Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

A Second Long Walk

Devastating to native Americans

Woody Guthrie sang songs about it, John Steinbeck depicted the events in a classic novel about it and the photos by Dorothea Lange became world famous for the depictions of life during the devastating Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

During the same period, the Dust Bowl crisis led to a government orchestrated devastation of the livelihood and culture of the Navajo or Dine of Arizona about which there are no fables, songs or movies, known as the “Second Long Walk.”

Of the many aspects of the U.S. government’s longtime, systematic destruction of native Americans, the first, “Long Walk” of the Dine of 1864 is one of the lesser known events. The “Second Walk,” familiar to even fewer people, was as devastating in its way as were the forced marches of the Long Walk.

Thousands of native Americans died as a result of the “Long Walk” of the Dine of 1864, an ethnic cleansing which involved forced marches and deportation of thousands of native Americans from their traditional homelands in Arizona to eastern New Mexico. Many were forced by U.S. soldiers to settle at the Bosque Redondo Reservation in Arizona, a virtual concentration camp for native Americans. The government was determined to force native Americans from their traditional land to make way for white settlers as part of the westward expansion of the country and to clear native Americans away from the path of the newly constructed transcontinental railroad.

The “Second Long Walk” was prompted by a series of issues during the years of the nation’s Great Depression and the great Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce in 1928, had heralded construction of a new dam, later to be known as the Hoover Dam, to provide vital irrigation to the area. But the U.S. said that overgrazing by the Dine who lived in the area of the dam, was effecting the San Juan and Little Colorado rivers, which could upset plans for the dam.

The dam was vitally important because of the Dust Bowl years that saw destruction of millions of acres of land that had been over-farmed and left unprotected because of poor agricultural practices that stripped away the protective top soil in an effort to maximize production of wheat to meet the growing demands caused by disruptions caused by the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I. The needs skyrocketed and so did the profits for farmers and big business. Then came the Great Plains droughts of the 1930s and massive, deadly dust storms along with destruction of millions of acres of farm land and with it, the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers.

The drought and erosion of the Dust Bowl affected 100 million acres in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. Tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families were forced from their homes, unable to pay mortgages or grow crops and losses reached $25 million per day by 1936, equal to $470 million in 2020.

In the midst of the dust bowl devastation, the U.S. government determined that the Dine had improperly managed the land by raising too much livestock, creating loss of the protective layer of vegetation which made the situation rife for destruction. The government’s response was the Dine Livestock Reduction program of the 1930s, a euphemism for the slaughter of thousands of sheep and horses, cutting deeply into the Dine culture and economy. To the Dine native Americans, their livestock was sacred as it was given to them by their ancestral “Holy People” while they also heavily depended on sheep and other livestock for food and clothing. They marketed the wool both as a raw material and wove it into Dine rugs and blankets that were also religiously and culturally important.

In 1933, the nation under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was battling to recover from the Great Depression and key was restoration of the farming economy. Government studies alleged, but were challenged by some experts, that the native American reservations in the southwest could not support the amount of livestock that was being raised and that land was being destroyed. The government determined that the reservation land could sustain about 500,000 sheep but the Dine owned 2 million sheep in 1931.

After Long Walk, in 1868, the government signed a treaty that returned the Dine to their traditional lands and also provided each family with one male and one female sheep. The Dine were traditionally good shepherds and the livestock numbers grew dramatically for 60 years, until the dust bowl.

The Dine opposed the livestock control program but John Collier, commissioner of what is now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had opponent arrested and the fight ended, sealing another unseemly chapter in the U.S. assault on indigenous Americans.

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