Hero or Villain: How Should We Remember Don Juan de Oñate?
By Ray Rivera
January 11, 1998
Published with permission from the Santa Fe New Mexican
As New Mexico commemorates its 400th anniversary, some historians wonder if political correctness is dividing our state.
The recent vandalism of a bronze sculpture of conquistador Don Juan de Oñate at a public visitors center north of Española was just another reminder that few of those we honor come without some sinister baggage.
Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson and Kit Carson are just a few members in a growing pantheon of historical figures who have been cast in unfavorable light by revisionist historians. Does that mean we shouldn’t honor them?
As New Mexicans this year celebrate the cuartocentenario, the 400th anniversary of Oñate’s arrival here, the question is especially acute. Because while no Indian groups have claimed credit for sawing off the right foot of the Oñate sculpture, the act illustrates how differently many Indians, Hispanics and other New Mexicans view their common regional history.
“It’s time to remember there are two stories to every conquest,” Navajo Nation president Albert Hale wrote in a letter to The New Mexican last week. “Until now, only one story has been told. This year, it is time to tell the other story.”
The issue of sensitivity regarding historical figures has popped in and out of the national spotlight over the years. In 1992, the celebration of the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the new world was marked by indignation from many Indian leaders, who said Indians celebrating Columbus was the equivalent of Jews commemorating Hitler.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, has been criticized for his ownership of slaves and trysts with slave women. Kit Carson has been both celebrated for his bravery and reviled for his military campaign against the Navajo Nation. And more recently, New Orleans gained national attention when, keeping with a policy of dropping slave-owners’ names from public schools, the city changed the name of George Washington Elementary to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary, after the black surgeon who pioneered blood plasma preservation.
“We’re riding a trend of pan-Indianism,” said historian Tom Ch·vez, director of the Palace of the Governors museum in Santa Fe. “We’re suffering the fallout of political correctness and the ethnic chauvinism of the ’60s, And in my mind, rather than allowing us to take a look back clearly, these things are tending to divide society.”
New Mexico historian Marc Simmons agrees. Given the nature of sensitivity, it’s not possible to commemorate anybody in history or honor anything,” said Simmons, who has written a biography of Oñate, the man who colonized New Mexico for Spain in 1598 and became its first governor. “You could only honor angels, and there are no angels.”
For Simmons, dishonoring the father of our nation by removing his name from an elementary school was no less a disservice than the defacing – or in this case defooting – of the man he calls the “Father of New Mexico.” “(Oñate) was the George Washington of New Mexico,” Simmons said. “It was because of him and his courage and his perseverance that we have New Mexico.”
A letter sent to newspaper columnists claiming responsibility for the vandalism of the sculpture at the Oñate Center in Alcalde said the damage was inflicted “on behalf of our brothers and sisters at Acoma pueblo.” Oñate is believed to have ordered Spanish troops to cut off the right foot of warriors from Acoma Pueblo after an uprising there claimed his nephew’s life. “This was done in commemoration of his 400th year anniversary acknowledging his unasked for exploration of our land,” the letter said.
The act was not isolated. Statues of conquistadors installed in Santa Fe in recent years have been spray-painted with epitaphs such as “murderer” and “killer.” Hale of the Navajo Nation said in his letter that the Spaniards “raided our people to capture slaves.” And “Spanish greed launched 250 years of warfare as we defended our people, our lands, our culture and our ways.”
But Simmons and Ch·vez say figures such as Oñate and Carson have to be viewed in historical perspective, without today’s mores placed upon them. “It is very ignorant of us to take a person and make him a god,” Ch·vez said. “It is equally as stupid to turn around and say – with a couple of exceptions like Hitler – that they were completely bad people. These were human beings in a certain place and time that had something to do and did it.” “Chopping off the feet (of the Acoma warriors), in context, was a small part of Oñate’s life,” Simmons said. “These days people want to focus on one thing and use it to discredit the entire individual.”
The issue of sensitivity has become a frustration to many scholars, Simmons and Ch·vez said. “People are completely immobilized now,” Simmons said. “You can’t get anything done.” Simmons says he left a job teaching history at the University of New Mexico in 1984 because of what he viewed as an oncoming wave of political correctness, and this year he has declined speaking offers at cuartocentenario festivals. “It wasn’t called political correctness then, but there were signs of it,” he said. “I’d been noticing it since the mid-1960s, so I abandoned (teaching).”
Recently, the authors of the Atlas of the New West – a book that chronicles the changes in the West through maps, graphs, illustrations and essays – declined to include a map of Western heroes. “We had debates, arguments, and we couldn’t do it,” said University of Colorado geographer William Riebsame, the book’s general editor. “The only way we could finally decide who was a hero was if I put my foot down and said that person is a hero. So we nixed it.”
Even the football teams of the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona this year stopped passing the Kit Carson rifle as a trophy between them because of the belief that it had been used to kill Indians.
Hale of the Navajo Nation said he wasn’t against Oñate being commemorated, but said New Mexico’s original inhabitants should be commemorated as well. “It is time to remember the cost of conquest,” Hale said. “Courage is measured by the valor of the opponents; if the daring of Spanish conquerors is honored, so should the courage of the original habitants.”
Said Simmons: “If we fail to honor Oñate this year because we’re intimidated by crackpots, we not only disgrace Oñate, we disgrace ourselves.”