Rest in pieces

Santa Fe’s obelisk is gone. Here’s why we’re still so shattered.

By Alicia Inez Guzmán|December 29, 2020

Photography by Don J. Usner



When Indigenous Peoples’ Day arrived, the sun cast a low, warm light on the obelisk. The Soldiers’ Monument, as it’s officially known, was already looking somewhat besieged as a crowd began to gather around it for a third day of demonstrations. The tip of the 33-foot structure — a presence in the Santa Fe Plaza for 152 years — had been removed months earlier by contractors in the middle of the night. There was still the vague silhouette of red spray paint — marks left by protesters — that couldn’t be scrubbed from one of its four sides. And one of the marble tablets at the obelisk’s base was entirely busted. It had once read: “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.” In the 1970s, an Indigenous man chiseled out the word “savage” in broad daylight. In its place, others had written new adjectives like “resilient.” Now, the entire inscription was illegible. 

Masked bystanders pressed up against the flimsy metal blockade that enclosed the obelisk, as Three Sisters Collective, the group of Indigenous women who’d called on Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber to remove it in June, stood in the nearby bandstand, speaking of a city that only valued Native people as tourist commodities. “This,” they called out, “is Tewa land.” As the women spoke, city workers erected a second protective barrier around the monument, an effort that had the feeling of a last stand. 

For Indigenous peoples, the obelisk was a proxy for the trauma caused by waves of colonization, by genocide, by decades of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and this year, by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands. Some in the Spanish community, however, said the removal of the monument would be a painful reminder of decades of displacement, gentrification and the marginalization of Spanish culture. Obelisk supporters, including large numbers of Anglos, believed taking it down would be akin to erasing the past. 

The obelisk epitomized some of Santa Fe’s most harrowing history and raised the city’s thorniest questions. Who owned the Plaza? Who could lay claim to the historic eastside? Even today the city was being colonized, it was argued, this time by wealthy, mostly Anglo transplants who’d turned the barrios into million-dollar neighborhoods, pushing locals to the margins.

“What are you gonna do, white allies?” one of the speakers at the Plaza challenged the mostly Anglo crowd. (Like most demonstrators, she asked to remain anonymous.) “Are you gonna go buy more fake Native American jewelry?” she asked. “Are you gonna steal more Native American land? What are you gonna do?”

A Native man, a participant in a demonstration to demand the removal of the obelisk on the Santa Fe Plaza, sings in front of the obelisk, June 2020.

“She really started digging into the crowd,” said Darryl Wellington, one of the spectators. A Black Southerner who moved to Santa Fe 10 years ago, Wellington previously lived in Charleston, South Carolina, home to numerous Confederate symbols and the site of a 2015 church massacre, in which a white supremacist killed nine Black congregants. The same June day that the Charleston city council voted to remove a statue of pro-slavery vice president John C. Calhoun from a public square, Webber committed to removing the obelisk. Within two weeks, Charleston removed its effigy. Months later, however, the obelisk still stood.

“What are you gonna do?” the speaker called again.

“Take it down!” the crowd began chanting, as Santa Fe police stood by. Scattered scuffles broke out with some of the officers. At one point, Wellington said he heard a speaker on the bandstand saying, “Wow, if you’d have been Black, you’d all have been shot by now.” The police arrested two young white men. 

And then they left.

In the hour that followed, a handful of demonstrators fastened tow ropes and a chain around the obelisk. With a collective heave, the top portion of the obelisk broke off and smashed to the ground. Soon after, the rest of the obelisk followed. 

It marked the end of a slab of a sandstone that was reviled by many, ignored by most and cherished by a few. Throughout its life, its glorification of violence divided residents. Now, nothing but rubble, it was still causing rifts and exposing the chasms of resentment and pain that New Mexicans have carried for centuries.

Ramon Barela, from Cochití Pueblo, plays a drum during a demonstration to demand the removal of the obelisk on the Santa Fe Plaza, June 2020.

‘Moment of moral truth’

Mayor Webber had called for the removal of the monument and two controversial others on June 17, almost four months before the Oct. 12 demonstration on the Plaza. He’d met with the Three Sisters Collective — including Diné, Comanche, Mohawk, Chicana and Pueblo women — and hours later released a statement that promised action. “We have arrived at a moment of moral truth,” it read. Webber said he also planned to create a truth and reconciliation commission — yet to be launched — that would review all of the city’s monuments.

