One of the best rooms in the British Museum, London, is what I like to call the Room of Turquoise and Stone. A capsule of pre-Columbian Mexican History. Here are some of it’s highlights.
Guardians of the East Stairs.
One of the many mid century fusions of diplomat, explorer and writer was a man by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was among the first to write detailed English descriptions of the Mayan sites during the 1840’s and his companion in adventure, a British artist and architect named Frederick Catherwood was the first to visually record them on paper:
‘It is thirteen feet in height, four feet in front, and three deep, sculpted on all four of its sides from the base to the top, and oe of the richest and most elaborate specimens in the whole extent of the ruins. Originally it was painted, the marks of red colour being still distinctly visible.’
John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. v I.. 1841.
Despite his detailed descriptions, which inspired later explorations of the sites, Stephens admitted that it was annoyingly difficult to find out any verifiable history regarding them.
The question, who built them?, never by any accident crossed their minds. The great name of Montezuma, which had gone beyond them to the Indians of Honduras, had never reached their ears, and to all our questions we received the same dull answer which first met us at Copan, “Que sabe?”‘
John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. v I. 1843.
Que Sabe would remain the question until modern scholars cracked the Mayan writing system but the lure of ‘lost’ cities proved irresistible and in the decades that followed.
Years later the explorer, and archaeological pioneer, Alfred Maudesley became known in the scientific world because of a five volume treatise called Biologia Cantrali-Americana. Published in 1902 it described many of the most important Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and represents the fruit of his life’s work.
When Stephens and Catherwood made their explorations they relied on detailed drawings and written descriptions but, Maudesley could rely on the use of camera technology to document his findings.
He also made detailed casts of the extraordinary sculptures he surveyed, made by expert plaster modeler, Lorenzo Giuntini. These were carefully packed and crated to be shipped off to museums in Europe and North America.
Two of Giuntini’s grey plaster Stelae from Copan confront you at the foot of the British Museum’s East Stairs. Their labyrinthine intricacy is offset by the simple intensity of the noble faces of the rulers, staring down at visitors with solemn imperturbability from either side of a wide doorway, barred to all except staff.
Room 27: The Mayans.
As far as the galleries of the British Museum go, room 27, housing the Mexican exhibits and accessed by a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, (they themselves being decorated with Mayan stelae) is an intimate space.
It’s dark, illuminated by the spotlights that reveal the objects on display. The selection showcases the sophistication of the early civilisations of Mexico, ending with fabulous mosaic items from the Mexica empire.
But first we return to the Maya. The writings of the Mayan civilisation have taken 150 years to read. It is only recently that scholars have been able to decipher the tantalisingly neat pictograms blocked into plaques and wall paintings.
A great aid scholars used in breaking the Maya code was the painfully rare codex’s, a tracing of the ‘Dresden codex’ which document’s the remarkable astronomical sophistication of this civilization.
Works of art as well as vital historical documents, the linguistic legacy of the Mayan civilization stands as one of it’s greatest achievements and is as equally inspiring and complex as the most graceful European calligraphy or Egyptian equivalents.
Not even the Mexica (anachronistically known as the Aztec) people, who came to rule central Mexico, knew who the builders of Teotihuacan were. The name means simply, ‘place of the gods.’
Sitting in the company of multiple ceramics and precious objects this fragment of a Nebaj style jade plaque must have been made for a very important individual. It draws the eye at once, as if the speech sign emanating from the Lord’s mouth was calling to you directly.
Along the far wall, under the geometric ceiling, which gives the impression of a portico, late Classic Mayan door lintels from a royal structure in Yaxichilan, Chiapas, hang for visitors to observe.
Rated without exaggeration as amongst the finest works of high Mayan art, it is hard not to be moved by the power exuding from the succeeding cut stone images. Among the most understandable is Bird Jaguar IV dominating a prisoner, holding him in thrall as much by his ferocious stare as his spear.
In another lintel (not pictured) Shield Jaguar the Great looks on as his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, threads a thorned rope through the tip of her tongue in a bloodletting ceremony. Try thinking about doing that without flinching.
