Telling a tragedy

Bosque Memorial is a work in progress

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

FORT SUMNER, N.M., Oct. 2, 2014

Text size: A A A

For the staff and volunteers at the Bosque Redondo Memorial, the task is daunting.

How do you commemorate something that a lot of people think should be forgotten?

The chiefs who signed the Treaty of 1868, freeing their people from Hwéeldi, did state that no Diné should ever return to the site.

But plenty have, and say they are spiritually richer for the experience.

"It's a personal choice," said Mary Ann Cortese, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Bosque Redondo Memorial, which raises funds and helps plan exhibits at the site. "For those who do choose to come, we want to offer a meaningful experience."

But how to commemorate a tragedy of this proportion? Two thousand people died on these grounds. By comparison, 2,996 died in the Twin Towers, and that instigated a $700 million monument that is costing about $60 million a year to run.

As with 9/11, there's a fine line between conveying the natural drama of the event and keeping it tasteful and reverent, Cortese said.

"We have to always keep in mind that it's not our memorial," said Cortese, who is Anglo. "It belongs to the Navajo, the Mescalero and the Jicarilla (Apaches)."

From the memorial's inception in 1995, after workers at the site found a note signed by seven young Navajos asking "Why don't you tell our story?", a committee that includes Navajo and Apache tribal representatives have planned the exhibits.

The present visitors' center, which opened its doors in 2005, is a work in progress. It currently contains a long ramp flanked by murals, a theater with a film about the Long Walk, a few artifacts and space for revolving exhibits.

A renovation the state hopes to complete by 2017 will make it more "experiential," Cortese explained. Surrounding the visitors who trudge up the ramp will be statues of Natives making the trek.

"You'll be able to walk among them," Cortese said. "We're even thinking of lowering the temperature in the walkway so you can think about how cold it was for them, making the trek in the winter with hardly any clothing."

An audio track will play gunshots, babies crying and women crying out for their children. in the theater where the video plays now, there will be replicas of the makeshift dwellings the Navajo and Apache internees built for themselves with the few materials at hand: mud, animal skins and a few sticks.

"There will be very little that you have to read," Cortese explained. "It will be more of an experience."

Because the treaty required the Diné to send their children to school, it propelled another tragic phase in Diné history: the boarding school era. That will be interpreted in another room, which will transition into an exhibit on modern tribal life.

"That will be up to each tribe, the objects and exhibits they want to display there," said Cortese.

There will also be a space the staff says should have been here from the beginning: a quiet room where people can sit, reflect, and process the experience.

"A lot of people who come to the memorial are visibly shaken," Cortese said. "We want there to be a safe place where they can sit with their thoughts, maybe write something if they want to. We're thinking about having a screen where the comments would appear, if the people writing them would like them to be public. That would be entirely up to them."

Seven years ago, the memorial joined the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which includes such places as the Slave Door in Senegal and the Japanese-American Museum. There has been a movement among the folks who run sites with bad history to transition them into places of healing. It's an idea that intrigues Cortese; she's seen it work organically here.

"One time we were giving a presentation here and I heard sobbing and weeping," she recalled. "I looked up and two women were hugging each other. One was the descendant of a soldier and the other was the descendant of a Navajo who was interned here."

Cortese would like the memorial to eventually offer space for mediation and conflict resolution, perhaps redeeming in some measure this ground that holds the bones of genocide.

Cortese and Grace Roybal, the ranger at the site, are always open to suggestions from the Natives who visit here. Specifically, the committee is currently working on some way to represent the 8,000 people who lived here against their will between 1864 and 1868.

"We're looking at placing 8,000 objects, so people can get an idea of what that number looks like," Cortese explained. "It should be an object that has significance to both the Navajo and Apache people."

The staff would also like to track down the seven Navajos, who would be middle-aged by now, who signed the 1995 letter left at the stone shrine that precipitated this whole effort. If one of them is you, please contact the monument staff.

One hundred fifty years after the Long Walk, Navajo thoughts and sentiments about the experience are still strong and still evolving -- and there are those who, perhaps as their ancestors would have wanted, have forgotten.

As horrible as Hwéeldi was, though, it was a pivotal point in Navajo history that coalesced the tribe and laid the foundations for the modern Navajo Nation.

"I think this place is one of the most important historical sites in New Mexico, if not the entire Southwest," Cortese said. "Whether or not you choose to come here, it deserves to be recognized and cared for."

Information:, 575-355-2573.

Back to top ^