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Navajo Leader Stands Tall

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          An 8-foot-tall statue of Navajo leader Manuelito has stood in Gallup for more than 100 years.
   
    For most of that time, it was propped in a second-story niche of an old adobe trading post, facing out over the railroad tracks. It was moved to a glass-covered enclosure when that building was replaced. And since 1993, the statue has been inside the warehouse, which is now locked and vacant.
        Longtime Gallup grocer Joe Di Gregorio and his wife, Christine, own the statue. They took custody after the building's owner, in negotiations to sell to an out-of-state buyer in 1983, turned to Di Gregorio and whispered, "Don't let the bastards take the Indian."
        Di Gregorio didn't. He agreed to take custody of Manuelito and promised to keep him in Gallup.
        But the last time Di Gregorio took a look at the imposing piece of art, standing alone in a darkened building, he decided it was time to give Manuelito a new home.
        "I saw him there, and I said, 'This is wrong,' " Di Gregorio said. "You walk by him and you almost see a tear. It's like, 'Get me out of here.' He's in a cage."
        Manuelito was not the kind of man who would be happy in a cage. His life spanned most of the 19th century, a time of bloody conflict and great change for the Navajo people. He was one of a few influential Navajo headmen and a warrior during the so-called Navajo wars.
        Manuelito and his followers were the last to surrender to the U.S. military for the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, and history remembers him as a fierce resister. But he was also part of the Navajo team that negotiated the end of Bosque Redondo encampment and reservation boundaries that allowed for the Navajos' return to a portion of their homeland. A prestigious college scholarship funded by the tribe bears his name today.
        Manuelito's likeness was commissioned in the year after his death by C.N. Cotton, an Anglo trader who was a legend in his own right. Cotton co-owned the busy trading post in Ganado, Ariz., with Lorenzo Hubbell and opened his own warehouse and mercantile along the train tracks in Gallup in 1874.
        Cotton played a pivotal role in shaping the future of Navajo weaving. He encouraged weavers to move from traditional patterns to ones more pleasing to tourists' eyes, imported brighter synthetic dyes and made the first mail-order catalog to market Navajo weavings.
        He was a friend of Manuelito's, and after Manuelito died of measles and pneumonia in 1893, he commissioned a larger-than-life statue, wrapped in a colorful chief's blanket.
        The artist was Hermon MacNeil, trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was known for his bronze depictions of Native Americans and tribal ceremonies.
        Rather than bronze, he employed a wooden armature and sculpted Manuelito in cement, working from a photograph. The statue was installed in a shallow niche on the outside the Cotton warehouse, facing east so Manuelito could greet the dawn in accordance with Navajo custom.
        Santa Fe art appraiser Bernard Ewell described the towering Indian in an appraisal document as "an icon for all of Gallup — Anglo and Indian alike."
        Over the years, he said, "it was one of those 'it's always been there' parts of the life experience of many of the city's residents and visitors, including large numbers of Navajos who came regularly into town and shop and take care of business."
        When Di Gregorio was looking for a new home for Manuelito, he knew it had to be somewhere prominent and public in Gallup, so people could visit him, and someplace permanent. "And," he told me, "he has to face east."
        He approached the McKinley County Commission, which happily accepted Di Gregorio's donation. Members are considering now where Manuelito will stand for his next century and more. The county courthouse is high on the list of possibilities.
        Carolyn Milligan, chairwoman of the McKinley County Fine Arts Commission, has estimated that it will cost $25,000 to $38,000 to restore the sculpture, which has deteriorated from a hundred years of rail yard soot, showers with a fire hose and a well-meaning but inept repainting. The County Commission has approved spending up to $20,000 on restoration.
        The 1,000-pound piece is fragile, Milligan said, and will most likely have to be restored in place at the warehouse, then carefully moved. Wherever it stands, she said, it will probably attract crowds.
        "It's really quite a commanding piece," Milligan said. "And it's for the people."
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.
       





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