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Historical Reservations

Sidebar by Martha Quillen

Kit Carson – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

As for the question Allen Best asks in the main article, I think it’s fine to call a mountain Kit Carson.

But at the same time, I’m not scandalized by a mural depicting Carson killing a Navajo, either. On the contrary, I’d say it’s pretty naive to imply that Carson ran a major campaign to round up the Navajo, and didn’t kill anyone.

Also, the symbolism of Carson spearing a Navajo in the heart seems to sum up the sentiments of a lot of people who think that Carson — the former Indian agent for the tribes of northern New Mexico — betrayed the Navajos’ trust and broke their hearts. Personally, I can’t see ruling that out as a valid viewpoint.

But is such a mural shocking? Yes. Controversial? Yes. Fair? Well, my instinct tells me that Kit Carson wasn’t bloodthirsty. But on the other hand, he did spend most of his life as an Indian-fighter, and I suspect it’s pretty dishonest to insist that such an occupation was always cleanly, methodically executed.

At this point, however, we’ve been making real human beings — from Beowolf to Dracula to Carson — into icons who represent good and evil for so long, that we can’t seem to examine history without stomping on cherished legends.

Yet in my mind, the people of yesterday and today are pretty much the same. If only the people of yesterday had been all-knowing, deeply compassionate, infinitely patient, and incapable of acting out of fear or rage or for personal gain, things probably would have turned out much better. But since they weren’t, and we aren’t, it would seem that we could learn something from their history. I don’t know exactly how we’re supposed to do that, however, if we insist on reducing real people into comic book heroes and villains.

To me, the true villains of history are the self-righteous, authoritarian bullies who obstinately refuse to allow any viewpoint but their own. And these days, a lot of people would like to impose a rigid historical perspective that doesn’t have anything to do with history.

Today, many groups seem to want to make history entirely political. Honoring Kit Carson, and insisting that it never be mentioned that some presidents had slaves, is the conservative position — somehow mysteriously linked with supporting traditional families and old-time religion. Renouncing Kit Carson and insisting that all white men were violent, oppressive brutes is the liberal position — somehow linked with multi-culturalism, affirmative action, and minority rights. But to insist that we always present our antecedents as perfect — or in converse, as wholly detestable — strikes me as insane.

Ah, but lest I forget, a few years ago, I went to a seminar and realized a third tyranny was also springing up — when three speakers in a row insisted that now we would have to judge a person by the standards of his own time. One of them gave a speech on Juan de Onaté, the Spaniard who colonized New Mexico, and hacked legs off the Acoma men — because they had rebelled. The speaker insisted that Onaté was no more brutal than most of his contemporaries, and therefore we had no right to judge him harshly. (Even though, in his day, charges were brought against Onaté, she felt those charges were also unfair.)

Afterward I told her that by her reasoning, we’d have to honor Hitler, too, since his conduct had certainly been popular for a moment in time. At which point, she launched into a long dialogue on slaveowners, and how we all had to understand that their actions we’re morally acceptable in their day…

About then, all I could think of was that old Lone Ranger joke, which I suspect is very politically incorrect now. “Look, Tonto, we’re surrounded by Indians.” “What do you mean we, pale face?”

Why does everyone want to tell everyone else how to feel these days? I’m tired of people who insist that there’s a right way and a wrong way to feel about history. In my view, everyone should present the facts the way they see them — as Allen does in his article. But I wish the political groups would quit trying to impose some official new politically correct way to look at everything. Besides, I don’t see much point in judging people who are long dead and buried.

— But when I sit up late at night and read history, I often find myself crying over all of it — the terrified Cheyenne at Sand Creek, the freezing Navajo on the long walk, poor old Black Kettle who believed in peace, and the life-long friends George Bent and Kit Carson sitting on the porch at George’s place.

By then, Josefa was dead, Kit was gravely ill, and two of George’s sons — “half-breeds” by the conventions of their day — had repudiated their white ancestry and run off to join the Indian Wars. It’s not too hard to imagine how those famous traders felt by then — disillusioned, disheartened, and almost certainly shell-shocked.

I suspect, in crying over all of them, I cry for myself and for our times, too — because I really don’t believe we’ve outgrown the mistakes of yesterday. Perhaps, when I’ve finally gotten perfect, though, I’ll feel more comfortable about insisting that everyone in the whole world see things my way.

–Martha Quillen