George Mitchell was not an Erwin, nor was he descended from an Erwin, but he was a member of our extended family. George was a Native American, and was born in a one-room log cabin in northeastern Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Canyon de Chelly. George was a unique individual, but to fully appreciate his life one must know a little about the trials of the Navajo prior to his birth.
While it is not practical here to outline the origins or early history of the Navajo people, a few insights and facts concerning them will be helpful in knowing and understanding George. Perhaps the Long Walk, and the events leading up to it, is a good place to start.
After the Revolutionary War American pioneers pushed westward towards the Pacific Ocean. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened up vast areas to settlement; the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 with Great Britain, but it also eventually gave us the Oregon Territory. Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819; Texas was brought into the Union in 1845; California became the thirty-first state in 1850, and the Gadsden Purchase was culminated in 1853. These were the major events that shaped the current boundaries of our nation. Most of us feel a sense of patriotic pride when we think about our country’s growth and expansion in these broad terms.
What we may not think about, however, are the hundreds of Indian tribes, large and small, that lived there prior to our arrival. While the Spanish, French and British had penetrated these various areas as explorers, traders and trappers, they did not, for the most part, stay as permanent settlers. The Americans, on the other hand, were pioneers, seeking land for home sites and farms, and they planned to stay. Our nation was only a few decades old, but the native peoples, and their ancestors, had occupied the mountains and prairies for thousands of years, and were not inclined to welcome the newcomers with open arms. They could not, however, hold back the winds of change.
By 1860 the tribes living in the original thirteen colonies had been defeated or eliminated; several tribes in the southeast had been relocated to the Oklahoma Indian Territory via the Trail of Tears, and the Texas Rangers had largely annihilated the tribes within the borders of their new state. An ongoing campaign by the U.S. Army in the West had decimated the plains Indians, such as the Apache and Comanche, and had set up reservations to corral the rest. Some pueblo dwellers in remote areas, such as the Hopi, managed to escape the major attention of the military, but the Navajo, who were mainly herders, and tended to roam over vast areas, did not. While the Navajo were not normally a warring tribe, as were the Apache and Comanche, they could be provoked, and it was inevitable that there would be confrontations.
In the early 1860s the Civil War was being fought in earnest east of the Mississippi River, and large numbers of the frontier troops had been transferred east to bolster the Union armies. Several of the more militant tribes were quick to take advantage of the situation. Small bands raided unprotected white farms and small settlements. Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton was sent to the frontier with orders to stop the raids by any means he deemed necessary, and he went about it with a vengeance. Although the Navajo were not Carleton’s primary target, they felt his wrath as well, and by the beginning of 1863 they were basically a defeated people.
General Carleton had apparently received poor intelligence, for he believed—according to dispatches sent to Washington—that the Navajo were planning a joint offensive with the Mescalero Apaches against his weakened frontier forts. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1863, after having defeated the Mescaleros, he turned his forces toward the Navajo. On June 15, 1863 General Carleton, with Colonel Kit Carson and one thousand troops, left Santa Fe and marched towards Navajo country. Word was sent that they must surrender by July 20, or, in Carleton’s words, “Every Navajo that is seen will be considered as hostile and treated accordingly.” In the meantime the Navajo people were preparing for the worst, not by fighting, but by fleeing to the mountains and desert canyons. In late July Carson moved up to Fort Defiance. From there patrols of troops were sent into the field.
Most of the Navajos, however, had disappeared, deserting their fields and even some of their livestock. Some sought safety along the San Juan River and in the wild area north of Monument Valley, but most of the tribe fled west, beyond the Hopi villages. Some went as far as the Grand Canyon and to the area around Navajo Mountain. Nevertheless, Carleton directed Carson to “scorch the earth of the Navajo,” feeling that the Indians could be starved into submission. The order was given to “round
up all of the Navajo livestock, burn all of their fields, and destroy all of their food caches.” After the winter snows fell it was an easy task to round up the cold and starving Navajos. They surrendered in small groups at first, and then by the hundreds.
On March 4, 1864 a group of over twenty-four hundred men, women and children left Fort Defiance on the Long Walk to Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo The spirit of the Navajo people had been broken. The march can easily be compared to the Bataan Death March of WW2. The old ones who fell behind were left to die; men who could not keep up, and who appeared to be able-bodied, were shot by the military escort. When the group struggled into Fort Sumner in New Mexico one hundred and ninety-seven had been left behind on the trail, either dead or dying. Another group of eight hundred left Fort Defiance on March 20, and an additional one hundred and forty-six were added along the way. By the time this group reached Bosque Redondo on May 11, one hundred and ten had perished.
The reservation at Bosque Redondo near the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico was little more than a concentration camp. The Navajo people were starved and abused, and when some managed to slip away they were hunted down and killed like rabid animals. This went on for over two years, but the horrors of the camp soon got the attention of influential people in Washington. On September 19, 1866, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton relieved General Carleton of his command, and transferred him to an obscure post in Louisiana. In the meantime the Navajo Nation had been decimated to a population of less than 8000 thousand souls.
The misery of the Navajo did not immediately end, however. It was not until June 1, 1868 that a treaty was signed by twenty-nine Navajo headmen and several representatives of the United States. Although the document gave them a three and one half million acre reservation, it was only about ten percent of the territory they once roamed. Nevertheless, they were finally going home. By actual count 7304 men, women and children made the trek back to their historical home territory. Today their reservation encompasses 26,000 square miles, and includes a large part of Arizona, as well as parts of New Mexico and Utah. The population now exceeds 210,000, and about sixty percent of Navajos are twenty-four years old or younger.
