An obelisk that became the center of controversy in downtown Santa Fe has become the center of a community art project.
People sprawled across the Plaza on Wednesday to write poems and draw pictures to express their thoughts on the monument, which was erected some 150 years ago in dedication to Union soldiers and other military personnel. The project, titled Culture Connects: Behind the Masks — Uncovering the Values We Carry Forward, aims to “be a safe space for the community to express themselves,” said Rod Lambert, assistant director of the city’s Arts and Culture Department.
“This is a way to bring some happiness and processing for the community,” he said.
To many Native people in New Mexico, the obelisk is a symbol of violence and discrimination. An inscription in the stone once read that it was meant to celebrate “heroes” who defeated “savage Indians” — a phrase that has since been scratched out.
The city has announced plans to remove the monument. However, the project was suspended last month over safety concerns.
Culture Connects, Lambert said, is the city’s effort to do something positive with the landmark. Last week, 8-foot-tall plywood was put up around the monument and painted with primer. A poem from the Santa Fe Arts Commission was then glued to one wall.
Thandiwe Seagraves, 19, of Santa Fe said she wanted her piece to remind the community of its Native roots. On a print of the Plaza, Seagraves, wrote: “O’gha Po’oge, Know Where You Stand,” referring to the Tewa name for Santa Fe, and drew a heart on fire above the downtown scene.
“I’m trying to draw what I feel like is … really happening here at the Plaza,” Seagraves said. “I consider this the heart of the city, but I think the obelisk is like this stab wound through the heart.”
Ursula Aldrich of the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota who now lives in Santa Fe, chose to write a poem focused on violence against Native women. She said she hopes her words encourage all women “to take our stand” against the patriarchy.
The first line of the poem reads: “The blood of my people stained the land. Indigenous women’s struggles go hand in hand.”
The project will be on display until the end of July, if not longer, Lambert said, “depending on what happens with the monument itself.” He said there will likely be at least two more sessions like Wednesday’s, in which people can contribute art pieces on the spot, although dates are not yet scheduled.
In the meantime, Lambert encouraged people to create pieces for the project at home and drop them off at any of the three public libraries during curbside pickup hours, where there are designated drop boxes for the project.