Although it must be admitted that the British Museum’s Mexican Collection is tiny beside that of Egypt and accumulated by private means and by early archeologists rather than soldiers and tourists, the methods by which some of the items were gathered leaves something to be desired.
Addressing the Royal Geographic Society in 1883, Maudesley displayed one of the lintels now hanging in room 27 and described how he came by it:
’The other difference [to Tikal] is an important one, namely the employment of stone instead of wood for lintels. Many of the these lintels are carved on under the surface and I have succeeded in bringing to England one of the best preserved of these carved stones. I took it from a half-ruined house, where it had fallen from its place, but was luckily resting with the carved side against the wall, and had thus been protected from the weather. The stone, when I first saw it, weighed about half a ton, but by keeping the men constantly at work on it with the point of a pickaxe and some chisels which I had luckily brought with me, at the end of the week we had chipped it down to half it’s original thickness and cut off the two ends. Afterwards … we cut it down to it’s present size with hand-saws.’
Explorations in Guatemala, and Examination of the Newly-Discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta A. P. Maudslay. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1883), pp. 185-204 (26 pages) JSTOR.
Though all of the cities that formed the classic Mayan civilisation ceased to be a meaningful political entities by the time of the 15th century, a great Nahuatl speaking power grew in their stead in the valley of Mexico.
Room 27: The Mexica.
The heart of the British Museum’s Mexica Collection are the Turquoise Mosaics. A selection of nine intriguing and sometimes disturbing works of religious, royal and historical significance, there being only 25 Mexican mosaics in Europe.
Famously the Mexica placed great importance on ceremonial masks. This one, with its studded turquoise face, and frozen grimace stares out from a darkened glass case.
It depicts the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and probably something out of your more vivid nightmares. This particular mask might even have played a part in some of the great moments of Mexica history as high quality masks like this would most certainly have been worn by the Tlatoani on the occasion of his investiture.
Safely locked behind glass under watery lights that play softly on their subjects, the turquoise fractals gleam with otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, quiet menace.
Not far away, the tarnished design on a shield-like object, never meant for war but for ceremony, suggests the four quadrants of the Mexica world in almost unimaginable detail.
Beside the disc is a finely made atlatl, or spear thrower, a small device a hunter or warrior could use to project his weapon great distances towards his target. Such weapons were commonly included in religious and royal iconography and this one appears to be uncommonly well made.
Highly significant but at the same time quite reluctant to offer any definitive clue as to it’s significance, the painstakingly inlaid double headed serpent represents the pride of the nine Mexica Mosaics in the British Museum.
The skill and craftsmanship involved in making and detailing this object is breathtaking to think about and due to it’s uniqueness it might be considered one of the most important pieces in the museum’s entire collection.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.
The story of Atahualpa’s Rook is one of the many stories told about the imprisonment of the Sapa Inca Atahualpa. Chess, with it’s ancient ideals of nobility, is the game for which there is the most evidence of Atahualpa playing during his captivity, along with dice and cards. These stories quickly became common currency in Spanish America, told, retold and embellished into folktales within ten years of the real events.
Daughters of the Sun.
After the terrible massacre in the plaza at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532 the lord of Tawantinsuyu was taken to the local Temple of the Sun on the outskirts of the the town and placed under guard. 
The heavily built, olive skinned strangers with their strange clothes, shining armour and hairy faces, came with their terrible snorting animals, dragging the Sapa Inca with them. They secured the temple quickly, ranging through it, issuing streams of commands in a flowing, sharp, unfamiliar language.
Previous to his arrival the devastating news of the disaster of 16 November would have come to the House of the Sun in sounds and survivor’s tales. The strange noises of gunpowder weapons echoed like the crack of heavy stones against a wall, the Castilian falconets like the thump of distant thunder and the neighing of horse’s like demonic laughter. Very few would have guessed that it was the sounds of the world being turned upside down, the dreaded Pachacuti itself.
When the prisoner was brought in, the inhabitants would have dropped their eyes or prostrated themselves as soon as they caught sight of the Llawt’u and Maskapaycha on Atahualpa’s head.
