Cultural group sues SF mayor over historic obelisk

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Virgil Vigil, Doris Vigil McBride and other members of the Union Protectíva de Santa Fe, hold a news conference next to the damaged fence around the Soldiers’ Monument obelisk on the Santa Fe Plaza on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Dancing in the Santa Fe Plaza on Thursday, an Indigenous man celebrated his heritage. His traditional dress of feathers and colorful fabric flowed around him as he performed, and a recording explained the meanings of the dances.

The rhythmic drumming of the Native American music echoed in the background as members of a group Union Protectíva de Santa Fé decried the desecration of their heritage.

The group – which strives to “preserve the language and culture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for future generations and descendants of the original Spanish colonists” – filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Santa Fe and Mayor Alan Webber, alleging they are violating New Mexico’s Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Act of 1989.

The lawsuit says Webber and the city violated the act by calling for the removal of the Plaza’s obelisk before it was torn down by protesters in October. The suit is seeking an injunction against Webber and the city to “repair and restore” the obelisk.

“Unfortunately, the mayor has declined to follow those laws in calling for the removal of the obelisk and failing to restore the obelisk,” said Ken Stalter, the group’s attorney. “This law passed by the New Mexico Legislature to protect historic sites covers thousands of historic places throughout New Mexico.”

Stalter said this lawsuit is about the “rule of law,” and Webber isn’t above following that law.

However, according to the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, that’s not quite the case.

“The act does not prevent entities from seeking the removal or modification of historic properties,” said Daniel Zillmann, a spokesman for the department.

To determine how the act could apply to a site requires a formal consultation process. Zillmann said the state historic preservation office hasn’t received a request for consultation on the obelisk from the city of Santa Fe.

Permanent modification, or removal, of historic properties isn’t unprecedented in New Mexico. Zillmann said a recent example is the demolition of a historic high school building in Lordsburg.

The 152-year-old “Soldier’s Monument” was erected in the 1860s to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. The monument also honored soldiers who died fighting “savage Indians,” and local indigenous rights advocates said the monument celebrated the killing of Native Americans.

The obelisk was torn down by protesters during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day rally over frustrations that Webber wasn’t following through with his pledge to remove the monument.

Virgil Vigil, center, of Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, and the group’s attorney, Ken Stalter, second from right, appear at a news conference Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“The problem is that people are not, nowadays, held accountable,” Virgil Vigil, president of Union Protectíva, said. “The individuals that tore this obelisk down. What did they get? A slap on the hand.”

The protesters responsible for tearing down the obelisk were allowed to participate in a restorative justice program by 1st Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies. The program requires the protesters to take part in mediation and other programs and do community service for up to two years. “As the District Attorney’s office has expressed before, the restorative justice program is not a slap on the wrist; it is a comprehensive, justice-centered process,” Carmack-Altwies said in an emailed statement. “It is clear that these statements are only meant to further divide our community.”

Webber echoed Carmack-Altwies’ sentiments, saying there are voices seeking to divide the city, and these are people willing to distort the facts and spread misinformation.

He said their purpose is to “promote anger and to create division.” He brought up that in 1973, the Santa Fe City Council voted unanimously to remove the obelisk due to the “horribly racist inscription that denigrated Native Americans.”

Stalter and members of Union Protectíva said they wouldn’t seek to reinstate the plaque with the “savage Indians” inscription. He said the iconic image of the obelisk is what’s essential to the historical character of the Plaza, not the “verbiage.”

However, Webber emphasized that the fate of the monuments and statues in the city isn’t up to the mayor, or the governing body, but the people of Santa Fe. He said people in the community need to engage in constructive dialogue about how to move forward.

“We need a community dialogue, so we can all come together,” he said. “That’s the only way forward. Santa Fe is strong, Santa Fe is united … everyone’s voice matters.”

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