The Story of Manuelito

Navajo Chief married to Juanita.

By Valerie Rangel

Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust

Manuelito was a respected leader who resisted foreign domination and led the Navajo resistance as a War Chief against U.S. Military efforts to remove Navajos from their homeland to forced captivity at Bosque Redondo.  He was admired for voicing and acting upon his convictions. He was a skilled negotiator of peace and tribal sovereignty and an advocate for American education as a means of survival for his people. Manuelito is memorialized in the Navajo culture through songs, stories, and images.

Manuelito was born into the matrilineal Bit'ahni Clan, Folded Arms People, about 1818, near the Bear's Ears Summit in San Juan County, Utah. His father, Cayetano, was a recognized leader known for his resistance to foreign invasion. The Navajo know Manuelito by many different names. As a boy he was called, Askkii Dihin or Holy Boy, indicative of the ceremonies that blessed him and recognized him as a warrior by the Holy People. In his youth he participated in an ambush on the Pueblo Indians and was called Hashkeh Naabaah or Angry Warrior.

He was also known as “Naabaani badaani,” a name associated with Narbona a wise Navajo leader. Manuelito was Narbona’s son in law; living with him and an extended family in the Chuska Mountains where he learned first hand, his father-in-law's shifting efforts at diplomacy and war, in the hope of establishing durable peace. Some Navajo remember him as, “Hastiin Ch'il Haajin,” Man of the Black Weeds, which refers to a place of residence near Standing Rock, NM. Other Navajo recall him as Nabaah Jilt'aa or War Chief or Warrior Grabbed Enemy. Anglo Americans named him, “Bullet Hole,” referring to the scar under his right breast, obtained during a raid on a band of Comanche, in which he was shot and the bullet hole was dug out leaving a scar but he was most recognized by the name “Manuelito” or small Manuel, a name given to him by Hispanos and later adopted by Anglo Americans.

Manuelito’s formative years were filled with Creation stories of the Diné, stories of epic battles, heroic warriors, and Navajo deities, all of which relayed practical knowledge of conduct, consequence, and spirituality. During the 1820’s the Navajo battled fiercely against Mexican domination. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, a policy of forced removal of all indigenous peoples in the way of white settlement, forever changed the way of life for the Diné. The Battle of Washington Pass in1835 was the only well organized and successfully executed battle for the Navajo: they routed 1000 Mexicans and Pueblo Indians.

Manuelito is said to have had four wives, it is possible that his first marriage was at the age of 16 years to Narbona’s daughter, although not much is known about this period of time other than he moved to the Chuska Mountains with Narbona’s extended family. As one of 14 Navajo chiefs, Manuelito was a signatory of the Bear Springs Treaty of November 21, 1846, the first of nine treaties Manuelito would sign.

In 1849, Manuelito is thought to have been present at the meeting between Narbona and Colonel John M. Washington and Indian Agent James Calhoun in the Tunicha Valley when they came to terms on a treaty. As the meeting was breaking up, a soldier accused a Navajo of having stolen a horse. Many Navajo fled and the soldiers opened fire, killing Narbona, at age 83 and seven others. On September 9, 1849 the Navajo signed a treaty which called for the surrender of stolen livestock, free passage for Anglo Americans though Navajo homelands, and allowed the US government to establish forts and trading posts throughout Navajo territory.

According to John Ceremony, Manuelito’s second marriage was to the daughter of Mangus Coloradas. During this period of time Manuelito was at Laguna Negra to sign the Treaty of 1855, also known as the Meriwether Treaty. The Meriwether Treaty stipulated the first in a series of reservations for the Navajo. Manuelito claimed that Navajo traditional homelands encompassed areas which included several sacred areas located beyond the boundaries set forth in the treaty and by accepting the boundaries in the treaty; the Navajo would be restricted from gathering salt near Zuñi. At the meeting, Navajo leader Zarcillos Largos tendered his resignation and returned his medal to Governor David Meriwether of New Mexico, based on his claim that he was too old to govern his people. Meriwether called the assembly of Navajo gathered there and requested that they select a man to fill Largos' place. War Chief Hastiin Ch'il Haajin (Manuelito) was selected. Manuelito, however, would not accept the badge or staff of his predecessor until the medal was restrung and a new staff made for him.[1]

