The Navajo and Mexico

In 1821 Mexico obtained independence from Spain. In the Plan of Iguala, Mexico did away with all legal distinctions regarding Indians and reaffirmed that Indians were citizens of Mexico on an equal basis with non-Indians. In what is now New Mexico and Arizona, this means that the various Navajo bands now had to deal with the Mexican government rather than the Spanish government.  

The Navajo were not a unified nation with regard to government. There was no single unified, central government or council: there were dozens of local groups. The basis of traditional Navajo government was kinship. People of experience and wisdom (known as nataani) led the family, band, and clan groups. Each group was autonomous and chose its own leaders by consensus.

In 1822, the newly formed Mexican government negotiated its first treaty with the Navajo. Under the treaty, Segundo was recognized by the Mexican government as the head chief of the Navajo. Since the Navajo did not traditionally have a head chief, it is doubtful that most Navajo recognized him as head chief. The treaty called for an exchange of prisoners and the freedom of the Navajo to travel and trade throughout New Mexico.

Shortly after negotiating its first Navajo treaty, the Mexican government appointed a new governor who ignored the treaty. The new governor sent the Navajo an ultimatum to return all prisoners, to convert to Catholicism, and to resettle in villages around the missions. The new governor seemed unaware that the previous attempts by the Spanish to convert the Navajo and have them settle around the missions had failed.

In 1823, the Mexicans negotiated another treaty with the Navajo. The treaty was signed by two Navajo captains – Batolome Baca and Juan Antonio Sandoval. The treaty required: (1) the Navajo to hand over all prisoners, (2) Navajo prisoners held by Mexico were to be returned unless they wanted to become Christians, (3) the Navajo were to return all stolen goods, and (4) the Navajo were to accept Christianity and settle in pueblos. The peace established by the treaty, according to Navajo oral tradition, was violated before the ink was dry.

In 1824, the Mexican government sent a military campaign through Navajo territory in an attempt to subdue them. Following this campaign, the Mexican government negotiated a treaty with the Navajo that called for a mutual exchange of prisoners. Even though Mexican law prohibited slavery, the use of Indian slaves was common.

For the next decade there was little formal or official contact between the Navajo and the Mexican government. This did not mean there was peace between the Navajo and the Mexican settlers who had invaded Navajo territory. Skirmishes between the two groups were common.

In 1835, a group of Mexican ranchers together with a troop of Mexican soldiers invaded Navajo territory intent on destroying their fields, burning their hogans, killing or scattering their herds, and killing as many Navajo as possible. The Mexicans did not expect the any resistance from the Navaho as they had assumed they would be divided into small groups of raiders who could never make a stand against such a large force. However, the Navajo assembled 200 warriors under the leadership of Narbona. Most were armed with bows and iron-tipped arrows and all were mounted on swift horses. At the Big Bend of the Río Chaco the Navajo ambushed the Mexican force. The Navajo victory was swift and easy. Narbona allowed the Mexican survivors to retreat, taking their dead and wounded with them.

In retaliation for the Navajo victory, the Mexican army marched against the Navajo the following year. Hearing that the Zuni were allied with the Navajo, the Mexican army arrived at the Pueblo of Zuni to find that the Zuni were not allied with the Navajo. The Zuni turned over two Navajo prisoners.

In 1839, the Mexican authorities negotiated another treaty of peace with the Navajo but the Navajo did not care for the agreement and soon started raiding again. This was the last Mexican attempt at negotiating a treaty with the Navajo. In 1846, the United States acquired New Mexico and, under the Doctrine of Discovery, the right to govern the Indian nations within the territory.

Curtis Navajo


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