Have you missed the brouhaha regarding Chris Rock? If so, a bit of a catch-up. On the Fourth of July, Chris Rock tweeted: Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed the fireworks.
As you can well imagine, the aftermath has provoked debate. Looking beyond the tweet itself, I read in the Huffington Post a related comment made by Elon James White, a comedian activist: Part of being American to me is that I have to acknowledge all the bullshit that comes with it. Basically some folks came over, stole other people’s land, killed them, then started a country on the backs of my people, while killing them, and then at some point they freed the slaves but then oppressed them. (As quoted in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/chris-rock-white-people.
I find that I quite agree with White’s elaboration on Chris Rock’s trigger. That said, I’m not a revisionist. We can’t go back. As an example, consider the vilification of Christopher Columbus… had he not discovered the lands to the west, the Native Americans could have rested easy.
That is so true. Columbus brought not only European expansionism but also European diseases to the New World, but… surely we can think of some reasons to honor Columbus.
I’m disturbed that we seem to find it increasingly difficult to look to the middle ground. We seem to make snap judgments and then close our hearts, eyes and ears. Or maybe it is not “increasingly”; perhaps we have always found it difficult to see both sides of an issue.
Having just returned from Taos, I think of my visit to the Kit Carson Museum where I was struck by the one-sidedness of the exhibits to the glorification of Kit Carson. Walking through the four rooms occupied by the Carson family for 25 years, you would learn that Kit Carson was a mountain man, pathfinder, soldier and Indian agent. Walking through the museum, you would think that Carson embodied the American hero.
All of these descriptors are true; however, the museum has neglected to present the unsavory side. What about part that Kit Carson played in the Indian Wars, especially in the Navajo Campaign?
In an effort to eliminate Indian raiding in the New Mexico Territory, Brigadier General James Carleton chose Kit Carson to move the Navajos from their native land to the Bosque Redondo Reservation where Carleton believed that the Navajo would become “civilized,” give up their raiding ways and practice agriculture. You have only to look at Curtis’s iconic photo to know that the Navajo homeland was not fit for sowing and the Navajo had no agricultural expertise.
The date was 1849. General Carleton’s orders were to capture women and children and kill all men. Carson chose to ignore the kill order. Rather, Carson employed a scorched earth policy wherein he overpowered the Navajo by controlling the water as well as destroying homes, crops and orchards. Overseen by U.S. Army troops, over 9,000 Navajos made the 300-mile Long Walk during which between 2,000 and 3,000 Navajos died. Read more about it at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/carson/
It is difficult to separate the man from the myth, a myth that grew through the publication of dime novels that glorified Carson’s image as an Indian fighter.
One of the best books that gives a balanced picture is Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides. It is a great read – one of the best. If I took anything away from the Sides’ book, it is that although Carson was fluent in English, Spanish, and a number of Native American tongues, he could not read or write. Carson felt these deficiencies keenly, and because of them, he caved in to more “learned men” and the demands of the U.S. government when in his heart he would have chosen otherwise.
To my mind, museums must consider it their duty to present a balanced picture. At the very least, one out of the four rooms should mention The Long Walk. We need to know the man as well as the myth. What factors (politics, policy and commercial interests) figured in the Western Expansion? Who were the players and what conditions informed their view of the the Native Americans?
The Taos Masons of Bent Lodge #42 did a great service when they bought the Carson property in 1909. It is to their credit that the Masonic Lodge of Taos still owns the Carson home/museum today. They have done well. When they give a more balanced picture of Kit Carson, the man and his times, they will have done their best.