One of this year's PaloVerde editors, Lynn Allison plans to enroll in a graduate program after she finishes the B.A. this spring. She hopes to pursue the witch purge issue in greater detail for a graduate project.
Navajo Witch Purge of 1878
text and photography by A. Lynn Allison
The words "Navajo Witch Purge" might at first call to mind the similar phrase "Salem Witch Hunt" and all the lurid imagery that goes with it. A bit of investigating, however, produces a cultural and historical picture of the Navajo and their tradition of witchcraft profoundly different from anything ever imagined by those early New England Puritans. As the Salem Witch trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts may have evolved as a societal response to the religious thinking of the day, so the Navajo Witch Purge of 1878 evolved as a cultural response to the effects of colonialism on the Navajo way of life. Witchcraft was always an accepted, if not widely acknowledged, part of Navajo culture, and the killing of "witches" was historically as much accepted among the Navajo as among the Europeans. The events of 1878 were a culmination of situation and circumstance that created the seemingly sensational out of what had been the cultural norm.
That witchcraft had been a traditional part of Navajo society is thoroughly documented in noted anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn's monograph, Navajo Witchcraft. While Kluckhohn's work may seem somewhat dated to us—the book appeared in 1944—his information is, in this instance, more than forty-five years closer to direct sources than anything that might be gathered today. He discusses at length the four basic forms of Navajo witchcraft, "Witchery, Sorcery, Wizardry, and Frenzy Witchcraft" (22), and the purposes each served in Navajo society. Of the four, it was sorcery and wizardry that were most apparent during the events of the 1878 purge. Sorcery was the burying of victims' articles and excretions, and wizardry the injection of foreign things into the victim (cf. Blue, Trader, Chapter 4).
While William Haas Moore believes that witchcraft may have served simply to delineate good from evil (187), Kluckhohn allows that the suspicion or accusation of witchcraft served as an outlet for frustrations produced by those forces beyond a Navajo's perceived worldly control (118). He states that "[w]itchcraft channels the displacement of aggression, facilitating emotional adjustment with a minimum of disturbance of social relationships. Even direct aggression through witchcraft helps to maintain societal inhibitions consonant with the old native culture" (119).
In the year 1878, upwards of forty Navajo "witches" were killed or "purged" (Blue, Trader 58) in what apparently was a convergence of that very "old native culture" and a U.S. government-induced economic and social purgatory. That purgatory began in March, 1864, with "The Long Walk of the Navajos" to Fort Sumner, also known as Bosque Redondo (Locke 361). Hundreds were left dead or dying on the trails as thousands of defeated and surrendering Navajos walked the miles from Fort Wingate and Fort Canby to Bosque Redondo (Ibid., 361-63). Conditions at Bosque Redondo were so poor that "there was never enough to eat and everyone was living in makeshift shelters. . . . [S]ome families were living in holes they had dug in embankments. . .scratching in the alkali-permeated soil and [drinking] the bitter water from the Rio Pecos that made them ill." Locke continues, "They were convinced that their gods—even the benevolent Changing Woman—had deserted them" (365). In an echoing sentiment, Kluckhohn describes the years there as "a major trauma, the full calamity of which is difficult to convey to white readers" (114).
The tribe's eventual return to Dinehtah—Navajoland—in 1868 without adequate foresight and provision on the part of the United States government continued the pattern of destitution and near-starvation for the Navajo. In the following ten years, the success of a few from herding and farming set against the failure to thrive of the many (Locke, 420) served only to set the stage for a resurgence of accusations of witchcraft and the traditional remedies deemed necessary to alleviate its evil consequences.
In the summer of 1878, the mounting tension within Navajo society appeared to reach overwhelming proportions. Reduced to a poor and starving people, they had barely survived their years at Bosque Redondo. The freedom to return to their homeland had come at the expense of traditional Navajo ways of balancing social inequities and rationalizing inequalities of wealth and well-being. The Navajo had to promise not to steal and not to make war on anyone—even on each other. Characterized by one Navajo, it was as if "all our past behavior was taken from us" (Underhill, 145).
Stealing and warfare had always existed as traditional and legitimate methods of redistributing wealth within the Navajo culture. For instance, stealing better horses improved your own stock, and property gained or lost through warfare was often redistributed in further skirmishes. Without those means of legitimate redistribution of wealth, the rich simply got richer and the poor had no way to catch up. The indigenous cultural reality and the jealousy that the new rules caused, as well as unexplained sickness that killed both people and livestock, culminated in an age-old Navajo response: accusations of witchcraft (Underhill, 160).
Unexplained sickness or death of tribal members or of their livestock could arouse suspicion of witchcraft. So could an unexplained reversal of fortune—good or bad—for a family or individual. Evidence of the witchcraft would follow in the discovery of buried excretions, hair, or belongings of the stricken person or livestock. In one of the most often-documented "Purge" curses, White trader Charles Hubbell was asked to go to Ganado Lake and retrieve the curse items buried there, as the "good" Navajo could not do this themselves. According to the grandson of tribal member Hash keh yilnaya, an eyewitness, "the collection that these witches gathered was found wrapped in paper and this paper was I think the Treaty of 1868. . .buried in the belly of a dead person in a grave. . . ." (Blue, Witch, 8).