Atahualpa was in a way being held captive in his own house, for the semi divine Sapa Incas were descendants of Inti, the sun, and both were worshiped in this precinct. It is interesting that one Spanish account described the place being inhabited by royal virgins who spent their time spinning and weaving fine cloth. 
This indicates that ‘the house of the sun’ at Cajamarca was or included an abode for ‘chosen women’, or ‘maidens of the sun.’ An acllahuasi.
The chosen women began their lives at the age of ten, when an administrator from the provincial capital visited their village and selected the most perfectly formed and brightest children for entrance to the provincial house.
Class was not a barrier and when they entered the acllahuasi the girls became wards of the state and expected to remain chaste for life or until an appointed time.
These places were clearing-houses for girls destined to go into the higher echelons of Inca society. Here their destinies were decided, and they were instructed in skills such as weaving, sewing, brewing, cooking and taught the mysteries of the Inca religion.
Some would be sent to marry into the nobility, the finest of the crop would become wives or concubines of the Sapa Inca. Others would remain in the house making clothes for the state. In Tawantinsuyu any labour or skill was a form of tax. Smaller numbers of girls would rise to be priestesses, and others might be called upon to give their lives in sacrifice. 
Their presence is significant because where it not for a particularly interesting woman this story would not have caught my eye at all.
In the course of his work the 19th century folklorist and head of the Biblioteca National de Peru, Ricardo Palma came across a document written by Juan de Betanzos.
Betanzos was a Conquistador and Spanish chronicler who wrote a history of the Inca empire from the perspective of his wife’s people. Betanzos interviewed many Peruvians and drew also on the singular advantage of being married to one of Atahualpa’s (and Pizarro’s) widows, Doña Angelina Yupanqui who was able to furnish him with a great deal of personal information.
Doña Angelina had been in Cajamarca in 1532 as the drama continued, but she was not called Angelina then. She was born in 1522, and was a niece of Huayna Capac, a previous Sapa Inca, who apparently named her personally, Cuxirimay Ocllo, ‘Lady who speaks good fortune.’
As a descendant of Manco Capac, a founder of the empire, any children she bore, boy or girl, would instantly achieve the highest status in the kingdom.
Even if a boy should be born by a different wife of inferior lineage, a girl born to a Capac woman would still be ranked higher. That being said there had never been a female Sapa Inca, nor would there ever be one.
More dubiously, due to the importance of keeping the line of Capac pure, Curiximay was also related to Atahualpa. Both their mother’s were sisters. In an ‘ideal world’ only those of Capac’s line could produce the next Sapa Inca and Huayna Capac had announced at Cuxirimay’s birth that his niece would marry his son, Atahualpa.
Cuxirimay’s family unsurprisingly sided with the Cusco faction loyal to her future husband during the great fratricidal civil war that was fought immediately before the Spanish conquest.
In 1532, after defeating his brother, Huáscar’s army in Ecuador, the 30 year old Atahualpa sent for his 10 year old Capac bride to meet him as he marched south to claim his kingdom.It was important to him and his newly won place as Sapa Inca that he solidified a line of succession. Atahualpa also intended to have his captured brother paraded before him in servile disgrace to cement his legitimacy.
They two were married soon after she was brought to him, but due to her youth and the arrival of the Spaniards, all but one year later, it didn’t go much past the perfunctory ceremony which was little more than a verbal affirmation that she would be his principle spouse, she was a wife in name only. 
Atahualpa and the Conquistadors.
It is a well known part of the tragedy of Atahualpa that he promised Francisco Pizarro to fill a room of the complex with gold and silver. During the agonising wait for the porters to begin arriving with the loot, tension rose for the Spanish, who felt increasingly isolated as time passed. Some began to wonder who was the prisoner, Atahualpa or Pizarro.
The Spanish held all the cards but due to a lack of troops, intelligence and allies, they were unable to make their next move. They were constantly on the alert for trouble and unable to let their guards down, fretting for their life-changing loot.
It would be easy for arguments to break out in the tense atmosphere but diversions came where they could be found: in cups of dice, packs of cards or improvised boardgames.
The majority of the men serving under Pizarro were in their twenties, and most seem to have been between 20-25. A random selection of 13 men in Lockhart’s Men From Cajamarca reflected this, and of that group only one was in his thirties.
