- “Lords of New Mexico”: Raiding Culture in Pre-Reservation Navajo Society
It was a strange new land that Lieutenant William Emory beheld on the morning of September 30, 1846. Rough lava rock spread out across the plain, covering layers of sandstone with six feet of black, vesicular basalt, all surrounded by high mesas in the immediate horizon, and mountain ranges even farther beyond. The cavities in the igneous flow were large; Emory even remarked that hawks used the naturally formed holes for their nests. Emory took careful notes of birds that made this malpaís their home, and he recorded the species of vegetation growing nearby. As part of the Army of the West, Emory and his team of topographical engineers were tasked with bringing back information in regard to the natural landscape of New Mexico and California, along with its flora and fauna, in anticipation of it becoming American territory upon termination of the war currently being waged against Mexico. Emory carried out these orders with the precision that might be expected of an engineer or a soldier, and he happened to be both. But on this particular day, he was apprehensive. In the early morning, Emory had wandered by himself away from camp to take notes of the area just described, not wanting to make his entire unit go out of the way of the trail they were already on. But he did so cautiously, for this was Navajo country.1
Emory’s experience with this “wild tribe” was limited. His only personal encounter with a group of Navajo, as far as his record shows, had been a month earlier, a few days after General Kearny and his army had marched into Santa Fe and captured the New Mexican capital without a firing a shot. A small band of Navajo had ridden into the capital, and Emory felt uneasy in the presence of these “naked, thin, savage looking fellows,” who were apparently fierce-looking enough to set them apart [End Page 311] from the Pueblo, Ute, and Apache Indians that had already promised good conduct to General Kearny in Santa Fe.2 They were aloof, austere, and guarded, seemingly living up to their reputation as untrustworthy warriors and raiders that had been given them by the Pueblo and Mexicans. Emory seemed to have bought into these descriptions, and he even went so far as to record that these Navajo eyed a little New Mexican child who played in a nearby court, as if they wanted to eat him.3 While Emory’s assumptions of Navajo cannibalism were absolutely unfounded, his perception of the Navajo as fierce warriors was not. For decades, the Navajo had preyed upon the inhabitants of New Mexico, stealing their livestock and sometimes their women and children, in an effort to exercise power over the territory.
And now, a month later and on his way to California, Lieutenant Emory was looking at Dinétah, the Navajo homeland; even though his mission was to write about plants and rocks and critters, Emory could not help but wonder if this expanse of desolate badlands was a hiding spot of the Navajo, who “carry off the fruit, sheep, women, and children of the Mexicans.” And as far as Emory knew, they would continue in their dominant role, living in “caverns...in high and inaccessible mountains,” where United States troops would “find great difficulty in overtaking and subduing them.” To Emory, the Navajo had been, were presently, and would continue to be “the lords of New Mexico.”4
Though Emory was one of the first Americans to travel near the Navajo homeland, he was not the first foreigner to pass through or to acknowledge Navajo authority in the area. For hundreds of years, Spanish, Mexican, and other Indian tribes had been subjected to Navajo power, a dominance maintained by the establishment of a raiding culture in Navajo society. The Navajo (or Diné, as they call themselves, meaning “the People”) were not unique in this by any means—the various tribes of Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Utes had all developed an inclination for raiding whites, mestizos, and their native neighbors—but they were the biggest...