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The Navajo Nation's Own 'Trail Of Tears'

It came to be called the Long Walk -- in the 1860s, more than 10,000 Navajos and Mescalero Apaches were forcibly marched to a desolate reservation in eastern New Mexico called Bosque Redondo. Nearly one-third of those interned there died of disease, exposure and hunger, held captive by the U.S. Army.

A new memorial center dedicated to remembering the tragedy that almost wiped out the Navajo Nation opened June 4 in New Mexico. The great-great grandsons and granddaughters of the survivors of the Long Walk were there to pay homage, to mourn the dead and celebrate the tribe's ultimate survival.

The Long Walk was largely ignored by a nation embroiled in the Civil War. Beginning in 1863, Gen. James Henry Carleton, commander of New Mexico Territory, decided to solve, once and for all, the "Navajo problem." Some Indians escape the brutal roundup in the Four Corners area, but most surrender.

Ragged queues of defeated Navajos left in batches from Ft. Defiance, Ariz. Men, women, children and the elderly walked 450 miles, in frigid winter and baking summer. Some drowned crossing the Rio Grande. Stragglers were shot and left behind.

Their destination was Fort Sumner and a camp called Bosque Redondo -- 40 square miles of shortgrass prairie and thorn desert, bisected by the Pecos River in New Mexico. The Navajo, and a smaller number of Apache, lived in crude shelters improvised from branches and tattered canvas. Pneumonia, dysentery and smallpox devastated their numbers.

After four years at Bosque Redondo, the Army considered it a failed experiment and escorted the survivors back to their homeland -- but only after an estimated 2,380 people died. But times have definitely changed: While it was the U.S. Army that almost obliterated the Navajo Nation, it was the Department of Defense that contributed most of the funds to build the Bosque Redondo Memorial.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.