The Conquistadors also defy modern identification. They were both soldiers, settlers and civilians all wrapped into one. Neither application suffices to describe them properly. In 16th century Spain a man would be expected to know the use of arms, and if they were from peasant stock, work in a trade or profession, but professional soldiers, or those who bore arms as their trade, were rare in the Americas. 
This is revealed when one chronicler specifically mentioned that there were those in Peru who had seen armies in the field, implying this to be a special trait.
A glimpse of the kind of man that had slaughtered the Incas in the square at Cajamarca can be gained from a letter written by a ‘footman’ in the Pizarro expedition.
Gaspar Gárate (he also called himself Marquina to identify his Basque origins) was in his early twenties, an illegitimate son who was nonetheless recognised and educated. Practically the only distinguishing thing about him was that he could read and write more than his own name.
He had however not used his education to seek work as a merchant or notary but gone out to America. The only reason young men did this was because they wanted to get rich quick and return home, or else be granted an estate with slaves and move on to plunder somewhere else. However the reality was tough.
Gaspar came out to Peru with some fellow Basques. possibly under the command of Hernando de Soto. He had heard that ‘Governor Francisco Pizarro was coming to be governor of this kingdom in New Castile.’
The young man had previously been adventuring in Nicaragua, and all of his military experience stemmed from service in the Americas. Suddenly out of work and penniless he was taken on as a page to Francisco Pizarro.
Which brought him, through sweat and toil to the blood and terror of the square in Cajamarca. ‘We attacked them’ he wrote of ‘the best people that have been seen in the whole of the Indies’, and ‘seized the lord and killed many.’ 
When the ransom came, Gaspar was to receive a 3/4 share in gold, a life changing sum worth 3,330 pesos. Gaspar was a nobody, who had made it big overnight before his 25th birthday.
Yet he would be killed almost exactly year later during the great Inca rebellion and is remembered only because of a single letter he wrote to his family from Cajamarca in 1533. This was the short, inglorious, brutal life of a typical Conquistador.
While they waited, those in charge of Atahualpa got to know him. The Inca had been allowed to gather his household and make himself comfortable. A clique of royal women appeared, apparently in addition to the women of the temple and they saw to his every need.
Everything from his wardrobe, to his routines and habits became a source of fascination to the Spanish. His richly embroidered tunics of alpaca and cotton were almost as dazzling as his jewellery.
When he appeared wearing a dark brown cloak one day, the Spaniards were awed by its softer than velvet texture. In answer to their curiosity Atahualpa told them it was made out of the skins of bats.
Atahualpa was well made, though small he had a typically well developed Andean chest. Pedro Pizarro remembered that he was a ‘well disposed’ man, ‘beautiful of face and grave in his fierce eyes’.
He seemed more athletic looking than many of his subjects, though his large head and bloodshot eyes lent him the unnerving expression mentioned by Pedro.
With his subjects and even senior lords and administrators he was clipped, formal and severe. Few people dared look him in the face, and he rarely raised his eyes to anyone. He communicated to his handmaidens with unspoken glances which they interpreted effortlessly.
This formality was not evident with the Spaniards however, indeed he ‘showed himself affable, sometimes even indulging in sallies of mirth’ wrote Pizarro’s Secretary. 
Much more down to earth with the Spaniards than his own people it is tempting to explore the idea that the god-king, found a refreshing comradeship with the swaggering Christian’s who naturally saw him first as a man than a deity. Indeed Hernando Pizarro and Hernando de Soto, plus a few other Spanish captains grew very fond of him.
This was in part due to his great wisdom, intelligence and refined, princely manners which the feudal soldiers of rural Castile’s impoverished noble houses responded to instinctively. He was described by Alonso de Guzman as ‘being so intelligent that in twenty days he understood Spanish and learnt to play chess and cards …’ 
Until a few days before his infamous trial, Atahualpa and several Spanish captains would regularly gather in one of the rooms of the temple and divert themselves with games of chess, dice and cards.
The chess boards had been made by the Spanish at Cajamarca and were apparently pretty rough, the pieces were made out of local clay.
