Historical monuments are much like a snapshot of history viewed through the lens of the victorious. The recent destruction of Santa Fe’s obelisk, which was dedicated in the city’s central Plaza in 1868, is a case in point. Originally erected to honor Union soldiers in our country’s Civil War, the monument later added a plaque paying tribute to soldiers who killed Native Americans in military campaigns. The plaque referred to the “heroes who died in battle with savage Indians.” The word “savage” lies at the heart of the contentiousness surrounding the monument.
If something is savage, it is by definition extremely cruel and violent. So the implication of the words on the plaque equates cruelty and violence as an inherent characteristic of Native Americans. Conversely, to take actions against cruelty and violence is deemed a right and proper thing to do. If we broaden our view of the westward expansion in the United States, we encounter many acts of cruelty and violence committed by a host of actors: the military, settlers, opportunists, politicians and the Native inhabitants of the land the “white man” claimed as his own.
To expand our perspective even more, on Dec. 29, 1890, nearly 300 Lakota people — men, women and children — were massacred by the United States Army near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. One account describes the massacre beginning when a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, claiming “he had paid a lot for it.” It’s quite apparent who the “savages” were on that day.
I first saw Santa Fe’s obelisk in the fall of 1978. I chose Santa Fe as my home after living most of my life in Philadelphia and Europe. I knew virtually nothing about the American Southwest or its history. At the time of my arrival, the word “savage” had not been chiseled off the plaque. I viewed the monument as a historical anachronism, a relic of times past. I also wondered how Native Americans viewed this rectangular stone pillar, with its incendiary message directed toward an “uncivilized,” hostile culture.
In retrospect, rather than being destroyed, Santa Fe’s obelisk would have garnered enhanced value in a museum, surrounded by other objects documenting the ethnocentric actions of one race or culture to subjugate or enslave another. More than ever, we need to be reminded of the ongoing cruelty that mankind inflicts on its own specie for purely selfish purposes. While the destruction of the monument was a lawless act, it has brought into focus the systemic and historical nature of racial injustice and inequality.
Now that an empty space sits in the center of our Plaza, our collective duty is to be empowered to think in new ways about how to honor the precious nature of life as opposed to aggrandizing the power of the strong over the weak.