According to Heidi Brandow, an artist of Diné (Navajo) and Native Hawaiian heritage, Santa Fe has 65 monuments, “80 percent of which are dedicated to colonizers” — the Spanish, Mexican and Anglo settlers who claimed the territory over a 300-year period. Only four monuments are dedicated to Native American people and culture, Brandow found in research she conducted for the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2018. 

Santa Fe, like other American cities, was primed to reconsider who and what was memorialized in public spaces. In response to the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, 102 confederate monuments, statues and school names were removed across the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than 30 monuments to Christopher Columbus fell. Some were detached from pedestals with torches, lifted off by cranes, carted off in flat-bed trucks and retired into secret government storage spaces. Others were spray-painted, beheaded or leveled by dissenters, who held that they were public testaments to racism, genocide, colonialism and other forms of state-sanctioned violence. 

In Santa Fe, meanwhile, the obelisk remains listed as the “American Indian War Memorial” in the city’s online inventory, an indication that municipal understandings of its history remain entirely inaccurate and misleading.

Monuments, Webber’s statement read, “must speak the truth about the full history, not just that of the victors.” Yet, his declaration, in hindsight, felt disingenuous and even patronizing, for truth-telling entails painful discourse about layers of oppression and centuries of collective historical trauma — about old wounds that, until now, had remained just under the surface.

East side of Plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico, ca. 1868-1869. Photo by Nicholas Brown, Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Negative Number 011252

Presidential paranoia

The obelisk was originally intended to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War battles of Glorieta Pass and Valverde, key conflicts in New Mexico territory. But in 1867, two years after proposing the monument, the territorial Legislature decided to add the now-infamous inscription, paying homage to those killed while fighting Native Americans.

One might wonder why lawmakers in the territory would float the idea of a Civil War memorial in the first place. The brunt of the fighting, after all, happened east of the Mississippi. But the war also included brutal battles in the West and Southwest to defeat Confederate forces and put down uprisings that President Abraham Lincoln perceived to be just as threatening. 

“All the tribes between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains” were planning an attack on white settlements, Lincoln erroneously declared in his 1862 State of the Union address. Millions of acres — much of which was Indigenous territory — had been made available to settlers under the 1860 Homestead Act, and droves of homesteaders, most of them white, had gone West to stake their claims. Their arrival sparked armed conflicts with Indigenous peoples like the Navajo, Ute, Apache and Comanche, who had been resisting the U.S. Army’s forays into their homelands for decades. Playing into the paranoia that tribes were banding with the Confederacy in some deep-laid plan, Lincoln dispatched Union soldiers to snuff out the rumored insurrections. 

In the years that followed, both Union and Confederacy forces strategically exploited long-held divisions between Native Americans, Mexicans and Hispanos in the New Mexico Territory. For centuries, the Spanish had instituted a system of capturing and enslaving Indigenous peoples (or genízaros) in the region, fueling an Indigenous slave trade that thrived across a vast geography, during and even after the Civil War. Simultaneously, Apache, Diné and Comanches regularly raided Hispano settlements and Pueblos. Enmities were legion.

The Union Army further complicated the tensions by dispatching Native Americans to fight alongside Hispano and Anglo soldiers — in battles that decimated fellow Natives. The First Regiment New Mexico Volunteers, organized under Army Colonel Kit Carson, for example, not only fought Confederate troops at Valverde in 1862, but also forcibly removed some 10,000 Diné people from their homelands. Hundreds died on what the Navajo refer to as “The Long Walk” and thousands more succumbed during their forced exile at Bosque Redondo. 

It was a classic tactic of divide and conquer and an insidious expression of settler colonialism. For as those soldiers went to battle, the Union was engineering history’s most massive transfer of land and wealth from tribal and Hispanic populations to white settlers and land barons, a maneuver that continues to have implications today. 

“There’s a reason we’re one of the poorest states and one of the brownest states,” as Artemisio Romero y Carver, Santa Fe’s youth poet laureate, put it. “It’s because the traumas of colonization are ongoing.”

