FORT SUMNER, NM — In June 1990, a busload of 17 teens from the Navajo Nation rolled up to the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner Historic Site, one of eight historic places maintained by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. Not long after they arrived, chaperone Evelyn Becenti contended with pushback from the students about the visit. She remembers them asking, “What are we doing here?’”
Becenti, fresh from earning her undergraduate teaching degree, had taken a gig with Save the Children to chaperone the teens on a trip to a Native youth conference in Oklahoma City. On the return trip, they stopped in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, searching for a dark but significant chapter of their history.
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The site is on the former grounds of a United States military operation that imprisoned 9,500 Diné (Navajo) people and 500 Ndé (Mescalero Apache) people in the 1860s. Over 3,000 died at the desolate encampment and on forced marches known as the Long Walk to get there.
Becenti remembers her co-chaperone, Pauline Begay, prepping their students for the experience: “She said, ‘We are going to understand ourselves and be more proud of being Navajo. Fort Sumner and the Long Walk, this is our history.’”
Inside a diminutive museum, tucked behind the gravesite of Western outlaw Billy the Kid, was just one significant mention of this story. An introductory wall placard discussed the US Army’s decision to “deal with the hostile tribes” by placing them “on reservations under military guard.”
The remainder of the 800-square-foot exhibition focused on military figures like James H. Carleton and Kit Carson, who mercilessly subjugated Indigenous peoples. Becenti says, “Here we were, trying to understand how the United States looks at this today, and it was all about these Western ‘heroes.’ Is that how our story is told?”
Petula Chester was a high school freshman who’d seldom traveled outside of Navajo Nation when she joined the trip. She had been inspired by meeting teens from other Native communities at the conference in Oklahoma, which made her experience at Bosque Redondo feel particularly jarring.
“I remember feeling almost betrayed. The Long Walk is about our people and the suffering that we went through,” says Chester. “It was kind of somber as we were walking through there, looking for our stories.”
Begay pulled out a notebook and said, “Shall we just leave our footprints here and go home, and have nothing to say about it?” Together, they composed a letter to leave at the site. It read, in part:
“We the young generation of the Diné (Navajo) […] find Fort Sumner’s Historical site discrimminating [sic] and not telling the true story behind what really happened to our ancestors in 1864-1868. […] We therefore declare that the museum show and tell the true history of the Navajos and the United States military.”
Thirty-one years, 11 months, and one day after leaving the note at the Bosque Redondo historic site, Becenti arrived at the grand opening of Bosque Redondo: A Place of Suffering … A Place of Survival. The 6,500-square-foot permanent exhibition is the culmination of an elaborate effort to reframe the site’s history. At the center of the first wall panel is the student group’s letter, preserved under museum glass.
It’s a five-hour drive to Fort Sumner from Window Rock, Arizona, where Manuelito “Manny” Wheeler Jr. is the director of the Navajo Nation Museum. The last leg of the trip directly aligns with the route that Wheeler’s ancestors took to reach Bosque Redondo, on treacherous walks of up to 450 miles.
The site has gained a formidable new facility since the students’ visit, a towering structure by Diné architect David Sloan that incorporates the forms of a Ndé tipi and a Diné hogan. Completed in 2005 and christened by Governor Bill Richardson, it was celebrated as the fulfillment of the student group’s written request.
When Wheeler signed on as a consultant to remake the facility’s exhibition in 2015, he didn’t see things that way. “Here was this impressive new building, but it didn’t have a story on the inside,” he said on a podcast for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.
The exhibition that debuted with the building in 2005 was so dense that museum staff called it a “history book on the walls.” It was the latest in a long line of curatorial missteps stretching back to 1973, when the site’s inaugural show was swiftly shut down for aptly but controversially calling Bosque Redondo an “American concentration camp” — language that wouldn’t appear again at the site until the 2022 exhibition.
“I’ve worked for major museums that represent Native people but are not controlled by Native people,” says Wheeler. “A lot of times they’ll ask consultants to tell them what they want to hear. The information that’s coming out isn’t always well-rounded or factual or a realistic representation of the people.”
