, grabbed up the small children, and raced up the narrow trails into the safety of the mountains.

There were times of peace, too, for the little Navajo boy. As he outgrew the babyhood protection of his cradleboard and the women, he also quickly outgrew the small garments his mother made for him. Narbona became noticeable for his size, much larger than the other boys his age. When Narbona was six he was given his first pony. Like his cousins and friends his own age, he soon learned to handle his pony expertly and began riding out into the fields with his father and uncles.

But those were dangerous years for the Navajos, and preparation for the ways of war and hardship began with seven and eight year old boys. The daily training began in the cold, dark, pre-dawn with a chilling call: "Wake up, be lively! If you are not up early, the enemy will come and kill you while you sleep."

To young Narbona and his friends it was a lively contest each morning to see who could race out to a distant point and back the fastest. Narbona often won these races, laughing merrily and teasing his friends, "Hey, you slowpokes, even Grandfather Turtle will beat you." He and his friends grew strong in contests of broadjumping, throwing stones, and practicing with the hunter's curved stick. Soon they were helping provide the family food, by bringing back rabbits and other small animals they caught.

All this training made adults of the boys at an early age, and it was fortunate. For Narbona was just seven years old when Ute warriors began a fearsome period of raids against the Navajos in 1773. They thundered through Navajo camps, driving away livestock and burning fields. Navajo men who did not escape into safe hiding were killed on the spot. Women and children were captured, and later taken to the slave markets to be sold to the Spaniards of New Mexico territory.

The following spring of 1774, Laguna and Acoma raiders captured nearly fifty Navajo women and children. Not only did they have to live and work as slaves; along with this, they were forced into baptism in the Spaniards' Catholic Church, and made to worship in the unfamiliar ceremonies of the missions.

The force behind this period of raids was a secret promise the Spanish governor of New Mexico territory made with the Ute Indians. He promised them he would remain neutral in a war the Utes were planning against the Navajos. If successful, this war would gain miles of new land for the Spanish ranchers. In past years the Indian tribes had raided back and forth occasionally for livestock and captives for themselves. But now the Spaniards had control of much of the southwest, and they wanted more, the Indians' souls and their vast stretches of good grazing land.

Time and again, Narbona's father and other Navajo warriors struck at the Spanish rancherias along the Rio Grande and Rio Puerco. Narbona listened as his father told of these far-away places and of the Navajos who were slaves there. "We used to live there," his father said. "As free as the wind, we hunted and grazed our flocks in the river valleys. We had many friends among the Pueblo people. Now they have been turned against us by the Spaniards, and Navajos who still live in those valleys are slaves."

As Narbona grew up, he learned that constant guarding and counter-raids were important, if his family was to keep its wealth, the miles of planted fields, and thousands of sheep and cattle. By the time he was twelve, he was expert in the skills he had practiced since he was six. He was ready for his first bow and arrow, and close to the day when he would use it on the war trail. Because Narbona was taller than most of his companions, his bow was longer than most. It stood exactly the same height as he did.

With his height and skill, Narbona stood out among the young men, and before he was sixteen Narbona began riding with the men on their raids. He had learned the Chuska Mountain trails as a young boy. Now he learned of the river valleys, the Pueblo mesas, and the hunting trails in the mountains far east of his home. He also mastered the details of the war trail, the waiting, the silence, and the sudden attack.

Narbona saw for himself the Navajo women and children working in the Spaniards' fields in the Rio Grande and Rio Puerco valleys. Now, anger and determination sped with his arrows against the enemy.

He was in his early twenties when his parents found a young Navajo bride for him. Bikee'dijoolí, (Small Plump Feet) lived with her family at the base of the Tunicha Mountains, north of Narbona's camp. After the wedding ceremony, he moved to live near her parents' home, as was the custom.

During the next twelve years, Narbona saw more and more of Dinetah (Old Navajoland) fall to Spanish hands, along with more Indian slaves to labor on it. In retaliation he and his companions struck back many times, against the Utes, the Pueblos, and the Spaniards.

