After a 3-day occupation of the Santa Fe Plaza in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day (we no longer celebrate October 12 as Columbus Day here in New Mexico) the monument holding center stage on the Plaza has been brought down by a largely-white mob of protestors as police backed off and vacated the Plaza.
The obelisk was originally put up in 1867 to honor Civil War Union soldiers who stopped the advance of the Confederacy in the West but had a plaque added later, on one side, that read, ‘To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.’ The word ‘savages’ was chiseled off in 1974.
The mayor earlier this year had announced there would be a decision on the future of the monument but he and the city have dragged their feet on any decision-making, in part, no doubt, over causing offense to the large population of people of Spanish descent here who revere their conquistador roots and feel theirs is THE heritage that matters in this state.
It would be great if the city decided now to have an international competition to replace the obelisk with something that embraces all New Mexicans in this the oldest capital city in the United States.
I actually liked the obelisk and thought the addition of the plaque (done a few generations ago) was itself a defacing of the monument’s original Civil War reason for being. But, there is and was, no denying that many of the northern heroes of that war went on to become principal actors in the genocide enacted upon the Indians.
Chief among this group were generals Sherman and Sheridan, both born in 1831 and who both grew up not too far from where I was born; as local heroes they were valorized with prominent statues. Both were also capable of incredible brutality to the ‘enemy’. (Sheridan was one of the first men to use what we call ‘scorched-earth’ tactics when he razed the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman is well-noted for his March Through Georgia).
It is easy for the mob to forget (if it ever knew), that history is not changed by smashing the signposts of history. Rather, it is amplified and extended by its wider unveiling from the shadows – something that was not undertaken on a large scale until universities began graduating those who would research and write our stories from a far different perspective from that which we learned in our 5th grade reader in the early 1960s. That formal and institutionalized history was one of the consequences of promoting a national identity linked to an ignorance and purposeful ‘white-washing’ of our treatment of Indigenous people and all other people of color in the United States.
Many argue this was all in the past and it is time to move on. It is, of course, easy to move on when one is part of the dominant social structure; as far as such people are concerned, there has never been any noticeable problem.
Despite being born in the second half of the 20th century I actually traveled from Philadelphia to Florida to interview a man who had been born in Africa, captured by slavers as a child with other children (lured to a ship by corn fritters dipped in honey) and sold into slavery in the American South. To know that I met and spoke to a man who lived under the regimen of the United States’ ‘peculiar institution ‘ shows how recent, in historical terms, the wide disenfranchisement of a large swath of our countrymen really has been.
The destruction of our local Plaza monument shows that not every crowd chanting ‘progressive’ slogans and carrying placards with the ‘right’ words is necessarily going to do the ‘right’ thing. Nor does being on the wrong side of the law in civil disobedience necessarily mean one is on the right side of moral history.
I don’t have answers, only questions. Like all human interaction – it’s complicated.