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Unifying Humanity: Kit Carson Park to Become Red Willow Park

As a half European and half Navajo woman, I had a difficult time watching the two sides of my ancestry divided. So often these two sides would speak to each other in derogatory terms and live worlds apart. On one hand you had discriminatory mascots for Euro-American sports teams. On the other hand I have heard Navajo children say “we don’t get along with Biligaanas.Biligaana is a Navajo word for pale-skinned person and literally translates as “the ones we fight with.” The two opposing pressures almost split me in half growing up. I always yearned for my respective families to see how beautiful they each were and to realize they were actually part of a larger whole, a larger family.

On a more microcosmic level, I stood toe-to-toe with separation as a four-year-old witnessing the divorce of my family. It was very difficult for me, but I know now that it was an important experience I was meant to have. It taught me so many lessons. Ever since I have been propelled by an invisible yet passionate wind to bridge divided worlds. I resonated deeply with a poignant quote by Black Elk, a Lakota prophet: “I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.” Even though it came by difficult means, I know that this drive to unify humanity is a gift and a blessing.

RELATED: Kit Carson Park in Taos, NM, to Be Renamed 'Red Willow Park'

Chris Pieper, a local business owner, and I called upon people of many colors to discuss the possibility of rechristening Kit Carson Park in Taos, New Mexico.

“In 1863, the Indian fighter Kit Carson received orders from James H. Carleton, governor and commander of New Mexico Territory, to destroy the Navajo people. Kit Carson’s scorch and burn campaign against the Navajo people literally left the Navajo homeland burning as thousands of Navajo refugees, who were reduced to starvation and poverty, were herded into American forts and then forced to march to the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico,” reads a statement from November 2013 released by Dr. Jennifer Rose Denetdale, Navajo, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Linda Yardley and Richard Archuleta of Taos Pueblo, Andrés Vargas of Ranchos de Taos, Lloyd Rivera of Talpa, Steve Wiard of El Prado, Pieper, originally from California, and myself, a 21st century mixed-breed raised in Taos, New Mexico would sit at one table to discuss the park. We’d laugh, cry and pray while dedicating ourselves to improving the lives of all children of all races.

From these meetings The Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council was formed. The prayer driving our attempt to rename the park was to make baby steps toward forgiveness between our respective cultures. It pains our hearts to know that the renaming has in some cases resulted in further division and conflict, as this was the very thing we hoped to quell. I for one express my most sincere apologies to anyone who has felt hurt by our suggestion and how it has developed. My hope is that we can come to consensus and forgiveness on the matter soon and find a way to make it right.

When we first brought our proposition to Mayor Dan Barrone, we had no idea if he would support it. But we gathered our courage and tried our best. I felt in my heart that if we could make this project go through, we could help liberate the whole of society from the hardship of our collective past. The Natives needed to be heard. The Euro-Americans needed to redeem past trespasses. This symbolic gesture, I surmised, would assist in breaking my people—all people—from the chains of separation and shame we have inherited. Both groups would ultimately feel more comfortable in their own skin, I thought, and we could begin to inch towards the circle of brother- and sisterhood we were born for.

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 is 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.

Lyla June Jonston

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What concerned us most about the current name of our public park is not the man himself but the symbol that his name has become. As a Colonel in the United States Army his name became a symbol of armed conflict and division between each side of the battle line. As a man who is associated (in whatever capacity) with the incarceration of thousands of Native Americans, his name became a symbol of the oppression of Indigenous Peoples. His name is unquestionably loaded with sorrow and grief for not only Native Americans but many Euro-Americans as well. The question I have asked all my life as a Native American citizen of our town is this: Why would we choose to name our public park after a man whose name symbolizes armed conflict, division and oppression?

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Last summer we brought some Navajo musicians to Taos from Flagstaff to meet with the youth of Taos for a children’s event called Regeneration Festival. This Native American group could barely give their inspirational speeches because they felt so uncomfortable in a park named for Colonel Kit Carson. Since the park is a central meeting place and a hallmark of Taos, New Mexico, enjoyed by peoples of all cultural backgrounds, wouldn’t it follow that we rechristen it in a way that makes people of all backgrounds feel joyful, happy and unified? Whether you are a supporter of Kit Carson or not, I would humbly request that you consider this question.

Taos musician Robby Romero’s idea, “Red Willow Park,” felt good to me when I first heard it. In fact, when I envisioned Mayor Barrone making this peace offering to leaders of the Pueblo, I shed the sweetest and most gentle tears of joy. The red willow, as Pieper pointed out, is a beautiful and flexible plant that can be braided to form durable baskets. It teaches us the art of resilience and compromise that lies at the foundation of a strong and unified whole. In addition to this, the healing properties of its inner bark have graced the human race for thousands of years and are derived to make aspirin. The symbol is one that our children and our children’s children can learn from and be guided by.

Others suggested, “Popay Park,” but that may not have gotten us much further than Kit Carson Park. Popay was a Tewa religious leader, he led the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against Spanish colonial rule. After all, even the noble Popay is a symbol of warfare. Replacing Kit Carson with Popay might be like trading in one struggle for another; in the end there is still struggle. As Dr. King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out the dark, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” 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.

Wikimedia Commons

The statue of Popé was unveiled at San Juan Pueblo, Popé’s hometown, on May 22, 2005. It was publicly exhibited for one day before being shipped off to Washington, D.C. where it was added to the Statuary Hall on September 22, 2005.

Ultimately, there is an immense amount of healing that needs to be done in our beautiful home. It was our initial prayer that this action would have a profound ripple effect towards that end. As the story begins to make national and international news, I believe that is indeed occurring. We saw it as an olive branch extended across the fields leading into the Pueblo from the rest of the town. We saw it as a beautiful unfolding of reconciliation between two cultures that have for far too long been divided in bitter grudges.

We saw it as a way to show all our children, from Arroyo Hondo to Llano Quemado, that their town is capable of uniting in the name of peace, reconciliation and intergenerational healing. This was our intention going into this movement and it remains so. It is not meant to divide but to unite. If there is one place where this movement would occur, it would be Taos, New Mexico. Thank you all so much for your attention to this unfolding Creation Story. May our families forever remain whole and prioritize the beauty of synergy, compassion and compromise over all things.

Lyla June Johnston is of the Taachii'nii clan of the Diné (Navajo) people, as well as European and Cheyenne on her father’s side. She is a graduate from Stanford University and founder of Regeneration Festival, a global celebration of our children. Her prayer is to help bring people of all races together to see that we are one beautiful, sacred family and to expose the illusions of the coyote spirit.