Red paint defaces the left foot of Juan de Oñate, Oñate Monument and Vistors Center, New Mexico, 2017. Phote: Eddie Moore/Alburquerque Journal.

Justice Afoot

Communing with the Friends of Acoma. By Gene Ray

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Yes, the Americas were full of furious, bitter spirits; five hundred years of slaughter had left the continents swarming with millions of spirits that never rested and would never stop until justice had been done.
        Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (1991)

Potential history is a form of being with others, both living and dead, across time, against the separation of the past from the present, colonized peoples from their worlds and possessions, and history from politics. In this space where in violence ought to be reversed, different options that were once eliminated are reactivated as a way of slowing the imperial movement of progress.
        Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History, Unlearning Imperialism (2019)

Land has been stolen, and significant amounts of it must be returned.
       Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks (2014)


One night on or about New Year 1998, a party of anonymous iconoclasts infiltrated the grounds of the Oñate Monument and Visitor Center, located north of Española, in so-called New Mexico, and a few miles east of the Indigenous Pueblo community of Ohkay Owingeh. Reaching the nearly four-meter high equestrian bronze statue dedicated to the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate y Salazar, the activists neatly amputated Oñate’s right foot. Those who did the deed were never apprehended, nor were their identities uncovered. And while that severed bronze foot in boot and spurs is still missing, it occasionally makes potent public appearances.1

The unseen iconoclasts were not unheard, however, for they spoke clearly, both in their action and in three communiqués signed “Friends of Acoma,” sent to local newspapers. The first, arriving within days at the Santa Fe offices of the Albuquerque Journal, included a polaroid of the severed foot. The message read:

We invite you to visit the Oñate Distortion Museum and Visitors Center. Located eight miles north of Española. We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo. This was done in commemoration of his 400th year anniversary acknowledging his unasked for exploration of our land. We will be melting his foot down and casting small medallions to be sold to those who are historically ignorant.2

From the withering eloquence of these words, stories unfold, memory goes to battle, and the amnesia of official celebration is challenged. As the great Laguna Pueblo poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko reminds us, “Stories themselves have spirit and being, and they have a way of communicating on different levels.”3 (TL 45)

The Oñate Monument and Visitors Center, opened in the early 1990s, was itself a local echo of the hype generated by the 500th year anniversary of Columbus’s invasion of Guanahani (so-called San Salvador) and Ayiti (so-called Hispaniola). The Center and the 1994 statue that is its main attraction commemorate Juan de Oñate’s 1598 penetration into Pueblo land, his takeover of the pueblo Ohkay Owingeh and his founding of the colony of Nuevo México. The empathic attraction to “Don Juan” the conquistador on the occasion of the cuartocentenario (or 400th year anniversary of New Mexico’s foundation) may well have reflected a desire on the part of some in the Spanish-speaking Nuevomexicano community to recover and celebrate its own memory and tradition in the face of the dominant Anglo-oriented history and settler culture.4 For good reasons, this did not sit well with the Indigenous ancestors.

Oñate Monument and Visitors Center director Estevan Arellano shows dismembered statue, January 1998. Photo: Jane Bernard/ Alburquerque Journal.


In the colony of New Mexico, Oñate and his soldiers became notorious for mistreating the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, for encouraging the Indian slave trade, and for raping and abusing Indigenous women. In December 1598, a force of thirty-some colonists arrived at the craggy mesa of Acoma Pueblo, to the southwest of Ohkay Owingeh, and sent up a demand for food and provisions. When this was refused as excessive, the conquistadors climbed up to the village. “When a soldier named Vivero stole two turkeys, a bird sacred to the Pueblos, and violated a Pueblo woman, the Acoma warriors attacked.”5 The Spanish force was quickly wiped out. Declaring a punitive “war by blood and fire,” Oñate sent a larger force with two canons to subdue the pueblo. In the massacre that followed, some 800 Indigenous men, women and children were killed. Oñate then passed judgment over the survivors, packing off boys and girls to churches and convents as far away as Mexico City, sentencing the women and men to twenty years’ enslavement, and decreeing that men older than twenty-five should in addition have one foot cut off. Twenty-four Acoma men were mutilated in this way.6 As fugitives of slavery, the survivors of Acoma returned to their mesa and against colonial expectation rebuilt their village. As for the founding patriarch and first governor of New Mexico, Oñate himself was eventually denounced by Franciscan missionaries for the ferocity of his abuses against the Indigenous; he was forced by his own viceroy to resign his post. A generation later, a large-scale uprising meticulously organized by Popé, an Ohkey Owingeh spiritual leader, would expel the Spanish settlers and their colonial military government from lands north of the Rio Grande for twelve years; unifying the Pueblo, Navajo and Apache nations, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 counts as one of the most successful Indigenous uprisings against European settler colonialism in the Americas.7

