Hastiin D1'gh11 77
Photo from Smithsonian Institute's Anthropological Archives
Barboncito, always remembered as a "peace chief", grew up amidst
the beautiful red canyon walls of Tseyi, or Canyon de Chelly. He was born
in 1920 to a mother descended from the Jemez Clan, also known as the Coyote
Pass People, or Maii deeshgiizhinii. Faced with a shortage of men due
to warfare, the legendary Jemez women had sought out Navajo husbands to
keep their strain from dying out, but that is another story.
The name "Barboncito" literally means "little beard"
in Spanish. Little Beard is what the Navajo people called a mustache.
Dark, small, and wiry, Barboncito did have an ample mustache. But his
fame went far beyond his facial hair. Known as a kind, quiet, and well-
spoken man, he became a spiritual leader and singer, and his other names
include Bislahalani (The Orator) and Hozhooji Naata (Blessing Speaker).
Some Anglo translations call him "He Who Runs Forward" or "He
is Anxious to Step Forward."
In the books written about the Navajos, Barboncito repeatedly shows up
as the headman who promoted peace. In fact he signed the first treaty
in 1946 with the Americans, after the Mexican/American War, known as the
Despite the treaty, the following years brought nothing but trouble,
as the Dine and their Ute, Pueblo, Apache, and New Mexican neighbors fought
over land and livestock, raiding, killing and kidnapping each other. American
settlers demanded that the American government step in and put an end
to the warring, but the arrival of the military only escalated an already
Despite Barboncito's reputation as a peacemaker, he became a war chief
during the late 1850s, and joined Manuelito in attacking Fort Defiance
after the soldiers destroyed a large herd of Manuelito's livestock. There
is also a story that he was shot from his horse during an exchange of
captives between the Navajos and the New Mexicans that went sour. He managed
to escape. But his heart yearned to follow the peaceful path, and every
chance he got, he counseled others to do the same, unlike Manuelito who
insisted on continuing the fight.
In 1862 General Carlton, in charge of fixing the Indian "problem"
in the southwest, sent out the word that the Navajos were to come in to
the forts and surrender. Barboncito joined other peace leaders in a journey
to Santa Fe to plead for a treaty, but Carlton rejected their offer. Then
began Kit Carson's campaign of terror. Carson and his soldiers swept through
Navajoland destroying crops, cutting down fruit trees, taking or killing
livestock, and burning hogans. Facing starvation, the Dine surrendered
and began the "long walk" to Bosque Redondo, or Fort Sumner,
that the Navajos called "Hweeldi" on the Pecos River in New
At first, Barboncito refused to go, saying he could not go to the reservation
because it was located too far from his homeland. He did not want to leave
the boundaries of Dinetah, the sacred lands the Navajo people marked by
four principal mountains made of earth from the third world, the former
world inhabited by ancestors of the people.
Finally forced to surrender, Barboncito joined his terrorized fellow
Navajos at the bleak, and under-supplied reservation. In June of 1865,
finding his confinement unbearable, he escaped with 500 others, only to
return again in November of 1966, exhausted from life on the run from
enemy tribes and the military. He left the fort again in 1967 with Manuelito
and other headmen, but a scouting party found them and they readily surrendered,
saying there were too many Mexicans in the countryside to be safe.
During their incarceration at Hweeldi, the Dine suffered from disease,
crop failure, attacks by the neighboring Comanches and a lack of food
and medicine. Like many others in times of calamity, the people turned
to their spiritual leaders, including Barboncito, to carry on the traditional
songs, prayers, rituals and philosophies. Formerly a scattered and fiercely
independent people, for the first time the Navajos came together to try
and win their freedom.
Eventually, word spread about the appalling conditions at Bosque Redondo.
The government could no longer afford to feed that many people. Many concerned
Anglos actually advocated for the Navajos, saying that the Bosque Redondo
reservation had met with disastrous failure. In 1868 Barboncito and other
Navajo leaders traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Andrew
Johnson to determine their future. A peace commission led by William Tecumseh
Sherman would ultimately decide their fate.
Unknown to the Navajos, Sherman had already learned of their plight and
had decided to let them return to their homeland, provided their spokesmen
treated him with respect and deference. Barboncito, the peacemaker, proved
to be the perfect representative.
Before Sherman's arrival at Bosque Redondo, Barboncito gathered the Navajos
together to conduct a sacred ritual called the Coyote Way. The people
formed a huge circle out on the prairie where they surrounded and then
captured a coyote. The coyote, which "played possum" or pretended
to be dead, allowed Barboncito to place a white shell bead in its mouth.
When the people backed up, the coyote trotted off in a northwesterly direction,
indicating that the people would soon be going home!
Another version of the story goes something like this: When a Navajo
wishes to speak beautifully, he must hold under his tongue a turquoise
anointed with live pollen, that is pollen which has been sprinkled on
a live, moving animal, then brushed off. Best of all, for diplomatic purposes,
is the coyote. So the men went out on horseback and rounded up a coyote.
