Chris Eyre still has the piece of scratch paper handed to him at Santa Fe’s La Choza restaurant in the spring. All it said was “I have a story to tell you” and a phone number.
The filmmaker, acclaimed for his contemporary Native American films “Smoke Signals” and “Skins,” and for turning two Tony Hillerman novels into PBS mysteries, said tips like that usually turn out to be duds, like sightings of bigfoot or Elvis. But Eyre was curious enough to call the next day.
The man on the other end of the line began talking about the controversial equestrian statue of conquistador Don Juan de Oñate at Alcalde, north of Española. Nearly 20 years earlier, sometime around New Year’s Day 1998, the right foot of the bronze statue was removed in the middle of the night to make a statement about Oñate’s treatment of Pueblo people. The political vandalism was discovered after a typed note sent to the Journal North said the 12-foot statue’s foot had been taken by an anonymous group “on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo.”
In 1598, historical accounts say, Oñate ordered the right feet of Acoma Pueblo men amputated after Oñate’s forces subdued the pueblo in a battle in which Spaniards were killed.
When Eyre and colleague Joely Proudfit met the mystery man the same day of that first phone call, the man pulled a duffel bag out of the back of his truck. According to Eyre, inside the bag and wrapped in black velveteen fabric was a bronze foot now patinated – layered in the natural greenish covering that forms over time on stone or metals that, for Eyre, provides evidence of the unusual object’s age.
Eyre, interviewed by the Journal at his office in Santa Fe, used his hands to display the foot’s size. With the boot’s spur included, he said, it was about two feet long.
Upon seeing the booted foot, Eyre recalled, his and Proudfit’s mouths “dropped open.”
“When I looked at it, I said, ‘I’m no expert, but I think that’s the real thing,’ ” Eyre said, adding that he was later told they were the first to see the foot in nearly two decades.
Eyre, former chairman of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design film department, said he now keeps the man’s scratch paper note in a folder, part of the documentation for a movie – to include both dramatization and real-life interviews – that he’s now shooting and inspired by the Oñate foot theft. Proudfit and Apache artist Lonnie Anderson are executive producers.
The film is about 40 percent shot. The filmmakers are seeking additional funding for the movie titled “Statues Between U.S.” that they hope to finish shooting by next summer.
The first half of the film will tell the story of the foot’s removal, including an interview with the man who says he did it, a dramatization of the act and historical context to show why it happened. The second half of the film will go deeper into the movie’s main message: taking a critical eye to cultural symbols in the U.S.
In a partial transcript of an interview provided by Eyre, the foot man said he and another person who was with him didn’t remove Oñate’s appendage to cause “friction or turmoil.” He said they wanted to educate people about the statue’s being a one-sided tribute to New Mexico’s Spanish colonization.
He also noted that the U.S. Post Office had plans at that time to possibly issue an Oñate stamp – an unsuccessful effort spearheaded by the late U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico.
“We couldn’t allow that to happen; there needs to be two sides to everything,” he said in the Eyre interview. “So we decided there was a reason to do this.”
He told filmmakers the act still “reverberates” today, 20 years later.
In September, in fact, one of the Oñate statue’s feet was vandalized again, covered in red paint – this time it was the left foot – and a wall nearby was tagged with references to 1680’s Pueblo Revolt that pushed the Spanish out of what is now northern New Mexico. The foot-painting took place on the same day as this year’s Entrada pageant in Santa Fe, commemorating the Spanish re-occupation the city in 1692.
The Journal North was not granted an in-person or phone interview with the man said to have Oñate’s missing foot. Eyre said that the man is New Mexican and of Iroquois descent rather than from one of New Mexico’s tribes.
The Journal North in addition did not receive answers to emailed questions that were supposed to be delivered to the foot man through Eyre, who also did not provide images of the cut-off statue foot. The questions included what had been done with the bronze foot over the last two decades and whether the man was among those who sent the anonymous messages to the Journal North back in January 1998 taking credit for the foot removal.
Statues ‘become us’
Eyre, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, says that symbols like commemorative statues eventually “become us,” which means they require ongoing evaluation of what they represent to all cultures and races.
“If you’re going to put up these statues and symbols we’re supposed to honor and tell our children to blindly honor, we should at least get both sides of the story, especially in a moving, living culture like America,” said Eyre.
Today’s nationwide dialogue over historical statues – most notably those of Confederate leaders – was intensified after August’s Charlottesville, Va., protests involving a statue of Robert E. Lee in which one person was killed. “Statues Between U.S.” was put in motion several months prior to that.
Proudfit, department chair of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos and director of the California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center, said it’s timely to ask people to reflect on who or what Americans choose to publicly idolize and possibly bring healing to communities not always heard.
She noted that Oñate was tried and found guilty by his own people of cruelty because of his treatment of native people.
“The facts were available (when the statue was erected in 1992 with state funding), so why people would make a decision to elevate this individual to a prominent position and immortalize him through a metal statue is something we need to scratch are heads at and say why him, why then and what do we do now,” she said.
But Thomas Romero, executive director of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area – whose offices are now housed in the Oñate center where the equestrian statue is located – told the Journal that he doesn’t know if enough scholarly research has been done to confirm whether the Acoma Pueblo foot amputations attributed to Oñate indeed happened as described, although there’s been little if any debate about the historical accounts in New Mexico.
Romero said his organization is a neutral party that wants to incite multi-sided dialogue over what the statue represents to locals. He said he doesn’t know how a film like the one Eyre is working on will impact that conversation.
“When you take on an issue and want to present it, you’ll have people lining up on many different sides,” he said. “I’m not sure what that would do.”
Eyre said he’s not saying to take statues down or leave them up, but wants to inspire people to question what they see.
Statute of limitations
The Oñate statue’s missing bronze foot was quickly replaced, costing Rio Arriba County about $40,000, said current Sheriff’s Office Capt. Randy Sanches.
But whoever cut the foot off doesn’t have to worry about criminal charges today, Sanches said. Any felony counts from the 1997 vandalism had a five-year statute of limitations, he said.
“Criminally, we couldn’t charge him, and I don’t believe civilly we have a leg to stand on, either,” said Sanches.
Eyre says there’s a difference between damaging property and what his foot man did, which was moving the conversation forward.
“There’s a guy who did something,” he said. “Whether you agree or disagree, the conversation is still being had, and it’s more relevant today than it was 20 years ago when he did it. He did something 20 years ago that is actually still relevant today.
“In my field, they call that art. It’s the highest compliment, because its an ongoing process, an ongoing constant.”