By signing their communiqués “Friends of Acoma,” then, the iconoclasts clarified the intention and meaning of their action and catalyzed a Now-Time of justice8 that would preempt and in short order undo the grand cuartocentenario. In a second letter to the Alburquerque Journal, they patiently elaborated:

We see no glory in celebrating Oñate’s fourth centennial and we do not want our faces rubbed in it. If you must speak of his expedition, speak the truth in all its entirety…. This land was ours long ago before the Conquistadors, Mexicans or Anglos came here. We know the history of this place before their time and we have not forgotten it since their arrival…. From the beginning our goal has been about acknowledging the truth.9

The director of the Oñate Monument and Visitors’ Center, Estevan Arellano, evidently attempted to deflect the critical force of this remembrance by repeatedly relaying in the media his conviction that the culprits must be Anglo environmentalists. The Friends of Acoma disabused him: “You were wrong about our heritage,” they write in their second letter, seeming to address Arellano directly, “we are Native Americans and Native New Mexicans.” They make it clear in the same letter that their action was aimed at Oñate and his latter-day cheerleaders, and not at “our Hispanic brothers and sisters”; it was not their desire “to disrupt any of our communities.”10 In a third letter, to the Santa Fe Reporter, the Friends of Acoma go even further in breaking the spell of Oñate’s icon, enumerating with trickster irony options for the severed bronze foot. “In respect of the foot,” they conclude, “dialogue is dangerous, but we feel a response is the proper thing to do. It must be admitted that we are proud of our actions, not so much the action itself, but the resulting education it caused.”11

The statue of Oñate was repaired, at the cost of $10,000.12 But the taking of Oñate’s foot by the Friends of Acoma, along with their wry and witty communiqués, is still reverberating. Plans for additional new monuments to Oñate in Albuquerque and El Paso were quickly bogged down in controversy and were only able to go forward in chastened forms.13 In their letter to the Santa Fe Reporter, the Friends of Acoma had quipped that if Oñate was worthy of a postage stamp, then Popé, the leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, should get a statue. In 2005, he did, in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, DC, no less, a most prestigious venue indeed; however this gesture of appeasement, of official history from above, is highly problematic at a time when the US state continues to treat Indigenous nations as sacrificial communities, and to force their remnant land bases open to further plunder and extraction. A real settling of accounts with the continuing crimes and legacies of settler colonialism will not come so easily, as events since then confirm. (A minimum condition of justice would be the return of Indigenous land bases at a scale adequate to ecological integrity, spiritual healing and full self-determination; however difficult this may be for the dominant settler-colonial nation to admit and implement, anything less perpetuates the historical harms and amounts to disavowal.14) In 2017, iconoclasts again struck Oñate’s statue, this time covering its left foot with red paint and tagging a wall of the Oñate Monument and Visitors Center with the graffito “Remember 1680.”15 Later in the same year, the Center was renamed the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Center – the displacement of Oñate’s name more evidence of his falling stock.

The severed bronze foot of Juan de Oñate, photographed in 2017 by Adria Malcom for the New York Times.


On June 16, 2020, county administrators finally bowed to pressure and protests and removed the statue. Later the very same day, in Albuquerque, a crowd of decolonizing demonstrators gathered for a prayer ceremony hosted by Genízaro nation people at the site of that city’s Oñate monument.16 (Genízaros are people of mixed Indigenous and Hispanic ancestry who entered colonial society as captives taken during the long wars waged against Indigenous tribes.17) Trustees of the museum overseeing the monument had already voted the week before to remove it. As reported by the New York Times:

At one point during the protest, Oñate’s foot even made a surprise appearance. Three men wearing masks carried the bronze foot, taken all those years ago, to the entrance of Tiguex Park near the statue, and briefly held the foot aloft. One of the men was Brian Hardgroove, a bass player for the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Mr. Hardgroove, who lives in New Mexico and has worked as an artist in residence at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, said he came to express support for solidarity between Native Americans and African-Americans. “Carrying this foot is a powerful act of resistance,” Mr. Hardgroove said.18

However, the demonstrators in Albuquerque were later attacked by an armed white supremacist militia that had showed up, in camouflage fatigues and carrying assault rifles, to “defend” it. In a melee, a militiaman shot and wounded one of the protestors – evidence that the symbolic shaking of foundations has amply aroused settler-colonial anxieties.19

