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An accurate accounting of the history of Oñate

By Donald A. Chavez Y Gilbert

Regarding reporter Megan Bennett’s story on the man who claims to have cut off the foot of the Oñate statue north of Española, it occurs to me that there is a double standard when it comes to the interpretation of many of our historic leaders. In the case of Don Juan de Oñate, I offer a more accurate accounting of history.

When non-Hispanic Europeans or Indian perpetrators against Indians are given historical accounting, they are viewed and judged from the perspective and culture of their times in context of their historic period. From their many modern tributes, monuments and statues, they are undoubtedly recognized and honored for their contributions.

However, when it comes to Hispanic European figures in our history, it is politically correct to judge from the perspective and culture of the 21st century.

As a descendent of a number of the colonizing Oñate families, as well as boasting one quarter Native American Indian ancestry, I would like to put this matter into proper perspective. First, the real history.

Shortly after arriving in New Mexico in the spring of 1598, the Indian Pueblo of Acoma invited Don Juan de Oñate to visit the Pueblo for purposes of goodwill trading and feasting. Hence, in good faith, on Dec. 4, 1599, Oñate sent his nephew Ensign Diego Nuñes de Chaves and company. The invitation was a ruse and when Diego de Chaves and the men in his military party arrived, they were ambushed and summarily slaughtered. Any reasonable person would interpret this as an act of war, and as such Oñate conquered the Acomas and sentenced them to 20 years of hard labor working for Spanish families.

In 1599, there was no written documentation of the so-called dismemberment of the 24 Indian perpetrators’ feet, except the personal journals of Oñate himself. More accurate archival resources refer to the removal of toes. In our modern Spanish language, we have no common equivalent word for “toe.” Fingers and toes are referred to as “dedos del pie,” fingers of the foot, or “toes,” and “dedos de la mano,” fingers of the hand.” Sixteenth century Spanish reference to toes is translated as “las puntas del pie,” the “ends” or “points” of the foot, i.e., the toes. In Onate’s personal journal, he specifically refers to the punishment of the Acoma warriors to cutting off “las puntas del pie.” These Indian men would have been of little practical use as laborers if they were carrying firewood or hauling water missing an entire foot, walking on a stump. Understandably, hyperbole took over in the Indian oral telling of the story from one generation to the next.

As Indian wars go, there is no shortage of atrocities against Indians and plenty of blame to go around. For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, Indians massacred each other, and stole women and children. Aztec king Montezuma ceremonially and regularly sacrificed 5,000 of his neighboring Indian tribal members per day for four days in a row. Small wonder neighboring tribes were happy to recruit Don Hernando Cortez to help them put a stop to Montezuma. Cortez could not have accomplished that feat against tens of thousands of Aztecs with a mere handful of mounted Spanish soldiers.

The negative narrative against Spanish colonists like Oñate does not include other European abusers. Why? Perhaps not “PC?” George Washington, “father of our nation,” killed many Indians by destroying Indian crops to starve out whole Native American villages. Englishman Lord Jeffery Amherst ordered the extermination of Indians in the Pontiac war in 1763 by the use of germ warfare (smallpox). The brutal amputation of native lands from its people – or as the government put it, “Indian removal” – was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, President Andrew Jackson actually implemented his Indian removal policy. The Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the “Trail of Tears” because of its devastating effects. Of the 15,000 Cherokees forced on the march, over 4,000 died from hunger, disease and exhaustion.

The list goes on and on, without so much as a whimper about memorials and monuments to these European Indian fighters.

I have observed universally the adorning of cowboy attire on Indian bodies every day of the week. The only exceptions were for certain traditional ceremonies specific to each tribe where animal skins and feathers were worn in the traditional Indian style.

What I can say with 100 percent certainty is that whatever happens to the Oñate monument, so objectionable to certain Indians, is of little importance in light of the great Spanish culture of the Western Cowboy he contributed to these United States of America, and the huge message of acceptance, love and veneration Oñate and his party are paid every day by millions of Indians and everyone else in the world who has ever put on a cowboy hat, boots or anything of a Western ranching nature.

In closing, I want to ask the tellers of history to share the true history rather than distorting history in order to drive a punitive, inaccurate narrative. For how will we learn if not from the mistakes and successes history has to teach?

Chavez runs the Terra Patre Farm in Belen, on part of the Belen Grant of 1742.