Building the future, keeping the past<br>

Together, these two men including Jesus Arviso and James Sutherland drafted the Peace Treaty. Barboncito spoke Navajo to Jesus Arviso, the interpreter for Barboncito, who then translated what Barboncito said into Spanish to James Sutherland. James Sutherland could speak Spanish and English. He was the English interpreter for Gen. Sherman.

On June 1, 1868, 29 Navajo leaders signed the Peace Treaty of 1868 with the U.S. Government. This treaty allowed the release of about 8,000 surviving Navajos from Hwééldi on June 18, after four long years of affliction. Their homeland was now called the Navajo Reservation. On the return trip, when the Navajo people saw familiar landmarks, they cried. Some died from absolute jubilation. The Navajos arrived home in late July 1868.

Mexican captive

Jesus Arviso was a Mexican captive. At age 13, a Navajo family traded him for a black horse from the Apaches. They called him “Bi’éé’lizhini” or Black Shirt, and gave him a Navajo clan, Áshihíí (Salt). He was bilingual in Spanish and Navajo.

Later, people called him “Adits’a’ii” or Interpreter. When the U.S. soldiers came to Navajo land in the early 1860s, Arviso became an interpreter for the Navajo headmen. He spoke to the soldiers in Spanish, who then translated what Arviso said into English and vice-versa.

Arviso went on the Long Walk to continue interpreting for the Navajo people at Hwééldi. For this reason, he was an important man. Jesus retired in 1884, when Henry Chee Dodge became the first Navajo interpreter.

Interestingly, both men experienced life at Hwééldi; Chee Dodge was only 4 years old when he arrived there. After witnessing many changes and development on Navajo land, Arviso died in 1923 at his home in Tohatchi, N.M.

Fry bread

Martin Link, a former director of the Navajo Tribal Museum for 18 years, describes that at Hwééldi, they baked bread for Navajo families. Navajo men would line up to get loaves of bread to take to their respective families. However, before getting home, it was all consumed. And families went hungry.

The resolution of the problem led to the birth of fry bread when the Spanish women taught the Navajo women how to make hot bread. Rather than making square-shaped sopapillas, Navajo women made round bread, in the shape of the frying pan.

Spider Rock

Spider Rock is a spire about 800 feet tall. According to Navajo belief, Spider Woman lived at the top of Spider Rock. They also say this is the place where she taught the Navajos how to weave rugs. For that reason, Spider Rock is very special and a sacred site.

Massacre Cave

In the winter of 1805, Antonio Narbona led the Spanish Conquistadors into Canyon de Chelly. It was a punitive expedition to punish the Navajos for raiding and taking Spanish slaves.

Suddenly, a Navajo woman yelled at them in Spanish, “You are not welcomed here. Go away.”

Clearly, this woman was a former Spanish slave and had learned to speak Spanish. She had managed to escape from her captors and returned home to Canyon de Chelly. At this point, the Spanish began shooting at the Navajos hidden in an alcove high up in the canyon wall.

One of the Spanish climbed up to the alcove. A bold Navajo woman struggled with him and fell down the canyon taking the Spanish with her. Accordingly, the Navajos called this place, “Adah aho’ doo’ nili” or Two Who Fell Off. A rock art at the Standing Cow Ruin depicts the coming of these Spanish into Canyon del Muerto. Two white dots above the Spanish riders represent the two days of fighting.

The aftermath resulted in the massacre of 115 Navajo babies, children, women and grandparents. Unaware, the young warriors were away on a hunting trip in the Lukachukai Mountain. An old man who survived the attack covered himself with dead bodies to hide from the Spanish. At night, he left to tell the others about what had happened.

That oral history has been passed on, which we learned about. Today, this place is known as the Massacre Cave.

Rock art

Throughout Canyon de Chelly are examples of Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo rock art including a flute player, horsemen, deer, antelope, a Standing Cow, painted hands, snakes and other significant symbols.

Pictographs and petrogylph are the two types of rock art found in Canyon de Chelly. Petroglyph is a Greek word that means carved rock. “Petro” means rock and “glyph” refers to carving. As such, petrogylph is a word used to describe pictures and symbols carved into the rocks by the ancient people. Pictographs are rock paintings using powdered rock/sand, blood, charcoal and other things.


In 1539, Francisco Coronado led the Spanish Conquistadors into the Southwest searching for the “Seven Cities of Gold,” only to find pueblos made of mud and stones. In 1598, Juan de Oñate and his army moved into present-day New Mexico and settled along the Rio Grande River. They brought livestock and tools like hammers, axe, saw, hoes, lanterns and seeds in wagons.

The Navajos wanted those things the Spanish had. Soon, they met. As a result, Spanish had strongly influenced and changed the Navajo culture and language. We soon began raising horses, sheep, goats and cattle. We also learned the art of silversmith from them. Today, Navajo silversmiths continue to make beautiful Navajo jewelry.

Many Spanish words are a part of the Navajo language for money and food. Examples: “alóós” for rice; “gíinsi” for 15 cents; and “dimííl” for a million; “mondigíiya” for butter; “másí” for cat; “yáál” for rial; and “wéeno” for bueno. There are many more adopted Spanish words.

Early Navajo leaders had Spanish surnames because they were easier to pronounce and write than their Navajo names. To this day, many Navajos still have Spanish surnames such as Mariano, Herrera, Arviso, Chatto, Jesus, Sandoval, Willeto and others.

(Sara Begay is Talented and Gifted teacher at Leupp Schools Inc.)


Comments are not posted immediately. Submissions must adhere to our Use of Service Terms of Use agreement. Rambling or nonsensical comments may not be posted. Comment submissions may not exceed a 200 word limit, and in order for us to reasonably manage this feature we may limit excessive comment entries.

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.