Clay replica of Oñate’s severed foot, installed at the SITElines Casa Tomada biennial exhibition, 2018. Photo:


As the presence of Brian Hardgroove suggests, the case of Oñate’s missing foot has itself not been missed in some art and cultural circles. The curators of the 2018 SITElines Casa Tomada, the third “installment of the SITE Santa Fe’s reimagined biennial model,” installed a cast clay replica of Oñate’s booted and spurred foot in an alcove at the very center and heart of the exhibition. (The material shift from bronze to clay is rather stunning: in another turning of the tables, the pointed boot in its saddle stirrup has now become a breakable, open-topped vessel that gives fine-grained, earthy-hued presence to the land out of which clay is made. While its brightly lit clay surface asks to be touched, it also radiates a refusal of monumental permanence; the fragility of the long-pointed rowel, any of the clay spikes of which would be easily fractured, especially signals the material humbling of the original – or rather, the dialectical-artistic negation of the icon’s original power.) The installation centrally positions the severed foot, in the words of Erin Joyce, writing for Hyperallergic, “as artifact, artwork, and anti-monument to colonial violence in the Western Hemisphere.”20 Celebrated Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyres is sure the iconoclastic action is worthy of full documentary treatment. While doing research for a film project based on the dismemberment of the bronze Oñate, Eyre was approached by one of the Friends of Acoma. Eyre, who for many years chaired the film department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, shared his conviction with the New York Times in 2017:

“Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson,” said Mr. Eyre, referring to the president’s comparison in August of removing statues to “changing history.” “For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”21

In the end, he told the Albuquerque Journal in the same year, the iconoclastic action moved the conversation forward:

Whether you agree or disagree, the conversation is still being had, and it’s more relevant today than 20 years ago when he did it… In my field, they call that art. It’s the highest compliment, because it’s an ongoing process, an ongoing constant.22

The “conversation” will not always be a polite or comfortable one, exactly because it is a process of disputation – of reckoning, confronting, refusing, standing firm – in short a moment in a long struggle for social justice. And this is why “the stories or ‘histories’ are sacred,” as Leslie Marmon Silko puts it.23 The dead are present, watching, engaged; they await the events of reparation, Now-Time, the turning of the circles. Full reparation and true reconciliation can only come after justice; they can never precede or dictate it. The artistry of the Friends of Acoma is that in resisting amnesia and impunity, in retelling the old stories, they brought new ones into the world. Both kinds, together, “have a way of communicating on different levels,” and of rippling the social with unpredictable and transformative effects.



