September 16, 2014

Manuelito, Navajo Chief


Manuelito (1818–1893) was one of the principal war chiefs of the Diné people before, during and after the Long Walk Period. His name means Little Manuel in Spanish. As any Navajo, he was known by different names depending upon context.


He was known as Ashkii Diyinii (Holy Boy), Dahaana Baadaané (Son-in-Law of Late Texan), Hastiin Chʼilhaajiní (“Black Weeds”) and as Nabááh Jiłtʼaa (War Chief, or Warrior Grabbed Enemy) to other Diné. After his first battle at age 17, he was given the name Hashkeh Naabaah, meaning Angry Warrior.

Non-Navajo people nicknamed him “Bullet Hole” and also recorded his name as Manuelita and Manuelito Segundo.

Manuelito was born to the Bit’aa’nii or ″Folded Arms People Clan″, near the Bear’s Ears in southeastern Utah about 1818.

By the time he was 16 years old, the restless and aggressive Manuelito stood over 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular, athletic build. He married a daughter of Narbona, and went to live at their camp near the Chuska Mountains.

Narbona’s reputation as a wealthy and powerful headman impressed Manuelito. He especially admired Narbona’s fearless attitude, although Narbona tried to teach him the value of peace as well as war.

Manuelito spent his days shooting arrows and competing with other young men in countless foot races and wrestling matches, always winning. He dressed in well-fitting buckskins and a finely woven blanket. He couldn’t wait for his first battle.

When word came in the winter of 1835 that 1000 Mexicans (from New Mexico) were coming to attack the Navajos, Manuelito fought his first in what would be many violent battles. He was seventeen when he earned the name Hashkeh Naabaah, Angry Warrior.

In the years that followed, Manuelito led one raiding party after another, joining forces with other leaders such as Ganado Mucho and Barboncito to attack not only the hated Mexicans, but also the Hopis in Arizona, the Pueblos of New Mexico, the Utes, the Comanches, and the Apaches.

Food supplies, livestock, and women and children were all fair game, and eventually Manuelito married one of his many Mexican slaves, Juanita.

By the time the Americans gained control of New Mexico Territory in 1846, Manuelito was a recognized naat’aani, with a network of sub-chiefs, each man specializing in one aspect of warfare. Manuelito became famous for his clever war strategy, angrily resisting attempts by some of the elders, such as his father-in-law Narbona, to make peace.

Finally persuaded that the Mexicans’ relentless raids would stop under the rule of the victorious Americans, Manuelito signed the peace treaty at Bear Springs, along with thirteen other leaders, most of them much older than himself. He was 28 years old.

When the Americans killed Narbona in 1949, Manuelito vowed to drive all the white men from Navajo country. He argued violently against every suggestion of peace. During one of his many skirmishes with one of his many enemies, he was shot in the chest, and almost died. A captive Mexican blacksmith managed to dig the lead ball out, but Manuelito barely survived the infection. The wound healed, but left a large scar that would become yet another of his trademarks.

Some versions say that Commanches had stolen his famous horse Racer, and that Manuelito was shot in the attempt to get him back. There is another story that tells how he lost a horse race only because someone, presumably the army soldiers in attendance, cut the reins. When Manuelito tried to follow the soldiers into the fort to recover what they had bet, the soldiers opened fire and killed 15 Navajos.

The Navajo people remember the 1850s and ’60s as the troubled period, the fearing time, or Nahonzoodaa’. As the raids, kidnapping, and killing increased between the Navajos, the other various tribes and the Mexicans, the American government came under pressure from American settlers to make it all stop. There were always at least two sides to every story. The misunderstandings continued to pile up. The situation finally came to a head at Fort Defiance when Major Thomas H. Brooks, ordered Manuelito to remove his livestock from the nearby “hay camp.”

Manuelito refused, saying, “the water there is mine, not yours, and the same with the grass. Even the ground it grows from belongs to me, not to you. I will not let you have these things.”

After that the troops were ordered to slaughter all the livestock at the hay camp, and Manuelito lost many sheep and cattle. Now outright war began. The army attacked Manuelito’s camp on the Little Colorado, south of Ganado the next fall. A large band of Zunis rode with the Army and burned his hogans and fields to the ground. Manuelito, however, managed to escape.

In February of 1860 Manuelito and 500 warriors attacked Fort Defiance. The Army fought back hard, and Manuelito retreated. In April, he and Barboncito, along with 1000 warriors returned and tried again, but once more ended up fleeing into the mountains.

From then on, the army came down hard on the Navajos, killing and burning fields and rounding up livestock. Even worse, the enemy came from all directions. The Mexicans escalated their raids, and the Utes did the same. Although other Navajo headmen and elders were now proposing peace, Manuelito refused to stop fighting.

While the American Civil War distracted the army for a few years, full-scale chaos reigned in Navajoland as the warring continue to rage out of control. Finally in 1863, Kit Carson was commissioned to find and remove the Navajo people to Fort Sumner (also known as Bosque Redondo) in New Mexico, 175 miles southwest of Santa Fe.

