Centering Truths, Not So Evident
Updated: Aug 26
In the current reckoning with truths about the past – some of which are not so evident – we have an opportunity to examine the symbols placed at the centers of our communities. Towns and cities have long imbued their plazas and squares with meaning, often by placing steel, stone and bronze monuments in public spaces. Many of them have served as instruments of power, glorifying icons of empire and colonial violence, including White supremacy, patriarchy and slavery. The campaigns to erect these pieces also reflect intentional efforts to codify historical memory through mythology, aimed at purposefully harming all those who stood in their shadows.
In this move to raise consciousness and remove these monuments, places like New Mexico seemed to have escaped the attention that is given to locations holding Confederate symbols. It is, after all, a place whose stories have long been marginalized in the national narrative and consciousness, a conquered territory that has never fit into the narrow racial paradigm that has rendered anyone not Black or White invisible. Yet, it is set in a place where Indigenous people have lived continually for millennia and was further settled by Spanish-Mestizos over 422 years ago, older than any settlements that would serve as the “recognized” foundations of the United States.
Given my work as a scholar of Native American slavery and its legacy, there is one monument that has interested me. It is profoundly layered in history and memory, and as such, holds tremendous potential to be reimagined.
The Soldier’s Monument or Obelisk honors the lives of men who died in two intersecting conflicts — the Civil War and the Indian Wars. It is sited at the historic center of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where it was erected less than two decades following the U.S./Mexican War. Founded under the Spanish empire in the early seventeenth century, Santa Fe sits on an ancient site once home to the Northern and Southern Tewa people thousands of years before. The living memory and stories told by the people of Taytsúgeh Oweengeh (Tesuque Pueblo) hold profound meaning to this day, revealing that the ancestral site,Oga Po’gehis Taytsúgeh and Taytsúgeh isOga Po’geh still.
This memorial is among the oldest placed in this landscape and is built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, an ancient symbol representing creation and renewal, particularly in its association with the light of the sun. It was identified with the benu bird, a precursor to the Greek phoenix, but tied to two gods, Thoth, keeper of the records and Ra, the sun god. It is seated upon a raised base, decorated with laurel wreaths symbolizing triumph, held up by four pillars framing inscriptions on marble, one of which has been the subject of contentious civic debate and community activism for decades.
Ohio-born John P. Slough, appointed in 1865 by President Andrew Johnson as the Chief Justice of the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court, spearheaded the effort to build the memorial, which originally intended to focus solely on Union victories in New Mexico. That same year, veterans began placing monuments around the nation, commemorating the Civil War and its fallen heroes. This growing movement inspired Slough, a former colonel of the 1st Colorado Infantry Regiment, the volunteers that participated in the Battle at Glorieta Pass — dubbed the “Gettysburg of the West” — one of two battles fought in New Mexico as a part of the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the Civil War.
During the 1865-1866 convening of the New Mexico Territorial Legislative session, Slough secured a legislative appropriation of $1,500 for a memorial committee charged to “enclose the graves . . . over the federal soldiers killed at the battle of Apache Cañón at Glorieta and at Valverde” and to “erect one monument or more, at such place or places as they may deem best.” The committee commissioned the architects, John and M. McGee, and eventually granted some of the construction contracts to a firm in St. Louis, Missouri, the city at the other end of the Santa Fe Trail.
A year later, the work on the Obelisk was not yet completed and funding had run out. The legislature appropriated another $1,800, and this time, added a provision requiring commemoration of those individuals fallen in the Indian Wars. Seizing the narrative, members actually drafted into law the precise words to be engraved onto the four marble tablets. One states that the monument was “erected by the people of New Mexico, through their Legislatures of 1866-7-8.” Two others recognize the Civil War battles. The last reads:
To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles
with the savage Indians of the Territory of New Mexico
Well before the inscriptions were etched, they were codified and printed in the territorial laws of New Mexico in both English and Spanish. While the English translation used the term, “savage Indians,” the Spanish reflected the more commonly used phrase, “Indios bárbaros.” These terms, racist then and now, reflected a language of imperial relations, and were a part of a much larger vocabulary that effectively classified Indigenous people along an arc between savagery and civilization. It was wording specifically aimed at the Diné (Navajo) and the various bands of the Ndee (Apache) who regularly raided and killed village bound mestizo New Mexicans and Pueblo Indian communities. This representation, however, presented only one side of the story.
From the perspective of the Diné, this period of warfare would be forever imprinted in their memory and language as nahondzod, “the fearing time,” “being chased or herded,” and “under captivity.” While the formerly Hispanos New Mexicans and Diné had long been at war, following the Civil War battles in New Mexico, the U.S. government redeployed the Union Army into smaller and mobile units to wage a war against a different enemy. Commander James Henry Carleton instructed Christopher “Kit” Carson to lead an aggressive campaign culminating in the forced removal of thousands of Diné, marched 300 miles from their homeland to Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River. For those that survived the journey, they would be held from 1864 through to 1868, the same year the Obelisk was finally completed.
Like any site, below the surface are layers of stories, sometimes even underlying texts, and in this case, it is literal. Since the Obelisk was erected, it has appeared as any other memorial of its kind. However, when territorial leaders laid its cornerstone on October 24, 1867, amidst great fanfare that included politicians of both Colorado and New Mexico making speeches, they placed certain items into a time capsule box beneath it. Included were printed copies of the laws of New Mexico codified that year, including the legislation that led to the creation of the monument, as well as an “Act Relative to Involuntary Servitude,” which prohibited and abolished slavery in the territory.
Like the monument itself, what was placed at the center of the territorial capital’s plaza and laid below the cornerstone was equally as intentional and imbued with meaning. Among other relics, the time capsule contained two of the nation’s founding documents, the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. Much has been written about these documents, including who is privileged, represented or rendered entirely invisible. The Declaration of Independence represented Native Americans, for instance, in the singular terms of “merciless Indian savages.” Although, as attested to in the amendments that would follow the original drafting of the Constitution, both of these records were meant to be living documents. Yet, their inclusion at the base of the monument held symbolic meaning for a conquered region and a people who would not gain the rights of full citizenship until 1912 when statehood was finally granted. Even then, though citizenship was finally extended to Native Americans in 1924, Pueblo Indians in New Mexico were not permitted to vote until 1948, 80 years after the cornerstone was laid upon these foundational national documents.
That the Territorial Legislature of New Mexico was interested in the initial proposal to honor the fallen in the Civil War is understandable. Many legislators were directly involved. Kentucky-born William Rynerson served in the Union Army, Company C, 1st California Infantry, which fought to thwart Confederate incursions into the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico. The Speaker of the House, Abiquiú, New Mexico-born José Manuel Gallegos, also fought in the campaign against Confederate forces. Among his many experiences was his capture and imprisonment for pro-Union sympathies. Gallegos later served as foreman of a grand jury indicting two dozen New Mexicans for collaborating with the Confederacy.
But understanding why the territorial legislature amended the memorial to include those fallen in the Indian Wars requires pulling back another layer of history. Legislator Michael Steck, a Pennsylvania-born physician, served as the Indian Agent in New Mexico from 1852-1863, and then as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs the following two years. He knew all about the intricacies of the Indian Wars. In a journal entry labeled “Synopsis of Indian Scouts and their results for the year 1863,” the day-to-day account records both detail and nuance about the campaign:
"M. Steck, Superintendent Indian Affairs, reports that the Utahs have during the last 10 days killed 30 Navajoes, and captured and brought in 60 children of both sexes and captured 30 horses and 2000 sheep. On the 11th inst. four Utahs came in with three scalps and 6 captives. On the 28th the party attacked 150 Indians who fled in all directions, the party here captured 7 children and recovered a captive Mexican boy...; killed 3 Indians and captured 1500 head of sheep and goats; 17 head of horse, mules, burros, and colts. On this scout there were 6 Indians killed, 14 captured, 1 Mexican boy rescued, 1500 head of sheep, 17 horses, mules, burros, and colts captured."
As revealed in this journal, the warfare was multidirectional, but throughout its pages, a phrase appears again and again: “Indian loss unknown.” A year later, in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Steck revealed, from his perspective, the primary cause of the wars.
"The Navajos are a powerful tribe, and are noted for their ingenuity and industry. They cultivate wheat and corn extensively, manufacture excellent blankets, and own large herds of sheep. And if properly treated it can certainly be made their interest to cease marauding, and remain at peace in their own country, they have much to lose in the event of a protracted war. They will not, however, be controlled while their children are stolen, bought, and sold by our people....There is no law of the Territory that legalizes the sale of Indians, yet it is done almost daily, without an effort to stop it."
The wars waged against the Diné and others were therefore bound to the institution of slavery and to this day, the legacy and depth of these wounds are simply not known. Steck’s peers knew this truth too, though perhaps differently. The 17th Territorial Legislative Assembly in 1867-1868 included 36 individuals from across New Mexico, and where these men stood regarding these issues mattered. Thirty-three were New Mexican-born Hispanos, one was the son of a Canadian and New Mexican Hispana; two were born in Mexico, one was born in France and as noted above, one was born in Kentucky and another in Pennsylvania. Nearly half enslaved Indians in their own households and another handful were the sons, brothers and neighbors of those who held the enslaved. Some also held poor Hispanos as “peons,” another euphemism for slavery in contention in New Mexico at the time.
Recovering history requires whenever possible to recognize the people, even if only by their enslaved names, which appear in both sacramental and census records. Among the thousands impacted by slavery, those held specifically by these legislators included individuals from villages throughout New Mexico, and include 18 Diné people, three Paiutes, three Utes and 17 others whose tribal affiliations are not recorded. The list of these men, women and children, as grouped into distinct households, follows:
Juana, Dolores and Juliana Gallegos
Gregorio and Guadalupe Esquivel
Ana María Jaramillo
Guadalupe, María Trinidad, José Antonio and Natividad Jaramillo
Juan de Jesús Romero
María Candelaria, José Domingo Apolonio and Juan Bautista Sandoval
Juan Manuel and María Rita Archuleta
María Guadalupe and María Ramona Valdez
María Antonia Jaramillo
María Dolores Sandoval
María Antonia Archuleta
Juan Miguel and María Antonia Jaramillo
José Antonio Sandoval
María Juana Otero
José Antonio Chávez
Gertrudes and Librada Salazar
María de Jesús Baca
Ana María, Cornelia, José, Juan Antonio, María de la Cruz, María Refugio, Soledad and Vicente Valdez
In total, nearly half of the 36 legislators held up to 41 enslaved people, though Juan Benito Valdez, would be remembered in stories shared during the New Deal Writers Project as enslaving himself as many as 30 individuals. In ensuing unsuccessful efforts to end Native American slavery in the region, Valdez and colleague Juan Policarpio Romero, would be charged with the crime of slavery, along with hundreds of others in Taos, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba Counties. In the end, the grand jury that heard the cases failed to indict, not surprising since its composition were citizens intricately bound to the institution of slavery.
R e i m a g i n i n g t h e M e m o r i a l
The Obelisk has been the subject of debate and protest for decades. At the heart of the controversy is the racist word “savage,” which a protester chiseled out in 1974; others inserted different words through the years: “courageous,” “resilient,” and “our brothers.” Yet time has revealed, even in the absence of the word, the harm lingers.
Untangling these issues is not easy, especially in a region where the culturally and genetically interconnected Native American and Indo-Hispano communities have all inherited the legacy of colonialism and both feel a sense of loss. Ironically, for the contemporary Indo-Hispanos of Santa Fe, who have been disproportionately impacted by loss of land, language and traditions, and who have experienced the dramatic effects of gentrification in place their ancestors have lived for centuries, the removal of this and other monuments feels like one more thing being “taken away.”
Recently, building off of the work of activists of previous generations of Native Americans and Chicanos alike, Three Sisters Collective, an organization focused on “Pueblo womxn centric arts, activism, and empowerment,” called for the dismantling of this and two other monuments in the city. In the face of the growing global movements as well as local pressures to remove these public symbols, the City’s mayor, unilaterally announced they would be removed; and working overnight with State employees, moved to do so, though only succeeding in breaking off the Obelisk’s tip. Given questions over the jurisdiction and the legality of dismantling the monument, its fate currently remains unknown. It was recently defaced with red paint, hand prints and messages of protest, and the offending tablet broken. Santa Fe’s Arts and Culture Department Director Pauline Kanako Kamiyama has issued a call for artists to contribute art work for a plywood surface that is temporarily covering the base.
Given the full and layered history of the Obelisk, I believe in a collective and creative capacity to reimagine it to generate dialogue about the past. More than any other memorial in this landscape, it holds tremendous potential to re-present history and memorialize those impacted by slavery, either fighting against its spread or those fallen victim to the experience, albeit another, different slavery. While I believe some monuments should come down because their existence is indefensible, embodying in single individuals the stories of domination, I contend this one should remain, but necessarily evolve.
Toward this end, I offer the following ideas and elements that may serve as inspiration for a renewed installation.
● Remove the Offensive Tablet
The marble tablet with the offensive inscription should be removed. It could be curated to contextualize how the language of colonialism was, as Antonio de Nebrija reportedly said to the fifteenth century Spanish Queen Isabella, “an instrument of empire.” In this way, it could serve to open dialogue about how words like “savage” and “bárbaro” exist as part of a larger vocabulary that wounds. I generally do not believe in the argument that these monuments “belong in a museum,” if for no other reason, because of their sheer volume, scale and scope. However, this one piece could be a prototype but should be installed at the Roundhouse, the capitol building for the State of New Mexico. The use of the language was developed by that political body in 1867 and the current State Legislature has the opportunity to create space for this important dialogue to move forward.
● Incorporate a Peopled-Land Acknowledgement
Develop and design an acknowledgment that this place now called Santa Fe is still recognized as Oga Po’geh (White Shell Water Place) and thousands of years ago, it was a center for the communities of Northern and Southern Tewa (often identified as Tanos). The living memory and stories told by the people of Taytsúgeh Oweengeh (Tesuque Pueblo) reveal the profound meaning held by this site to this day. In this, it should also be acknowledged it is part of a much larger sovereign landscape for indigenous peoples: the chronicle of its headwaters are woven into the origin stories of Nambe Pueblo; the clays surrounding the site were a resource for both Tewa people and the Jicarilla Apache; and it is set in location where stories are braided into and from the past by the Diné (Navajo), Cochiti, Taos and Hopi Pueblos, with more still not yet fully told.
● Deepen the Civil War Memorial
The names of those who fought in the war against the spread of African American slavery are invisible, not only from the national narrative and consciousness, but from local memory. Recovering and elevating them, which would include Colorado and New Mexicans (both Indo-Hispano and Native American Pueblo individuals), should be added into this memorial.
● Design a Memorial to the Enslaved
The Indian Wars impacted multiple communities, but those that were most violently caught in the middle and yet the most obscured were those that were captured and bound by the institution of another slavery. Earlier in this essay, I called out the names of those held in the homes of the legislators, but these are but a small fraction of the thousands enslaved in the region, including those labeled in sacramental records as Aa, Apache, Comanche, Diné, Kiowa, Pawnee, Paiute and Ute. Using this center-space to create the first ever memorial to the enslaved Native Americans would be monumental. Contemporary identities stem from these origins, and this profound and beautiful complexity is layered across four centuries of presence, reflecting an intricately woven genealogy that inhabits contemporary Santa Fe Nuevomexicanos and beyond. Some potential elements of this memorial could include:
○ A Reflecting Pool: Set in contrast to the stone, the element of water would become part of the land acknowledgment set upon white shell to provide an opportunity for reflection literally and figuratively. Santa Fe has become a place where its generational residents can no longer see themselves reflected. Even if the stories of the enslaved have been quieted over the years by whispers as much as by silence, hushed aside even by those who have inherited the story— carrying, as it is, if not its geography in their faces and hands, certainly its memory exists in an aching consciousness. The fence that currently surrounds the monument could come down and a space encircling the monument could be engineered to become a reflecting pool, even if not with actual water, then perhaps a creatively designed metaphor.
○ The Names: Based on my database of thousands of the enslaved, I would work with a media artist/projectionist to create an installation highlighting a revolving list of those names that could be projected onto the pool and the obelisk. More than names, these are the ancestors of contemporary Indo-Hispanos of the region.
While this monument sits in America, that America is set in an ancient and sovereign landscape, where deeply meaningful physical and spiritual elements intersect at the center of Native American Pueblo communities. In these indigenous worldviews, there are actually multiple centers, radiating out, revealing profound and deep spiritual and cultural connections.
What we place at the center of our towns and cities matters; and over the past several decades, scholars, artists, community leaders and others have actively worked to account for the cultural wounds that resulted from colonial violence and to illuminate the difficult truths about the past, in part by advocating for the removal of harmful monuments. The fact that this one in Santa Fe, originally inspired by an ancient symbol tied to illumination and records, is all the more profound. Layered over a founding document that speaks to holding certain truths to be ‘self-evident,’ a reimagined Obelisk has the potential to reveal underlying truths at the heart of this community and ultimately, to begin envisioning a site of consciousness that opens the possibility for racial healing and reconciliation.
Cover Image: “Obelisk in Santa Fe Plaza,” Santa Fe, New Mexico, January 2017, Photo courtesy of Estevan Rael.