Someone produced a piece of turquoise given him by a chanter after a ceremony
in the homeland. This was put under the tongue of "He Who Runs Forward",
Barboncito stuck a knife into his moccasin, then went in to speak to
the white chiefs, while all the Navajos gathered at the door. Throwing
the knife on the floor, Barboncito spoke, "If you wish to send my
people away from their home (to a reservation in Oklahoma), first take
this knife and kill me."
First Sherman asked why had the Navajos failed to become self-supporting
farmers at Bosque Redondo? (The conversation first had to be translated
from English to Spanish, then another person would translate from Spanish
Barboncito answered carefully, "When the Navajos were first created,
four mountains and four rivers were pointed out to us, inside of which
we should live, that was to be our country and was given to use by the
First Woman of the Navajo tribe. It was told to us by our forefathers
that we were never to move east of the Rio Grande or west of the San Juan
River, and I think that our coming here violated the Navajo spiritual
law, and has been the cause of so much death among us and our animals.
Many of the men here were once very wealthy; now they have nothing. At
home, we could grow corn anywhere; here the land is not productive."
When Sherman suggested the Navajos relocate to Indian Territory (Oklahoma),
Barboncito politely declined, saying, "we have all declared that
we do not want to remain here. I want to see the place of my birth. I
hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own.
I want to return to my home in the west where the clouds will come and
clean the earth, renew the people, and allow the Navajo to survive. It
appears to me that the General commands this whole thing as a god. I hope
therefore he will do all he can for my people. This hope goes in at my
feet and out at my mouth. I am speaking to you now as if I was speaking
to a spirit, and wish you to tell me when you are going to take us to
our own country. We do not want to go to the right or left, but straight
back to our own country."
Barboncito's words impressed Sherman with their dignity and sincerity.
War leaders like Manuelito said nothing, allowing Barboncito to negotiate
with the Bilagaana. Sherman then agreed to allow the Dine to return to
their homeland, if the people would promise to never fight again. Barboncito's
X appears first on the treaty, signed on June 1, 1868.
The reservation boundaries drawn up at that time would prove to be forever
controversial. Barboncito also raised the issue of Navajo captives or
slaves held by the Mexicans. The slave issue would remain a problem for
years to come. But the people, despite the problems in the details, were
ecstatic to be going home.
When they began the long walk back to the canyon country of their homeland,
upon seeing Mount Taylor, one of the four sacred mountains, emotions ran
high as people fell down upon the ground crying tears of joy.
Unfortunately the people found it difficult to sustain that joy in the
years that followed. Upon returning home, they found their hogans destroyed
and their fields and orchards decimated. Most no longer owned large herds
of livestock, and drought and harsh weather prevented many from growing
corn. Many survived only with the help from the American government, in
the form of rations.
At Fort Defiance, meager supplies of beef, wheat, and corn were given
out once a week. The people came to stand in line for a ticket, then waited
until everyone entered a corral so nobody would be counted twice. Barboncito,
an elderly man now, but still anxious to step forward, often sat on the
nearby adobe wall and lectured them.
"My kinsman" he said, "we lost everything, and then we
promised peace. Tell that to your children. See that they do not fight.
See that they work."
Another story tells how Barboncito once asked the government for an old
ram so that he might tie it to a tree in front of the corral and say to
the people: "See how it breaks its horns and bruises its head. This
is what will happen to you if you fight the white man's government. So
go home and be at peace."
One of Barboncito's last peacemaking efforts involved Jacob Hamblin,
a Mormon leader who came to Barboncito asking him to stop the raids on
Mormon livestock in the northern part of the reservation. Barboncito temporarily
achieved an agreement with the young, desperate Navajo men of the area
who were crossing the Colorado River and entering Mormon territory. It
was not long after this effort in 1870, that Barboncito returned to his
home in Canyon De Chelly, exhausted and sick, and after an illness that
lasted for 87 days, two years after the return from Bosque Redondo, Barboncito
Navajo History; The Land and the People, Bill P. Acrey. Central
District No. 22, Shiprock, New Mexico, 1988.
A History of the Navajo Wars, 1846-1868, L.B. Bailey. Westernlore
Publications, Pasadena, CA, 1978.
Navajo Wars; Military Campaigns, Slave Raids and Reprisals, Frank
McNitt. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1972.
Chiefs, Agents, and Soldiers, William Haas Moore. University of
New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1994.
The Army and the Navajo, Gerald Thompson. University of Arizona
Press, Tucson, AZ, 1976.
As Long As The Grass Shall Grow and Rivers Flow; A History of Native
Americans, Clifford E. Trafzer. Thomson/Wadsworth, Belmont, CA., 2000.
The Navajos, Ruth Underhill. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman,
back to top