My Turn: Names, statues and history

  • DANIEL BROWN

Published: 7/27/2020 8:22:41 AM

They say that the first casualty of war is truth. It’s also true that the first casualty in times of passion is facts. Facts are currently unpopular and when people are positioned with pious outrage, you can present an ocean of evidence and they will brush it aside.

While those in Western Massachusetts will no doubt tussle over renaming Turners Falls and Amherst, here in Taos, N.M., we’re about to re-initiate what I call “The Kit Carson Kerfuffle.” Carson is a famous figure in American Western history, a legendary scout, mountain man, soldier and explorer. He is buried in Taos and our main park and a thoroughfare are named after him.

Unfortunately for his reputation, he also rounded up the Navajo people in 1864 and forced them to the notorious Bosque Redondo reservation, where they suffered greatly before being allowed to return to their ancestral homeland four years later. This was the infamous “Long Walk” which the Navajo have rightfully never forgotten. Because of this, a Taos town councilor once condemned him as a “genocidal killer of Indians” and demanded the park be renamed “Red Willow,” the Taos Pueblo language translation of Taos. Seeing that we’re a progressive area, her suggestion seemed like a slam-dunk.

Except it wasn’t.

To begin with, the leaders of Taos Pueblo were offended that this councilor didn’t consult them first before using their language to rename the park. The Pueblo people are quite private in all matters and expect their neighbors to understand and comply.

Also, the Pueblo don’t share the same animosity towards Carson, seeing that he helped defend them. During the 1700s and 1800s, both the Taos Pueblo people and the Hispanic residents of north-central New Mexico were constantly on guard against raids by the Navajo, Apache and Comanche, the first of whom routinely stole from, killed and kidnapped them (Taoseños returned the favor with equal violence.) Carson had friends among Taos Pueblo as well as the Utes in neighboring Colorado.

The second group to complain was members of Taos’s Hispanic community. Carson had won their praise by marrying into the prominent Jaramillo family with the blessing of the local Hispanic patriarch and converting to Catholicism, the main religion of the region, an act rare for white American settlers.

The last to chime in were American historians, who argued that Kit Carson was hardly a “genocidal killer of Indians.” Although illiterate, Carson spoke 14 Native dialects, had married into two tribes and, according to one historian, lived more like an Indian than any white man of his era. Carson could survive under any conditions and traversed the United States from coast to coast at least three times — on a mule. But he was no genocidal killer. When ordered by his superior officer to kill all males of the Mescalero Apache during an earlier operation, he refused. Most white men at the time would have willfully accepted.

Not surprisingly, the Navajo don’t care about the nuances of Carson’s character. Some Native peoples have also condemned Abraham Lincoln for allowing the mass execution of 38 Santee Sioux after the 1862 Minnesota Uprising. This event, also known as “Little Crow’s War,” was initiated after government agents had cheated and starved the Santee people beyond their endurance. They rebelled and for several ugly months, atrocities were committed by both sides before the Santee were subdued. A Minnesota military court sentenced 303 of them to death, but Lincoln, despite his immersion in the Civil War — which he was then losing — demanded to review each case. He commuted the sentences and thus saved 265 lives. When warned that this clemency could lose him votes in the upcoming election, he responded, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”

Another recent ruckus concerning Honest Abe revolves around the 1876 Emancipation Memorial statue in Washington D.C., which shows Lincoln standing over a newly liberated African-American. Because of the mutual postures, it’s been deemed racist despite it having been funded by African Americans and dedicated by Frederick Douglass. Although Lincoln’s original views on race were indeed racist, they evolved as the Civil War progressed. In his 1864 Second Inaugural address, Lincoln hinted that the Civil War was God’s punishment — North as well as South — for the crime of slavery.

In the final analysis, Abraham Lincoln ended both the evil of African slavery and made sure the racist regime of the Southern Confederacy went to an early grave. That alone consigns his name as one of the great liberators of history.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and was a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in Taos, N.M. (dbrown1793@gmail.com)


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