Navajos who made the original Long Walk were forced to march from their homelands in Arizona to Ft. Sumner in the wastelands of New Mexico. Many died along the various routes.
Robert Turk, a teacher at Blanding Elementary School, organized the modern version of the Long Walk.
He said part of the idea came to him about ten years ago. “When I was teaching history, there was nothing in the history books about this. And our Navajo kids had no idea about it. When I first started talking about it a lot of the elders and my Navajo students were real standoffish about it because it was such a taboo subject. So we tried to be sensitive and have the kids actually feel what it was like. I teach the kids the reason we learn history is so we don’t repeat it. And I do it so the kids understand their heritage.”
The students started the trek from their school, hiking to the Utah State University Cultural Center. Many students dressed in pioneer garb or traditional Navajo dress.
Together with their teachers, they walked down a trail that ended at the outside stage area of the Blanding Arts and Events Center.
CEU San Juan Campus students and staff presented aspects of the Navajo culture and history to the students. Back on the trail, students met Manuelito, an early Navajo leader portrayed by Clayton Long of the San Juan School District. He recounted the Long Walk history.
The students were marched across West Water Canyon to a “camp” where they cooked their own “stick-bread” over open fires. During the lunch, the students were welcomed back to their “homeland” by a lone Navajo horseman outfitted in traditional regalia. They concluded the activity with a visit to a traditional Navajo hogan and then hiked back to their school.
The impact of the Long Walk is illustrated by a small group of the fifth-graders who received small red tags at the start of the day. They represent the percent of the group who died along the way.
Clayton Long said the activity helps children understand what the Navajo people went through during the Long Walk. “The first time we had this, it was real cold, and was snowing a little bit. They really understood what they might have gone through.”
Turk said the impact of the Long Walk is still felt today. “I had a girl this week tell me that she mentioned the Navajo word for Ft. Sumner Hwe’eldi which means place of sadness or sorrow, to her grandmother, and was told ‘we don’t talk about this.’ It still has a lot of feeling behind it. It has been a tremendous thing.”