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Bosque Redondo: Does a Teepee-Shaped Building Represent the Site Properly?

The designer didn't plan for the memorial to look like a teepee, but it does. Is it appropriate for the site at Bosque Redondo?

A white teepee rises above the ground at New Mexico’s Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner. Surrounding the teepee is a dirt-colored structure designed to look like a Navajo hogan.

Together, the two iconic shapes tell the story of the Navajo and Mescalero Apache—two tribes that were forced into captivity here in the 1860s.

“It reflects the Navajo and Apache cultures,” said Richard Sims, director of the Historic Sites Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. “If you look at the architecture, the teepee represents the Apache and the building itself is the octagonal hogan. The concept was to express both cultures because they were both held captive at the area.”

A closer view of the building at Bosque Redondo.

The Navajo called it Hwéeldi, or the “place of suffering.” Between 1863 and 1866, about 9,000 Navajo were forced to march at gunpoint 450 miles from their homeland to Fort Sumner, where they lived in destitution. As many as 2,000 Navajo died during the journey—called the Long Walk—or while incarcerated.

To the Mescalero Apache, the internment camp was a matter of survival. All 500 members of the tribe were transported from their nearby homes to Fort Sumner in 1862. The alternative, according to written histories, was death.

The Apache departed from Bosque Redondo first, escaping during the night in 1865 and returning to their homeland. In 1868, the Navajo signed a treaty and were allowed to return to a portion of their land.

U.S. soldiers watch over Navajo and Apache peoples at Bosque Redondo. The Apache would leave in the following months, while the Navajo were permitted to return to their native lands. The round up and forced march of Native Americans was one of the most tragic periods in New Mexico’s history.

In the 150 years since, Bosque Redondo has been called an injustice, a collective trauma and a “slaughterhouse” that affected generations to come.

To commemorate the tragic events of Bosque Redondo, the site was proclaimed a state monument around the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of 1868. In 1970, a modest visitor’s center was constructed.

As the 125th anniversary approached, the state senate passed a resolution calling for a new facility to commemorate both the Long Walk and “the healing that has taken place since that event,” states a history written by Jose Cisneros, former director of the Museum of New Mexico State Monuments. In 1993, the legislature also appropriated $100,000 to fund the design phase of the new memorial.

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From a distance, it’s easy to peg the structure as important. The telltale teepee shape marks the memorial as significant to Native history. Yet Navajo architect David Sloan, who designed the $6 million memorial, never intended it to look like a teepee.

“That was accidental,” he said. “The image, the form that looks like a teepee, that was based on the budget. The teepee shape made it less costly to build.”

Sloan’s original plans called for the memorial to resemble the makeshift homes the Navajo built at Bosque Redondo. Forced to live without traditional building materials, the Navajo erected lean-tos with brush, Sloan said. He wanted the memorial to have a slanted roof, much like those lean-tos did.

David Sloan

Here is the architect’s conceptual design.

But budget constraints mandated a simpler form, Sloan said. After discussions with both of the tribes and the state, he settled on a design that almost erroneously celebrates the teepee. While the Apache lived in buffalo-skin teepees, the Navajo traditionally lived in hogans.

The shape has raised questions for visitors, Sloan said, but he hopes continued efforts to enrich visitors’ experiences shed more light on the history of the site.

“The structure is really not the memorial,” he said. “To me, the memorial was the landscape, the place. The goal is to educate Native communities and non-Natives about the history and ways to reflect and recognize the injustice and come to some kind of conclusion about understanding and doing something better in the future.”

Sloan envisions a place where visitors can feel history in the landscape, and where docents can share stories and narratives of the past.

An Apache boy at Bosque Redondo.

The state is working to augment the current experience with additional exhibits, Sims said. A permanent exhibit that tells the Navajo and Apache stories is scheduled to open in the summer of 2017. Additionally, the staff is working toward designation as an International Site of Conscience.

“That means we’re a culturally sensitive site, a place where genocide happened,” Sims said. “Since the Navajo were almost decimated there, it really is a site of conscience, so we’re putting in place programs that help visitors relate to the sad story, to deal with the horrific events.”