In1856, Manuelito met with Major Kendrick at Ft. Defiance to discuss the issue of missing livestock; presumably stolen by Navajo. In the spring of 1857, the U.S. military organized the Bonneville campaign which drove the Western Apache into Arizona, destroying a Chiricahua Apache camp in the Black Range, and mortally wounding Chief Cuchillo Negro. The following year Manuelito had a dispute with commander Major William Thomas Harbough Brooks regarding the U.S. Army’s demand to utilize lands around Ft. Defiance as pasture for their livestock. Manuelito advocated for the Navajo right to grazing lands around Ewell's Hay Camp saying that he refused to give up the land that he was born and raised on. Manuelito learned well the lessons of Norbona regarding the shifting balance between diplomacy and war.

In a peace-keeping effort to replace livestock that the Navajo had presumably stolen from New Mexican settlements, Manuelito turned over 117 sheep to Capitan John Hatch on April 5, 1858. The following month, on May 29, 1858, Major Brooks attempted to drive Navajo livestock, many belonging to Manuelito, out of Ewell’s Camp in an attempt to retain military land use of the area. Brooks also sent soldiers into Navajo fields and slaughtered their livestock. The loss of Navajo sheep and cattle provoked an attack by Manuelito, Barboncito, and 1,000 Navajo warriors on Ft. Defiance on April 30, 1860.

Continued attacks on Hispano and Anglo American settlements led to a campaign against the Navajo by 400 volunteer citizens in December of 1860 and by 1861 the Civil War had prompted the redirection of many U.S. military forces to the Battle of Fort Sumter leaving settlers without military backup. Brigadier General James Henry Carleton became the governor and commander of New Mexico Territory in 1862 and with no confederate soldiers left to fight in New Mexico, he was able to refocus military attention to Navajo, Mescalero and Chiricahua raiding parties. The dynamic between Native people and US forces changed as the military tightened their hold on the Southwest: Native people would suffer certain death if they refused to surrender unconditionally.

By 1863, thousands of Navajo had turned themselves in at military forts throughout New Mexico. 1864, marked the beginning of the “Long Walk,” a period when many Navajo began the deadly trek from military forts to incarceration at Bosque Redondo Reservation. Manuelito met with officials at Fort Canby but he and others refused to go to Fort Sumner. Instead he gathered communities of Navajos and fled into the strong holds within the mountains of western New Mexico. Over the next two years messengers were sent to Manuelito to convince him to surrender and to move to Bosque Redondo.

Tiana Bighorse retells her father's historical account and Navajo perspective of the conditions and events surrounding the Long Walk. Gus Bighorse was born around 1846.  He was orphaned at sixteen when his parents were killed by soldiers amd went into hiding with other Navajo who banded together under chiefs like Manuelito. He took refuge in Canyon de Chelly with a small band, went into hiding at Navajo Mountain, and saw members of his tribe endure the Long Walk from Fort Defiance to Bosque Redondo in 1864. Gus Bighorse became the leader of one of Manuelito's bands who fought against Kit Carson's troops and other tribes.

Manuelito, wounded and ill, surrendered at Fort Wingate in September of 1866. He and his band had been attacked by bands of Zuni and Ute south of Sierra Escudilla (near Springerville, Arizona). While at Bosque Redondo in 1867, the Navajo continued to battle other tribes and endured hardships from inadequate food, infectious diseases, a tainted water supply, exposure to extreme temperatures, lack of adequate shelter, and scare supplies of firewood.  

During his time at Bosque Redondo, Manuelito became a negotiator of peace and a prominent leader.  He signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo in 1868 which freed the Navajo from subjugation, enabling them to return to their homelands surrounded by the four sacred mountains. Upon Manuelito’s return from imprisonment at Fort Sumner, he chose to relocate to Coyote Canyon, east of Tohatchi, with his last two wives Asdzaa Tlo’ogi (Juanita) and Asdzaa Tsin Skaadnii. He remained in Coyote Canyon for the remainder of his life where he served the Navajo people as a leader, negotiator, and advocate for the return of Navajo lands.

In 1872, Manuelito was appointed head of the new Navajo police force but he continued to negotiate trade and land issues for the Navajo people. In 1873 he initiated a formal request to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to speak with government leaders in Washington regarding land claims, problems with trespassers, depredations by Mormons and miners, and the need to free Navajo people still in captivity.

