History and Controversy: “they report, you decide.”

By: Bill Whaley
14 September, 2015

In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings [i.e.] “Perspectivism.” It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.—Friedrich Nietzsche; trans. Walter Kaufmann, The Will to Power, §481 (1883–1888)'[5]

Last Thursday night, Sept. 10th, a crowd filled the Harwood auditorium for the first history lecture of the fall UNM/SMU series. Organized by Taos’s own UNM anthropologist (emerita) Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez, author of “Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place,” and other scholarly work based on the Taos area, the title of the evening’s lecture was, “Who Writes History and Why Does It Matter.”

The program featured Patricia Limerick (author, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, UC Boulder) and Philip Deloria, author of Playing Indian, U Michigan and descendant of Vine Deloria, Black Elk Speaks). According to the introductory notes, Limerick is well known for her new perspectives on New Western History, and Professor Deloria for his penetrating analyses of the ways non-Indians have imagined and imitated Native Americans.

Dr. Rodriguez mentioned that the genesis of the idea for the series was formed due to the community controversy surrounding the proposed name-change for Kit Carson Park. She introduced the two speakers, and, while alluding to their honors and credentials, she did not prepare us for two such charming academics, who instructed, persuaded, and entertained.

Dr. Limerick in particular reminded the audience about the dangers of writing and researching history, due to “perspectives” that vary according to background, culture and education, whether of descendants, academic researchers, and/or scholarly writers. For example, Limerick discussed the matters surrounding a report she wrote about a “name-change” on a dormitory at CU Boulder, involving a white man, named Nichols, who participated in the Sand Creek Massacre. The Massacre occurred on November 29, 1864 when Colonel John Chivington led 650 members of the Colorado Territory militia in an attack that destroyed a village of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado.

During the ensuing controversy about the “name-change” Professor Limerick was accused, she said, of holding a prejudice against “white men” though, as she said, she had married one (to much laughter). She also mentioned how she had recently reread her notes and discovered Kit Carson’s remarks, which were highly critical and negative about “Chivington.” Limerick said she wished she had used Carson’s remarks to buttress her side of the ensuing controversy. Regardless the names on the dormitory were changed to Cheyenne and Arapaho in an effort to recognize the other side of the Sand Creek story.

(Some readers might remember the 1970 movie, Soldier Blue, starring Candice Bergen, a particularly violent depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre. The movie’s sentiments were decidedly pro-Indian and anti-Chivington, though much criticized by the mainstream press for being “biased” and “anti-war. Contemporary critics might point out that the filmmakers couldn’t have gotten the movie made without a star like Bergen who played allegedly, a fictional character.)

In addition to the notion of carefully clarifying the issue of “individual perspectives,” conditioned by class, culture, gender, and ethnicity, one must, according to both Limerick and Deloria recognize the difficulty of presenting an accurate picture of a distant time.

As for the dangers of history, a social science, I am reminded of the Philosopher of Science, Karl Popper, who said: “One can sum up all this (social science, psychology) by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” According to Popper, if you have all the answers as some Marxists sociologists or Freudian psychologists claim, you have neither science nor philosophy but “something else.” Both Limerick and Deloria were careful to say historians didn’t have all the answers.

Controversies, however, provoke interest in the questions. Academics are always glad to get the public’s attention. I’m sorry I didn’t take notes but want to thank the organizers for taking “perspectivism” into account. As Nietzsche also said, the truth is a mobile army of metaphors. Ironically, I rescheduled my class last spring from Wed. to Thu. night so that my students and I could take advantage of the series, traditionally held on Wed. nights. Then “they” changed the night for the weekly lectures, perhaps to accommodate the Harwood.

Next week Sept. 24, organizers have scheduled a lecture on “Decolonizing the Arts: Native American and Latina/o Media”
as a counterpoint to the dominant Anglo narrative of the art colony with Beverly Singer (UNM) and Tey Marianna Nunn (National Hispanic Cultural Center). At a recent celebration of the Taos Society of Artists, one couldn’t help notice the the history presented Anglo Artists and Indian subjects but generally neglected Hispanic subjects and images.

On Oct. 8, a provocative discussion re: “The 1847 Taos Revolt: The Beginning of Modern Taos?” will take place with Albert Gonzalez (UC East Bay) about Turley’s mill and Robert Torrez (former New Mexico State Historian) will discuss what is known about the insurrectionists. Laura Gomez (UCLA) will focus on the racialization of Mexican Americans following the Mexican-American war.

You could as easily call the history of Taos, the history of violence.

For the lecture noted above, I shall ask my students from my class on “Existentialism” to attend since we can just walk round the corner from the old Bisttram Studio to the lecture hall. There’s nothing like the subject of “revenge and retaliation” to touch the interest of a Taoseno/a what with this or that family member’s “perspective” due to oral history.

Oct. 22
”Land Grants and Nuevomexicano Identity,” a deep, contested, and undying issue in northern New Mexico will feature David Correia (UNM). Correia, the author of a recent book on the Tierra Amarilla land grant, will discuss his innovative approach to property as a form of violence. Ramon Gutierrez (U Chicago) will speak about his forthcoming biography of Reies Lopez Tijerina. (Correia has also been active in the issue of “police violence” in Albuquerque.)

All events take place at the Harwood Museum,
238 Ledoux Street
Taos, NM 87571
from 6 to 8 PM.

Currently the historic Kit Carson controversy has been replaced by the alleged “misdoings” at the Kit Carson Coop, according to signs and reports: “rumor walks amongst us”; see El Mitote.

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