On this, the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail, the town at the end of the trail is examining its history in an attempt toward understanding more fully how the cultures of New Mexico arrived at the present day.
For the past five days, New Mexican reporter Robert Nott has written about the coming of the Americans in their prairie schooners — the dangers of the journey, hardships along the way and the different culture awaiting the travelers. Photographer Gabriela Campos documented people and places on the modern-day trail, showing how the impact of this journey resonates today.
In Santa Fe, the inhabitants of town had to face strangers who brought money and goods, but often looked down on the local people’s customs, faith and language. For Native people along the trail, the coming of the Americans was nothing less than disaster as the U.S. pushed West.
Just as the first arrival of Europeans in the Southwest unsettled the lives of Indigenous people already here, the addition of a third culture — the Americans — created new levels of tension and accommodation even before the territory was conquered and absorbed into the United States.
Today in Santa Fe, those memories linger as present-day residents come to grips with the aftereffects of this clash of cultures.
The toppling of the Soldiers’ Monument last year — an obelisk dedicated to U.S. soldiers, veterans of Civil War battles and skirmishes against Native tribes — brought to the surface the conflicts behind Santa Fe’s tricultural myth. Native residents of the area long had lobbied for its removal, angry both at the monument as a symbol of cultural imperialism and because of racist language — scratched out in the 1970s — on a plaque at its base.
Now, only the obelisk’s base remains, and people are still fighting over its meaning and the future of the Plaza’s center.
This weekend, while the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail is being celebrated, residents of Santa Fe are beginning their own reflections on the past. The controversial yet necessary Culture, History, Art, Reconciliation and Truth — CHART — process has its first public event Sunday.
There, organizers will be introducing team members to the public, celebrating the Santa Fe River and otherwise beginning the months of work that — we trust — will lead not just to important conversations about our history but to concrete recommendations on how that story should be shared in public.
CHART is the city-established process created after the obelisk came down last year and the statue of Don Diego de Vargas was removed from Cathedral Park. It’s an attempt to bring long-simmering tensions into the open and resolve differences with respect and compassion.
Getting to the launching point has been laborious. A contract was awarded to Albuquerque-based group Artful Life in July. Since beginning work in August, the group has selected a team of facilitators from more than 150 applicants. Around $265,000 is budgeted for the process. Twenty facilitators, including Artful Life employees, are charged with “listening” to the community.
When the group made its first report to the City Council last week, Artful Life executive Valerie Martinez made clear she expects the community to lead the process.
While Martinez is correct that this needs to be a bottom-up movement, she is misguided in thinking concrete recommendations are not a necessary end goal.
A year of talking with no recommendations only will lead to further dissatisfaction among residents. This cannot be a monthslong conversation with no resolution in sight.
The need for reconciliation is great. So is the need for action. Santa Fe needs more than a box covering the base of the obelisk.
It needs a decision, too, on the fate of the Don Diego de Vargas statue moved last summer for safekeeping.
It needs progress on deciding how Santa Fe can best tell its story in public places — and not merely in the Plaza. Throughout town, it must find a way to share more fully the history of Native people, Hispanos and more recent arrivals.
It’s about how Santa Fe is changing and who determines its future. It’s about what this city aspires to be.
The process ahead must be heartfelt, respectful and designed to find solutions. What those are, of course, must come out of an honest and public exchange of various perspectives. The work begins today, in a city where cultures have collided and coexisted for centuries. Done right, Santa Fe can return to coexistence, leaving the conflict and collision in the past.