Let’s now fast forward a bit. In 1887 Congress passed the Compulsory Indian Education Law. In the beginning the actual schooling was to be handled by various secular groups. The Presbyterians were “awarded” the Navajo. Boarding schools were established at various points on the reservations, and agents scoured the countryside for students to fill them. Children were forcibly removed from their families, often at gunpoint. It is said that agents at times found children herding or working in fields and took them away in their buckboards, not knowing, or caring, who their parents were. At the boarding schools the children were often beaten, handcuffed, bound in leg irons, or starved for days for trying to escape. Long story short, the program was a dismal failure.
It was not until 1917 that Congress enacted a statute that was designed to ensure that Indian children got a decent education, one intended to be comparable to that in available in white public schools. However, due to the fact that most Navajo families preferred to live separately from others, often in out-of-the-way places, and the fact that school buses were not yet in general use, the boarding school concept continued, albeit with more concern for the parents.
Charlie Mitchell, George’s father, experienced the beginning of the Indian school program. He was about eight when taken from his home by force. He was sent to the boarding school at Chinle, which was enclosed by a high fence. His traditional long hair was cut, and he was forced to wear “white man’s” clothing. He was also given a white man’s name. No one seems to know how it was selected, but it stuck with him throughout his life, and he passed it along to his children and grandchildren. Although his limited education was force-fed, it was sufficient to allow him to be a member of the Navajo Nation Police Force for many years, and he apparently did not resist when it was time for his children to attend the later boarding schools.
George’s father, as a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, was often away from the his family for days at a time. Thus it fell upon the family to care for the chickens, sheep and other livestock that augmented the family food supply. The family home site, located near Lukachukai, about thirty miles northwest of Canyon de Chelly, was, and is, located in a somewhat barren area. There was little there for the family’s animals to graze on. About a mile away, however, there is an unnamed canyon that is frequently wet from rains and flashfloods, providing precious moisture for grass and willows along the banks of the wash. It was there that George and his brothers took the family’s horses and herds of goats and sheep to graze. It is thought that it was during these periods of solitude, while tending the animals, that George became determined to seek his fortune in the white man’s world.
George C. Mitchell was nineteen, and just out of high school when WW2 started. He enlisted in the United States Navy, and after basic training was assigned sea duty, spending most of his four-year/duration enlistment at sea. He was part of the original crew of the aircraft carrier USS Bonhomne Richard, commissioned November 26, 1944.
George was honorably discharged in late 1945, and soon after, using his G.I. Bill benefits, enrolled in Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff as an Education major. He was a dedicated student, and graduated from NAU in 1950, eager to make his mark in the world.
In 1956 George was teaching at the Chilocco Indian School in Chilocco, Oklahoma. Chilocco is almost on the state line between Oklahoma and Kansas, and is less than ten miles from Arkansas City, Kansas. It so happened that Arkansas City was where Bobbi Jo Erwin, daughter of Jesse Carroll Erwin and Mary Protzman Erwin, was a student at the local high school.
How George and Bobbi Jo met, and the details of the courtship, is not known, but they were married in Arkansas City on December 9, 1956. George was thirty-four (their marriage certificate says twenty-six) and Bobbi Jo was seventeen. Although Bobbi Jo’s mother signed a form consenting to the marriage, there was, as the saying goes, “Hell to pay” when Bobbi’s father learned of it when he returned home from a construction job.
Nevertheless, Bobbi Jo and George set up housekeeping in Chilocco, and George continued to teach there. Their first child, a daughter they named Sherry Lane, was born in May 1958 in the Arkansas City Hospital. During the summer of 1966 the family moved to Hanford, California. George taught in the local schools there until 1972. In the interim Auska, a son, was born in 1967; Sherry graduated from the eight grade at Kit Carson Elementary School in 1972, and Bobbi Jo earned a BA Degree at Fresno Pacific College.
The family then returned to Arizona, and to the Navajo Reservation. George took a job at Round Rock School, in Round Rock, which is only seven miles from where he was born. His parents had passed on by this time, and the family took over the reservation home site lease that had been in the family for several generations. Bobbi Jo, who had not graduated from high school, but who had recently earned a BA, was anxious to continue her education. Strongly encouraged and supported by her husband, she enrolled at Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, George’s alma mater. There she earned an MA, as well as an Ed.D degree.
George Mitchell spent the rest of his professional career working in the Round Rock School District. He first taught elementary classes at Round Rock, but was soon elevated to principal, and ended his career as the school district superintendent.
Although George had spent many years away from the Navajo Nation, first as a student, then service in the Navy during WW2, followed by time spent earning a college degree, and finally teaching jobs in Oklahoma and California, he was, nonetheless, very proud of his Navajo heritage. After he returned to the area of his birth and ancestors he became very involved in Navajo affairs. He had spent years in the “white man’s world,” and he was anxious to learn more about his ancestors and his culture.
George retired in the early 1990s, but he remained active. He became involved in several cultural projects, often directing them. He wrote poetry, as well as several literary pieces, all with The People as the subject. At the time of his death he was writing a history-based novel about the Navajo in the eighteenth-century, and the trials they endured with the Spanish invaders. It remains unfinished. He also became active in the Native American Church. Although the family had attended both Protestant and Catholic churches during the time spent in Oklahoma and California, George felt that the Native American Church better served his spiritual needs.
George C. Mitchell passed away January 3, 2004; he was eighty-two. Bobbi Jo, retired less than two years, followed him in May 2005. Both of their lives were celebrated in a Native American Church memorial service on June 11, 2005.
George Mitchell was as a very unique individual, and while he was one of the Diné, "The People," he was a member of the Erwin extended family as well. He was proud of his heritage, but left the land of his ancestors to quench his thirst for worldly knowledge. His vision and drive allowed him to accomplish something that few of his people did in his generation, and that was to graduate from a major university. He also dedicated his life to working with children; what better legacy could one have. It was my privilege, as well as an honor, to have known him.