The Mystery: Who Cut Off Oñate’s Missing Right Foot?

Is a former IAIA Student Involved?


A 20-year-old mystery would be solved in mid-September when a mysterious figure approached famed Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre at La Choza restaurant in Santa Fe, handing him a piece of paper before walking away. Eyre was about to dig into his bowl of posole, when he was handed the scrap piece of paper. The paper said only “I have a story to tell,” with a phone number attached, according to Eyre.

Eyre called the number, and the voice on the other end gave an answer to a 20-year-old question: Who cut off the right foot of the statue of Don Juan de Oñate?

The Big Reveal

On Dec 29, 1997, an unknown individual and his accomplice(s) went up to the statue of Onate, located just north of Espanola, and sawed off the right foot of the conquistador, and sent a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican detailing why they did it. The foot thief stated that he and his accomplice(s) were in solidarity with the people of Acoma Pueblo.

Historic records state that Juan de Oñate, a conquistador who took control of the village, punished the people of Acoma Pueblo, ordering the right foot cut off of at least 24 men in the Pueblo, and oversaw the killing of 800 Pueblo people.

“He looked native New Mexican, rural, part-Native, pretty normal,” Eyre said in a recent interview. He arranged to meet with the unidentified man shortly after he received the note. He, alongside New York Times writer, Simon Romero, trekked into a clearing of trees around twilight.

The individual came forward, wearing sunglasses, a floppy fishing hat, and a keffiyeh head covering, as Romero reported in a New York Times article. He revealed himself and the identity of his accomplice only to Romero and Eyre.

He was carrying a rucksack, and in it, his act of resistance, Onate’s bronze right foot. complete with stirrup and spur, according to Romero.

“When I saw the 20-pound foot, I knew without a doubt that it was authentic,”Eyre said. “You just can’t deny it, and you can’t replicate something like that.”

Eyre was asked not to identify the man for risk of legal action, but the mystery still remains to everyone else.

An Artist in Hiding

According to the foot thief, he had a single accomplice who was also native New Mexican.

The man said that he melted down a portion of the bronze foot to make medallions for pueblo leaders, but plans to keep the spur, Romero reported.

This piece of information is indicative of an artist’s work. So, is the thief a jeweler? A welder? And could he have been a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts?

Eyre is famous for directing movies such as “Smoke Signals” and “Skins,” and is in the process of making another movie he calls “Statues Between Us,” in which he plans to feature the foot thief. The film centers around the vandalism of statues around the country.

The foot thief also said in an interview with Romero that his motivation for coming forward now was the controversy surrounding the vandalism, and defacement of the statues.

“It’s just a continuation of my interest in this topic, and I think he knew that when he approached me,” Eyre said of the man. “I’m really excited to tell this story.”

No response to email requests to speak with Simon Romero was received.

So who is the figure who came in the night and cut off the foot? Who is his accomplice?

Here’s what we know:

  • He’s a native New Mexican with Iroquois ancestry.
  • He had a single accomplice.
  • The foot was cut off cleanly, indicating that he had access to the necessary tools needed to perform the deed.
  • He’s only part-Native.
  • He lives in northern New Mexico.
  • He stated that he melted down a portion of the foot to make medallions, indicating that he is an artist.
  • He wore a keffiyeh head covering.
  • He’s tall, fair skinned, and is not overweight.
  • He looked rural.
  • He didn’t stand out at all.

More Questions than Answers

Given these facts, it is clear that this man does not wish to be identified. So could this individual have been a student at IAIA?

Eyre was asked his thoughts on the speculation, but did not respond.

The thief clearly knows how to work with precious metals. What about his accomplice?

There are still a lot of unanswered questions to which only Simon Romero and Chris Eyre have the answers. For now, the mystery remains just that, a mystery.


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