From one of his raids, he brought back a Zuni woman as a wife. When he was in his early thirties he brought home another Navajo wife.1 By 1800, when his first wife's father died, he was ready to take his place as the male leader of the region. By now, his family included a good many cousins, in-laws, and orphans of Navajo families who had been attacked during the raids. Narbona was thirty-four and a well-known leader.

He had children of his own now, children who were growing up in dangerous times. It was his duty as a leader to protect his large encampment, to ward off the raiders. He was not alone in his anger at the harassment from enemies surrounding Navajo country. Navajo leaders from other regions suffered in the same way. Spanish settlers kept arriving in New Mexico Territory, bringing land grants which said they legally owned parts of old Indian lands.

In 1800, the Spaniards decided to take a large piece of land at the base of Mount Taylor, the sacred Turquoise Mountain of the Navajos. Narbona and other leaders gathered to talk to the Spanish governor, trying to regain this land peacefully. But the land was ideal for a Spanish military site, a perfect place from which the soldiers could launch their attacks. They refused to return it to the Navajos.

Navajo resentment smoldered. It flickered into sparks as Narbona and other warriors led raids. And in a furious burst of flame a thousand Navajo warriors tried to attack and reclaim their sacred mountain. Though they fought a vigorous battle, the Navajos could not rout the Spaniards from the settlement. Finally, Narbona and the other leaders planned a seige against Cebolleta, the military settlement.

The Spanish governor desperately commanded his hard-pressed troops. "Everything must be done to keep the site of Cebolleta occupied." His men killed fifty-seven Navajo warriors and took five women and children captive. Still Narbona's determined siege continued. Fighting back with his last resort, the governor called up troops from Sonora in the far southwest.

In the battles that followed, tragic waste was laid to Canyon de Chelly. In January 1805, Spanish Lieutenant Antonio Narbona led his troops into the canyon. There they massacred 115 aging Navajos, and captured thirty-three young women and children taken away from their looms and cooking fires. Cebolleta remained in Spanish control, and became the major gathering place for Spanish soldiers leaving on campaigns against the Navajos.

Ten years passed, years supposedly peaceful because of a treaty in 1805. Still the records show a number of slave baptisms, and this alone would have spurred Navajo raids against the enemy. But the Spanish ranchers were sending their herders and flocks to Navajo grazing lands, and the Navajos drove them away as often as they could, stealing the livestock that had fattened on their grass.

Ten years passed, and in 1815 enemies still clouded the horizon in every direction Narbona looked. Ute and Pueblo warriors began to use guns against the Navajos' bows and arrows. They were able to get guns by trading off the slaves and livestock they captured from Navajos. Suddenly, a new threat appeared.

Spanish officials were up to their old tricks of sending one tribe against another. The Comanches, east of New Mexico, were becoming armed with French weapons, posing a dangerous threat to the Spaniards from the east. Rather than suffer this threat, the Spaniards gained their friendship with promises of rewards in booty from attacks on the Utes and the Navajos. In 1816, the Navajos felt the wrath of Comanche warfare, and so did the Utes, the Pawnees, and the Apaches.

Councils convened across Navajo country. The headmen talked long hours into the nights, trying to find a solution to their problems. For years they had fought off the other tribes and had tried to drive out the Spaniards. They had tried to protect their lands and their families first by talking peacefully with the Spaniards, and when that did no good, they had sent war parties against the enemy. Still, there were many Spanish rancherias dotting the boundaries of Navajo country. Narbona was nearing fifty now. Most of his life so far he had given to fighting, simply to protect his family, his fields, and his livestock.

News of his courage and skill had spread. Now, leaders from other regions began to look upon him as the greatest leader among them. Young boys heard tales of his legendary bravery and wisdom, and longed for the day when they might become leaders of his stature. Narbona seemed to have a second sense about when to fight and when to negotiate for peace.

