Navajo History: Barboncito

by: Kansas Begaye


Barboncito was a famous spiritual leader and one of the many influential Chiefs of the Navajo people. He was born in 1821 to a mother descended from the Jemez Clan, also known as the Coyote Pass People, or Maii deeshgiizhinii, and was raised in Tseyi (Canyon de Chelly). The name "Barboncito" means ‘little beard’ in Spanish. (The Navajo describe a mustache as ‘little beard’.) Photos of Barboncito show him as a dark, small, wiry man with an ample mustache. Known as a kind, gentle, and well-spoken man, he became a great leader, philosopher and singer in the Navajo community. Barboncito’s other names include Bislahalani (The Orator) and Hozhooji Naata (Blessing Speaker). Some Anglo translations of his Navajo names are: "He Who Runs Forward" or "He Who is Anxious to Step Forward," because of Barboncito’s eagerness to engage in all peaceful negotiations that would help his people.

He was the signer of several treaties between the Navajo and the United Stated, including one in 1846 which was the first treaty between the two nations. Barboncito was listed as Chief on the treaty of 1868 that ended the tragic ‘Long Walk’.

1868 Treaty Signed

Between 1846 and 1860, numerous Native tribes and American settlers fought for the right to use and live on lad in the southwestern United States. Finally, when American settlers demanded the American government put an end to the warring, the government sent in the military which escalated the violence. For a short time Barboncito joined forces with one of the Navajo’s great war Chiefs, Manuelito, to protect Navajo communities that were under attack. But his belief in the peaceful path forced him to leave the battlefront and to counsel other Navajo warriors to do the same.

Kit Carson

In 1862 a pronouncement was made by the military that the Navajos were to proceed to the US military forts and surrender. Many Navajos wouldn’t surrender and hid in Canyon de Chelly, which triggered Colonel Kit Carson and the US military to begin a campaign of economic warfare against the Navajo: crops and homes burned and livestock killed or stolen. Facing starvation, the Navajo surrendered and began the ‘long walk’ to their imprisonment at Fort Sumner on the Bosque Redondo Reservation (“Hweeldi") in New Mexico.

During the incarceration at Hweeldi, the Dine suffered from disease, crop failure, attacks by the Comanche, and a lack of food and medicine. It is estimated that half of the Navajos died during the ‘long walk’ and their incarceration at Fort Sumner. The Navajo turned to their spiritual leaders, including Barboncito, at this time to help them survive this period both physically and spiritually.

The appalling conditions at Bosque Redondo came to the attention of both the US government and New Mexico locals. Many concerned Anglos advocated for the Navajos, stating that the Bosque Redondo reservation had met with disastrous failure and the loss of thousands of Navajos’ lives. In 1868 Barboncito traveled to Washington, D.C. with other Navajo leaders to meet with President Andrew Johnson to determine their future. A peace commission led by William Tecumseh Sherman would ultimately decide their fate.

Sherman had learned of the plight of the Navajo and had determined to let them return to their homeland, provided their spokesmen acted with respect and deference. Barboncito, the peacemaker, proved to be the perfect representative.

To prepare for Sherman's arrival at Bosque Redondo, Barboncito gathered the Navajos together to conduct a sacred ritual called Coyote Way. The people formed a huge circle out on the prairie where they captured a coyote. The coyote 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 states: When a Navajo wishes to speak beautifully, he must hold under his tongue a turquoise anointed with live pollen (pollen which has been sprinkled on a live, moving animal, then brushed off). Best of all, for diplomatic purposes, the coyote is best for this ceremony. The Navajo went out on horseback and rounded up a coyote. A piece of blessed turquoise was produced and placed under the tongue of 'He Who Runs Forward', Barboncito.

Barboncito and Sherman met at Fort Sumner. Barboncito's first statement was made with his pitching a knife to the floor and saying:

"If you wish to send my people away from their home (to a reservation in Oklahoma), first take this knife and kill me."

Sherman then asked why the Navajo had failed to thrive in the Bosque Redondo Reservations. Barboncito's response reflects the strength of the Navajo ties to the land which is considered sacred:

"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 spirit 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 my mouth. I am speaking to you now as if I do not want to go to the right or left, but straight back to our own country."

Barboncito so impressed Sherman with his dignity and sincerity that Sherman immediately agreed to allow the Dine to return to their homeland, as long as all fighting ceased. Barboncito's X appears next to Chief on the treaty, his signature the first and considered the most important of the treaty, signed on June 1, 1868.

The Navajo began the long walk back to their homeland and upon seeing Mount Taylor, one of the four sacred mountains, emotions ran high as people fell down upon the ground crying tears of joy. Barboncito government and put all their resources toward rebuilding their lives.

Of all the Navajo leaders of his time, Barboncito is considered to be the most responsible for returning the Navajo to their homeland and for the continued, long-term success of the Navajo people through the 19th century. A man of dignity and of fore-sight, Barboncito was one of the great Navajo Chiefs of all time.