At first Atahualpa did not play, and showed no sign that he understood what was going on, sitting on a low seat in customary silence until one game, when Hernando de Soto was at the critical moment of a match with Pizarro’s treasurer Riquelme.
It is significant to the story, principally retold by Ricardo Palma, who found a vague document in the archives by Betanzos, that these two Spaniards were playing the game.
Atahualpa had done his best to ensure he had some protectors in the enemy camp. He knew that some would think nothing of killing him when his usefulness wore out, one of these was the corpulent Riquelme, who seems to have despised the ‘Indian’ leader. 
As the game progressed, De Soto picked up a knight intending to play the piece, (unless atahualpa was a mindreader, De Soto must have at least touched it) but before he could commit himself, Atahualpa gestured and spoke to him in a low voice, ‘no captain the rook’, he said.
What was more stunning than the breach of protocol (it being bad form to coach chess players as a bystander, though it might be assumed that the Inca was copying how the Spanish both played and watched the game) was the foresight of the Inca’s observation, for de Soto reconsidered his move and played the rook, leading to an inevitable checkmate. 
Atahualpa had not only grasped the rules, but the strategy of one of the most complicated and culturally significant games played by the European and indeed eastern nobility. Atahualpa got so into chess that he even gave it a Quechua name, ‘taptana’, surprise attack.
One wonders if he saw some parallel into his own situation when he thought up that name. But he did more than coach and invent names. Gaspar de Espinosa, another chronicler and Conquistador who came in the wake of the initial conquest was told that he played the game ‘very well’ and was both wise and insatiably curious. 
The murder of Atahualpa reads like a big coverup in some TV mystery series where group of people conspire to get someone out of the way and, mostly ashamed of it, try to brush it under the rug. Binding each other to strict secrecy, and as each of the culprits are killed or pass away, the truth becomes more and more difficult to reveal.
The official story is that the Sapa Inca was put on trial for apparently encouraging military action against the Spanish. He was then charged with the murder of his brother and idol worship, and found guilty by his accusers.
Atahualpa had feared for his life when Hernando Pizarro left Cajamarca to bring the King’s share of the ransom back to Spain, moodily observing that if Hernando went away Riquelme would have him killed.
Another key objector to the trial, De Soto, was sent on a scouting expedition to find the mythical Inca army of liberation, dreamt up by the regicides. He would return too late to help his doomed chess partner.
In Palma’s retelling, Riquelme was so angry that Atahualpa had caused his embarrassment he argued all the more forcibly for the Inca’s death during his unconscionable ‘trial’ in the summer of 1533.
Indeed he goes so far as to suggest that Atahualpa’s days were numbered as a direct result of his interference. Critically, both Atahualpa’s protectors had left Cajamarca and while they were away, he was murdered.
At the time, the action was shocking. Unlike Cortés and Moctezuma, Pizarro could not plead an accident, the trial and the garrotte are irrefutable elements of Spanish judicial execution. Pizarro and the others shielded themselves behind the pretence of law.
Yet Hernando De Soto, observed it would have been far better to send Atahualpa to Panama, or even back to Castile. Ruefully he told Pizarro that would have taken him personally.
Even the governor of Panama, (admittedly an enemy of Pizarroj), agreed that Pizarro had crossed a line twice over, and wrote angrily to the King. King Charles V, who was lover of proper procedure and a defender of the rights of kings, listened.
Charles V censured Pizarro in tones of dignified distaste for killing Atahualpa. Curiously, as a mournful Pizarro squirmed before the forthright de Soto, he blamed none other than Father Valverde and Treasurer Riquelme for inciting the deed. 
Surely the greatest crime committed during the conquest of Peru wasn’t because of a lost chess game, or was it?
1: Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru, Folio Society, p88. MacQuarrie. K, Last Days of the Incas., p106.
2: Zarate., p88.
3: Bruhns, K.O., Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America., University of Oklahoma Press, pp150-51.