He wanted peace much more than war. War meant burned fields, starvation through the long winters, frightened children, and homeless families. Narbona loved the lush green of his fields as the crops sprang from the earth. He loved the vast valleys stretching before him, so full of sheep and cattle he could hardly see the desert floor. The friendly smells of meat and vegetables cooking, of the forest breezes drifting down to his camp pleased him far more than the choking smoke from burning fields. He wanted to be free of worry when his grandchildren wandered through the foothills hunting for rabbits. He wanted to bring his women new Pueblo pottery, to replace the ancient, chipped and broken cooking ware they had used all their lives. But the Pueblos were no longer friendly, and the Navajos could not easily trade back and forth as in the old days.

The job of leading his people out of war and back to peace was on Narbona's shoulders. Though his warriors had been stalwart on the war trails, the threats around them continued and promised to become worse, as long as the Spaniards kept the tribes warring among themselves. He advised the other headmen to consider a major attack directly against the Spaniards.

He was fifty-two when the warriors of the tribe unified, and began striking solidly against the Spaniards in 1818. First they spent many months preparing their stronghold on Yoo Tsoh (Beautiful Mountain), climbing up the hand and foot holds bearing food and medicine plants, materials to make new arrows and new clothing and shields. Finally they were ready to launch their war. They rode down into the valleys, through the rivers to the mountains far east, attacking settlements all along the way. Narbona's timing could not have been more perfect, for many Spanish soldiers were busy trying to stop the Mexican rebellion in the far south, and they left their northern frontier in New Mexico weakly protected. The Navajos proved to be a force to reckon with.

In 1819 a treaty was concluded between the Navajos and Spaniards. Narbona's strategy had worked. Boundaries were established, though not clearly defined, and the Spaniards wanted the Navajos to become pueblo dwellers and Catholics. These points were disagreeable to the Navajos, but Narbona had an even more serious problem at home. He knew the small war parties of a dozen or more men would discourage the ranchers from moving in too closely, and he was certain that the Navajos would never build pueblos. He rode home, worried deeply about the drought that had hit his region.

His lush fields were shriveling and drying under the burning desert sun. His huge herds of horses, sheep and cattle were dying from thirst. Water was more precious than ever.

Praying that the drought would vanish after a season or two, Narbona and the people of his region stayed at home. They journeyed far with the herds to find water, and distributed with care the water they brought with them. But the cold springs of the mountains burned dry, and the stores of dried vegetables ran low. The drought did not end.

Narbona knew he had to move in order to save his family from starvation and his herds from total destruction. It was springtime in the early 1820's that Navajos from all over the region gathered up their household goods, tied up bundles of seeds, and rounded up their livestock. They followed Narbona as he traveled west through the mountains, then south, seeking water and a safe place to live until the drought passed.

After many weeks of slow traveling, with the livestock grazing along the way, the large band came to the Ganado Valley. There they stopped to rest. They camped and visited with families who lived there, repaired their worn moccasins, and hunted for fresh meat. At night, the fragrance of juniper smoke and the promise of a story lured the children into an eager circle around the great leader. People of the valley came to listen, and as the stars twinkled brighter and brighter above the piñon trees, Narbona enjoyed the excitement he saw reflected in all the shining eyes around him. He told them of the great siege at Cebolleta, and of the battles he had launched from Beautiful Mountain. He told them of the Spanish soldiers, buttoned and buckled up to their chins, while the Navajo warriors rode lightly and free like whirlwinds across the desert. "They were always considerate enough to signal us that they were coming," he smiled, "by wearing those shiny buttons, so bright we could see them at a great distance, like those stars." The people laughed at his wry joke.

During their rest in the Ganado Valley, one of Narbona's sons married a Navajo girl of the region. Giving his son a share of the livestock, Narbona left the young couple with the girl's family. Then the rest of the band moved on westward. The Ganado Valley already had many families, and there was no place for such a large group as Narbona's to settle. "We must get these sheep to good grassland, before their bones stick out like handles for us to carry them by," he said, half seriously. But his people saw a smile flicker on his leathery face, and knew they could have no finer leader than this man, who could remind them of their good humor even in the worst situations.

