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Santa Fe’s ‘lightning rod’ draws more controversy

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

An estimated 400 people attended a rally Thursday in support of removing the obelisk that stands at the center of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Three Sisters Collective, a group that advocates for the rights of Native Americans, on Thursday held what was initially intended to be a demonstration demanding the removal of the obelisk that stands at the center of the Plaza.

History is written by the victors, it’s said, and while the obelisk was erected as a “soldiers’ monument” after the Civil War, the spire has stood for a century and a half as a reminder of the violence and suffering brought upon Native Americans.

The original inscription recognized Union soldiers who fought Civil War battles, but also those who died fighting “savage” Indians. That term was engraved in the marble at the base of the monument until 1974 when a man took a chisel and removed the offensive word.

But Mayor Alan Webber turned Thursday’s event into a celebration on the eve of the rally when he announced that he would “call for” three of the city’s monuments to be removed, including the obelisk that has served as the Plaza’s centerpiece since 1868.

Webber also called for the removal of a statue of Don Diego de Vargas, the conquistador who led the Spanish resettlement of Santa Fe 12 years after the Europeans were driven out by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, that stood in Cathedral Park until its removal on the morning of Thursday’s demonstration/celebration. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission will recommend what happens to it next.

The mayor also called for the removal of another obelisk just blocks from the Plaza honoring Kit Carson, the frontiersman who forcefully led thousands of Navajos from the Four Corners to Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico on “The Long Walk” in 1864.

The mayor formalized his call to have the monuments removed with an emergency proclamation, but he’s gotten push-back from members of the public and City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, who said that by unilaterally removing monuments, the mayor is sidestepping the democratic process.

“Without opportunity for the public and City Council to weigh in and explore remedies, the mayor has created another controversy,” she said in a statement to the Journal last week.

Who actually has the authority to remove the monuments is unclear.

The mayor’s proclamation says only that the city attorney and city manager “shall work with city staff to begin the legal processes for removal of the Park Plaza obelisk.”

As for the Kit Carson monument, the city attorney and manger are to contact the “proper authorities with jurisdiction.”

City Attorney Erin McSherry said Friday that she and City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill have begun that process.

“I spoke with a representative from the General Services Administration of the federal government regarding the Kit Carson Obelisk today, and she and I are both following up next week. Earlier this week, I began a conversation about the Plaza and Obelisk with Peter Ives,” she said of the former city councilor, now attorney for the Department of Cultural Affairs, which includes the State’s Historic Preservation Division.

People’s property

Questions about ownership were addressed in a 2008 book titled “The People’s Property? Power, Politics and the Public” by Lynn Staeheli and Donald Mitchell. It focuses on five case studies around the country, including Santa Fe’s Plaza Park, and examines factors that affect publicly owned spaces.

As it turns out, the answers are as nuanced and complicated as New Mexico’s own history.

The authors say that most people think of property as a tangible thing, but it’s not that simple. Property ownership is also a set of relationships, they say, and, in the case of Santa Fe’s Plaza, “the process of turning social relations into space shows just how contested ownership of public space really is.”

The Plaza is public property – the symbolic heart of the city, and the social and political center of town – but that public consists of Hispanics, Anglos, Native Americans, residents, tourists, businesses and governments, local and federal, they say.

A complicating factor concerning Plaza Park is that it is registered as a National Historic Landmark. That seems to have been the sticking point in 1973 when the City Council unanimously voted to have the obelisk removed.

“Any alteration of the monument, even if the state approved it, could threaten the historical status of the Plaza and thus significant financial aid for the landscape maintenance and restoration,” according to the book.

The National Park Service threatened to withhold funding if any alterations to the Plaza were made without the permission of the New Mexico Historic Preservation Office and the Park Service. The council rescinded the vote and got the funding.

The situation has since changed. A National Parks Service spokeswoman said that while the Santa Fe Plaza remains on the list of landmarks, it is no longer an NPS-managed property that provides funding to the city.

A ‘lightning rod’

While Plaza Park is city property, it is unclear who owns the centerpiece obelisk.

In 1866, New Mexico’s Territorial Assembly voted to erect a soldiers’ monument in the Plaza in front of the Palace of the Governors.

Since then, the obelisk has become “a lightning rod for controversy,” they wrote, and the authors raise another issue that potentially complicates the removal of the obelisk.

“On 9 April, 1900, a dozen years before New Mexico became a state, the U.S. Congress decreed the tip of the Soldiers’ Monument to be the starting point for a survey and the mapping of all property in the city,” they wrote. “Every property deed in the city is keyed to the obelisk and it is not unusual to hear arguments that it must be preserved in its present location for just that reason.”

Tripp Stelnicki, spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said that it’s unclear if the state owns the obelisk, as the authors suggest.

“That is very muddled,” he said. “No one can determine who it belongs to. It might belong to the state, it might be the city, nobody knows.”

While Stelnicki said reports that workers contracted by the state attempted to remove the obelisk one night last week were “inaccurate,” the tip of the 33-foot obelisk – the very one that was the starting point for survey mapping of all property in the city – was removed that night. Stelnicki said the governor had reached out to Mayor Webber to offer her support in removing the monument. The workers were there only to perform an “assessment” of the obelisk, he said, and the tip was removed because it posed an “imminent public safety risk” to those attending Thursday’s rally.

Stelnicki said the governor does support the removal of the obelisk, but “That’s not going to be the state’s decision.”

Peter Ives, a former Santa Fe city councilor who is now general counsel for the state Department of Cultural Affairs, which includes the State’s Historic Preservation Division, did not immediately return a phone message on Friday.


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