Whose story am I?
Remembering the Long Walk and the revival of a family's heartbeat
My story starts with two sisters.
I’ve been reflecting on this lately, because when newspapers feature more and more headlines about unspeakable police injustice and the continued whitewashing of history, I need to remember resilience. As communities of color continue to endure the crises of police killings, disappearances and public massacres, the state also desires to erase our thriving histories of resistance. But resistance is life-affirming. I can speak to that. I’m here today because of the survival of two sisters.
In the spring of 1864, the U.S. military mounted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against my ancestors. Instigated by General Kit Carson, the military invaded Diné territory, burned down crops and homes, contaminated water wells, and eviscerated all means of living with the intent to force the Diné to surrender and leave their homeland. Then came the forced removal. It’s an event known as the Long Walk. The Diné and Mescalero Apache were brutally forced to march more than 300 miles in the winter to a concentration camp called Bosque Redondo, located alongside Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.
Many died on that 300-mile journey. And the death toll only rose during the four years of internment. Along with the camp’s harsh and dehumanizing conditions, cultural genocide was also imposed on my people. Prohibitions were put in place against practicing traditional ceremonies and speaking our own language. In Navajo, the word for “no” is Dohdah. It’s pronounced forcefully, like hands forming into fists raised into the air.
It’s estimated that around 1,500 Natives died during internment. A treaty in 1868 finally allowed the survivors to return home.
After enduring so much loss and suffering, two sisters returned home to the Navajo Nation. They would go on to start families. One would give birth to my great-grandfather, whose traditional name was Hataa?ii Zhoni. In the Navajo language, the name means “powerful medicine man.” It has been told to me that his ceremonial songs were mesmerizing.
At a moment of complete eradication, those two sisters still had more life to offer, and they revived the heartbeat of my mother’s family.
I don’t know if I’ll ever recover what life was like for my ancestors before the Long Walk. It’s overwhelming to think too much about the lives and stories lost from genocide. But I often think about those two sisters. And I think of all the sisters who never made it home. The violent vanishing of Indigenous people still continues today. It’s a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. It still continues for Indigenous women and Two-Spirit peoples. It’s still a painful reality for the families and communities waiting for closure. Every missing poster for an Indigenous relative is a heartbreaking reminder of how easily our sacred can disappear. This is the legacy of colonialism.
It’s important to remember that colonialism is not an event, but rather a structure. We witness that in forced removals and massacres that result in the stolen land we stand on now, as well as corralling Natives onto reservations, followed by forcibly transporting Native children to boarding schools. We witness it today as the Supreme Court continually dismantles Indigenous sovereignty. The Supreme Court is considering repealing the Indian Child Welfare Act – a federal policy meant to keep Native children in foster care connected to their blood relatives and tribal communities. To repeal that policy means unleashing more cultural genocide.
In Navajo, the word for “no” is Dohdah, and it’s pronounced with the pull and pierce of bow and arrow.
In the face of the Third Reich’s growing power in 1940, the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “Every line we succeed in publishing today – no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it – is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness.” When I read Benjamin’s immortal words, I think of those two sisters, my ancestors whose story I am. They lived their lives against oblivion, against erasure by the settler state. Their story, what little I can gather from my family’s memory, deserves to be written down. I’m doing the best I can to honor them with every letter here. And despite the growing darkness of our own present day, I must always remember that resisting despair also honors their lives and the lives of all my ancestors.
When I think of the two sisters and the seeds they planted by their own presence, I think of the moral imperative to find our missing relatives in the present day. Of seeking justice and closure. I want them all to return home. At the very least, their lives deserve to be remembered.
This can’t be said enough, therefore it deserves space on paper and in the streets: We, the ones with centuries of vibrant rebellion against extinction, are more than vanished bodies, silenced tongues or ghost stories. Our language, our culture, our existence is a threat to the prevailing order.
– Kirbie Bennett