By Teklu Hogan
On October 12, 2020, at the fifth annual Indigenous People’s Day in New Mexico, a crowd of about 50 occupied the historic Santa Fe Plaza in peaceful protest. Participants sang traditional songs, conversed with bystanders, and held signs that brought attention to a diverse array of issues affecting Indigenous people both around the continent and throughout the state. The protest served as a point of convergence for those concerned with Indigenous land rights, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), and the cultural and historical erasure of Indigenous people in New Mexico.
At the center of the plaza stood a 33-foot obelisk, installed 153 years ago. The inscription once read, “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.” Sometime in the 1970s, the word “savage” was chiseled away. Before the monument was pulled down, its inscription had been a source of local controversy.
Four months prior to Indigenous People’s Day, Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber announced his intention to remove the obelisk, stating that the action was “long overdue.” He promised the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to handle the removal, but that committee never materialized. On October 12, after hours of protest, activists scaled the monument, wrapped it in chains, and pulled it down by hand. The crowd cheered. Some onlookers jeered. Others walked by.
Santa Fe police prioritized nonviolence as a directive and dispatched eight officers to protect the monument within a metal barricade and a temporary fence. As fervor grew, one protester grabbed a piece of the fencing and threw it at the obelisk. When an officer attempted to arrest the protester, the crowd swarmed the officer and freed the protester. Police were then given an order to leave the plaza and regroup at a nearby fire station. They did not return, and the obelisk fell shortly thereafter.
To some, the toppling of the obelisk was an obvious social justice victory that added Santa Fe to an ever-growing list of cities across the country that have removed public art linked to colonization, slavery, and genocide. But if justice has been served, why, then, does it feel as though the city is still holding its breath?
In 1598, Juan de Oñate pushed north from Mexico with 500 Spanish colonizers, breaching the territory of several Indigenous tribes and communities. The Spaniards would spend nearly 200 years attempting to establish stable colonial rule in the territory. A key element of their strategy capitalized on preexisting animosities between Indigenous people in the region.
Dr. Porter Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), associate academic dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts, says that Native people in the area existed “in a very complex set of relationships that included trading and raiding, counter-raiding, and captive-taking.” Once the Spanish arrived, “We not only participated in those events as strategies for surviving colonization,” he notes, “but also because it was part of our existing frameworks of conflict.”
The Spanish would eventually cede the territory they took from the Pueblos to the United States, and although New Mexico didn’t become a U.S. state until 1912, the obelisk was constructed in 1868.
Swentzell says the iconic Santa Fe Plaza was created as a highly visible symbol of American culture’s new dominance in the Southwest. “There was two things that Americans disliked about New Mexico—it was full of Mexicans and it was full of Catholics,” he says. Swentzell adds that those lobbying for New Mexico statehood tried to erase its previous image in the minds of potential settlers by destroying Spanish-American adobe architecture and replacing it with Victorian edifices, planting grasses and trees that had no place in the desert, and establishing military grounds in the plaza that included an often-used bandstand and the obelisk memorializing the Civil War. “The Santa Fe Plaza looks a lot like a military parade ground,” Swentzell says, “because it was.”
Despite the brutal history, very little public comment has been offered by local Pueblo communities regarding the obelisk. While the Governors of Tesuque Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo co-signed a statement in June 2020 that applauded Mayor Webber’s original intent to remove various monuments around the state, once the obelisk was illegally pulled down, Tesuque Pueblo quickly issued an official statement of noninvolvement, and other Pueblos have refrained from any official comment.
But this doesn’t mean that Pueblo citizens don’t have their own thoughts about the obelisk and all that it has come to represent. Roxanne Swentzell–Porter Swentzell’s mother–is a lifelong resident of Santa Clara Pueblo, a world-renowned sculptor, and the founder of the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating local residents about sustainable and ecologically responsible lifestyle practices. She says that when it comes to the obelisk, it’s important to acknowledge everyone’s history and experience. “There is a lot of healing that needs to happen, but it’s not going to happen just by ignoring it,” she says.
“I would love for Navajos to be asking the Pueblos, ‘Why did you hate us so much?’ and asking the Navajos, ‘Why did you hate us so much?’” she continues. “Ask the Hispanic people, the Spanish people that had come in, ‘Why were you doing what you were doing?’” Communities must listen to one another until everyone can acknowledge the trauma in New Mexico’s history and tell one another they are sorry. “Because,” she says, “I think we are all waiting for an apology.”
She says that avoiding the conflicts’ intricacies or replacing the obelisk with a flag would do little. “How are we going to go forward into the world with this kind of history lingering?” she asks. “If we don’t find a place of forgiveness … we’re just gonna keep fighting.”
The idea of talking this issue out is shared by others, but movement in that direction has been mired in bureaucracy. After the obelisk fell, Mayor Webber proposed a 22-member committee to hear out public opinion and design a course of action for the plaza’s future. But that committee was dismantled following city councilors’ concerns that Mayor Webber had too much control over who would sit on its board. Now the city council has vowed to receive public opinion directly. The mayor’s office and the city council did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
With time and mutual acknowledgment, the plaza might become a symbol of unity, but, as Roxanne Swentzell points out, it doesn’t seem likely until everyone is heard.
“It seems vital to have these conversations openly,” she says. “There really needs to be an intent to learn and to hear and to be heard.”
Teklu Hogan was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. They are of Tahltan, Deg Hit-an, and Polish descent.