Monuments to colonialism and conquest are crumbling.
From Confederate tributes across the nation to statues of slave traders in Great Britain or of King Leopold II in Belgium, tributes to traitors and tyrants are being removed by governments or brought down by determined protesters.
And here in New Mexico, statues of conquistadors Don Juan de Oñate and Don Diego de Vargas have been removed for safekeeping. Meanwhile, officials are discussing how to deal with stone monuments on the Plaza and by the federal courthouse that use racist language of yesteryear and honor deeds we now decry.
It has happening so fast, all part of the wave of outrage across the globe because of the killing of one Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minneapolis last month.
Black lives matter. Because of that movement, there’s growing attention to lives of Natives and Hispanos in the Southwest, two peoples who have coexisted — in peace and at war — for more than 400 years in our corner of the world.
Now we must have a reckoning of this shared and often painful history.
Are statues of bronze or stones chiseled with the word “savage” — even if it has been scratched out — the most important topic in this moment of humans pushing back against racism? We would say no. The evil of racism, as this coronavirus pandemic makes clear, is rooted deep in our society.
The pandemic has affected Black and Native Americans more fiercely than other groups, with the Navajo Nation reeling from its effects. That’s because of systemic issues with access to health care, nutritious food, spacious housing and, on the reservation, such basics as running water and electricity. Without the means to provide a decent living, people suffer — whether during a pandemic or dealing with struggles of daily life.
So why talk about statues dedicated to people who have been dead and buried for hundreds of years, or worry about whether Kit Carson — “he led the way” — was a man of his time or an Indian killer undeserving of tribute? Why does it matter that an obelisk on our Plaza celebrates the victors of Civil War battles (not a problem) and those heroes who fought the “savage” Indians (definitely a problem)?
Does it matter?
It matters because the history of monuments and statues reveals not the truth about the past, but a narrative formed by those who want to manipulate history, whether of the glorious Confederacy or of noble conquerors.
The obelisk, with its tribute to the victors of the Indian wars — which, make no mistake, included numerous bloody encounters — contains no room for nuance, for the reality that Natives were defending their homes from invading white settlers and the Army. Their defeat was bitter and lasting, with losses echoing through the decades and centuries since, just as Oñate’s atrocities at Acoma Pueblo and the battles of the Pueblo Revolt and reconquest reverberate in our society today.
It is time for a reckoning.
Last week, members of the Three Sisters Collective, Red Nation and NDN Collective celebrated news from the city of Santa Fe that the de Vargas statue at Cathedral Park was gone and the two stone monuments from the Plaza and Federal Place would be removed. In fact, an attempt to take down the obelisk during the week faltered — too heavy and too rooted in place.
The promise of Mayor Alan Webber is that discussions will be held to decide how our community should best honor this shared history. The de Vargas statue would be a wonderful addition to the Spanish Colonial Arts museum or the New Mexico History Museum. We doubt the statue will return to Cathedral Park, where candles are burning now, a descanso in his honor. Some people want him there, but with a statue of Pueblo Revolt leader Po’Pay as part of a more complete history.
We can remove tributes that have caused pain, but also add to the record already on display. Under Mayor Javier Gonzales, a list of monuments all over town was compiled; start there and see what other dimensions of our culture we want to honor, and how.
Consider, too, that many in town are livid over what they see to be an arbitrary decision to remove their history and remake the Plaza. The obelisk has stood since the late 1860s, after all. Their voices must be heard, as should the concerns of Hispanic people who believe their history is being erased in their town.
With the obelisk secure for the moment because of its size and weight, we recommend a slight pause. Cover the offensive words, perhaps with a temporary plaque or with some sort of wrapping — ask Native artists for ideas.
Convene the mayor’s proposed truth and reconciliation commission with input from many communities, many perspectives and work through these issues. Find a better way to share a more complete history. One idea we have seen that has appeal is to keep the obelisk, cover the offensive words permanently and add context — that would avoid issues with changing a National Historic Landmark, which the Plaza is, and maintain the appearance of the city’s heart.
After a joyous and peaceful gathering to celebrate the city’s commitment to remove certain monuments and statues, the activists who led the charge and the hundreds who supported made handprints in red to be saved on a banner. After the event, a vandal splattered the obelisk and left a handprint, all in red, giving it a bloody appearance. The paint will fade, but our shared bloodstained past is with us now and forever. The question is, how best to honor that past and create a more peaceful and just coexistence in our present. If we seek reconciliation, our community will be stronger and more united.
That’s why monuments matter. It is time for a reckoning.