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Mary Annette Pember

Indian Country Today

Vigilante efforts to defend controversial statues and monuments in New Mexico may have backfired.

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber announced Wednesday that the city would be removing two monuments honoring Kit Carson, as well as a statue of Don Diego De Vargas in front of the Santa Fe courthouse.

Carson commanded U.S. troops who forced Navajos to a concentration camp in the 1860s, while De Vargas, a Spanish conquistador, murdered hundreds of Pueblo people.

Emboldened by the Black Lives Matter Movement, Native Americans and supporters have renewed calls for the removal of historical monuments and statues whose fraught history with Native people is nothing to celebrate.

On Monday, a protester was shot while trying to remove a statue of Juan de Onate in Albuquerque during a rally. New Mexico’s 16th century colonial governor, Onate brutally killed 800 Indigenous people in Acoma Pueblo and ordered his soldiers to cut off the feet of several male captives.

Demonstrators climb the statue of Don Juan de Onate in Old Town in Albuquerque, N.M., while an armed member of the New Mexico Civil Guard stands by during a protest calling for the removal of the likeness of the controversial New Mexico explorer Monday, June 15, 2020. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

In a trend that has marked Black Lives Matter-inspired events across the country, several armed members of right wing vigilante groups attended the rally in Albuquerque to ostensibly guard against looting and destruction of property. Social media has played a role in spreading rumors that have unified vigilante groups to respond to so-called violent antifa activists descending on communities.

According to Nick Estes, assistant professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and co-founder of The Red Nation, an organization dedicated to Native liberation, several heavily armed members of the militia group New Mexico Civil Guard, showed up to protect the statue.

“Armed militia were pushing people who were trying to topple the statue; the man who shot the protestor first sprayed the crowd with pepper spray,” said Estes, Lower Brule Sioux. 

“After the protester was shot, members of the Guard held us at gunpoint until police arrived,” he said.

Steven Ray Baca, 31 was arrested and jailed for allegedly shooting Scott Williams, who survived but remains hospitalized.

Albuquerque police say they have arrested Stephan Ray Baca in a shooting that happened as protesters tried to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador outside a museum. Police said 31-year-old Baca was arrested on suspicion of aggravated battery in the Monday, June 15, 2020, shooting that critically wounded a man. (Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office via AP)

It is not clear if Baca is a member of the Guard.

Tension between Albuquerque protesters and armed militia groups have escalated recently, according to Estes. He reported that several armed men followed him and other members of the Red Nation to their office and pulled a gun on them June 5 when they tried to enter the building. “He told us he was making sure we weren’t breaking in; I told him this is our office,” he said.

The mayor’s decision to remove the Kit Carson monuments and the Don Diego De Vargas statue was announced shortly after members of the Three Sisters Collective, a coalition of Indigenous women advocating for Indigenous rights, released an open letter inviting Webber and City Council to attend a peaceful gathering Thursday calling for the removal of the monuments.

In a heartfelt video posted to his Facebook page, the mayor announced the city’s decision to remove the monuments and statue.

“We must recognize that New Mexico has a dark and bloody past. The racism and pain suffered by the Native community is embodied in statues and monuments, language, place and treatment of Natives by our community, intended or not,” he said.

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“In this historic moment, we are being called upon to come to terms with our past. When the history of the 21st century is written, 2020 will go down in history as the moment when we either stepped up and took advantage of the challenge we are facing or allowed the past to swallow us up,” Webber said.

Both Kit Carson and Don Diego de Vargas have fraught and painful pasts for Native Americans. 

Although Carson is revered and celebrated in popular mythology as a legend of the West, he is remembered by the Navajo tribe for his brutal actions against them, including his leadership in forcing nearly 8,000 Navajo men, women and children to take the infamous 1864 “Long Walk” of 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they were confined in squalid conditions until 1868.

Don Diego De Vargas led the 1692 reconquest after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Although the Entrada may have been free of bloodshed, de Vargas went on to later murder hundreds of Pueblo people.

Webber announced that the obelisks in the Santa Fe Plaza and in front of the courthouse will come down.

“The Don Diego statue will be removed to a safe place while we look for its proper home,” he said.

No information was immediately available on the timeline for removal of either the obelisks or statue.

The decision to remove the Santa Fe monuments comes amid prospects that armed groups would show up in the state's capital city to protect them, though Native people and supporters have called for removal of the memorials for years. On Monday, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Santa Fe had no plans to address its controversial monuments. 

Thursday’s gathering organized by the Three Sisters Collective will now be a celebration.

“We are relieved by the mayor’s announcement; there is a growing reckoning in America with white supremacist culture and how cities have been complacent in perpetuating that culture,” said Jade Begay of the Three Sisters Collective.

Begay, a citizen of Tesuque Pueblo, is also a staff member at NDN Collective, a nonprofit Indigenous advocacy group.

“We’re grateful to the Black Lives Matter Movement and Black Visions Collective for creating the momentum for this to happen,” Begay said.

“The mayor is compassionate and empathic; he made it clear that vigilantes are not welcome in our community,” she said.

The state Indian Affairs Department issued a joint statement with tribal leaders expressing support and gratitude for the mayor’s decision to remove the statues.

“I applaud Mayor Alan Webber and the City of Santa Fe for its decision to remove several statues on city grounds. As we are seeing throughout the state and across the world, people of good conscience are coming together to change how we think about powerful symbols like statues. It is no longer enough to present just one version of history. We owe it to all those who lived it to portray the full complexity of our shared past,” the statement said.

“These statues, which celebrated the killing of Native peoples, have excluded New Mexico’s tribes from this shared history. We look forward to supporting all those who want to work toward a more complete retelling of our history and thank Mayor Webber for his leadership.”

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.


This story has been updated to add Nick Estes' tribal affiliation.