Organizers and supporters on Sept. 28 celebrate Rio Arriba County’s postponement of putting back a statue of the war criminal and Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate that officials removed in 2020. Jacob Johns (Hopi, Akimel O'odham). the environmental activist who was later shot, stands in the middle. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source NM)
Before an extremist shot Jacob Johns (Hopi, Akimel O’odham) in Española on Sept. 28, community members spent the morning together for a sunrise prayer ceremony and the afternoon together for a celebration of sorts.
They expressed relief as Rio Arriba County officials indefinitely postponed the reinstallation of a statue of violent war criminal Juan de Oñate, someone who tried to eradicate Pueblo culture by killing and enslaving hundreds of Native Americans in the 1600s.
Native activists had been sleeping outside Rio Arriba County buildings for days last week, trying to prevent the reinstallation.
Officials decided to postpone it Sept. 27, the day before they had planned to put it back up, “in the interest of public safety.”
Native activists and other community members never want to see the statue back up at all.
It’s unclear how long the statue’s postponement will last or if the reinstallation will be canceled altogether. A county commission meeting on Oct. 5 does not have discussions about the statue on its agenda.
Malaya Peixinho is a 23-year-old community member who came to the event to support her aunties and grandmothers. She looked down the barrel of a gun pulled by a Donald Trump supporter who came to the peaceful gathering last week.
Before that, she was celebrating the delay.
“We came together, and we prayed, and we celebrated as a family that we were able to postpone this statue,” Peixinho told Democracy Now! on Tuesday.
Instead of spending over $100,000 to put the statue back up, community members asked officials to refocus the investment.
“I didn’t feel it was right for our community money, that could be spent on resources and support and our healing of our community, to be spent on this statue,” Peixinho said.
Indigenous activists present on Sept. 28 also asked officials to change the name of Oñate Street, preferably to Tewa Valley Road.
Justine Teba (Santa Clara, Tesuque, Acoma) said last week there needs to be more respect for tribal sovereignty, accessible housing, compassionate health care treatment and counseling.
Teba, a member of The Red Nation, also called for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives crisis to end, along with hetero-patriarchal violence and border town violence.
Jennifer Marley, another Red Nation member, said this is also connected to the environment. Marley (San Ildefonso) said Native people should “have access to clean water and air and soil so we can plant.”
“How come we are still suffering the same ills we have since colonization started on these lands?” she said.
The violence on Sept. 28 was just a continuation of generations of harm, death and systemic oppression faced by Indigenous peoples, said Johns, the Indigenous activist who was shot.
As of Wednesday, he was recovering in the hospital, in critical but stable condition.
“This draws attention to the lengthy history of injustices against Indigenous peoples by dehumanizing systems and divisive ideologies the community was protesting,” Johns said in a written statement by his family on Tuesday.
Johns’ mother LaVerne McGrath said she hopes the tragedy can lead to systemic changes “in which Indigenous peoples and other historically oppressed peoples are not downplayed.”
Celina Montoya-Garcia (Ohkay Owingeh) told Source NM last week community embraced those who opposed the statue going back up, bringing food and water and prayers. She said organizers invited them to set their intentions on the altar they had set up on and around the slab.
“We’ve definitely felt very loved by this, by the community,” she said.
Montoya-Garcia said she invited people who showed up with aggressive intent to pray with them as well, but that didn’t happen. People taking part of a prayer circle on the morning of Sept. 28 had to repeat requests to one woman who walked up to stop recording.
Before Thursday, Montoya-Garcia said no conflicts had escalated.
“We’ve been doing our best, despite our trigger responses as peoples are on the front lines all the time, to remain calm and grounded,” she said. “The main intention is knowing no aggression whatsoever.”
As she spoke to Source NM, those there in opposition of the statue tore up and threw away signs at least one person — who declined to speak with Source NM when asked — had put up that morning advocating for the Oñate statue.
During Montoya-Garcia’s speech to everyone, she said she’s tired of repeating the same things. She said she was there so her children and others’ could feel safe as Indigenous people, despite those coming into the area and disrespecting them.
“Our prayers are louder than your hate,” she said.
Maurus Chino said there’s an obsession in New Mexico with “the violent and brutal past,” like with the Oñate statue, and it reflects the high violence rates in the state. Chino (Acoma) said people don’t have to celebrate history, and they should acknowledge the dark past.
“I will say this with all my heart: I despise your celebrations. I despise what you believe in,” he said. “We have a right to be here. This is our land. It’s not yours. It wasn’t yours to begin with. It was stolen.”
Chino said he started taking social action in 1994 when he first heard the Oñate statue was going to go up. He wrote a letter to the then-Secretary of Interior, but it didn’t make a difference. The statue went up anyway because it was already funded, he said.
“There’s been corruption since the day Oñate crossed the Rio Grande to come into New Mexico,” he said. “It has never ended.”
As important as it is to recognize Oñate’s violence, Peixinho said it’s more important to recognize the pain and suffering in the community today.
“I see how some funds for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, some funds for our alarming rates of overdoses, our housing crisis, that feels more important than funding a statue being resurrected,” she said.
Dr. Christina Castro said Indigenous people did the work to get the statue removed in 2020, and now they have to do it all over again. Castro (Taos, Jemez) said it’s a way to constantly keep Native people in defense mode.
“The state still continues to protect these monuments in spite of knowing that they cause harm,” she said. “And so this is a direct attack on Indigenous people.”
She pointed to the disparities in Rio Arriba County — a community who’s largely Hispanic and Indigenous with high violence and poverty rates — and the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court decision which found education for Native students and others in New Mexico to be constitutionally inadequate.
“I understand the frustration people feel about these symbols in their community that they’ve maybe been seeing their whole life, but these symbols cause harm to the minds and identities of young people,” Castro said.
Castro said working to prevent the Oñate statue from coming back up is lightwork compared to what her ancestors endured in the colonial times. Indigenous people have a story of resistance, she said, and this is carrying on what their ancestors did.
“Everything that we have in the system we’ve had to fight for, and sometimes give our lives for,” she said.
Mohammed el-Kurd, a Palestinian writer and poet, said as someone who was born and raised in occupied Palestine, he identifies with Indigenous people’s struggle for sovereignty. He said he’s disgusted by those who “have nothing better to do than to celebrate the legacy of a murderous war criminal.”
“You can build a much better legacy,” he said. “You can wash your hands of this blood.”
Gary Goddard was at the protest in 2020 with his son when officials removed the statue. He compared the Oñate statue to the Confederate scope of statues in the Southern U.S. of people who were fighting for slavery.
“Oñate is a symbol,” he said. “He represents nihilism.”
He said Rio Arriba County Commissioner Alex Naranjo is trying to make his own decision to put a sculpture up that his relative Emilio Naranjo was instrumental in first erecting, instead of engaging in community dialogue.
“It needs to be part of a community discussion, not just forced upon the community,” Goddard said.
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