Zeke Argeneas is a soft-spoken young man who wears his long hair in the traditional Navajo bun. Describing himself as “Diné, Navajo for short,” the Edgewood Boy Scout is in the final stages of an Eagle Scout project on Diné history. He peppers his speech with Navajo words and their English translations.
An Eagle Scout project must have an educational component, and Argeneas chose an event called the Long Walk—a forced march of 300 miles endured by Navajo between 1864 and 1866—in which the people were relocated from their traditional homeland in what is now Arizona to Bosque Redondo, an internment camp in New Mexico, at that time a territory.
In a camp designed for about 5,000 people, about 500 Mescalero Apache and 9,500 Navajo were housed until 1868, when a treaty allowed the Navajo to return to their homeland.
The Long Walk is a tale that ended in the deaths of hundreds of people. Argeneas wants people to know more about it, not just the tragic elements but also about the resilience and resourcefulness of the Diné people.
During the Long Walk, and the people’s time at Bosque Redondo (including harsh winters) sheep were crucial to the people’s survival, Argeneas explained. Sheep had been introduced to this area of the New World by the Spanish conquistadores, and were embraced by the Navajo for both fiber and food.
Argeneas gathered information, including oral histories from elders “and medicine people around Dinetah, Navajo land,” he said. He also combed through archives at Bosque Redondo.
Those interviews were difficult, Argeneas said, because many elders do not like to talk about the Long Walk, or Bosque Redondo, which is seen as a place of pain and death. In fact, the Diné word for the site translates as “place of suffering,” Argeneas said.
“When I would ask them they would tell me a lot of these stories,” he said. “When I would ask them to learn these oral stories and history they seemed a little shocked or surprised. Not that many youth know about this particular horrific event.”
For his project, Argeneas commissioned a woven dress—made using traditional methods available in the 1860s by Navajo weaver Zephron Anderson—that has since been donated to the museum at Bosque Redondo.
In addition, Argeneas created an interpretive sign for the site which explains the importance of sheep to the Navajo people.
“When the sheep came, it drastically changed their style of weaving,” Argeneas said. “With that sheep became an important player into Navajo culture, and helped the people survive at the time of the Long Walk.”
Sheep were used mainly for wool, and were eaten only in times of extreme need, he said.
“Winter over there in the eastern New Mexico plains was very horrifically hard on the people,” Argeneas said, adding, “The number of sheep dispersed between Navajo family members were so little, if you eat the sheep, there goes your supply of wool.”
The project also gave Argeneas a way to honor and remember the role of women in the survival of the Navajo people, he said, adding that the woven dress is “a symbol of strength, courage and hope.”
At 17 years old, Argeneas sees himself as a role model, both to younger Boy Scouts (he has taken Edgewood’s Troop 640 on field trips to show them Navajo culture and land) and to other Native youth.
“We are starting to hang by a thread on losing that part [language] of culture,” Argeneas said. “We’ll lose our culture, our language, everything. We can’t call ourselves Diné no more. I want to help sew that patch up, make sure that wound is healed, and help others understand my culture. … Not that many people are going to our elders asking to tell the stories about the Warrior Twins, the songs they have learned. I am gathering those ancient songs to help the next generation.”
Argeneas has spent about two years on the Eagle Scout project, and started to delve deeply into his research about a year ago.
Bosque Redondo is now a memorial remembering the persecution and suffering of those Native peoples, and celebrating their resilience, endurance, courage and strength in the face of extreme hardship, isolation, sickness and death, according to its website.
For more information about the memorial site, visit bosqueredondomemorial.com.