The official records taken at Fort Indomitable suggest that nothing occurred on July 17, 1861. Initially some reference was made, documenting that a horse race between a soldier at the fort and an unnamed Navajo brave was won by the American. Some weeks later, this record was removed and destroyed.
We did not record the Navajo’s name, though we knew the man as Yiska. He was a champion rider of the Navajo people and, amongst us at least, he had cultivated quite a reputation. The older soldiers at Fort Indomitable named him “Arrow’s Flight,” for such was the speed he rode. However, thinking back upon it now, I do not recall any among the Navajo using this designation. I will, therefore, continue to refer to him as Yiska for the purpose of my statement.
I met him only once, yet still I remember him well. He stood at around five and five, making him one of the smaller Navajo men. He was slight, his face youthful. Something of his demeanour gave an impression that he might be just one heartbeat away from laughter.
His opponent for the day had been arranged in advance. That man was to be David Roberts, a Welsh soldier of the regiment so hopelessly inexperienced that he had never even seen combat. Roberts had few friends within the regiment. Yet he… that is to say, I… found himself basking in the warm, yet wholly unfamiliar, glow of adulation following a victory over the son of Navajo chieftain in another race two weeks before. That chieftain’s son took that loss well, all things considered, and shook my hand to acknowledge the thrill of a close contest. I took twenty dollars from the man. A sum – he assured me – that would soon be reclaimed by his friend, the famed Yiska.
Fort Indomitable was constructed some ten years before ever I saw it. It was then under the command of an officer by the rank and name of Colonel James Bridger; whose duties included supervision of the New Mexico territories, along with relations with the Navajo.
Their relationship had fraught and tumultuous beginnings. Bridger claimed vast swathes of land for the fort. He summoned the Navajo and forced them to agree to this new division of the territory, making them sign assurances of compliance that could stand for as long as was needed. The situation might not have been liked, but in the first instance it was accepted. However, the Gadsden Purchase and subsequent assimilation of the region’s Mexican population enraged the Navajo. For the Mexicans and Navajo were no allies. Gadsden made United States citizens of the Mexicans. It granted them rights denied to the Navajo and protected them from retaliations when they raided the Navajo and took their children for slaves.
This proved decisive. An injustice too far. Many angry young Navajo men were headstrong. They displayed their frustrations with violence, attacking patrols and supply wagons. Bridger’s men required no further invitation to ride out in full force.
Perhaps the fighting was as inevitable as the result. A bloody dialogue. The Navajo protested the indignity of subjugation, while we offered a riposte of military strength and expansionism. They were quickly beaten: their bows, arrows, and the smattering of antique pistols that had survived from the days of Spanish occupation were no match for the U.S. rifles.
The Navajo elders quickly saw sense. They requested peace. Bridger granted it with promises that no further punishment or hostility would come from him – provided of course that they learned to control their own. The ensuing years of peace that followed demonstrated that, if nothing else, both sides could keep their word.
Soon, our soldiers developed sufficient dealings with the Navajo for something like an affinity to flourish between them. There was trade. Food and shelter were shared and reciprocated. Most pertinently, a culture developed between them, of friendly competition, horse racing, of bets and wagers.
Now, understand that the life of a frontier soldier is a tedious one. A life of discipline and routine. Of keeping watch for long uneventful hours, day and night. What temporary freedoms are granted cannot be used to slip away into the vices and indulgences of civilization; there were no saloons, no women, no nothing but duty and boredom under the dry New Mexico sun. These races were then a welcome novelty. An unanticipated, yet felicitous produce of peacetime.
Bridger saw the value in any initiative that lead to sustained peace. He invited the Navajo to race outside the fort. They had grown to trust Bridger and so accepted his invitation. The Fort Indomitable race was a tradition of two years or more before we arrived. Our greenhorn regiment making deployment in May 1861; replacing the more experienced soldiers summoned east to fight the Unionist cause, along with Colonel Bridger.
At full strength the fort comfortably housed three hundred soldiers. However, peace with the Navajo and war between the Union and the Confederacy had seen the garrison reduced to around sixty.
Most of them waited outside the walls that morning, watching the oncoming Navajo and welcoming them with shouts and jeers. We did not fear the Navajo, though the walls remained guarded by riflemen who lounged above us in listless precaution.
Ahead of his men, acting commander Lieutenant Commings sat astride his horse in full uniform. I sat beside him. It was far too hot that day to comfortably wear our jackets and helmets. I recall seeing perspiration trickling from Commings’ bushy moustache and thick eyebrows. Nevertheless, the Lieutenant refused to acknowledge anything so crass as discomfort, or anything so weak as agitation, demonstrating instead the absolute composure befitting an officer of the United States army. I recall patting down the mane of my stallion and whispering to it words of encouragement.
“Nervous Roberts?” Commings asked without looking at me.
“No sir,” I replied.
