Monday, March 13, 2017

Visions of the American West (Part 2)

The Southwest

By James T. Carney

The second-largest part of the West is the Southwest – ironically the situs of most Hollywood movies about cowboys and Indians, although most of the cowboys who have roamed this territory came from Beverly Hills. The Southwest is the part of the West that I know best because of having made a great number of trips there. The Southwest is bordered on the south by Mexico, on the east by the Rockies, on the north by the end of the desert, and on the west by the California coastal plain, which is east of the Sierra Nevada. It consists of Southern California, Arizona, western New Mexico and Utah, Nevada, and Southwestern Oregon. Basically, it is the territory that the United States took from Mexico in the Mexican-American war. It is an extremely dry territory, full of canyons, mesas, and mountains, and in many ways inhospitable to man. Civilization’s existence in this area is precarious, since it depends on the resources of the Colorado River, which is fed by the snows of the Rockies. Natural aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate, and if global warming decreases the snow in the Rockies, Phoenix will go the way of so many of the Southwestern mining towns that were abandoned after the ore gave out.
    I recently made a trip to the Big Bend National Park in Texas and saw how the activities of man had permanently destroyed an area. The Big Bend area borders on the Rio Grande and had enough water to be reasonably hospitable to cattle ranching, which dominated in the 19th century (along with mining). Unfortunately, the cattle were not fenced in but left to graze in the choicest areas. These areas became over-grazed and could no longer support cattle because the vegetation got chopped down too low. Man’s ingenious solution for this was to replace cattle with sheep and goats, who would manage to eat the plants down to their roots. Once all the plants were eaten, the soil eroded and was washed into the river. As a result the land is practically useless; one needs 100 square acres to graze one cow. Of course, man’s loss is the animal’s gain. Today, the bear and the mountain lion have returned after having been exterminated. Civilization is not guaranteed. Or looking at it another way, as the Kingston Trio sang, “What nature doesn’t do to us / Will be done by our fellow man.”
    The Big Bend area is very remote and particularly hard to reach from the Mexican side. For this reason, it is not an area that either illegal immigrants or drug smugglers cross. The Rio Grande is very shallow in this area (because large portions of the water are drawn off in El Paso), and one can wade across in a number of spots. Far from constituting a boundary, it unites the inhabitants of both sides who regularly cross (illegally) to see relatives and neighbors on the other side (and then return to their own side) without hindrance from the Border Patrol, which has learned to accept local customs that don’t interfere in reality with America’s immigration laws. Although much of the park is on the desert floor, it does include the Chisos Mountains, whose highest peaks are almost 8,000 feet high.
    A part of the Southwest that I find particularly interesting is Indian country, which consists primarily of the Northeastern corner of Arizona, the Northwestern corner of New Mexico, and the Southwestern corner of Colorado. Most of this area is the home of the Navajo Nation, the biggest Native American tribe in the United States. (This is Tony Hillerman and James Doss country.)

Tsegi Overlook, Navajo National Monument
    The Navajos were clearly invaders in this area; they would raid both Spanish/Mexican settlements and Pueblo settlements alike. The center of Navajo civilization was the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, which had a river going through it, with very arable plains on either side. The canyon is at least 20 miles long. It was this valley that Kit Carson and the U.S. Army made a wasteland in 1864, destroying orchards that had taken generations to grow. There are a number of ancient Indian petroglyphs on the cliffs next to it. The Navajos and the Hopis do not want pictures taken of them because of their religious beliefs, so very few pictures of them are available, and you can’t take photographs of hogans (Navajo homes) or other things in the area without inciting a minor riot.
Petroglyph on Prophecy Rock
near Mishongnovi, AZ
    The Hopis believe similarly, so the only pictures of the Hopis (whose reservation is within the Navajo Nation) are those take in the 1930’s by some government photographers. The Navajos are generally disliked by whites who live in Flagstaff to the west, who see them as slovenly and lazy. Certainly, most of the ones on the reservation live on government dole and from the sale of cheap knick-knacks to tourists. Anyone who wants to buy good Indian rugs or jewelry needs to go to the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe or the headquarters of the Navajo Nation near the Arizona-New Mexico border, where one can get genuine handcrafted jewelry and rugs, albeit at high prices.
    Another interesting thing about the Southwest is the Spanish/Mexican influence. Although today we tend to think of the current border between Mexico and the United Sates as generally marking the line of penetration of the Spanish into North America, the fact of the matter is that the Spanish moved up the Rio Grande from El Paso going north past Albuquerque and Santa Fe. For a long time New Mexico was the most Hispanic state in the U.S. (and a reliably blue state, politically). I saw an attempt at historical revisionism in Santa Fe, where a monument to the soldiers who fought off rebels (in the Civil War, the Confederates invaded New Mexico and fought several battles there) and savages had been defaced to remove the “offensive language.” Of course, we have our own Yale University as a specialist in historic revisionism [where Calhoun College is being renamed, effective July 1]. It reminds me of the good old days, when the Russians would regularly revise pictures of the Politburo to remove the images of those who had fallen in disgrace.

   Outside Santa Fe, in Taos, is the famous Taos Pueblo, which the UN has characterized as the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Actually, it is one of the world’s biggest tourist traps, where you are charged to enter, to take photos, and to have a tour. Almost all of the “inhabitants” commute to the Pueblo, where they open their shops during working hours. Only a handful of families, if that, actually live there without running water and plumbing. The Pueblos once revolted against the Spanish and threw off the Spanish yoke for a dozen years but were ultimately reconquered. They became part of a combined Spanish/Indian culture that attracted many Americans, including Kit Carson, who settled in Taos before the Mexican-American war.

[Tomorrow: The Mountains]

Copyright © 2017 by James T. Carney

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