The Spanish had tried for a time to Christianize the Navajos—literally chaining them to church pews, according to one account—but they would not tolerate Spanish missionaries. In 1672 a group of Navajos hauled a priest out the doors of his church, ripped off his clothes, then killed him at the base of an outdoor cross by smashing his head in with a bell. By 1750 the Spaniards had given up on all efforts to proselytize among these indios barbaros. In that year a priest dolefully noted that the Navajos “could not become Christians or stay in one place because they have been raised like deer.”
For centuries the Spanish had mounted retaliatory expeditions into Navajo country, to reclaim stolen livestock as well as to capture women and children to serve as slaves, but these military forays did little to stop the raids.
Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder (p. 23). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Sometimes the purpose of the raid was to steal back a Navajo captive who had been taken by the New Mexicans. Liberating a Navajo slave was always cause for rejoicing—although often the captive, who perhaps had been sold into slavery as a young child and become acclimated to Spanish culture, might be terrified by the attacking horsemen and fearful of returning to a tribal life that existed only as a dim memory.
Mainly, though, the Navajo raiders were interested in obtaining sheep and goats. The Navajo, almost alone among American Indians of the West, were primarily a pastoral people—shepherds, shearers, eaters of mutton, drinkers of goat’s milk, master spinners of wool. Navajos followed the slow and watchful life known among anthropologists as transhumance, a methodical seminomadism built around the seasonal moving of flocks to higher and lower ground in search of grass. This way of life was, in fact, an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world but nearly unheard of in North America. As pastoralists, the Navajo lifestyle was in some sense more akin to that of ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Arabs than to contemporary tribes of Native Americans.
Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder (p. 26). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The San Juan River traditionally marked the border between Navajo country and the domain of the Utah Indians. The Utes, a fierce tribe of hunter-gatherers, roamed in the mountains north of this thunderous male river. Throughout Narbona’s boyhood, the Utes were probably the Navajo’s greatest enemy. The two tribes were constantly at war. The Spanish governors in Santa Fe had learned that it was much easier to set the territory’s hostile tribes against one another than to fight them outright. And so, with the Spaniards smiling on the situation from afar and promising to stay neutral, the Utes stepped up their long-simmering war with the Navajos. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s they stormed into Navajo camps, stealing children to sell to the Spanish at the slave market in Taos.
Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder (pp. 49-50). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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