Visibly historic

Fort Defiance Chapter's history is on display if you care to look

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz., March 28, 2013

(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 28th in the series.)

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

SECOND FROM TOP: The town of Fort Defiance started here at the mouth of Blue Canyon, where a wash and year-round springs supplied water. Unfortunately, it was also an ideal strategic location for the U.S. Army fort that was situated on the flat just below the two water towers. From the fort, the Army could could control traffic through Blue Canyon, a shortcut to Sawmill and Canyon de Chelly.

THIRD FROM TOP: The old hospital in Fort Defiance is one of many historic buildings that are still standing.

W hen the U.S. won the Mexican-American War in 1848, it inherited an intractable stretch of land.

The Navajos and Mexicans had been raiding and counter-raiding each other for 200 years, complicated by the occasional foray by the Utes from the north and the Pueblos from the east. The Mormons, convinced that now that they were part of the United States the government was going to come after them for polygamy, were arming everybody in the hopes that the weapons would eventually be turned against the U.S. Army.

At the territorial capital in Santa Fe, the New Mexicans convinced their new government that the Navajos were the main aggressors, owing them thousands of dollars worth of livestock and slaves.

After several unsuccessful attempts to convince the Navajos to stop raiding and make amends to the New Mexicans (whom the Navajos insisted had confiscated at least as many Navajo livestock and children as they had stolen from the settlers), the government and military came up with a plan to build a fort strategically located at the mouth of Cañoncito Bonito (now known as Blue Canyon).

The canyon was a major shortcut between Canyon de Chelly to the northwest and the rich pasture land and farm fields (not to mention raidable white and Pueblo communities) to the east. The soldiers stationed at Fort Defiance - named after the Navajos' defiance of treaty attempts - would be able to monitor their comings and goings, and whether they returned with more livestock than they went out with.

In return, the Army would defend the Diné from raiders and the government would give them farm implements so they could grow their crops in peace.

How well this worked depended on who was in charge of the territorial government, the local Indian Agency, and the fort, which was completed in 1852.

Col. Edwin Vose Sumner, Fort Defiance's first commander, recognized the need to help the Navajos prosper so they would not be tempted to raid. Sumner had 500 sheep, some seeds and agricultural implements sent to the fort for distribution to the local Natives.

Dodging war

In early 1853, Henry Linn Dodge was appointed agent to the Navajos. One of the only Indian agents at the time who chose to live among the people he was charged with helping, Dodge moved the agency headquarters from Jemez to Fort Defiance.

He made friends with the local headmen, and when the territorial governor got tight with farm implements, he bought them for the people out of his salary.

The small regiment at Fort Defiance proved incapable of defending the tribe against slave raids and incursions into their traditional grazing lands, and the Navajos grew restless on several occasions. But Dodge always managed to keep the peace, advocating for their rights in Santa Fe and sometimes bringing the headmen along, to the chagrin of the New Mexicans living in the capital.

The uneasy truce persisted until 1856, when Dodge was killed while tracking a band of Apaches that had been raiding Zuni and Navajo herds.

After that, there was a succession of agents, commanders and governors who seemed ever less sympathetic to the Navajos. They demanded the tribe pay back the $14,000 in livestock the New Mexicans insisted had been stolen from them, but rarely came up with restitution for the New Mexican raids, which hadn't ceased despite the Americans' promise to protect the Diné.

Eventually, the Diné had had enough. On April 29, 1860, a war party led by the great Chief Manuelito attacked the fort, taking advantage of the fact that much of the regiment had been moved to Ojo de Oso to set up the new Fort Fauntleroy (now known as Fort Wingate).

The Americans were eventually able to repel the invasion, but the decision was made to abandon the fort. Although a period of truce emerged after that, it could be considered the first battle in the war that would culminate in the Long Walk.

After the war

Eventually the fort was torn down, a remnant of a history neither the Navajos nor the Americans cared to revisit. The town was reestablished as an Indian agency in 1870, and by the turn of the previous century, a major BIA compound had sprung up where the fort once stood, complete with a hospital and a boarding school.

The missionaries were not far behind. Franciscan friars arrived from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1900 and in 1915 built the church that is still being used, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. The parishioners are already preparing to celebrate the mission's hundredth anniversary, said their pastor, Fr. Gilbert Schneider, by collecting old photographs and oral histories.

Some fascinating photos are currently on display in the parish's gymnasium, including one of a former pastor rescuing a team of mules from quicksand in Canyon de Chelly.

While the fort is gone, a surprising number of the old BIA buildings are still standing, and some are still in use by either the BIA or the tribe. A walk through the old compound gives the visitor a good idea of what the town looked like in the 1910s, 20s and 30s.

Unlike most Navajo chapters, Fort Defiance has managed to preserve its architectural history.

This, confessed Eldridge Anderson, a Fort Defiance native and legislative assistant to Council Delegate Roscoe Smith (Crystal/ Fort Defiance/Red Lake/Sawmill), is purely coincidental.

"Some of the buildings are still being used," he said, "and the rest are probably too expensive for the BIA to tear down," being as many were retrofitted with asbestos insulation in the 1950s and 60s.

Meanwhile, the town has expanded westward and has no need of the once-strategic land along the wash.

Its long history as a BIA agency headquarters has left the chapter of 3,624 people in an enviable position when it comes to infrastructure.

The vast majority of chapter residents, said the chapter's account maintenance specialist, Gina Chischilly, have both electricity and running water.

There are schools, the recently rebuilt hospital and every government office you can think of, but Fort Defiance lacks the businesses you would expect in a chapter this size.

"We have the Laundromat, a car wash, That's-a-Burger and two convenience stores," said Chischilly. "That's about it."

Chischilly thinks locals wanting to start a business get disgusted with the Navajo bureaucracy and instead drive 30 miles to set up shop in Gallup.

The future of Fort

The new chapter officials, she said, are gung-ho on LGSC certification, so that may help. (Anderson has some reservations about certification, noting it didn't work so well in Tuba City, where the chapter officials got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.)

When it comes to dreams for their chapter, Chischilly envisions a youth center, a Boys and Girls Club and a soccer field so the kids will have something healthful to do.

The 30-something Anderson thinks the chapter should work with the Navajo Housing Authority to build an apartment complex so the young singles and couples who move to town to take government jobs have a place to live (presently, many of them commute from Gallup or their home chapters).

But by far the biggest issue in these parts is the budget crunch that may force the Window Rock School District - a fairly major employer here - to close some of its schools.

Fort Defiance and the three other chapters that feed into the district have passed resolutions opposing the closings of any schools, but Anderson thinks it might be unavoidable.

"It's a matter of capacity," he said, noting that none of the schools is anywhere near full. "Any smart person can see that if you're only using half your house, it doesn't make sense to heat the whole thing."

Anderson thinks the chapter should instead be focusing on helping those who will be laid off in the restructuring.

"We have computers here that people can use in their job search," he said. "We will do what we can to help our chapter residents who find themselves unemployed."

Meanwhile, both Anderson and Chischilly hope the slump will be temporary and the future holds positive things for this old town with a violent past.

A chapter that knows its history, Anderson noted, "can see how far we've come."

Fort Defiance at a Glance

Population - 3,624 in the 2010 Census

Land area - 6.1 square miles

Amenities - a hospital, schools, government offices, a few businesses, certification in process

Problems - school district restructuring may result in layoffs; proximity to Gallup may be hampering residents' desire to set up businesses here

History - The community grew up around a U.S. military fort constructed in 1852 at the mouth of Blue Canyon, although there were already families living among the little springs there when it was built.It was also the first Indian Agency on Navajo land.

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