After many days of traveling, they reached the Hopi mesas, hostile country. But Narbona's band must have appeared too large to attack, as the "little rabbits," as the Navajos often called them, did not ride down to pursue them. At the western end of the third mesa, Narbona found water and land, not in use by other people at the time. He decided to stop.

His band might have paid some form of rent for using this land and water to the nearby Hopi village on the mesa top, for the two groups remained friendly and peaceful with each other. Three of Narbona's children married Hopis during their long stay there.

It was a sorely needed time of rest for the old chief. For more than five years his band camped here, with the Navajos' sacred mountain of the west, the San Francisco Peaks, shining to the southwest of them. Much of the people's time was taken with cultivating the ground, planting, harvesting, and preparing food to store for the winters. The sheep grew fat again, herded daily to good water and grass. Beautiful rugs took shape on the looms, and life was peaceful. Once again, through daily life and through the ancient ceremonies, Narbona's people felt restored to harmony with their earth.

Then, in the late 1820's, news arrived. There was snow on the Tunicha Mountains. Narbona's people rejoiced and prepared for the journey back home, eager to see again their pine-shaded mountains and rolling valleys.

By taking a shorter route, the band arrived home in less than a month, in time to plant their fields. During their homeward trip, a young man had joined them, riding along the trail with them for many days. This young man, Manuelito, married one of Narbona's daughters and moved to Narbona's camp.

But the news that greeted them at home was not happy. Narbona had enjoyed peace for a few years, but Navajos who had remained along the eastern edge of Navajo country had not. The treaty concluded in 1819 had been followed by more battles back and forth across the boundaries of Navajo country. Another treaty in 1823 had proved to be of little value, and now the Mexicans had won the territory away from the Spaniards. Slaving and scalp-hunting expeditions were sent against the Navajos by the Mexican officials. During the years Narbona was in the western part of Navajo country, more than 250 Navajo women and children had been captured and sold into slavery.

Narbona was now into his sixties. He had enjoyed peace for the past several years. Now, as the most admired leader among the Navajos, he wanted to find peace for all of them. In 1829, he requested the Mexicans to furnish a military escort so he could visit the Mexican governor in Santa Fe, without losing his scalp along the way. He had already tried to show his good will by sending his messengers to Jemez to settle a matter of horses stolen by some Navajos.

As a peacemaker, Narbona continued making the dangerous journeys through enemy country in 1832 and 1833. The talks between Narbona and Mexican leaders had little effect, except that his own camp was not attacked. But other Navajo families were still constantly alert, for the price of Navajo slaves was rising, and traders were making a good deal of money from selling them. In 1834, many families were victims of raiders from far and wide - Abiquiu, Cubero, Cebolleta, Sandia, Jemez, and Cochiti.

Narbona divided his time between comforting broken and homeless families, and lecturing the Navajos who kept stealing livestock. Many times he convinced younger men to return the livestock they had stolen.

But in February 1835, Narbona once again had to fight. A direct attack on Navajos was planned. Nearly a thousand New Mexicans were riding to kill and burn all they could find. Narbona's scouts learned that the troops were coming through Bééshlichí'ii Bigiizli (Copper Pass), later to be known as Washington Pass.

Narbona planned his campaign carefully. He called together 200 warriors, a large number for a Navajo war party, but a small number compared to the Mexicans' troops of a thousand.

"We will await them," he told the warriors, "in small groups along both sides of the trail. They will be strung out in a line, like a long branch. We will cut that long branch into short pieces, just right for firewood." Not a leaf rustled, nor did a twig snapped, as the 200 Navajo warriors moved into their positions behind the large rocks and bushes lining the trail up through the mountains. They saw the dust cloud at a great distance, and quietly watched the Mexicans approach. The Mexicans rode in a double column as they began the ascent up the pass. They looked tired, and their clothes and faces were covered with dust. The column leaders began dismounting as they reached the higher part of the trail, to allow their horses to climb easily. "Those foolish Mexicans," thought Narbona watching them come toward him, "must learn to leave us alone. This will be a good lesson."

