In a town best known as the burial site of Billy the Kid, the memorial powerfully tells the history of the Diné-Navajo people who were forced marched in the Long Walk from their Native areas to the barren reservation in eastern New Mexico.
It also tells of the forced banishment of the Mescalero Apaches, who too were sequestered in that place far from their homelands.
And it does it from the Native perspectives, said Aaron Roth, manager of the Fort Sumner Historic Site.
Virtually every part of the 6,000-square-foot gallery is used to bring these tragic days from the 1860s to light in deep ways, he said, bringing together the use of modern technology with Native manners.
“There isn’t a square inch that is not used in this gallery,” Roth said. “Even the ceiling has features and fixtures that are thought-provoking.”
The exhibit, which cost about $650,000 to install, should be open in some capacity by mid-summer and fully open by the fall, Roth said.
And the collaborative effort of the exhibit not only is a rarity, but a tremendous example of what can be achieved by a collaborative effort from the beginning, said Manny Wheeler, who participated in the project and is the director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona.
“It’s emotional, and it’s absolutely truthful as all exhibits should be,” he said. “It is a powerful and moving exhibit. It doesn’t take lightly the atrocity that happened. I think that’s definitely one of its strengths. It treats the Long Walk incident and that part of the Navajo and American history with the carefulness that it needs to have. It’s not just another exhibit that people don’t pay attention to.”
The effort to include all participants in the project produced an exhibition that everybody will be appreciate, said Holly Houghton, who helped with the project and is the Mescalero Apache tribal culture preservation officer.
“It’s very hard to include every aspect of what we’d all like to see. Funding is always limited,” she said. “But they really sought to look at it from all of the perspectives. The times that the Navajo and the Apache were there were different. The Navajo had to walk a great distance and there was not enough food and water to maintain that many people, and they were there much longer that the Apaches. They did focus on both of those things.”
The exhibit was designed not only to properly bring to light what occurred at Bosque Redondo 160 years ago, but how what happened then and its subsequent fallout has reverberated down through the years, continuing to having a lasting effect, Wheeler said.
“It’s not just meant for Navajos and it’s not just meant for Native people,” he said. “It’s definitely an experience all Americans should know about and understand what happened and the results of that and how it changed the course for Navajo people.”
Additionally, Wheeler said, it sends a powerful message that can be recognized and acknowledged far beyond New Mexico and even the United States.
“It has a world-wide message of having that understanding of what happens when people of one culture are forced into a tragic situation,” he said. “We need to be aware of how and why it happened for it not to happen again. The whole point is so people can have an understanding and a tolerance for people who are different.
“Another point is to understand why it was wrong to do that to the Navajo and Apache people. There are so many things that people can learn from this exhibit.”
When the grim circumstances are presented with such stark reality, it can be a bit overwhelming, Wheeler admitted.
“In my experience as a museum director, for topics, especially topics of tragedy in history, it seems they are best learned through emotion,” he said. “And emotion is definitely a part of this exhibit.”