I first encountered Chaz Mena on Twitter, where he was rendering a kicking live-tweet about the siege of Pensacola. I’ve been interested in the Spanish side of the American Revolution for a few years now, so when I saw Chaz’ tweets and found out what he does, I gave a little cheer. From our interactions online, I think he’s a stand up guy who loves what he does, is always eager to help you out with a problem, learn and share, so it is a pleasure to host some great links that showcase what he does best, interpreting history. Everyone explores what I call Historyland in their own way. These in effect are Chaz Mena’s Adventures in Historyland. Continue reading “Chaz Mena’s Adventures in Historyland.”
As part of his master plan for capturing the Hudson Valley General Burgoyne detached General Barry St Leger to invade the Mohawk Valley to divert American resources. To secure this natural avenue, St Leger’s expedition aimed to capture Fort Stanwix (Renamed Schuyler by the Americans) which guarded the portage road between Wood Creek and the Mohawk River. He was joined by Sir John Johnson and his step Uncle Joseph Brant with 1,000 Iroquois and his own regiment of loyalists (Royal New York). Thinking it a ruin guarded by 60 men, when in fact it was newly rebuilt and had a Garrison of 550 men, Brant’s force advanced through Wood Creek as an advance guard to cut the fort off. Moving fast despite obstacles, terrain and enemy troops they managed a pace of 10 miles a day but arrived just too late to stop a supply column getting inside the Fort on August 2nd. Three days later on the 5th as St Leger was busy carving a supply road through the forest, building earthworks and having his sharpshooters start picking off stray colonials when he heard that a relief force, which had left Fort Dayton on the 4th would be upon him the next day. Continue reading “The Battle of Oriskany, August 6th 1777.”
In the days before overseas telegraph, international news travelled as fast as the fastest ship. Although special correspondents and reporters played a part, unexpected stories required newspaper agents to gather the latest papers tie them up and send them home, where editors would either print verbatim or amalgamate stories to make up a column.
Delays in the relay of information, which filtered north and south through Texas into the United States, Mexico and then across the sea, meant that by the time some British readers heard about the fall of the Alamo, the defenders had been dead for nearly two months. Continue reading “Messages from the Alamo.”
In London, Benjamin Franklin could see trouble coming:
“It was thought at the beginning of the session that the American Duty on tea would be taken off. But now the scheme is, to take off as much tax here as will make Tea Cheaper in America than foreigners can supply us; and continue the duty there to keep up the exercise of the right. They have no idea that any people can act from any principle but that of interest; and they believe that 3d. In a pound of tea, of which one does not drink perhaps 10lb in a year is sufficient to overcome the patriotism of America!”
The East India Company had so far in its history survived storms, the Mughal emperors and hostile foreign companies. Further it had as yet survived a scale of corruption and self interest in its officials unheard of in the more than usually self serving world of 18th century commerce. Yet such recklessness could not continue for ever. Clive had returned with such a pile of loot (£234,000) that it offended the good taste of the old and often debt ridden aristocracy. Rapine was the word used by the Whigs and the King longed, for whatever reason be it administrative or monastery, to be able to clamp down on the running of the EIC. Their charter was indeed up for renewal.
In 1770 a massive drought hit Bengal plummeting the region into a state of famine. The monsoon had failed & the resultant hardship reduced the population of the state by almost a quarter. People were apparently selling their children, eating leaves, livestock & indeed each other to survive. The East India Company was blamed for hoarding resources. And indeed even though there is no proof of a deliberate plan of extermination they exacerbated the crisis by doing virtually nothing to aid Bengal’s plight. They were too busy looking at their account books with a concerned eye…
To read more, follow the link to Britannia Magazine Facebook Page.
This is the first part of a little series dedicated to the Navajo code talkers who served in the US Marines in World War 2. These were men who for half their lives had been told to forget their language and culture, and yet enlisted to defend their country, a country that had more often than not persecuted them and told them that unless they changed they weren’t welcome to be a part of it. Ironically it was their language, the one that America tried to suppress that helped secure victory in the Pacific. Tribal Ideals.
Traditionally the Diné people, or the Navajo didn’t celebrate birthdays, for Peter MacDonald who was to his recollection born in May or June 1928 it was puzzling to be given the birthday December 16th by the United States Government. His parents were from rural Four Corners, near Teec Nos Pos in northeastern Arizona it was a farming community and they had a small place with some sheep, horses, and cows. The family were basically self sufficient, moving with the seasons between four corners, the mountains and Utah.
