For many of us who live in Santa Fe, giving a Plaza tour to visiting friends and relatives has always included a stop at the centerpiece obelisk.
The most interesting part of any amateur tour guide’s rap about what’s officially known as the Soldiers Monument was pointing out that modern-day vandalism had actually improved the 150-year-old spire.
Where the monument used to say it honored soldiers who fought “savage Indians,” the word savage had been chiseled out. The damage was inflicted in 1974, in broad daylight, by a Native American man who’d climbed over the fence around the monument, and it was never repaired. Instead, the vandalism was generally esteemed among locals as righteous editing of the obelisk’s original text.
We were proud to show outsiders how Santa Fe had done the right thing. “Isn’t Santa Fe great?” was the message.
At least that was the message from non-Indians. Pride in this community-approved vandalism took no note of the fact that the monument, at least on one of its four sides, still in effect honored the conquest of Indigenous tribes, a fact of history, but one whose corresponding wounds remain hurtful.
We won’t forget again. After decades of hemming and hawing by Santa Fe officialdom about whether the Soldiers Monument should stay or go (a City Council vote in 1973 called for its removal), activists tore it down last Monday, on Indigenous Peoples Day.
This latest vandalism was not as universally supported as that of the 1970s’ chisel-wielder. Santa Fe and its historic Plaza lost a 19th century landmark. Many noted that most of the obelisk’s text honored veterans of the Union side in the Civil War, a righteous cause that ended slavery. Why did police vacate the Plaza after violent clashes between officers and protesters broke out, leaving the Soldiers Monument unprotected?
Before the obelisk came tumbling down, it’s long-term fate had been up in the air. Mayor Alan Webber called for its removal at an anti-racism rally in March. He also announced three months ago that he would create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the difficult issues of race, history and monuments in Santa Fe, but still hadn’t done so before last week’s destruction. He said he’d been too busy.
And Webber and the police chief said pulling police out of the heated situation on the Plaza last Monday was the right thing do. Trying to guard the obelisk against destruction wasn’t worth the risk of rising violence if officers had stayed and held their ground, they said.
On these issues:
• Webber probably went too far in raising expectations when he called for the obelisk’s removal at the March rally, as potential federal or state claims and historic preservation rules hover over the Plaza site.
• Saying he was too busy to start the Truth and Conciliation Commission was not a good look for the mayor in this tumultuous year when racial justice issues have come to the forefront.
Unlike legislators and members of Congress who have just one thing they absolutely must do – show up and vote – mayors are always busy, or should be, operating multipurpose local governments. Being busy is not a good excuse for inaction. And there are well-paid, talented city staffers who can help.
• But Webber deserves no diatribes over removing police from the Plaza during the protests last Monday. That was a tough call as things started to turn ugly. Maybe the police could have saved the obelisk without casualties or use of extreme force, but no one can say for sure. Webber has since called for prosecution of those who tore down the Soldiers Monument.
In any case, it would have been better if there had been a community decision, through the elected mayor and City Council, on what to do about the obelisk. The city council in New Orleans voted for removal of the Robert E. Lee statue that towered over one of that city’s main boulevards, an effective statement of the public’s will that avoided debates over whether “mob rule” had brought down a Confederate symbol.
This newspaper and some individuals advocated previously for leaving the historic obelisk in place, alebit with removal of the panel about the Indian Wars, replacing that piece with one commemorating Indigenous contributions to the region’s history. But in the white-hot environment of this year’s political wars, there obviously was no time for the postponement of debate over these options. The city’s delays over the years and again recently left advocates – judging from the crowd on the Plaza last Monday, both Indigenous and Anglo – to make a decision on their own. The city’s effort to build a wooden barrier around the obelisk amid the Indigenous Peoples Day protests was, almost laughably, too little too late.
Now Santa Fe must decide what to do next.
Without delay, City Hall needs to start open public discussion of what, if anything, should go up where the obelisk stood. Truth and reconciliation, it seems, needs to meet some hard deadlines if it’s going to work these days.