It must have been a couple decades back. I was at a small party in Forth Defiance. Those attending included a number of officials in the Navajo tribal government. Fort Defiance serves as kind of a bedroom community for the capital of the Navajo Nation, so this was hardly unexpected. What none of us expected that evening was a quick lesson that began when our host asked if anyone knew the name of the main street going through the town? No-one did. As it happens, the name was Kit Carson Drive.
Apparently, it still is.
To say that most of the party-goers found this shocking is putting it mildly. It may not be obvious to some of my readers why a room full of Navajos would object to a street named after Kit Carson, but even the most cursory knowledge of their history would make this pretty well obvious. The man is popularly known as an old western Indian fighter, and as it happens, a good number of the Indians he fought were Navajo. When General James H. Carleton, the Army Commander for the Territory of New Mexico decided to go to war with the Navajo people, it was Colonel Kit Carson that he sent off to do it. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly, the heart of Navajo territory, destroying resources (just as Sherman might have) and letting winter bring his enemies in to surrender. This campaign, and the four years of internment at Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner) still constitute the darkest chapter of most historical narratives about the Navajo people. So, you can just imagine what it must have meant for people who can still tell you about relatives lost on the long walk to Fort Sumner to learn that a road right through their community bears the name of the man responsible for their deaths.
Kinda put a damper on the party.
You might think it odd that folks didn’t know the name of the road to begin with, but it’s hardly unusual. Folks don’t pay that much attention to street names out that way. Many of the roads don’t have signs at all, and I don’t recall seeing that particular name on a street sign when I lived out there (though one can certainly be found in Fort Defiance today). This party was the only time anyone ever mentioned it to me.
The old south isn’t the only place in this country with a questionable sense of public history from the Civil War era. Those in the Southwest have less to do with the war between the states than the early stages of the Indian wars which would dominate the interior west for a couple decades. Kit Carson Drive is one of many such examples. The Obelisk in the town square of Santa Fe provides another. It’s had its own share of controversies over the years, not the least of them being this dedication:
“To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.”
It should come as no surprise that this line acquired its share of critics over the years. It has had some defenders as well, to be sure, but plenty of critics. The sentiments might have seemed appropriate enough to those who erected it in 1868, but in the 1970s, sentiments had changed a bit, as had the political status of some of those ‘savage Indians’ referenced in the piece. So it really should have come as no surprise when calls went out for removal or modification of the monument. Today, at least, it may seem a little surprising to find the monument had Native American defenders, which apparently it did. Attempts were made to put the original wording into it’s proper context, so to speak, preserving it without appearing to endorse it, but some clearly weren’t satisfied with this way of thinking about the issue. Resolution apparently came in the form of a chisel, and the result is a monument with its own fill-in-the-blank question.
It seems, the American public is hashing out a new round of debates over public monuments, particularly those in the South. Some no doubt find the entire debate quite trivial. Who reads the placards on a monument anyway? Of course when people fight over seemingly trivial things, you can bet your ass they aren’t really fighting over the trivial things. It isn’t actually history (much less historical monuments) that has people up in arms over Confederate Statues, just as it wasn’t really history that caused a word to fall off the monument in Santa Fe. Such battles are always about the present. They are about the way that people think and use history to shape the present, and there are usually some very specific present implications in these battles.
People typically see the present interests loud and clear when they confront advocates of social justice. If anyone ever forgets this, the term ‘political correctness’ is right there to remind us that someone (or at least someone on the left) has an agenda. What folks are slower to get, it seems, is the fact that these sorts of gestures are hardly neutral to begin with. There is a reason James W. Loewen devoted a fair portion of his book, Lies Across America, to Confederate monuments, and it wasn’t because these monuments contain sober and thoughtful commentary on the actual history of the region. A statue to a confederate hero isn’t just a reference to history as such; it says something to those who those whose ancestors those heroes fought to keep in bondage. And a monument to heroes who died fighting ‘savage Indians’ may say something noble to those descended from colonists (Spanish or Anglo) in the American southwest; it says something else to those descended from those very ‘savage Indians’.
To be sure, complications abound. Some folks may have ancestors on either end or neither of his memorial demographics, and some people may have no dog in the fight at all. Also ironic usage happens. Not every Native American takes umbrage at the word ‘savage’ just as not every Native American objects to the term ‘Redskins’. But we should be wary of efforts to make these exceptions into the rule. The Washington football team has, for, example paid good money trying to find, cultivate, and promote just about any Native American willing to help foster the notion that the team name reflects anything but a racist stereotype. Were the team name really so bland, one might almost wonder what use it would have for people interested in such a martial sport! And of course we now have the Cheetoh-in-Chief (who has his own bullshit civil war monument) mourning the loss of beautiful artwork and a desecration of history with every Confederate statue that goes down. His language is so flowery and positive. You’d almost think these monuments held no serious political significance in the present age.
Of course the folks delivering the Nazi salute in defense of Robert E. Lee might seem to argue otherwise.
To be sure, there are people, times, and places who don’t find it necessary to remove or modify monuments to their sordid past. Some of these might not even be terrible people, places, or times. But if the monuments to an abusive past aren’t so toxic, this isn’t simply because potential critics choose to let it slide; it’s because the community as a whole ha somehow managed to handle the issues in question. When the dominant voices prove tone-deaf or outright hostile to the interests of those on the wrong-side of monumental history, then we are all a lot less likely to get along. Then statues get pulled down.
…or someone just shows up with a chisel.
Just a few pics of Canyon de Chelly (click to embiggen):