The Perils of Pandering to Prejudice

By: Bill Whaley
12 June, 2014

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana)

The Cover-up

After all these years, I’m not sure why the Town of Taos decided to double down and exchange the name “Kit Carson” for the name “Red Willow” on a local park. According to most history books, the name “Taos” is Tiwa for “Tuatah” or, if translated into English, “Red Willow.” If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Town of Taos, Taos County, Taos etc. etc. have all honored our neighbors at Taos Pueblo north of the cattle guard. Though La Tuatah isn’t much used in public, there was once a motel, La Tuatah, set on the ridge above the once and future Spring Ditch, an acequia unjustly quashed by the Town of Taos.

Will the Town be changing the name “Rio Grande” into “Big River” so Rick Bellis’s new demographic can more easily grasp the sights and sounds of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument? Or refer now to Padre Antonio Martinez as “Tony Martin?” Perhaps, guided by Robby Romero, Rick can turn Hopper Day into an ironic fund raiser for CAV…but that’s another story and not the Hopper history the Town wants to discuss. Perhaps the folks in Arroyo Seco can adopt the dominant culture’s language in homage to Mickey Mouse and Black Bart who used to fight it out in their comic book version of “Dry Gulch.”

At least Tom Blankenhorn at the County says he read the land use regulations prior to voting for the “notorious documents.” How many members of the town council, including the mayor and manager, have read Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder,” the wildly successful and rather complex narrative set in the Southwest, organized around the character of Kit Carson? In lieu of what might have been a “teaching moment” or seminar staffed by scholars, historians, and anthropologists, we’ve got politicos who pander to the prejudices of the politically correct, while trying to make the quick buck with p.r. headlines.

Has Taos become Berkeley? General George Washington, the alleged father of our country, gained fame and experience in the French-Indian Wars, killing Indians, prior to his success in the American Revolt, killing Brits. The notorious slave owner, like his compatriot Thomas Jefferson, practiced America’s original sin but was caught out by Abraham Lincoln, which led to the Civil War, and, ironically, a battle over the flag in Taos Plaza. When confederate sympathizers tried to take down “old glory,” Carson and a few compadres defended her. Hence the flag on the Plaza flies with special dispensation 24-hours a day. Perhaps the Council will lower the flag due to interference by the “notorious” Indian killer.

Apparently, the town council has just discovered that Kit Carson is considered a “notorious Indian killer,” and justly so by the Navajos or Dine. Carson conducted, under the orders of the federal government’s military governor, General Carleton, a “scorched earth” policy against the Southwest’s most “notorious” raiders in the Dine Homeland. During Carson’s scourge of Dine country, he was accompanied not only by the military, and, according to the history books, by his own trusty Ute allies but also by outriders from Taos Pueblo. Eh?

Indeed, the Dine were unpopular. They frequently raided the Spanish farms and Pueblo tribes up and down the Rio Grande. People theft, especially of children, i.e. slavery, was common among the tribes, the Spanish and Los Americanos. But the times changed and the historic forces, Indian Tribes, Spanish and American soldiers, who hadn’t been able to defeat the Dine in hundreds of years, finally found a vicious general in Carleton, New Mexico’s military governor, who persuaded the wily tracker, Kit Carson, to go out into the wilderness. Call it blowback. Carelton wanted to become as famous as John C. Fremont, the pathfinder, who benefitted from the famous tracker’s uncanny ability to find his way through the untracked Western America.

Carson himself defended the Indians as a whole during the times, attributing their plight to the “aggressiveness of the whites.” He was highly critical of Colonel John Chivington’s horrid “Sand Creek Massacre” in 1864. He fought for the Utes in order to preserve their reservation homeland. In a Homeric sense, the American Indians and Kit Carson recognized each other as “worthy opponents,” as members of the warrior culture. Carson’s first two wives were Arapaho and Cheyenne, his daughter by “Singing Grass (Arapaho), who died, was raised by his sisters in Missouri. He married a local Taos girl, Josefa Jaramillo.

Ultimately, neither Carson nor the Native Americans were a match for the ceaseless tread of Manifest Destiny. Indeed, one can see today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sins of American colonization and empire, the sins being perpetrated against native populations, similarly to the way the 19th Century cult of capital conquered the native denizens of the Southwest. Carson, the most famous westerner of the 19th Century, was a mere pawn and popular symbol. Changing the name of a park might assuage the ignorant or spin “a tale of cover up.” And though the collaborateurs can run, they can’t change the facts. Carson did not cut down the peach trees. Others did it for him, according to the history books.

When you revise  history with simple-minded slogans or new names, you lose the rich texture of  community complexity. Taos and the environs, including its famous and notorious characters, will survive the pandering pols and their nonsensical resolutions. I mean they replaced the Kit Carson Drive-In with Walmart but I don’t see that as an improvement. Now they want to rename our park because it’s good for us?