Wiki­media Commons

Outside of Española, New Mexico, stands a statue of Don Juan de Oñate. For his direct descen­dants, and many Spanish-American New Mex­icans who trace their ancestry back to col­o­nization, he is sym­bolic of the spirit of explo­ration and of Spanish culture in New Mexico.

For the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, however, Don Oñate has a far darker legacy. Oñate was the gov­ernor of New Spain from 1598 to 1610, in what is now New Mexico. In retal­i­ation for the killing of several Spanish sol­diers, including his nephew, Oñate ordered what became known as the Acoma Mas­sacre, which killed 800 to 1,000 of the Acoma Pueblo Indians. He enslaved the sur­viving women, and Oñate com­manded that every Acoma man’s right foot be ampu­tated as a hor­rific warning against further resis­tance.

The statues of Con­fed­erate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee occupy the same con­tentious place in the con­sciousness of the South as Oñate does in northern New Mexico. Both are sym­bolic of a roman­ti­cized past and simul­ta­ne­ously rep­resent cen­turies of oppression. Among their respective com­mu­nities these posi­tions are deeply rooted and dif­ficult to dis­lodge.

In an ideal world, none of these statues would exist. The wartime heroes of the Con­fed­eracy fought against and killed sol­diers of the United States gov­ernment. They fought for many causes, but among those causes was slavery, an evil so great it can­celed out any­thing else they stood for. The idol­ization of these men is a betrayal of the dream of American society: a nation where everyone, regardless of race or her­itage, has a chance of success. It also reveals a willful igno­rance of the shameful history of American slavery and of the bloodshed required to keep our country in one piece.

Even the immor­talized men opposed the erection of Con­fed­erate mon­u­ments. Robert E. Lee, in a 1869 letter, remarked, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but follow the examples of those nations who endeavored… to commit to oblivion feelings engen­dered [by civil war].” He realized, as early as four years after the Civil War, that building mon­u­ments to the goals and ideals of the Con­fed­erates would only lead to the ide­al­ization of the rebellion and a con­tin­uance of the bitter post-war sorrows of the South.
The statues were built, however, and over the years they became part of the fabric of their com­mu­nities, which now oppose the removal of their land­marks. A recent NPR/PBS poll showed national support for the sur­vival of Con­fed­erate statues at 62 percent. Support in Southern states is even more entrenched: A Louisiana State Uni­versity poll reports 73 percent of res­i­dents of that state oppose the removal of the mon­u­ments.

Taking the mon­u­ments down without the support of local res­i­dents would be nearly impos­sible and also a folly. If accom­plished, this effort would do nothing but further divide com­mu­nities. On the other hand, leaving Con­fed­erate statues to pro­claim the nobility of rebellion is morally unac­ceptable. In this case, a com­promise between ide­alism and prac­ti­cality is nec­essary.

The best solution is the sim­plest one. Rather than taking down the mon­u­ments, local com­mu­nities should make a small addition to them: a plaque, explaining the sub­jects’ role in the Civil War and the con­se­quences thereof. This would add to the edu­ca­tional power of the statues for cit­izens on both sides of the con­flict and ensure that the statues serve a con­structive purpose.

The legacy of Don Oñate, like that of con­fed­erate heroes, is always going to be mixed. History is fact, but it is inter­preted through emotion: the actions of indi­viduals accu­mulate into the her­itage of fam­ilies. We can never expect to agree on what to make of our history. We can only agree that it belongs to all of us and try to under­stand that for some, the burdens of the past have been carried into the present, and show no signs of dis­ap­pearing soon.

Madeline Hedrick is a sophomore studying the liberal arts. She is the vice pres­ident of College Democrats.