‘Hey Reb!’ is history, but what do we do about Carson City?

In the end, “Hey Reb!” was a pushover.

The statue of UNLV’s mascot, which looked more like a cousin of Yosemite Sam than a cursed Confederate holdout, was removed from campus earlier this month at a time of national demonstration over systemic racial injustice following the violent death in police custody of African American George Floyd.

I won’t re-litigate the decision to soften the obvious Confederate imagery inherent in a university nickname that includes the word “Rebels.” Nor will I remind UNLV alumni that there was a time the mascot looked more like an oddball from a Civil War reenactment than a playful caricature.

My rule on this is pretty simple: It’s never the right time to celebrate the side of the Civil War that defended slavery. Outside a museum or historic graveyard, there’s no place in the public square to honor what John Adams called “an evil of colossal magnitude.”

Hey Reb is gone, and good riddance. UNLV should have changed its mascot a generation ago – I can hear the laments of the booster club now – and acting President Marta Meana did the right thing by yanking the offending statue.

But Reb is mere child’s play compared to the Confederate monuments recently toppled in Louisville and Frankfort, Kentucky; Nashville; Decatur, Georgia; Charleston; Jacksonville; Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama; Alexandria, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh; and Washington, DC. Many of those cities have defended their historical connection to the Confederacy so well over the years that visitors would be forgiven for wondering which side won the war. Some cities are so caught up in the past that they’ve moved to enact statutes to protect the statues.

If life’s difficult for bronze Confederate generals these days, it’s no picnic for town square Spanish conquistadors, either. In New Mexico, two statues of Juan de Onate, who established the colony of New Mexico for Spain and became its first governor in 1598, were toppled. His men slaughtered 800 indigenous people at Acoma pueblo, and he was so cruel he was eventually exiled for his behavior. He was known for cutting off the feet and hands of the stubborn.

Statues honoring his role in New Mexico history have been controversial for decades, and a June 16 protest that precipitated the removal of an Onate statue in Albuquerque was punctuated by the shooting of a demonstrator. About 100 miles north in the town of Alcalde, an Onate statue managed to bite the dust without gunfire. That statue’s history includes the notable midnight amputation of Onate’s right foot by a protester with a taste for the ironic.

And don’t get me started about the future of Christopher Columbus monuments in America. Let’s just say that if you bought stock in them, it might be time to sell.

But enough of my road trip. At a time when images of conquering colonizers and Confederate ghosts are disappearing from public view, we have a genuine conundrum on our hands right here in Nevada. His name is Christopher Houston Carson, known to his friends as “Kit.” The iconic American frontiersman and wilderness guide helped John C. Fremont map much of what became Nevada and by any measure played an important role in the state’s history.

We didn’t name the state capital after a lightweight. Drive around the state and you’ll find no shortage of natural and manmade wonders named in his honor. Artist Buckeye Blake’s truly impressive statue of Carson on horseback stands outside the Capitol complex.

But he didn’t become a legend by knitting sweaters. He was a warrior for much of his life, and that includes leading violent “pacification” campaigns against the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa and Comanche tribes. He is properly vilified for his relentless march of the Navajo to the Bosque Redondo, where people suffered greatly and many died. He also married an Indian woman and spoke several native dialects.

Carson’s story is as complex as our history of conquest and colonization, but his glorified presence in Nevada at a time of national introspection poses a tougher political question.

Hey Reb was easy. Tell me, Nevada, are we ready to quit Kit?

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith