On October 12, officially recognized as Indigenous Peoples Day in New Mexico, a monument that celebrated land theft and the forced removal of Native Americans was torn down by local activists in the city plaza of the state capital, Santa Fe.
Removal of racist colonial monument decades in the making
The obelisk was constructed in 1868 and dedicated to Union soldiers who fought in New Mexico during the American Civil War. It might seem strange to see activists wanting to tear down a monument celebrating the service of Union soldiers who defeated the uprising of slaveholders. After all, throughout the rest of the country, activists are tearing down statues to obviously racist Confederate soldiers and leaders.
Looking closely though, one would see the true racist and genocidal meaning behind the obelisk. On one side is chiseled the words, “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.”
Many of the soldiers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War were stationed before and after the war at different forts throughout the Southwest. These forts were built to help suppress and control the different Indigenous peoples of the area. One of New Mexico’s greatest “heroes,” Kit Carson, who also fought in the Civil War, made a name for himself by hunting and killing Indigenous people. He notoriously and brutally starved and force-marched Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche people from their lands. Kit Carson’s tactics, as well as other methods of extermination and torture of Indigenous people, were endorsed and directed by the U.S. government.
One of the earliest attempts to bring attention to the offensive obelisk monument in Santa Fe Plaza took place in 1973 when an unknown activist chiseled out the word “savage” from the statue. Since then, over the years many different organizations, such as the American Indian Movement, have called for the removal of this monument.
Nationwide revolt against racism spurs popular action in NM
Thanks to the nationwide uprising against racism and police brutality that has swept the country, more light has been shed on anti-Indigenous monuments throughout the Southwest. On June 18, a different statue in the same plaza was removed., this one of conquistador Diego de Vargas. De Vargas is known for the sadistic and destructive “reconquest” of New Mexico after the Spanish were driven out by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Last Spring, Santa Fe Mayor Allen Webber authorized the extraction of the de Vargas statue because he feared that a scheduled protest would result in a people’s removal of the statue, as has happened across the country. Despite Webber’s promise, four months later the monument still stood in the city plaza. The only justification that Webber gave for the delay was that the obelisk was too heavy for removal by city equipment.
Frustrated by the government’s failure to live up to its promises, local Indigenous activists renewed their protests. The weekend before Indigenous People’s Day, a man simply called “Red” chained himself to the obelisk. On October 12, during the scheduled protest, the city tried to put up fencing to protect the monument from the protesters. After clashes with police and city workers, a group of activists secured ropes and chains to the obelisk and tore part of it down before police forcefully attacked and pushed back the protesters. Police arrested two protesters, sticking them with the ridiculous and trumped-up charge of “resisting a police officer.”
People’s movement against racist monuments across the SW
Santa Fe is not the only city in the Southwest that has seen the demolition of racist statues this year. On June 15, a statue of the notorious Juan de Oñate was removed in the town of Espanola, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe.
On the same day, a protest took place in Albuquerque calling for the removal of a different Oñate statue. This one, located outside of the Albuquerque Art and History Museum, has been a focus of protest since its installation in the late 1990s. During the June 15 protest, a member of the far-right wing militia New Mexico Civil Guards shot and wounded a protester. The far-right vigilantes were wearing similar uniforms and insignias to the police at the protest, and even appeared to collude with them at various points. The next day the statue was removed over fears of further violence and vandalism.
New Mexico is not the only state in the Southwest that has seen statues removed. In Denver, Colorado three statues to Kit Carson have also been taken down amid mass protests. Throughout the Southwest, protests have forced the change of racist, colonial names on parks, schools and other public places.
Many of the statues that have been removed throughout the Southwest have only been removed “temporarily” to prevent vandalism while city and state governments debate over whether to keep them or not. We must not give up the fight or we will see these monuments to genocide and racism returned. We must keep organizing and fighting if we want to be free of a world where racism and genocide are celebrated with statues and monuments.