“Then act accordingly. Cast your eyes towards what is currently descending upon us: a horde of crepuscular vermin, braying and whooping in their infernal tongue. Had I the misfortune of being one of them, victory in these races might grant hope to my miserable life of skulking and scavenging by moonlight. Do not offer the gift of seeing one of God’s own, twitching and muttering to a damned horse. If I were to observe my opponent behaving thusly, I would consider that man rattled and would, thereby, have gained considerable advantages.”
He may well have said more.
The Lieutenant had taken a personal interest in me, following my victory over the chieftain’s son. He had summoned me to his office to offer his congratulations. He took every opportunity to pontificate during the interim between the two races; ensuring that I understood, in no uncertain terms, that I now stood for the honour of the fort, the regiment, for him, my country, not to mention God too, and the entire divine race.
The Navajo stopped their horses before us. Most kept their distance while the few that spoke English approached to engage the Lieutenant’s retinue. They affirmed that they came with peace in their hearts, and that they wished to observe the race between the man we called Arrow’s Flight, and myself. Furthermore, they sought permission to place bets upon the outcome.
This formalised requesting and granting of permission was an initiative decided upon by Commings, who disliked presumption or parity from the Navajo. Bridger had not been so inclined. Lieutenant Commings sanctioned their requests, as per his custom, and the bartering began.
The Navajo mingled with the regiment, trading excitedly. There would be other races held that day too, small bets would have been struck between individuals upon the outcome of those. Possessions on both sides were eclectic and sparse. We were forbidden to wager any part of our uniforms, or any of our weapons, but otherwise we were permitted to risk food rations, personal artefacts, money, and any drink we might have acquired. For their part, they would put up pelts, and leathers made from reptile hide and fish skin. Sometimes the boys would request items of Navajo clothing as souvenirs when their posting was complete.
Each race day had also the main pool. Their people put in what they had, and our regiment would match or exceed their bet. Typically, the Navajo tended to triumph in these races. As such, the men at the fort had learned not to risk too much and to simply enjoy the spectacle and occasion of it all. That day, however, the pool depended upon the result of my race against Yiska. My previous victory had emboldened many of the men. I heard them saying my name excitedly to the Navajo. They said that, finally, Fort Indomitable has a worthy champion! And they matched the Navajo’s bet. A totality of just below six hundred dollars I was told.
Away from the frontier, it seems quite the paltry amount.
Commings bade me watch Arrow’s Flight closely. The Navajo had dismounted and was in the process of adding his property to the pool when he felt eyes upon him. He glanced upwards and saw us: the iron gaze of Commings, and my best attempt to match it. He smiled broadly back and offered a slight bow. A gesture I understood to offer something like kinship.
“Do not acknowledge the enemy,” Commings instructed, his voice dry as New Mexico itself.
Despite the agitations of my conscience, I did as I was instructed. Yiska turned from us and mounted his horse.
Just as soon as all pledges were finalised the crowds formed in two segregated blocks. The Navajo the larger group. Perhaps two hundred by my estimation. Yet despite their superior numbers, they offered little threat. They were a near-wretched group of ragged braves, women, children, old men, and shabby horses.
The established Indomitable racing route took the riders to an ironwood tree to the south-west of the fort. The barren tree stood alone, just in view of the spectators. Traditionally, the winner of the race was the first rider to loop around it and return to the fort.
The minor races rode first. I recall that one pitted a Navajo mother and her child, riding on the back of a mule, against the woman’s husband. The brave ran on foot behind them, performing a pantomime of comic abandonment to raucous laughter from the crowd. Another involved nearly twenty riders, for whom the primary concern was simply not to collide with one another.
There were others. Yet these were all frivolity. Everyone present anticipated only the race between Yiska and me. When it was our time, we lined up to the cheers of our supporters. Yiska smiled at me and received an awkward nod in reply. He asked my horse’s name, in English soft and faltering.
“I call it Manifest Destiny,” sniffed Lieutenant Commings, as he rode beside us. “Are you both ready to go?” He nodded briskly without reply. “Very good. You ride the very moment I fire this pistol. And, Roberts, may the best man win.”
Commings aimed his pistol above his head and shot into the air.
Our horses charged forward, thundering in unison. The air was filled with shouts of encouragement; American and Navajo voices blending into a single language of pure human excitement.
I kept pace. Standing into my stirrups, leaning forward, head down. Soon my horse inched out in front. Yiska was standing too. I did not linger on him long. I watched the Ironwood getting bigger and bigger as I screamed wordless encouragement to my horse.
We approached the tree with a rifles’ length in my favour. Yet I was worse on the turn. I overshot the accursed thing. Yiska’s turn was smooth and precise. When I turned my horse back to the ironwood tree, Yiska was on the return.
I hunched of course and gave chase, but the pursuit was doomed. I rode back through the cloud of sand kicked up by his horse.