The two leaders in the Mexican column turned their heads in curiosity when they heard the owl's hoot. Then the Navajo arrows bit into them and they fell. Confusion and terror hit the Mexican troops, and they fell right and left in the rain of arrow fire. Suddenly, Narbona signaled his men to halt. "We have killed most of them," he said. "We must leave a few alive to clean up this trail."

His victorious fighters were jubilant, eager to rejoice their victory. Narbona allowed them their celebration, listening with tolerance, and remembering his own young days as a warrior. But as their strong young voices grew hoarse from the singing on the third night of the Enemy Way, and before the first gray of dawn showed in the east, he arose to speak.

"You have been courageous, my younger brothers. Your strength has been that of the bear, your skill that of the mountain lion who steps softly before he springs upon his victim. You have drenched the enemy in his own blood. But now you have poured enough blood, and it is time for me to remind you that war is not the true way of the Navajo. It has been necessary many times to attack the enemies who have stolen our children and who have burned our fields and our homes. It is my hope that the battle you have just won will teach our enemies how to tread with caution along the borders of our land. Soon I will ride the many miles to Santa Fe to talk to the governor of the Mexicans. I will tell him what my grandfathers taught me, from the time I was in my cradleboard. The Holy People gave us our lifeways. Theygave us the Beauty Way as the seed from which all our beliefs would grow."

The sunrays spread out on the horizon, as if by the leader's command, as he raised his arms. The soft light of early dawn shone and the ridges and valleys of his old face smoothed out.

"We must take care of that plant which has sprung from that seed. Again, we must seek our way along the Path of beauty. Long ago, in the days before my grandfather's grandfather was born, we were friendly with those people who lived differently from us. We learned from each other, traded goods, and even intermarried. In time of trouble we joined to help each other. We must remember how to do this, for the Mexicans will not vanish in the dark. Even when they go, another people will come to take their place. We must live in harmony with our neighbors. That is what I will tell the governor. Take my words with you and give them to your families, and to all the friends of your families, my children."

The battle at Copper Pass was the finest victory Narbona had won, but he was not eager for admiration as a war leader. He wanted the battle to have one effect on the Mexicans. He wanted them to respect the Navajos' rights to live as peaceful human beings.

Later that spring he made his journey to talk to the governor, and assured him the Navajos desired peace. But the governor's reassuring words held little truth. In the fall, Narbona learned of another campaign planned against his region. Once again he led the warriors.

Traveling north along the Rio Chaco, Narbona's band came to a high headland of sandstone at the big bend of the river. From behind this high rock, they watched as the Mexican troops straggled toward them, laughing and joking, moving along in scattered groups of two and three. When the Mexicans were near enough to be prime targets for the Navajos' iron-tipped arrows, Narbona struck. Lightning fast came the Navajos, catching the Mexicans completely off guard. Again, victory came quickly for Narbona and his fighters. Though many of the younger men were eager to chase the retreating soldiers, Narbona knew that pursuit could lead them into the face of deadly Mexican guns farther down the trail. He wisely held his warriors back.

For three more years the battles raged back and forth. Thousands of sheep were taken from the Navajos of Ojo del Gallo, Chuska, and Canyon de Chelly. Hundreds more Navajos were captured or killed.

The Mexican government encouraged private citizens to become scalphunters, paying a high bounty for any black scalp. Other Indians and even Mexicans became victims along with the Navajos. They were likely to be attacked at watering places where they took their livestock, or along trails where a scalp-hunter could lie in wait.

In late 1840, Narbona conferred with other headmen. Together they decided to sound out the Mexicans once again on peace terms. After meeting at Canyon de Chelly, they sent messengers to Jemez. Governor Manuel Armijo was willing to talk of peace with Narbona, but as the leaders talked, the governor did not tell them clearly all the terms of the treaty which they signed in the midwinter of 1841.

Thinking the treaty was the way to peace, Narbona, now seventy-five years old, rode home and continued his personal campaign for peace among his people. He rode from camp to camp, urging the Navajos to stay off the raiding trails, asking them to return Mexican captives and livestock, and convincing many to remain peaceful.

