Juan de Oñate and a 400-year legacy of conflict

When the statue of the first Spanish colonizer in New Mexico suddenly came down this week, it sparked celebration, reflection and even violence

By Rick Romancito
Posted 6/18/20

By the time Juan de Oñate died in 1626, he had been banished from New Mexico forever.In less than a decade as the first Spanish conquistador to establish a colony among the Pueblo Indian lands of …

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Juan de Oñate and a 400-year legacy of conflict

When the statue of the first Spanish colonizer in New Mexico suddenly came down this week, it sparked celebration, reflection and even violence

Posted

By the time Juan de Oñate died in 1626, he had been banished from New Mexico forever.

In less than a decade as the first Spanish conquistador to establish a colony among the Pueblo Indian lands of what was then known as New Spain, he had amassed numerous crimes against the Native People, run the colony into ruin, never found the riches he boasted would enrich the Spanish crown and was summoned to Mexico City in disgrace.

History, however, has been somewhat kinder. As cultural pride for all of New Mexico's legendary figures grew in the 20th century, efforts to honor Oñate as an early founder resulted in a bronze statue to be erected in 1994 at the site of what was hoped to be a permanent cultural center located near the site of his first colony at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (formerly San Juan Pueblo).

When we said somewhat kinder, that was an understatement, as internet users and passersby to the monument off State Road 68 witnessed Monday afternoon (June 15).

The statue of Juan de Oñate was suddenly removed by Río Arriba County workers, prompting outcries of celebration among many Pueblo Natives and supporters who made note of the first Spanish colony founder's aforementioned ignominious achievements.

But, the fanfare turned to grave concern as another statue, this one at the Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, was the focus of a demonstration Monday, demanding it be taken down.

As that demonstration stretched into the evening, gunfire erupted and one man was shot and later hospitalized. Witnesses stated members of an armed self-styled militia group calling themselves the "New Mexico Civil Guard" was responsible.

Calls to launch an investigation of the incident and the group were immediately issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who said on her Facebook page, "This is not who we are as New Mexicans. I'm horrified that anyone would take action with a deadly weapon against someone who disagrees with them. This is not the way. Let me be clear: white supremacy has no place here."

Meanwhile, in Alcalde, it was learned that the removal of the statue by Río Arriba County workers was to protect it from being damaged following reports a Native American group planned a demonstration at the site later that day.

In Albuquerque, the Oñate statue has been taken down as well, with Mayor Tim Keller posting to Twitter, "The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city. Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us."

Why has this historical figure become the focus of so much attention?

This is a different time and place from that when the statue was erected. Demonstrations have been happening all over the country and the world focused on Black Lives Matter. And while some have attempted to dilute that strong and powerful message by saying "all lives matter," as if the grievances at the core of this movement somehow don't count as much, they do and must be heard and remembered for all time.

While this movement has been gaining momentum, sentiment has also become focused on the monuments that have been erected to honor those we considered historical figures.

Among them, so-called heroes of the American Civil War, men who led armies that killed citizens and pillaged towns while fighting against the United States. Defenders have said these figures are important elements of history and deserve to be remembered.

The fact is, we remember them all right. We remember them as racists, oppressors, murderers, plunderers and enemies of our nation.

Even Oñate, whose name is enshrined in textbooks and historical treatises, represents a period in New Mexico history before 1776 when the conquerors certainly wrote the official chronicle. While some have labeled them as revisionists, people who emerged from the DNA of the oppressed have brought the reality of what the conquerors did to light and it is often not pretty.

If any monument to these figures deserves to be created, perhaps it should not be of a heroic figure riding upon a gallant horse, and instead show the bloodied hands of a despot?

"By the time he was in his early 20s Juan de Oñate was leading military campaigns against the Chichimec Indians and had begun his early career prospecting for silver. He also aided the establishment of missions in the newly conquered territory of Northern New Spain," according to the website newmexicohistory.org.

In 1595, King Philip of Spain awarded a contract to Oñate to establish the first Spanish colony in New Mexico following reports of Franciscan missionaries working among the Pueblo Indians. On April 30, 1598, Oñate publicly took this land for Spain, although its original inhabitants likely had no idea what he was talking about.

When Oñate, and even later caravans and explorers, set forth into the northern territories, he and they were under orders by the Spanish government to treat Natives with respect and to conduct nonviolent missionary activities.

But, in the new land, they began to act independently and with prejudice against the Pueblo Indians. At issue was the fact that the Pueblos practiced their own native religion which the Catholic missionaries immediately deemed satanic and sought to eradicate it. Many used the Spanish military to violently accomplish these means. Along with other oppressive systems, these eventually led to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

That legacy of oppression began with Oñate.

"In December 1598, on their way to Zuni, Capt. Juan de Zaldívar and his soldiers stopped at Acoma for provisions," states the New Mexico History website. "While there the Acomas accused one of Zaldívar's soldiers of stealing, and violating an Acoma woman. The Acomas proceeded to kill Zaldívar and nearly a dozen of his men, later claiming that the soldiers had demanded excessive amounts of provisions.

"A Spanish punitive expedition ascended on Acoma resulting in a three-day battle. When the fighting ended, several hundred Indians were dead, and hundreds of surviving Acomas were held prisoner and taken to Santo Domingo Pueblo to stand trial.

"Oñate severely punished the people of Acoma. Men over 25 had one foot cut off and were sentenced to 20 years of personal servitude to the Spanish colonists; young men between the ages of 12 and 25 received 20 years of personal servitude; young women over 12 years of age were given 20 years of servitude; 60 young girls were sent to Mexico City to serve in the convents there, never to see their homeland again; and two Hopi men caught at the Acoma battle had their right hand cut off and were set free to spread the news of Spanish retribution."

In 1998, on the eve of the 400-year anniversary of the first Spanish colony in New Mexico, a group of Native American activists sneaked onto the Oñate Cultural Center property and cut off one of the statue's feet as a symbol to remind New Mexicans of the founder's crimes. This foot was reportedly brandished at the Albuquerque demonstration on Monday.

Although Oñate had been long gone by the time the 1680 Pueblo Revolt evicted the Spanish colonial presence in New Mexico, it was his actions that helped set the violence into motion. Spanish colonists were allowed to return to this region around 1692 amid promises that the offenses of before would not be allowed any longer.

Time has a way of making compromises and memories fade too soon, but not for those of the victims and their descendants.

Rick Romancito is an artist and writer and former editor of Tempo.

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