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A history of controversy

Protesters took down the 152-year-old obelisk at the center of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day rally on Monday. Around 150 people overpowered police and destroyed the monument originally dedicated to Union soldiers during the Civil War, but also honoring the “heroes” who died in battles with “savage Indians.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

When the “Soldiers’ Monument” – better known as the obelisk – in the Santa Fe Plaza was torn down on Monday, city officials called it unexpected. But to those reflecting on the monument’s turbulent history, it seemed almost inevitable.

There have been multiple calls across the decades for the obelisk’s removal, with many viewing its inscriptions as a celebration of the killing of local Indigenous peoples.

The Santa Fe Plaza was first designated a National Historic Landmark on Dec. 19, 1960, but the obelisk that stood in its center was erected long before that. It was supposed to commemorate fallen Union Soldiers from the Civil War when the idea for the monument first occurred in 1865, according to Rob Martinez, New Mexico State Historian.

However, the state quickly ran out of money to build the monument in 1866 and received $1,800 to finish the obelisk if it also commemorated fallen soldiers from the Indian Wars. The monument was finally completed in 1868.

Newspaper articles from the time praised the monument as “a beautiful and chaste memento of the brave men who fought in New Mexico.”

In 1974, someone chiseled out offensive wording in the inscription on one side of the base of the monument. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But this latest version also saw the addition of the controversial engraving that described Native Americans as “savage Indians.” The racist wording on the monument was codified into law in both English and Spanish, Martinez said.

The Spanish phrase indios bárbaros was used for centuries by the Mexican and Spanish people, Martinez said. When Americans came, they appropriated the term and translated it as “savage Indians.”

“It gets controversial in recent history, just like everything,” Martinez said. “In the 1860s, you said savage Indians, you also used the N-word for Black people and that’s what everybody was OK with.”

Lightning rod for controversy

One hundred years later, during the Civil Rights and American Indian movements, the spire was still a lightning rod for controversy.

In fact, in 1973, the Santa Fe City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for the complete removal of the obelisk.

The vote sparked a backlash. Several newspaper editorials were penned against the decision, with the Albuquerque Journal comparing any removal of the monument to “book burning.”

And similar to the reaction many gave Monday when the obelisk came toppling down, many longtime residents said removing the aged monument amounted to erasing history.

However, opinions regarding the obelisk were hardly uniform. An Indigenous man in Albuquerque wrote a response to the Journal editorials asking, “What’s wrong with you crazy white people?”

Ultimately, though, the obelisk was not removed, with the primary reason revolving around money provided by the federal government.

Due to its status as a National Historic Landmark, the Plaza was to receive $75,000 for renovations from the federal government. However, documents show officials from the state Planning Office warned the city that if the obelisk was disturbed, that money could be put at risk.

David King from the Planning Office told city officials about the risk and urged them to rescind their vote, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Mayor Joseph Valdes said he didn’t want to jeopardize an important federal grant, officially ending most calls for the obelisk’s removal.

However, one month prior, a federal official had written to King stating that “the issue raised by Indian groups over the wording … does not involve an agency of the federal government.”

The chairman of the All Pueblo Indian Council in 1973, Val Cordova, said failure to remove the monument, as voted on by the council, could result in removal through violent means.

“These are young people and these are violent times,” he said at the time. “We’re inviting this type of thing.”

Years later, a different group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called for the obelisk to be removed and replaced by something else.

In any case, the obelisk remained at its original site, unaltered. One year later, though, an unidentified Indigenous man chiseled off the word “savage” on the monument.

But the obelisk had been controversial for many decades before that, primarily for another word inscribed on a different side – “rebel.”

Contemplating history

The obelisk had long been noted as one of the few Civil War monuments to use the word “rebel” instead of “Confederate,” a decision that upset many, even in the obelisk’s earliest days.

In 1907, legislators in the New Mexico Territory even attempted to pass a bill requiring ”

The obelisk at the center of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza, above, stood for 152 years before being toppled by demonstrators during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day rally on Monday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

rebel” to be removed from the monument’s face, with one opposing representative calling the bill “a mutilation,” according to the Albuquerque Citizen, a now-defunct newspaper.

A woman named Gertrude Harris Cook even wrote to editors in 1935 advocating that the obelisk be moved to Glorieta or Valverde, where Civil War battles were actually fought. She also had choice words about its appearance.

“No one can claim that it is a thing of beauty,” she wrote of the obelisk. “It does not honor those it was erected to honor as it should.”

She advocated that a bandstand be put in the obelisk’s place, an opinion many others would voice throughout the decades. A bandstand was eventually placed north of the obelisk, where it remains.

And during that time, there have been a variety of different suggestions for how to address the obelisk-shaped elephant in the room.

Some favored etching the offensive word out of the stone and replacing it. Others wanted it moved to a less prominent location, such as Fort Marcy Park. Signs explaining the historical context were mounted and quickly stolen days later.

But, for the vast majority of the obelisk’s 152-year lifespan, no alterations had been made since it was first shown to the world, “beautiful and chaste.”

It was frequently incorporated in city celebrations, flags and banners hung from its facade. Hundreds would gather around for celebrations and concerts. During Y2K, when many feared the end of the world was nigh, dozens gathered around its base waiting for the end.

However, the events of Oct. 12 highlighted the intense pain and emotion the monument has brought to many generations of New Mexicans and the joy expressed when the stone finally crumbled.

A learning moment

For Charlene Teters, retired academic head at the Institute for American Indian Arts and a citizen of the Spokane Nation, the obelisk’s destruction reflects on who has the power to celebrate, honor and tell stories.

There is power in imagery, she said. As an artist, she looks at these issues in society and tries to create a dialogue with her art about who holds power.

For the Santa Fe Biennial in 1999, Teters created an art installation of an obelisk mimicking the one in the Plaza. She placed it in front of the Roundhouse, with the side facing the legislature stating “To the heroes” and another side featuring only the word “savages” facing the street.

“So it caused them to ask the question, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the savages?’ ” she said.

Teters said she wanted the community to feel challenged and have that discussion. She said, with the obelisk being torn down Monday, it’s a shame people can feel angry and targeted. But it also shows how important it is that leadership includes everyone.

“There was an opportunity to make this a learning moment,” she said. “Maybe that’s still there.”

Martinez said the obelisk ties into a broader conversation surrounding monuments across the United States and about what they stand for. History is full of statues and monuments being taken down, torn down, burned or destroyed.

“It’s absolutely part of a series of historical events that have been happening since the beginning of the summer as a result of Black Lives Matter,” said Steve Martinez, a history professor at Santa Fe Community College. “I would say these events all definitely tie together.”

The role of monuments in preserving history is open to interpretation, he said. For some, monuments are incredibly important historical markers. For others, not so much.

People have been objecting to monuments for ages; it isn’t anything new and it’s something that has a historical record, Steve Martinez said. For example, during the French Revolution, many monuments and artifacts were destroyed.

Rob Martinez, the state historian, said he doesn’t see this as history being erased because these people will still be remembered if monuments are gone.

“It gives us an opportunity to really think about what we’re doing in our public spaces,” he said. “I think the city of Santa Fe really needs to have some community input as to where we go from now because it’s not 1867 any more.”

When people say a statue or monument is offensive or “this hurts,” the community needs to listen, he said.

“It’s kind of like being in a room when somebody tells an inappropriate joke,” he said. “Even though some people might be entertained by it, that doesn’t mean that people who are offended by it should just have to put up with it.”

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