Kit Carson is a famous pioneer and wilderness figure locally in New Mexico and nationally in Old Western lore. Red Willow is the traditional name of Taos Pueblo, Place of the Red Willow. On Tuesday June 10, the Taos Town Council voted to re-name the park in the center of the community from Kit Carson Park to Red Willow Park. Carson is a legendary figure and has his name on many landmarks, places, streets and buildings in the region. He was a trapper, mountain man and guide who married into the Jaramillo family as a fur trader. But what he was known for locally was as a hired guide to track, contain and round-up 8000 Navajo from their Canyon de Chelly stronghold to the Bosque Redondo exile on the infamous Long Walk. This experience of The Long Walk is still remembered as a terrible journey of misery and death by the Navajo people who will recite its effects on families and community up to the present day.
Carson was retired but the U.S. military convinced him to come out and help them round-up the Navajo to Ft. Sumner NM, actually a place of exile called Bosque Redondo. Accounts say Carson was reluctant and counted many Native People as his friends, but he became convinced he could help bring them in with less violence and death than the U.S. Army. Of course his name became associated with these actions and he became known as an Indian-killer.
Lyla June Johnston is a Taos resident, she’s a Stanford University graduate, a well-known poet, an activist and part Navajo. She founded The Regeneration Festival that honors the memories of many local teenagers who committed suicide in clusters over the last few years. This event takes place every Labor Day Weekend in this same park in the center of town. Navajo musicians who came to perform for The Regeneration Festival told everyone that it was difficult for them to enjoy themselves in the park named after Carson. Lyla Johnston and Chris Pieper called on Linda Yardley, Richard Archuleta, Andres Vargas, Lloyd Rivera, Steve Wiard and others to get together and to do something about the feeling that Taos Pueblo tribal members had when they visited town and saw the Kit Carson name everywhere. This group formed The Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council that would try to initiate a movement toward forgiveness and unity and away from division and conflict.
They knew that the Kit Carson name was popular as a tourist draw for business but that it was possible to approach the idea by talking about some long standing issues among the local cultures, the Native, Hispanic and Anglo, now all called Taosen’os.
Lyla June Johnston writes, “Let it be known that I have nothing against Kit Carson as a man. My elders taught me to never judge another because you never know what they have been through or how they ended up where they ended up. I know not who this man was or what got him up in the morning but one thing if for sure: I pray for his soul and send his descendants all the love and compassion in my heart. Indeed, his children were part Native American and part European as I am. … The neutral name of red willow favors no race. It speaks only of healing, strength and synergy. It keeps us rooted into the earth and reaching into the sky and it honors the relationship that the original stewards of this land have with nature.”
No doubt there will be dissenting cries of political correctness and there will be more public input, there will be a dedication ceremony and plaques should be put up to inform visitors of both names and symbols. Most if not all of America’s founders and heroes were flawed human beings who were products of their times. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, Washington ordered the destructive attack on the Iroquois Confederacy, Jackson was a notorious Indian-killer, Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk War and had to sign off on the largest mass public execution in the nation’s history when he pared down the list of over 300 Santee Dakota to the eventual 38 men to be hanged. You could say it’s all understandable due to the fog of war with its attendant passions, prejudices, vagaries and atrocities. But Native Peoples have long memories and we have names for everything and every place, we have our own stories, told around campfires, kitchen tables and road trips along the powwow highway. This history of oral traditions is more important and enlightening than anything you’ll find in history books.
Santa Fe NM
June 17, 2014
Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet based in Santa Fe, NM.