Mayor Alan Webber said Wednesday he plans to call for the removal of three controversial monuments in Santa Fe, including an obelisk in the heart of downtown that will be at the center of a rally Thursday led by indigenous activists.
The mayor also announced plans to form a commission that will evaluate every statue and monument in the city and help determine their fate — a move former Mayor Javier Gonzales started but that hadn’t gained traction until now. In addition, Webber said he planned to sign an emergency proclamation Wednesday “addressing institutional racism,” which “recognizes that we are taking action both to address the moral truth of the moment and also the legal truth of the moment.”
The city declined to provide a copy of the proclamation.
Webber said during a webcast on Facebook that the time had come for Santa Fe to “step up.”
“My intention as mayor is to call for the obelisk located in the Santa Fe Plaza to come down, to call for the Kit Carson obelisk located in front of the Santa Fe courthouse to come down and to remove the [statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from Cathedral Park], and to put it perhaps in a safe place while we look for its proper home,” Webber said.
“My belief is that we must take these steps now because they are the right thing to do,” he added. “It is a moment of moral truth, and we’ve been called to do it by our Native American colleagues, friends and family members, and it is long overdue.”
The mayor made the announcement on the eve of a protest over the obelisk in the middle of the Plaza. The obelisk was dedicated in part to the “heroes” who died in battle with “savage Indians,” according to an inscription on the war monument, which was erected more than 150 years ago.
The latest push to remove the obelisk is not the first in the city’s storied history — and another attempt could prove challenging, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler wrote in a message.
“When the 1973 City Council unanimously voted to remove the obelisk from the Plaza, it learned they had no say in the matter without serious penalty of losing federal money if the Plaza monument was removed,” she wrote, adding the historic downtown square is a National Historic Landmark and on the State Register of Cultural Properties.
“No changes are possible without federal and state legislation. That 1973 City Council rescinded their vote,” wrote Vigil Coppler, a former First Judicial District Court clerk of the court who based her research on a former District Court judge’s writings.
The obelisk has been a long-running source of controversy that recently reignited amid escalating tensions across different parts of the country over certain historic monuments.
In the 1970s, an unidentified man wearing overalls climbed into the Plaza obelisk and chiseled the word “savage” away. The city at some point installed a plaque stating “monument texts reflect the character of the times in which they are written and the temper of those who wrote them” and that “attitudes change and prejudices hopefully dissolve.”
Natives consider the monument racist and say it celebrates violence.
The Santa Fe-based Three Sisters Collective, which organized Thursday’s protest, said on social media the demonstration would instead be a celebration.
“Long story short, all three of our demands are being met: obelisks and statue are coming down,” the organization wrote on its Instagram account.
Webber said he planned to attend the “peaceful protest” and encouraged almost everyone to attend.
“The one group that I do not invite to be there are highly armed, self-proclaimed vigilante groups,” he said, referring to organizations such as the New Mexico Civil Guard, which had attended a protest recently in Santa Fe. “That group is not welcome in Santa Fe. That group should not bring the violence and the confrontational mindset they carry with them to a peaceful protest.”
Before the mayor announced his intent to call for the removal of the three monuments, Three Sisters Collective had sent an open letter to Webber and the City Council demanding the removal of what it called “three racist and white supremacist statues that celebrate oppressors who led genocide and systemic oppression on the Indigenous Peoples of this region, and in particular, on the Pueblo People.”
Not long after the mayor ended his webcast, the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department issued statements on behalf of its Cabinet secretary and two pueblo governors lauding Webber’s decision.
“As we are seeing throughout the state and across the world, people of good conscience are coming together to change how we think about powerful symbols like statues,” Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo said in a statement. “It is no longer enough to present just one version of history. We owe it to all those who lived it to portray the full complexity of our shared past.”
Tesuque Pueblo Gov. Robert A. Mora Sr. said the obelisk on the Plaza sits on land originally belonging to the tribe and “has long been an affront to our people and history.”
“Mayor Webber’s actions continue the better course, set forth in the Entrada dialogue, toward truth and reconciliation,” Mora said in his statement, referring to a successful effort to end a controversial dramatization known as the Entrada, which Native Americans and others called revisionist history and a celebration of genocide.
The Entrada, which had been performed on the Plaza each year during the Fiesta de Santa Fe, depicted the “peaceful” reentry of de Vargas into Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
The pageant, which had sparked raucous protests that grew bigger each passing year, was replaced with a celebration of peace and reconciliation that Webber helped broker two years ago.
“My intention is to move past those monuments, to convene the group that helped two years ago with a historic proclamation that was really more than any city in America had achieved toward recognizing the mutual relationships and dependence that we have on each other,” Webber said Wednesday. “That proclamation and the courage of [Los Caballeros de Vargas, which put on the Entrada] and the Fiesta Council turned a page in Santa Fe and turned a page in our history.
“Now we have to write the next pages, and those pages will come when we establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission composed of a broad cross section of people from Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico to look into each others’ hearts, into our past and to create the future we want our children and our grandchildren to live in,” he added.
Webber called the formation of such a commission “logical” and “overdue.”
“That commission will be asked to look at all of those statues, all of those monuments, all of those works of art and really evaluate them. Do they cause pain? Do they tell an honest version of history? Do they tell everyone’s version of history or only the victors’ version of history?” he said.
“Where do each of those pieces belong? Maybe they belong in a museum. Maybe they belong in a particular collection that tells the story of Northern New Mexico history. Maybe they’ll belong exactly where they are with a new plaque or a new explanation to go into the context of why they’re there and what the story is that they tell,” he added. “But simply leaving things as they are are not an option.”
Webber started his webcast by quoting former President Abraham Lincoln, who said “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” — a quote that Webber repeated later in his address.
Native American activist Elena Ortiz, who started an online petition calling for the removal of the de Vargas statue from Cathedral Park, said she was glad Webber announced his decision to call for its removal. But she said it was ironic that Webber quoted Lincoln during his webcast.
“Abraham Lincoln was Kit Carson’s commander when he was ordered to round up the Navajos right before the Long Walk,” she said.