A woman in traditional Tewa dress adds her handprint in red paint at the foot of the controversial obelisk in Santa Fe’s plaza, June 2020.

Colonialism brings erasure

Obelisks are expressions of imperial and colonial presence, dirges to Confederate loss and observances of Union triumphs. That they are overtly phallic makes them not masculinity incarnate, but simulations — a bluff, you might say. The phallus, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once lectured, makes us think there is power where there is none. When American forces arrived, they needed a language to demonstrate influence. The obelisk was the very anchor of that vocabulary.

In Santa Fe, public spaces themselves were statements of oppression, expunged by occupying forces to fit a new national narrative. Before the American annexation of New Mexico, the Plaza “looked like a Pueblo plaza might look like today,” said Porter Swentzell, professor of Indigenous liberal studies at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts. It was an open, dirt space with no trees or grass, he said, “used for a variety of purposes — social activities and gatherings, an announcement space, and also ceremonies.” When American forces arrived, there was a concerted push to reshape the Plaza and its surroundings into a proper American square, a calculated effort that Swentzell calls an “architecture of violence.” 

The Plaza, over the following decades, became the most pivotal battleground for the Americanization of Santa Fe. Pueblo and Hispano parades and religious festivals around the Plaza were replaced with Fourth of July parades. American merchants rapidly began purchasing adobe buildings along the square and remodeling them, ushering in a style that attempted to mimic the tradition of the Greek Revival, but that — given the dearth of brick in the region — created a strange Southwestern composite now referred to as the Territorial Style. Trees and grass were planted to cover the dirt and create some version of an American park. And military bands played American tunes from a bandstand in the central square. 

The insertion of the obelisk into the Plaza in 1868 was yet another reminder to residents that Santa Fe was American. It was a statement of imperial might in a city that 20 years prior had been a part of the Mexican Republic.

A crowd gathers for a musical performance on the Santa Fe Plaza in 2014.

The Americanization of the Plaza ran parallel to other efforts that sought to whitewash the city’s mixed Indo-Hispanic population — racist campaigns that Swentzell refers to as a “rehabilitation of Mexicans into Spaniards.” New Mexico, according to the U.S. Congress, was “too Mexican” to be admitted to the Union as a state. So white tourism boosters, anthropologists and legislators (many of them slave owners) began a massive rebranding to cast residents as Spanish-American, an identity that was “closer to white.” The founding of Spanish-American schools and Spanish Colonial societies and the celebration of Spanish Fiestas was just another means of performing whiteness, Swentzell said. To claim pure Spanish ancestry was a way to identify with your oppressor so that you could eat scraps at the table he took from you.

“The only people who’ve been unhurt are white people,” Romero y Carver said. In Santa Fe, this cultivated a certain self-erasure, a denial of mixed-Indigenous ancestry that was created by the original trauma — Spanish colonization and genocide. 

“We’re born out of a mass slaughter, and that violence has never been resolved in our culture. Most lies come out of trauma,” Romero y Carver said. 

New Mexicans who want to hold onto monuments that honor Spanish colonizers or brutal U.S. conquests are, in a sense, trying to preserve their place in the world. They battle for things like the obelisk, “as bizarre as that is,” Swentzell said, “because these are some of the last vestiges of holding onto some semblance of control over your hometown.” 

But there is no real control. Barrios on the historic eastside, once predominantly Hispanic, now make up some of the most expensive real estate in town. Local Hispanos used to call this part of the town the Dogpatch, after the Appalachian hamlet in the comic strip “L’il Abner.” Today, houses there regularly sell for upwards of a million dollars, mostly to white residents. The Hispanos have been pushed out. Some 20 percent of the homes, according to the county assessor’s office, belong to owners who only live in Santa Fe part time. 

The city is bearing witness to another wave of gentrification, or, perhaps, a continuation of something that never ended.

The obelisk, then, was never really meant for anyone here. Nor could it ever truly reflect the complexity of identities that reside in this region. A tribute to imperialism and Manifest Destiny, it was, Swentzell said, just another “middle finger to New Mexico.”

The response, not surprisingly, was a fist.

A bystander picks through the rubble surrounding the plaza obelisk, shortly after its destruction at the hands of protesters on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.