When I was back in earshot of the fort, the air was now filled only with the full-throated Navajo voices, supporting their champion mingling with their delighted laughter as they countenanced victory.
Yiska rode past Commings, straight to his people. The Lieutenant dismounted as I reached him. I started offering apologies but Commings simply spat into the dust, turned heel and marched back towards Yiska and the elders.
I dismounted and followed him.
“That was no victory,” Commings declared. “Your people cheated. My man has been sabotaged by some heathen, moon-worshipping, trickery. I demand we race again. Immediately.”
“There was no trickery sir,” one of the elders, fluent in English, replied. “Yiska won fairly. Your man would say as much himself.”
I interjected quietly, admitting that I had rushed the turn. Commings silenced me with a stern look.
“Do not hand over a damn thing until I command you to do so!” he shouted back to the regiment.
“Sir, listen to your man” the elder implored, “he has not been deceived.”
“We race again, else I shall return you to your mud-huts without the feathers, the bones, and whatever other degenerate scraps your people have pledged.”
Those among the Navajo that could understand the Lieutenant’s words were spreading them quietly through the crowd. The outrage and fury began as murmurings but began to crescendo. Commings held his ground, listening to the elder pleading his case.
“We do not understand. We raced as we always have. There has been no trick played,” said the elder , his arms spread wide and open.
“You will not race again? Very well. Consider forfeiture a fitting punishment for duplicity.”
Commings walked back towards the fort commanding the soldiers to take everything back inside. I could not remain alone among the Navajo and so I followed, head cast downwards to avoid their gazes. The soldiers did nothing initially. At a second issue of command and they began to carry out their instructions in brittle silence. All that was audible were the angry voices of the Navajo.
The elder followed Commings, placing his hands on the shoulder of the departing officer before he turned and swatted aside the man’s touch.
“When your people first came to us, we were pleased,” the elder said. “We hoped for a peaceful future. We welcomed them, they ate our food and danced with our women. Bridger told us we must accept his borders. That we must keep our animals from feeding on his ground. We did not like these restrictions, but we have honoured them. We had no heart for fighting…”
“Bridger was out here too long if you ask me. He softened. Forgot the natural order of things,” Commings declared as he walked away.
“We are people!” The elder shouted to his back. “We ask only for dignity.”
The Navajo moved forward, shouting in their language. They pushed up to the regiment, standing chest-to-chest. There was shoving, and yet I saw no weapons drawn. When the first shot came, it was ours. I saw it happen. One of the larger braves tried to break through our line to retrieve his belongings and was shot in the stomach.
Commings shouted the order.
Fire at will.
The air filled with dull thuds and screaming. My comrades began decreeing death for all, uttering every insult and slur they could conjure. Bloodlust surfaced far faster than I could have imagined, the faces of friends and comrades twisted in a hatred that had not been present mere moments ago. The riflemen atop the walls were not threated, though they too joined the killings. Their rifles shot at what they could discern among the close-quartered chaos below. Then they aimed at the clearer targets, the petrified women, children and elders watching the slaughter, unable to abandon the unarmed men being ripped to pieces at close range and ran through with bayonets.
I saw Yiska still atop his horse caught dumbstruck in the maelstrom. Just as soon as I put eyes upon the man, he was shot from his horse.
The Navajo scattered in all directions, bullets flying at their backs they fled. Some retaliated, though they were wide open and hopelessly outmatched. Their resistance lasted only a few minutes. When our guns fell quiet, scores of their dead lay before Fort Indomitable, its white walls like sun-bleached bones emerging from the sand.
Commings ordered the wounded shot, and all bodies collected onto wagons. We took the bodies two miles north-east and spent all afternoon digging the grave. We piled them inside. Sixty-three dead in total. Among that number, I counted sixteen women and nine children. The desert sand was all that was used to cover and mark them.
Afterwards, we never spoke about that day again. We were scared, tell you the truth, expecting some form of repercussion to come down upon us.
It never did.
The Union and the Confederates were fighting and so the complaints of the Navajo fell on deaf ears. Only six months on, justice for these shootings was a luxury for them anyway. They were evicted from their ancestral homelands and sent to the reservations.
The official records will tell you that on July 17, 1861, nothing happened at Fort Indomitable. For history to agree, we needed only to keep our silence.
But that did not sit right with me. Some champion they had too, a man of no standing and little money, unable to read and write. Still, I sat by that grave for hours afterwards, wondering what might have been had I not let excitement take me, and took the turn a little better… I transferred to another posting as quickly as possible and served my remaining time in peace. Once I was discharged, I sought the assistance of a man of letters, able and willing to help me articulate and transcribe this account. Because I was there at Fort Indomitable that day, and something happened all right.
Author Note: This story is inspired by the book ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown. Some sections (notably the words of the Navajo Chief) are taken from the book and I give all acknowledgement to the original writer for that content.