SANTA FE, N.M. — 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.