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‘Nobody knows’ who owns the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk

The Soldiers’ Monument in the center of the Santa Fe Plaza was vandalized earlier this week. Santa Fe’s mayor has called for its removal, but no one seems know who has the authority to remove it. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Who has the authority to remove the obelisk that stands at the center of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza remains clouded.

Mayor Alan Webber last week called for the Civil War-era obelisk known as the Soldiers’ Monument and two other monuments near Plaza Park to be removed. But no one seems to know who has the final say about removing the obelisk – not even the state’s Historic Preservation Division, whose mission is “to protect, preserve and interpret the unique character of New Mexico by identifying, documenting (recording), evaluating and registering prehistoric and historic properties throughout New Mexico.”

Debra Garcia y Griego, secretary of the state Department of Cultural Affairs, declined an interview, and calls to the department’s general counsel this week and last were not returned.

Daniel Zillmann, a department spokesman, said in an email that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office had previously provided the Journal with a statement and that there was little else to add.

The Soldiers’ Monument in the center of the Santa Fe Plaza was vandalized earlier this week. Santa Fe’s mayor has called for its removal, but no one seems know who has the authority to remove it. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The governor’s spokesman said last week, and reiterated Tuesday, that “nobody knows” who owns the 33-foot spire.

“It’s very vague,” the governor’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said Tuesday. “The state can find no documents identifying ownership.”

Stelnicki also again said reports that state contractors tried to remove the obelisk one night last week were false, saying the workers were there only to assess what it would take to remove it after the governor offered the city state support. Yet the tip of the obelisk was removed out of safety concerns in advance of a demonstration led by Native American groups last Thursday.

Webber told a news conference Monday that city officials were “looking into” what is required to have the monument removed.

“I think we’re going to look at the law and the issue of authority, and also as quickly as possible stand up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so we can get to the point where we’re not just addressing works of art and monuments individually, but having a more comprehensive conversation about the history, the art, the culture of northern New Mexico and how best to protect it,” he said.

In an emergency proclamation he signed last week, the mayor called for the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to make recommendations about the future of the city’s statues and monuments.

He also called for the removal of an obelisk honoring Indian fighter Kit Carson, which is on federal property outside the U.S. District Courthouse, and a statue of Don Diego de Vargas, the Spaniard who led the resettlement of northern New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt. That statue has already been removed from Cathedral Park and is being stored for “safekeeping.”

In 1866, nearly 50 years before New Mexico became a state, New Mexico’s Territorial Assembly voted to erect a “Soldiers’ Monument” in front of the Palace of the Governors. Built two years later, the obelisk honors Union soldiers who fought Civil War battles in New Mexico, but one side of the monument was inscribed to honor the “heroes” who died in battles with “savage” Indians. The offensive word was removed by an anonymous man in the 1970s.

Native Americans have been calling for the removal of the obelisk for decades, and early Monday, it was vandalized for a second time, this time with messages such as “Tewa Land” and “End the Genocide” written in spray paint.

In his email to the Journal, Zillmann said Plaza Park is a National Historic Landmark and is on several other historic registries. He said there are formal processes for taking actions that may affect such historic sites.

“The city has indicated they are aware there is a process and will be reaching out to the (Historic Preservation Office) soon. The process/guidelines depend on what is proposed, and which state and federal laws apply to it,” he wrote.

Monuments and statues all over the country have come under scrutiny lately amid racial tensions escalated by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.