Not all were willing though. Many of the young men were serious doubters by now. Too many treaties had meant nothing to them, and they had rarely had time to enjoy peaceful living. Hundreds of their wives and children were slaves to the Mexicans. Many of their friends had met death and dishonor at the hands of scalp-hunters. Manuelito, Narbona's son-in-law, led this younger, vengeful generation of warriors.

Peace-seeking Navajos released their captives and waited in vain for their own women and children to be returned.

Finally, Narbona went again to the Mexican governor. He argued that his people had released captives many times, yet none of the Navajo slaves were coming home. But the words of the 1841 treaty told the reason: The "entire Navajo tribe... is obliged to turn over all captives." But as to the return of Navajo slaves, none was guaranteed.

Instead, the treaty said any Navajo slaves "who succeed in escaping their masters, the Government will not take action to reclaim them."

Narbona knew the raids of the warring younger Navajos would cause the Mexican government to distrust his own pledge for peace. He knew also that many Navajos truly wanted peace and were willing to abide by the treaty. He rode to Santa Fe to assure the Commandant General that the Navajos wanted to remain in peace. On this mission, Narbona was asked by the Utes to represent them, too, in their wishes for peace. The marauding Utes of the old days were afraid to go to Santa Fe!

Perhaps the days of selling Navajo children for 150 pesos each were coming to an end. Narbona and the other peace leaders hoped so.

But the battles raged on, even through another treaty in 1844. Suddenly, in August of 1846, the Territory of New Mexico changed hands again. Narbona had lived through Spanish and then Mexican rule of the country. Now, he heard, there were new white men in charge. Cebolla Sandoval, the Navajo from Cebolleta who often carried messages for the New Mexican officials, now brought an invitation for Narbona to go to Santa Fe to sign a peace pact with the new Anglo-American government.

Though he was eighty, Narbona wanted to make the long trip again. However, he knew that only recently two other Navajo peace parties had been attacked and killed along the way to Santa Fe, by Pueblo Indians. Narbona replied that he would sign the peace papers but in the safety of his own homeland. Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearney, commanding from Fort Marcy in Santa Fe, agreed to this. He would send word soon about the meeting time and place.

During the days after this invitation, Navajo messengers brought more and more news about the goings-on at Fort Marcy. Curious about the newcomers, Narbona decided to take a secret journey to Santa Fe.

He carefully chose a few companions, and they set out on a back trail that took them into the mountains north of Santa Fe. Moving cautiously down an old hunting trail, they found a vantage point in the hills outside Fort Marcy and observed. After watching the regimental drills, the parades, and hearing the thunderous cannons, Narbona talked seriously with his friends. They decided they could not possibly win in any war against this well armed, highly organized army. Peace, they agreed, was the path to follow.

Narbona returned home and prepared to make the best showing possible for the American army messengers. The people of his encampment were busy during this time. Horses were groomed and decorated. The finest garments were brought out, and new moccasins were made. All the silver jewelry was polished to a gleaming finish.

When Captain Reid's small military party arrived, Narbona rode out to meet him, accompanied by nearly 2,000 Navajo men and women on horseback. They presented an impressive sight to the American troops. Young Navajo men guided the troops' horses to good pasture about five miles out from the camp. Soon, Captain Reid's men and the Navajos were engaged in trading, gambling, and dancing. Impressed by the hospitality of the Navajos, their great herds of sheep, and no doubt by their vast number, Captain Reid approached Narbona respectfully in the council meeting. He asked the aged leader to be present at a meeting between Navajo headmen and representatives of the United States Government in late fall at Bear Springs (near the present Fort Wingate).

Narbona was ready to agree to this treaty conference but a current of doubt ran through the younger men who followed Manuelito and other war leaders. Narbona's wife, the only woman allowed at this solemn meeting, sat listening to the leaders talk. It occurred to her that there were only a few soldiers present, and many Navajos who could easily overpower them. Why didn't they try this?

