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Remembering History’s Evils

2009 July 30
by Julie Clawson

Sorry for the long silence here. I spent the last week and a half at my parent’s place in Taos, New Mexico with a bunch of friends from our old church in Illinois. It was a great time, but I didn’t have two seconds together to attempt to even open my computer. Since we had friends visiting, we did touristy things all week and I couldn’t help but encounter stories of the history of the place that truly made me think.

It is strange being at places in America where our own sordid history has not been completely hushed up. In most of the country it is easy to forget who we stole the land from, who we enslaved to build initial infrastructure, and who we oppressed on our path to becoming a “great” nation. If those reminders aren’t there before our eyes, we tend to forget they ever happened (and then get accused of being unpatriotic or of outright lying if you even mention the history). But its hard to hide from that history in New Mexico – at least once you make even a vague attempt to open your eyes.

For instance – I attended the Emergent Gathering in Glorieta, NM a couple of times in the past. While I had heard that Glorieta was the site of a major Civil War battle, often called the Gettysburg of the West, I knew little else of its history or culture except for the fact that the Southern Baptists had built a camp there that did its best to pretend New Mexican culture didn’t exist. But this trip, I discovered that it was at the opening of the Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe trail that the Mexican army made its last stand against the invading U.S. army in 1846. You see, for years U.S. citizens had been settling in Texas (often for the freedom to trade slaves). In 1836, these U.S. Texans declared Texas an independent country and went to war with the current ruler – Mexico. After remembering the Alamo and all that, the Republic of Texas formed. When the U.S. then annexed Texas in 1846 (which at that point included most of New Mexico), Mexico chose not to simply give up the land and leave. This was seen as cause for war and the U.S. invaded to secure the land we stole. General opinion saw it as our right to take the land, with some citing it “Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” A small group of dissenters called this invasion robbery and murder, and Abraham Lincoln asserted “Let us put a check upon this lust of dominion.” But their protest was to no avail. And so the U.S. army met and massacred the Mexican army at Glorieta – claiming the territory for ourselves. It puts things in perspective to know the history of the place – knowing who died so we could use a spiffy retreat center.

july09-221Same thing in Taos. One of the oldest continuously lived in pueblos in America is the Taos Pueblo. In 1847, after the U.S. took New Mexico, local Indians and Hispanics were fearful that the U.S. wouldn’t honor their ownership of the land and so staged a rebellion against the U.S. governor in Taos. The governor ended up dead and the U.S. Army moved quickly to quash the revolt. (the Indians actually claim that they had nothing to do with the murder, that the Mexicans set them up). As the U.S. army attacked, many of the pueblo’s residents (the women and children) as well as some of the insurgents took refugee in the Catholic church on the pueblo seeking its protection and sanctuary. The U.S. army burned them alive inside the church. The picture is of the remains of the church that has simply been left in ruins since that day.

I hear those stories and know that even though I am enjoying the benefits of past oppression, I have to at least acknowledge that great evil has been done. But there were others touring the Taos Pueblo I overheard who were offended that the Indians dare tell the story of how the U.S. army massacred their people. They thought it was rude and uncalled for to even bring up such stories. I found it interesting that here I was having no choice but to confront the sins of our collective past, and others around me were trying to silence history. But then I thought, at least they were hearing the stories whether they choose to believe them or not. That’s why I am a huge fan of going to places where that history is in your face. No, its not fun to visit the site of a massacre, or of a firebombing, or the Holocaust Museum, but unless we make that effort we too soon forget that they exist. And from there we quickly start pretending that the evils they remind us of never happened. We need those reminders.


7 Responses leave one →
  1. July 30, 2009

    Thanks, Julie! It IS good to learn about these “secret” histories. In the past year, I learned of the forced repatriation of nearly a million Americans of Mexican descent living in California during the Depression. White people apparently needed jobs, and well, they were easily to pop on a train and ship back to Mexico–which for most of them was a country they never lived in! Of course, when WWII started, the U.S. found these people and DRAFTED them from Mexico!

    So, anyway, this story isn’t taught in history. My husband lobbied the legislature in IL to mandate that it be taught in history class. Many Republicans and Democrats alike didn’t back it because they didn’t have any Mexicans in their districts. You know, because they’re the only ones who need to know about this… Ugh.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. July 30, 2009

    Thanks for your insights. For a good, accurate depiction of this period (and a good read), centered around the life of Kit Carson, see Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. Here’s a link to a description of the book along with review quotes.

  3. July 30, 2009

    Nate – I think that was the book my dad was reading that spark these conversations in the first place!

    Caryn – I totally don’t get the “you only need to learn about your own race” excuse to teaching history, and it comes up all the time! Of course minorities and women need to see ourselves represented in history books but that doesn’t mean that white males shouldn’t learn those histories also.

    But thanks for the history insight. I hadn’t heard that story – it is one that really should be in the textbooks.

  4. July 30, 2009

    Having grown up in Austin and surrounded by a very biased teaching of Texas History (not to mention U.S. history), I have spent years re-learning U.S. and Texas history. I have also had to shift my mind set to better understand property rights and whether or not it is right to kill for property. I was a small child being taught reverence and acclaim for the deaths (brutal!) of other humans. A small child who needed a detox and a re-education.

    I love Austin. I was there once again in March and my mom took my kids and I to the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum for the who-knows-what-number-th time. I ended up pulling my children out rather abruptly after walking through some of the re-enacted scenes between our “Heroic Texans and their opposition”. I felt death inside me as I walked around and took it in, but drew the line where I saw my children’s eyes growing wide and bias beginning to fill their hearts… and words.

    Thank you for posting this.
    May we all do or best to break our biases and live as one human amongst another.

  5. jack permalink
    July 31, 2009

    it IS a shame that we here in the east have nothing left of native american culture except a few place names. sometimes, i feel bad, being a person with native American ancestry, but sometimes i remember that history is a series of conflicts and when you try to mix such different cultures as native Americans and Europeans, it just doesn’t work and as most clashes of very different peoples plainly shows, the ones with the superior weapons usually wins. our conquest of america was no more brutal or illogical than the vikings conquest of Europe. it was simply a sociological necessity. when there is a small group of people controlling most of the land and a hungry larger group, one group will usually displace the other. it’s just the way things are. no sense crying about it. just take it for what it is. we do seem to be improving as a breed, thankfully. at least people cry about atrocities now.

  6. Ron permalink
    August 13, 2010

    Unfortunately, history being taught in most nations is sanitized to reflect the often false altruism of the nation’s past. Columbus continues to be honored with a holiday but only recently are we learning that he was actually a thug who practiced genocide on Hispanola, which preceded the genocide that we practiced upon Native Americans. The sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor which, like the Tonkin Gulf incident, was an excuse to go to war is another example. The Spanish did not sink the Maine, which we now learn exploded because of mechanical malfunction. The battle cry “Remember the Maine” is now remembered as a farce. But, alas, the beat goes on.

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