Carson and his troops went on the rampage, terrorizing the people with his “scorched earth” policy, which was to burn all the hogans and fields, cut down peach trees, and round up livestock. Faced with starvation, the people finally began to surrender.

By 1865 most of the Navajo people had made the long walk to Bosque Redondo, and many had already died. There were a few small bands hiding out near Navajo Mountain and Manuelito and his band had hidden down in the Grand Canyon for awhile. General Carlton, in command of the Navajo relocation, sent a runner with an order for Manuelito to surrender. From his camp near the Little Colorado, Manuelito answered that he would not leave his country, that he was doing no harm to anyone, and he intended to die there; that he had no fears and did not intend to run away.

In the end it was a Ute raid that finally wiped him out. His herd of 400 to 600 horses and 2000 to 3000 sheep were reduced to about 50 horses and the same number of sheep. The camp was decimated, the people were scattered. But he still offered a brave front, persisting in his desire to be free, saying “his mother and his god lived in the west and that he would not leave either one…that there was a tradition that his people should never cross the Rio Grande, the Rio San Juan, or the Rio Colorado.”

Finally, Manuelito and his band were among the last of the Navajos to come in to Bosque Redondo, beaten down by starvation and the constant harassment of the Utes. He, in fact, left several times, only to return again for the same reasons.

After the Civil War ended in 1968, the army began to admit that Bosque Redondo was a tragic failure. An Indian Peace Commission was formed, and Manuelito was one of those who traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Andrew Jackson. When at last the people were allowed to return to Navajoland, he settled with his family near Tohatchi. There he lived with his sons, Manuelito Chiquito, Manuelito Chow, and Manuelito Segundo, his two wives, and other relatives. He was appointed the main headman of the eastern side of the Reservation. His home, in fact, was outside of the actual treaty boundary. He would continue to push for the expansion of the reservation for the rest of his life, including another trip to Washington D.C. to meet with Ulysses S. Grant in 1976.

The ensuing years were tough, as the people had to adjust to life back in their homeland without the old ways of raiding. Although many planted crops and tried to increase their herds, drought and then starvation forced them to return to stealing from their Mexican and Pueblo neighbors. Manuelito actually became a Navajo policeman, rounding up stolen animals and returning them to their owners, however he never turned in the thieves themselves.

During these years, his militant stance mellowed as his wealth increased. He obtained wagons and began shipping items to and from the railway. Manuelito chose to adapt in order to survive, and then thrive. His domain included 10 to 20 families that farmed a large irrigated parcel of land.

He made this famous statement which is still often quoted:

“My grandchild, the whites have many things which we Navajos need. But we cannot get them. It is as though the whites were in a grassy canyon and there they have wagons, plows, and plenty of food. We Navajos are up on a dry mesa. We can hear them talking but we cannot get to them. My grandchild, education is the ladder. Tell our people to take it.”

While many people refused to send their children to school, Manuelito sent two of his sons and a nephew to Carlisle, a famous Indian school in Pennsylvania. Tragedy stuck again, when all three ended up dying of tuberculosis. Bitter and heartbroken, he always regretted sending them to school, but in the end, remained supportive of education, and Tohatchi was the site of one of the first schools.

As time passed the issue of slaves and captives remained unresolved, with both Mexicans and Navajos still “owning” family members claimed by the other side. In 1884 the Indian agent John Bowman demanded Manuelito free his slaves. Bowman was surprised when Manuelito told them they were free to go; that they were not slaves, they were members of his family. They all chose to stay with Manuelito, including his wife, Juanita, who said she would rather remain in captivity with her master.

Probably more than any other man, Manuelito symbolized the way the Navajos remembered their resistance. Handsome and rebellious, with a powerful voice and a compelling intellect, he refused to sign treaty after treaty, riding in battle after battle. But his surrender and his presence at Bosque Redondo made it possible for him to participate in the negotiations for the release and return of his people to their homeland.

He tried to help his people find a new way of life, while remaining true to their traditions. Unfortunately the new way of life included whiskey, and there were stories of binges and wild antics, including one account of a wagonload of whiskey that he and several of his buddies drove along the mail route on a drunken spree for 134 miles until they were finally forced to turn around. He was quoted as saying that “liquor was a good thing; it made the world happier for a short time.”

In the end his mixing of traditions probably killed him. After contracting measles, a combination of sweat baths and whiskey caused him to come down with pneumonia and in 1893 Manuelito finally fought, and lost his last battle.


Manuelito was a prominent Navajo leader who rallied his nation against the oppression of the United States military. For several years he led a group of warriors in resisting federal efforts to forcibly remove the Navajo people to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico via the Long Walk in 1864.

After being relocated to Bosque Redondo, Manuelito was among the leaders who signed the 1868 treaty, ending a period of imprisonment in United States government internment camps and establishing a reservation for the Navajo. Manuelito was also an advocate for education for Navajo children.

See Manuelito’s pictures

Famous Navajo
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