That the killing of witches was as traditionally accepted by the Navajo as was witchcraft itself may have been as misunderstood by the Whites and therefore seemed as shocking as any other "foreign" custom. While some witches were allowed to escape with their lives provided they permanently left the community, Kluckhohn asserts, "[Richard F.] Van Valkenburgh is undoubtedly right in considering witchcraft a crime for which the Navajo administered capital punishment" (Kluckhohn 49).
In a story often told, a witch was killed on the doorstep of the first Hubbell family trading post, prompting the move to the present location in Ganado. While it is unclear just who was killed, why, and on exactly whose doorstep the killing took place, most accounts generally agree with the story told by the elderly Yazzie T'iis Yazhi:
At a later date, T'iis Yazhi related a much more detailed story:
Events such as that killing and stories of other such killings without much doubt bred the fear that led Charles Hubbell to write the frantic letters addressed to "W.B. Leonard, Ft. Defiance, Arizona Territory, Yavapai County" (Ibid, 5), all dated May 31, 1878. His initial letter "pleads that ammunition and his rifle be sent as 'there is a big row going on here, among the Indians. . .a big crowd just passed here and are going to fix themselves to go on to a fight at Canon De Chelle. . .and the Indians around here are expecting them from Canon De Chelle. . ." (Idem). Convinced that "our [Euro-Americans'] lives are in danger and also the store and contents" (Blue, Trader, 58), Hubbell writes later on the same day "that 'Ganie or Ganio' has come in and informed them that the Indians are arming in large numbers and that his life is in danger. . .and says to send soldiers immediately to protect themselves and family" (Blue, Witch, 6).
It is not known whether, at that writing, Charles Hubbell already knew of the killing of Hastiin Biwosi. If he did not, he would learn of it shortly, and it could only have increased his apprehension as well as that of others such as Ganado Mucho. The story of Hastiin Biwosi's death is reported by Hash keh yilnaya's grandson as another eyewitness rendition told to him by his grandfather:
Arriving at the place where Hastiin Biwosi was to be found, the leaders of the group stated their business, and all of the inhabitants of the dwelling removed themselves but Hastiin Biwosi. In this account, someone named Totsohnii Hastiin—who may be the same as the Naataani (respected, informal leader) Ganado Mucho cited in other accounts—stopped them, stating that "he's my relative. . .my older brother" (Ibid., 11). Only after Hash keh yilnaya made an impassioned speech stating that Hastiin Biwosi "has cut off their chance for a good life. . ." did Totsohnii Hastiin relent: "Go ahead, now do what you want with him" (Idem). Biwosi was then dragged from his hiding place inside the dwelling, and with full participation of all present—including Ganado Mucho—shot and then stoned to death.
In the days following the death of Hastiin Biwosi, tensions ran high in Dinehtah. Ganado Mucho feared retaliation for his "serious transgression, the killing of a relative" (Moore, 189). Charles Hubbell and his trading post employees feared they would be implicated in the deaths of the two witches and could come to harm (Ibid., 190). Within just a few days, Manuelito—another naataani—arrived at Fort Wingate with a letter he had dictated to J. L. Hubbell—Charles' Brother—saying that "the Navajos had tied up six medicine men accused of witchcraft" and that he was convinced "many Navajos would start killing each other without military intervention" (Ibid., 192). Manuelito's own cousin had been killed earlier in the summer, and as an enemy of the witches, he himself had been threatened with death.
The plea for military intervention was heeded. At least ten "witches" were brought to council before Lieutenant D. D. Mitchell, and, possibly as a result of the serious speech he gave condemning the killing of "witches," all lived to tell the tale. While the killing of accused witches did continue in isolated areas and as isolated events, the intervention of the military and the contributions of naataani such as Manuelito and Ganado Mucho did much to end the witchcraft scare by the end of the summer of 1878.
No doubt a great many other particulars played into the events that came to be called the "Navajo Witch Purge of 1878." The recollection and study of some of those particulars may still be possible, though difficult, as the subject of Navajo "witches" is not one easily broached by or spoken of to outsiders. Information is scattered among many disparate sources. The purge exists as a fragment of the collision between traditional Navajo history and culture and an inescapably changing world. Though little known, the summer of 1878 may stand as a watershed between the Navajos' ancient culture and their emergence into modernity.
Blue, Martha. Indian Trader: The Life and Times of J. L. Hubbell. Walnut, Ariz.: Kiva Publishing, Inc., 2000.
------. The Witch Purge of 1878. Tsaile, Ariz.: Navajo Community College Press, 1988.
Kluckhohn, Clyde. Navajo Witchcraft. Boston: Beacon Press, 1944.
Locke, Raymond Friday. The Book of the Navajo. Los Angeles: Mankind Publishing Co., 1976.
Moore, William Haas. Chiefs, Agents, and Soldiers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
Underhill, Ruth M. The Navajos. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
© Copyright 2001 A. Lynn Allison and Arizona State University West
Last Updated: April 26, 2001