She arose and spoke her thoughts. Narbona quickly dismissed her from the meeting. He had seen the power of this new government at Fort Marcy. He knew the Navajos must agree to attend this meeting at Bear Springs.

Shortly after Captain Reid left Narbona's camp, Narbona became ill. Still the old leader knew he had to attend. On November 22, 1846, 500 Navajo horsemen rode into Bear Springs, carrying the ailing Narbona on a litter. Narbona greeted Colonel Alexander Doniphan who was representing the United States Government. Then he joined his companions among the Navajo headmen: Zarcillos Largos, Pedro Jose, Caballado Mucho, Cayetano, Jose Largo, Archuleta. Of course Cebolla Sandoval was there, too. He had guided the soldiers to the meeting place. Manuelito, also, had come with his father-in-law.

Peace terms were discussed and the Navajos concluded the conference by agreeing to a mutual exchange of prisoners and property taken since the new government had come into control three months earlier. They agreed to stop raiding and to return to a peaceful, agricultural life.

The leaders signed the treaty. Now it would go to the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., to be made official.

As the meeting disbanded, Narbona and his men turned homeward on a bright, cool November day. The crops were harvested, and food was stored for the winter. It was the season of the ancient ceremonies again, time to renew the individual's feeling of harmony with himself and nature, time to rest inside by the open fire. Soon, Narbona would begin telling his little grandchildren the winter stories of the Navajos, the age old tales from which children would learn how to become wise and healthy adults. His grandchildren might be the first generation in a century to grow up without threat or fear of scalp-hunters and raiders. He had faith in this new treaty, the first ever signed by Anglo-Americans and Navajos.

But Congress never ratified the treaty. The far west with its "Indian problems" would have to wait while Washington dealt with problems closer at hand. This frontier was too distant from Washington, and Washington was occupied with problems which were leading to the Civil War.

New Mexicans still found their trade in Navajo slaves highly profitable and continued to attack Navajo camps. Manuelito and many of his generation disagreed with the decision for peace. They stayed on the war trail, driving off thousands of sheep from New Mexican ranches, and releasing Navajo slaves whenever they could.

Between 1846 and 1849, Navajo headmen met many times to talk of solutions to the problems. These older men believed in Narbona's story of Fort Marcy and Anglo-American power. The younger men had yet to see for themselves the awesome scene at Fort Marcy. Narbona and his council signed another treaty in 1848, but this one too, was never made official in Washington.

Five military expeditions marched against the Navajos during those three years from 1846 through 1849. Many Navajos now left their homes by the open fields and took to the canyons and mountains to avoid being attacked by the soldiers.

Most of the people remained safe, but they had to watch as the soldiers drove off their sheep and burned the cornfields. Food storage grew smaller, and the danger of starvation greater.

Though Narbona wanted to press for another peace treaty, a lasting one, no Navajo messenger was willing to risk the journey through hostile country to carry such a message to Santa Fe.

In August 1849, scouts rode into Narbona's camp. The commanding officer of the Territory of New Mexico was only a few days' ride away up the Rio Chaco. He was on his way to a peace meeting at Canyon de Chelly, and he expected the Navajo headmen to be there too.

Acting quickly, Narbona gathered the other men of his domain. He and Jose Largo were not strong and well enough to make the journey to the canyon. But they wanted to name proxies to represent them. They requested a meeting here with the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John M. Washington.

As Washington and his troops advanced down the Rio Chaco, word passed quickly from one Navajo camp to the next. All those men and horses were destroying the fields along the way. The Tunicha Valley would be next. Narbona had his men round up fifty sheep, fifteen horses, and ten mules to send to the troops. He asked them to leave the cornfields unharmed. But Washington sent word back that his army horses and mules would have to feed in the Navajo fields. So the Navajo families along this route gathered what food they could in a short time and ran up into the mountains for safety.

As the troops neared Narbona's camp, the headmen sent a band of young men to greet them and to ask for a meeting. Though no treaty had yet been made official, Narbona was ready to keep his word as given at Bear Springs. He instructed his young men to round up a thousand sheep and some cattle to drive out to the army camp, as captured goods being returned.