Wheeler aimed for a different dynamic with the current site manager Aaron Roth, a forensic archaeologist who arrived in 2015 and swiftly scrapped yet another misguided scheme for an exhibition. That interpretive plan included animatronics of tribal leaders and dioramas representing life at Fort Sumner.
Roth was working on expanding the historical record of Bosque Redondo by gathering oral histories from both tribes. He says the story of the site felt alive and in motion, while the interpretive plan “placed Indigenous people in a time capsule.”
Roth secured ongoing annual funding from the New Mexico legislature to work on a new interpretive plan, and the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the site a challenge grant that would partly fund the show’s construction. Along with Wheeler, Roth recruited Holly Houghton, a cultural representative of the Mescalero Apache tribe, to guide the project. A Portland, Oregon, firm called Historical Research Associates won a bid to design and build the display. Morgen Young, a senior historian at Historical Research Associates, led a team of 12 on the project.
The show took shape over five years, starting in 2015 with multiple visits to Navajo Nation and Mescalero Apache Nation. The team proceeded tenderly: Some Diné and Ndé people will not discuss, let alone visit. Named Bosque Redondo by the Spaniards, it’s a place that the Diné named Hwéeldi, which roughly translates to “a place of suffering.”
As part of the process, Roth invited members of both tribes back to the site for an unprecedented series of ceremonial dances. “We had to learn to have a conversation again,” Roth says. “We held off deadlines and let things happen organically.”
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The exhibition commences with a dimly lit room where the student group’s letter is on prominent display. Quotes from contemporary storytellers and floor-to-ceiling images of Indigenous peoples and sacred landscapes fill the walls. Historical and contemporary objects are paired in display cases.
An enormous map periodically activates with project-mapped animations that trace the routes of the Long Walk. A ceiling installation of 10,000 fiber optic bundles, referencing the number of people who were trapped there, winds through the space and reveals pinpricks of daylight.
Roth and Young had initially pitched a ceiling installation of suspended moccasins and a smoke hood at the show’s entrance for ceremonial smudging. Wheeler and Houghton steered both ideas in different directions, worried that such intimate experiences might make Native visitors feel exposed.
“About 30% of the site’s visitors are Native,” says Wheeler. “We needed to make sure that our spirits and psyches were protected. At the same time, we wanted to think about what would help [non-Natives] feel the emotion.”
The show’s central sweep starts with a curved hallway extending about 50 feet. Visitors pass between reproductions of a painting by Diné painter Shonto Begay that depicts the Long Walk, and a piece by a local artist showing a platoon of US soldiers marching towards Fort Sumner.
Begay uses swirling brushstrokes that echo the rhythms of Navajo prayers. “I employ these very consciously, especially for pieces like this,” the artist says. “It’s a means of staying afloat mentally, spiritually.” An audio recording of footsteps fills the hallway, and an exterior door lets visitors get some air if they’re overwhelmed.
The hallway leads to a large circular room, referencing a Diné hogan and lit in a somber blue, that’s encircled with historic photographs of Bosque Redondo. Projections and recordings of quotes from Native storytellers and scholars activate display cases throughout the room.
Near the end of the show, visitors encounter something of a resolution to the Bosque Redondo story. One wall chronicles the Ndé people’s highly strategic escape from Bosque Redondo in 1865. A screen in the center of the room allows visitors to explore the 1868 treaty that established Navajo Nation and allowed the Diné to return home. The document is a remarkable acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty — with a number of wrenching stipulations.
In a nod to the student group’s letter, the last room invites visitors to give feedback and leave stories, which will inform updates to the show. The experience continues on a webpage where visitors can submit stories or help transcribe archival documents. The site is also home to sheep that are granted to Diné and Ndé farmers and fiber artists.
In late May 2022, over 600 people attended the grand opening, which included a meal and ceremonial dances. One attendee was top of mind for those who’d worked on the project. Evelyn Becenti, the chaperone on the 1990 field trip, remembers feeling amazed at the letter’s impact — even if it took decades to coalesce.
“When I got to the museum, my eyes were wide open and I was really thrown back by the design, it was more than I ever expected it to be,” says Becenti. “The people, I could see their thoughts in their eyes as they were reading. The mood was all respectful, quiet, peaceful.”