July 4th came a little early for me this year, or at least I found the American flag playing an unexpectedly prominent role in my weekend. The first occasion to think about the Stars and Stripes occurred at the Rodeo de Santa Fe on Saturday.
We arrived just a few minutes before the announcer asked the crowd to rise for “the most beautiful flag in the world.” He went on to tell us that people in other parts of the world look to it as a symbol of freedom. In just a few moments, a young lady with a beautiful voice begin to sing the National Anthem, but I have to admit I was already out of the moment. There was something about the tone of the introduction that had me a little on edge.
The announcer presented himself well and genuinely enhanced the overall experience of the rodeo, but I personally like my patriotism without a dose of jingoism. Hell, I could live with the description of the Star Spangled Banner as the most beautiful flag in the world. People in other nations might say the same of theirs, but if patriotic sentiments made their appearances solely in such expressions, then all my concerns about the matter could be resolved with a wink and a chuckle.
No harm – no foul, as far as I’m concerned. But of course, that wasn’t all…
When I heard this same announcer say; “(America) love it or leave it,” I have to admit I was genuinely displeased. That is the sort of chip-on-the-shoulder patriotism that I can do without. Granted, this sort of expression was not entirely to be unexpected at a rodeo, an event that out-Americans apple pie. But perhaps that was the problem; this little bit of verbal shadow boxing was quite unnecessary. It’s one thing to get aggressive when facing opposition, but when you’re doing your own thing amongst folks with a similar outlook, and its going well, and people are enjoying themselves, I can’t help thinking that a simple invitation to find some positive value in the flag and the nation would be the way to go.
The thing that really caught my attention was the claim that others around the world look to the American flag as a symbol of freedom. To be fair, I expect some do, but I also expect some don’t. Standing there waiting for the national anthem to begin, I couldn’t help wondering how far I would have to go to find someone who might find the flag just a little ominous.
As it turns out, I did not have to go far at all.
The next day, I found myself standing with a group of friends and coworkers in the Catholic Church at Taos Pueblo. The gentlemen showing us around the Pueblo called attention to the clothing upon the saints at the head of the church. He told us it wasn’t modesty that required the clothing; it was there to cover burn marks, burn marks dating back to first days of American presence in New Mexico. To his ancestors, the Star Spangled Banner had first appeared as a symbol of occupation. To say that this occupation had been traumatic would be putting it mildly.
The Taos Revolt of 1847 carried all the horrors one might expect from a local outbreak of violence. The first Governor of New Mexico died horribly in the early stages of the revolt, as did many others who took office under the new territorial government. For the residents of Taos the revolt ended with the shelling of their church and the killing of around 150 rebels. A number of executions would soon follow.
One needn’t feign naïveté about the role of any participants in the brutal events of that conflict, or any other. We needn’t believe in the moral superiority of any participants in that war. It is enough to understand that the events of 1847 have left their mark on the Pueblo, quite literally in fact. It is there in the relics of the contemporary church, and it is there in the ruins of the old church still standing in the village. It should also come as no surprise to find that such events might color the meaning of the flag to residents of the Pueblo.
I don’t mean to suggest that the meaning of the flag can be reduced to violence and oppression, and I really don’t think that is what our host in Taos meant to suggest either. His story was enough to remind us of the power that symbol and the nation behind it have to inflict harm on others, and to suggest that the consequences of such harm can be far more reaching than people often imagine. I think there is a lot of room for patriotism in places where such stories are told, but I do wonder if there is any room for those stories (or folks who care about them) in places where people are reminded that they must love America or leave it
There ought to be.
Cameras are strictly forbidden at Taos Pueblo which is why none appear in this post. For a quick brush-up on the Taos Revolt, I consulted a piece by the state Historian of New Mexico, William H. Wroth.