  1. In 2017, a journalist for the New York Times reportedly made contact with one of the iconoclasts, through the intermediary of filmmaker Chris Eyre. “Mr. Eyre arranged an encounter in September between this reporter and the thief [of the severed bronze foot], a wiry figure who trekked to the remote meeting point carrying his piece of Oñate. Chafing at celebrations of the Spanish conquest while describing his own Iroquois ancestry, the thief said he carried out the amputation in 1997 with just one comrade, a native New Mexican, in solidarity with the Acoma people.” The man brought the severed bronze foot to the meeting, and a photograph was published in the resulting article (and is reproduced here). He also cleared up uncertainty regarding the date of the iconoclastic action: it was carried out on the night of 29 December 1997. Of he himself, no image was made, and the identities of the two activists remain anonymous. Meanwhile, the statute of limitations has run out on the federal crime of vandalism, and the local sheriff’s department has closed the case. Simon Romero, “Statue’s Stolen Foot Reflects Division over Symbols of Conflict,” New York Times, September 30, 2017. See also Megan Bennett, “After 20 Years, Has the Mystery of Oñate’s Foot Been Solved?” Alburquerque Journal, 20 October 2017: online:
  2. Cited in Michael Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot: Remembering and Dismembering in Northern New Mexico,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, vol. 32, no. 2 (2008), pp. 94-5. Trujillo’s carefully researched account is indispensable for its lucid analysis of the complexities and contradictions of the ethnic-racial wounds and desires congealed in the Oñate monument and released through the “opening” made by its cutting.
  3. Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), p. 45.
  4. Trujillo suggests that “the significance of the Oñate icon for many Oñate supporters may be found in Nuevomexicanos’ own subjugation to the most powerful of the three major ethnic/racial groups in New Mexico: Anglos.” He thus concludes that “the vandalized statue offers a dynamic and ‘open’ icon that powerfully represents the complexities and contradictions of New Mexican Chicana/o or Hispanic identity.” Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” pp. 98 and 91.
  5. Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” p. 95.
  6. I follow here Trujillo’s summary of the historical literature on Oñate and the Acoma Massacre.
  7. In Silko’s view, the support and participation of the Spanish governors of New Mexico in the Indian slave trade was “their way of keeping the Pueblos, Navajos and Apaches at war with one another, so they would not unite against the Spaniards as they had in 1680.” Silko, The Turquoise Ledge, p. 34. This strategy of divide and conquer through slaving raids and human trafficking would be repeated by British colonists in the American Southeast in the period prior to the supplanting of Indian slave labor by that of enslaved Africans imported for the plantation system. See Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
  8. “Now-Time” refers to Walter Benjamin’s counter-concept of history, which posits a charged interrelation between contemporary struggles and moments of past struggle that “flare up” in moments of emergency. Thus every “true image of the past” seized in urgency is a call for an end to impunity and for the completion of a blocked process of justice. It follows that the dead (or ancestors) fight on both sides of the intersectional class divide, motivating remembrance and animating the struggles of the living with the energies of contested history. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” [1940], trans. Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, in Selected Writings, volume 4, 1938-1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, and trans. Edmund Jephcott et al., (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003). On justice, see George Sotiropoulos, A Materialist Theory of Justice: The One, the Many, the Not-Yet (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
  9. Cited in Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” pp. 95.
  10. Cited in Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” p. 110.
  11. Cited in Truhillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” pp. 110-11.
  12. By some accounts, the cost was $40,000. See Megan Bennett, “After 20 Years, Has the Mystery of Oñate’s Foot Been Solved?”
  13. Neither of the two monuments was allowed to invoke the conquistador by name; the Albuquerque monument came to be known as “La Jornada” (the journey), while that in El Paso was anonymized to “The Equestrian.” For some discussion of these, see Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” p. 108.
  14. Installing a new monument to Popé while granting state and corporate extractive industries unimpeded access to Indigenous lands is one more variation on what Yellowknives Dene political scientist Glen Sean Coulthard calls “the colonial politics of recognition.” Coulthard, Red Skins White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). See also Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).
  15. Megan Bennett, “Rio Arriba County Statue Vandalized on the Day of the Entrada,” Alburquerque Journal, 15 September 2017; online: .
  16. “A scheduled prayer gathering in Tiguex Park for the removal of the Juan de Oñate statue brought in community members the evening of Monday June 15th. A peaceful affair hosted by Genízaro Nation attracted 300 people from around the city, including families with children; a beautiful evening, cool breezes, white birds circling overhead illuminating in the evening sun in stark contrast to the dark clouds behind.” Eva Avenue, “Oñate’s Legacy of Chaos Continues,” Alibi, vol. 29, no. 26, 25 June – 1 July 2020; online: .
  17. Genízaro ethnic hybridity was largely produced as an effect of colonial New Mexico’s slave economy. Genízaro ethnogenesis and identity is explored in Moises Gonzales and Enrique R. Lamadrid (Eds.), Nacíon Genízara: Ethnogenesis, Place, and Identity in New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019). See also Trujillo, “Oñate’s Foot,” p. 101: “Chief among the binding forces was a slaving economy where Native American, Spanish colonial, and Mexican women and children were ransomed or purchased as war captives. As a result, innumerable Navajo, Comanche, Ute, Kiowa, Pueblo, and other indigenous people were incorporated into Hispanic New Mexico through warfare, kidnapping, servitude, adoption, ransom, and friendship.”
  18. Simon Romero, “Man Is Shot at Protest over New Mexico’s Conquistador,” New York Times, 15 June 2020.
  19. Valentina Di Liscia, “Man Shot and Wounded During Demonstration Against Colonial Statue,” Hyperallergic, 17 June 2020; online: .
  20. SITElines Casa Tomada was co-curated by Candice Hopkins, Ruba Katrib, and José Luis Bondet. The quotations are from Erin Joyce, “The Hits and Misses of Santa Fe’s Much-Anticipated Biennial,” Hyperallergic, 9 October 2018; online: . See also Kealey Boyd, “Porous Definitions of Home and Belonging at the Santa Fe SITE Biennial,” Hyperallergic, 29 November 2018; online: .
  21. Eyre chaired the film department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design from 2012 until 2018, when the art school was closed for financial reasons. Romero, “Statue’s Stolen Foot Reflects Division over Symbols of Conflict.”
  22. Cited in Bennett, “After 20 Years, Has the Mystery of Oñate’s Foot Been Solved?”
  23. Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 316.