Traveling with his wife Juanita, a skilled orator, and other Navajo leaders, Manuelito met with U.S. President Grant in 1874 in Washington D.C. Upon his return in 1875, he was accused of stealing government rations to feed his people. Though his people were starving, Manuelito negotiated with military leaders and worked to re-establish peace among the Navajo but with the crop failure in 1879, Navajo began raiding surrounding settlements, forcing Manuelito and Gando Mucho to arrest 40 Navajo men accused of thievery. In 1880 Manuelito met with President Hayes in Santa Fe, New Mexico to  request that he be made "Chief of Scouts" to control whiskey traffic in the eastern part of reservation.

In1882, Manuelito sent his two sons to receive an American education at the Carlyle Indian School located in Pennsylvania.  He felt strongly about education and wanted to lead by example but his sons and a nephew returned in 1883 with cases of tuberculosis of which they eventually died. During this same period, it was reported that 4,000 Navajo followed Manuelito’s leadership and advisement in the eastern reservation area. He helped to recruit “Navajo Scouts” for the Army, gave advice to the Army about improving the flow of local springs, and continued to settle disputes between Navajo and surrounding settlers. Manuelito died in 1894 from a variety of health issues.

In the late 1950’s, the Manuelito Navajo Children's Home was created  in the small community known as Manuelito  approximately 18 miles west of Gallup, New Mexico. The Manuelito Chapter House is positioned within a mountainous region, with rocky ridges and mesas.  In the 1980s, in an effort to promote education on the reservation, the Navajo Nation Education Committee created the Chief Manuelito Scholarship for high achieving college students and from 2001 to 2009 the Navajo Nation Council approved a requirement that all students complete a course in the Navajo language, culture or civics to be eligible for the Manuelito Scholarship.

In a 1908 historical account recorded by  Major-General O.O. Howard of the U.S. Army,  Howard says: “The leader's horse stood waiting while he came toward me and stretched out his right hand, saying: "Buenos dias" (Good day). This was Manuelito, the Navajo war chief. He was over six feet tall and weighed perhaps two hundred pounds. He was dressed all in deerskin with fringes on his coat and trousers and had on new leggings, buttoned at the side, and moccasins on his small feet. His hair was worn in many short braids and he had on a Mexican hat with a feather tucked into the brim and tassels hanging over. He wore many strings of beads around his neck, too, and was as fine a looking fellow as you ever saw.”

Images of Manuelito are displayed in various locations throughout the reservation lands of the Navajo Nation. His stature, presence, and charismatic speaking ability are remembered, as well as his message of hope for the future which still echo amongst the Navajo today. During a keynote address at a Navajo Studies Conference in 2004, the president of Dine College, Ferlin Clark, reminded the audience of Manuelito’s message to never forget the responsibility of the Navajo to protect the natural resources, culture, land, and language. Clark also stated: “Education is the key! Education is a tool, a weapon, a shield, a guide, a path to become self-sufficient.”


1.      Denetdale, Jennifer. “Reclaiming Diné history: the legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita.” University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2007.

2.      Waters, Frank. “Brave are my people: Indian heroes not forgotten.” Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, 1993.

3.      Oral history of Manuelito. Compiled by Harrison Lapahie Jr. Date created: 8/27/2001.

4.      Bighorse, Tiana. Edited by Noël Bennett. Bighorse Warrior. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1990.

5.      Chief Manuelito Scholars take aim at future.  By Jason Begay. Navajo Times. Chinle, July 23, 2009.

Additional References:

1.      Correll, J. Lee. Manuelito, Navajo Naat'aani: About 1820 to 1894, unpublished draft for The Navajo Times edition 9 Sept 1965. Copy has 101 footnotes with citations.

2.      Compiled (1973). Edited by Roessel, Ruth. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press.

3.      Grant, Bruce. Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian. Wing Books: New York, 2000.

4.      Thompson, Gerald (1976). The Army and the Navajo: The Bosque Redondo Reservation Experiment 1863-1868. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press.

5.      Manuelito, Navajo War Chief. “Famous Indian Chiefs I have known”, by Major-General O.O. Howard, US Army, 1908. Access


[1] (Davis, op. cit., pp. 232-234; see also "Notes of a Talk between Meriwether and the Navajos, July 16-17, 1855;" Superintendency Papers, LR. These notes were probasbly transcribed by W.W.H. Davis.)


Manuelito; Navajo Nation and New Mexico;