His young experiences were all bound up in a fluid multi layered, very Navajo oriented world. Bounded by the peaks of the four sacred mountains, Sisnaajíníí (Sierra Blanca) to the east, Tsoodził (Mt. Taylor) to the south, Dook’o’ooslííd (San Fransisco Peaks) to the west and Dibé Ntsaa (La Plata Mountain) to the north. One of these experiences was to watch his grandfather load up his dump truck with coal to take to sell to boarding schools. For Peter the connection between the truck driving away out of their rural neighbourhood and his grandfather coming home with money, which he would use to buy things, made a big impression. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d reply, he wanted to drive a dump truck like his grandfather, or maybe to work in an office.
Navajo Children born at the turn of the 20th century grew up in small close knit farming communities whose livelihood depended on livestock and what they could produce from the soil.
Chester Nez’s family were sheep farmers during the 1920s and 30s in Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico. His mother died when he was very young but like other young Navajos he was able to lean on the family unit; his grandparents and aunts and uncles, on the reservation. There he grew up helping tend a flock of over 1,000 animals.
It was a hard life in a hard country, especially in winter, when the snow banked up to a man’s waist, and the only water had to collected by hand in barrels. Conditions weren’t helped by the empty promises made by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve housing and living standards. Chester philosophically remembered a humble, honest, rough life but figured it was something that he had to go through. He wasn’t alone, Joe Vandenver Sr. Who was raised in a traditional Navajo way, was toughened from birth to face hardships positively. To the extent that his father would throw his children naked into deep snow in order to help them endure the cold in the long run.
Traditional tribal values remained important to the Navajo. Whose tribal structure was based on a number of individual clans. They were so remote from the rest of the United States that it was relatively easy to maintain a sense of a separate culture within communities. Samuel Tom Holliday had been born in monument valley, he was raised by his parents, his mother taught her children about the natural world and made sure they grew up fit and strong. Until he was 12 he had never heard an English voice. He was raised on stories about the cruelty of the White man during the long walk, from his grandmother, whose mother died in the ordeal. These stories affected him deeply and were all too common.
Bill Toledo was an all round strong man. Like most other children he was inducted into the life of a sheep herder at a young age, (no more than 5 years old). Yet he did dream of the world outside the closed Navajo community. Once he watched a plane soar overhead and wondered what it would be like to be up that high, like a bird. He would look out towards mount Taylor and wonder what was on the other side.
His parents died when he was still young and Bill was raised by his grandparents who brought him up in the traditional manner. Every morning he awoke with the dawn to pray with his grandparents. When the first snow fell he was told to strip and roll in the snow for a short while, to keep him strong and healthy. When he was watching sheep, he might chose to sit and relax when his grandfather would ride up on horseback and ask him why he was just sitting around. Shouldn’t he be running somewhere?
Mistakes would be met with scolding from his grandmother. Both grandparents placed great store in exercise and activity, Bill would often run barefoot with his grandfather, who regularly used to leave him in the dust until he got older.
A Harsh New World.
Life was tough, the BIA consistently failed to improve housing and living standards in the reservation. Then just to make it harder came the livestock reduction. The tribe had been herders since Spanish Colonial times and in the treaty of 1868 which had delineated the initial limits of the reservation, the tribe was given 15,000 sheep and 500 cattle. Which had been expanded to 500,000 by the 1920s.
Federal assessors had calculated the Navajo could maintain 500,000 sheep on the reservation. By 1931 the number was as high as 2,000,0000 animals. The maths are testament to how capable the Navajo were at animal husbandry, the tribes’ wool accounted for half of the cash income for an individual Navajo, and constituted the only source of livelihood for women. However the government was adamant that they were overgrazing and ruining the land.
Without consulting the tribe, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier ruthlessly pushed through legislation to remove up to 80% of the Navajo livestock.