When this party reached the camp they met with Washington. He told them that the government expected the Navajos to keep the terms of the Bear Springs treaty. He also agreed to a meeting with Narbona.

The following day, August 31, 1849, Narbona assembled hundreds of warriors to accompany him and the other headmen. They rode to the guard lines of the army camp. One onlooker at the camp described Narbona this way: "Another man who was quite old and of very large frame, had a grave and contemplative countenance, not unlike General (George) Washington."

James Calhoun, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico Territory, spoke to the Navajos through an interpreter. As they listened, Narbona and his fellow headmen agreed to point after point. They promised their loyalty to the new government, agreed to live peacefully within boundaries set by the government, and agreed that military posts could be established in their country. They also accepted the protection offered by the government in the event that other groups molested them. Narbona, Jose Largo, and Archuleta signed papers naming Armijo and Pedro Jose as their representatives at the forthcoming Canyon de Chelly meeting.

The council was over, and the Navajos walked back to their horses, ready to go home.

Narbona was pleased. He had his opportunity to talk with the white men, and he had shown his willingness to cooperate. They, in turn, had seemed ready to believe in Narbona's word. Surely this would result in a real peace treaty.

After dozens of peace talks, and thousands of miles on horseback to attend them, Narbona felt that at last peace was within reach. As he walked toward his horse, the eighty-three-year-old leader lifted his eyes to the dark forested mountains of his home.

Soon there would be great patches of gold and red on the high ridges, when the aspen and oak turned in the fall. It would not be an easy winter. Too much of their crop had been ruined by the troops. But they would survive, and in the spring they could plant, at last in peace.

He had just reached his horse when he heard a commotion. One of the soldiers had spotted a horse he thought was his among the Navajos' mounts. He claimed it had been stolen from him only a short time ago. The Navajo rider said that he'd gotten it from a Spanish-American. Colonel Washington quickly sided with his soldier and ordered the Navajo to return the horse. Frightened when the soldiers started toward them, the Navajos raced their horses away toward an arroyo.

Washington ordered his men to fire their rifles into the departing Navajos. More than 100 army riflemen fired after the horsemen. When the Navajos stopped at some distance to gather up their dead and wounded, Washington ordered cannon fire into their midst.

Narbona was among the last to leave the camp, and was in the direct line of fire. He was mortally wounded. Seven other Navajos were killed on the spot. Narbona died only minutes later.

His family prepared him for burial, carefully arranging his favorite possessions around him. Toward sunset, two of his sons carried Narbona's body, wrapped in a buffalo pelt with his jewelry, his buckskin war helmet, and bows and arrows, to drop it into a deep crevice. They stayed for four days and nights on a nearby hill, mourning for Narbona.

The man was gone, but his mark was forever engraved on the history of his people. The treaty to which he had given his consent was signed at Canyon de Chelly in September. The following year the United States Congress ratified it.

During his long life, Narbona had gained and used many skills to protect his family from enemies of many descriptions. He had gained legendary fame by showing great courage and skill against the enemy. He had saved the people of his region from starvation by leading the long journey through Hopi country to water and new fields. He had sought peace honestly among leaders of three different nations which had ruled New Mexican territory, and he had kept his promises on many treaties by persuading many of his countrymen that peace was the best path to follow. Navajos far and wide paid him great respect for his knowledge of when to fight and when to press for peace. As an elderly man he had risked the difficult journey through enemy country to see for himself the new white neighbors. He had reported back faithfully of their power. On the day he died, he put his mark on the paper which resulted in the first treaty to be ratified between the Navajos and the United States.

Narbona lived the honorable life of a great man, during the most difficult century the Navajos had ever known.

 

Footnotes

1. The fact that a head of a household practiced plural marriage was an accepted custom among the Navajo people, as is documented in the ethnographic literature. The contrast this offers with the present-day custom of monogamous marriage gives us an interesting insight into the process of social change.

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