Agents appeared thereafter to buy up animals and the tribal flocks were decimated, the horses, goats and cattle deemed superfluous were taken away for destruction. Chester’s grandparents and aunts and uncles watched with tears streaming down their faces as the sheep were herded into a pit or trench, soaked in paraffin oil and set alight. Not even the lambs were spared. The livestock massacre, coming at the height of the Great Depression, broke the back of the fragile Navajo economy and rammed home just how helpless and powerless the tribe was over their own destiny.
Indeed the aura of freedom and cultural independence was a false, because if a Navajo family wanted to get a child educated they had to eventually send them to a BIA boarding school. Article VI of the 1868 treaty actually compelled parents to send all children between the ages of 6-16 to schools so that they could be “civilised.”
Peter MacDonald never aspired to anything that he could not see. Therefore he desired nothing more than to be like his grandfather, and although he knew he was a leader, a chairman of the Navajo Nation Peter would have been content just to drive a truck or work in an office, and nothing more. Despite having no aspirations to go to college, he enjoyed maths at the local school, where he learned to write, read and speak basic English but Peter was then enrolled in a BIA run boarding school at Baycone. He soon found the alien environment, away from his family and familiar routines of home life suffocating. He was picked on by bigger students, and the faculty were cold and mean to him.
After the 6th Grade he dropped out and apprenticed under his grandfather for a year to become a medicine man. However after that year he dropped out of that as well and went looking for other work.
Peter’s experience of boarding school was not unusual. Already the treaty had done its best to dismantle Navajo values, principally by introducing the concept of private property. Incentives being put in place to encourage the tribe to become independent farmers. But these “Indian Schools” were in reality “De-Indianising” stations where everything children had been taught to believe was drummed out of them so they could become, “Americans”.
They were given birthdays if they didn’t have any, and Anglicised names to replace their Indian ones.
Chester Nez went away to school were he had no choice but to learn English. Here the Navajo language was discouraged as was all aspects of their culture. “It was pretty bad,” he said, this was an understatement, and the students suffered week long punishments of they were caught talking in Navajo.
Keith M. Little, born in Arizona, was an orphan raised by his sisters and relatives. Sent to Ganado Mission school, he was subject to the same harsh rules and discipline of the system and was repeated told how “dumb” he was.
Parents would try to keep their children at home for as long as possible, but if children over a certain age were discovered they were sent away. Samuel T. Holliday was 12 when he injured his leg and was hospitalised for 3 months, in which time he was taught basic ABC’s and numbers in an adjoining room. One day his mother came and asked when she could take her boy home, but the officials told her that Tom had to go to school, she pleaded with them not to take him, but they’d didn’t listen.
Tom arrived at school and was greeted in Navajo, but then informed it would be English from there on in. It was one of the hardest experiences of his life. He suffered from bullying, the strict rules and the confusing language. Snitches were a common problem and after being outed for speaking Navajo he would be punished on Saturdays and Sundays, scrubbing the walls and hallways. He was sent at 13, but most kids would go at 5 so it was incredibly hard for him to catch up.
Sam used to trade cookies to other kids in return for teaching him English so he wouldn’t be beaten by the teachers, corporal punishment was a staple of boarding school life.
The name Kee Etsicitty Basically means Boy Blacksmith. Born in May 1924, Kee was sent to boarding school, were the government issue him “normal clothes”, a new name, fed him three meals a day and beat him if he spoke his own language or didn’t learn English fast enough.
Bill Toledo had attended a local school, taking the bus that came around to collect students from their houses or sheep herding camps. At the time Bill went to boarding school his hair was long, like all Navajo children. It flowed down to his waist and he usually bunned it back so when he wore the straw hat his grandfather gave him he looked almost like a Mexican. When he went to boarding school he was told he didn’t need his long hair there. The government was strict on anglicising the Indians, like the others he was not allowed to speak Navajo, if he did his mouth was washed out with yellow laundry soap, and his hair was cut off to conform with American standards of decency.
The material for the above comes from Various filmed Interviews with the sited Navajo Codetalkers from a great database navajocodetalkers.org
Military History Now is the other place you will find my guest posts. This site and me go back to 2012 and I’ve always loved the quirky stories that are shared there. I count it a special honour to be able to contribute to MHN, and I hope you like this little piece of myth busting I’ve done there.