But as recounted in the new documentary The Last Conquistador, all was not well as the statue's dedication approached. The area's Native Americans had their own very personal memories concerning Oñate. They recalled massacres, slavery and terror. They remembered that Oñate's foray into New Mexico in 1598 led to the deaths of two out of every three Indians there and nearly caused the extermination of Native culture across the region.
As the film shows, the prospect that a murderer's image would be looming over El Paso, Texas, drew increasing anger and protest. One artist proposed a companion sculpture of a giant severed foot, commemorating Oñate's method of cutting off feet to terrorize the native inhabitants. Houser saw his grand conception transformed in a way he had not intended, caught up in a whirlwind of unresolved conflicts between races, classes and historical memories.
Neither Houser nor El Paso's city councilors had intended any offense or controversy. The statue of Oñate was intended as part of a sculpture walk through history that would memorialize the region's dramatic but often unrecognized history. When the storm of protest arose, they were taken by surprise. But should they have been? Had they too easily accepted a conqueror's version of history in which the daring exploits of pioneers and colonists are celebrated, and the sins of violence are avoided or excused?
In that history, Oñate set out in 1598 from Mexico on a thousand-mile journey seeking new lands and Christian converts for Spain, along with riches for himself. He was the first governor of New Mexico and the bringer of wheat, horses, metalworking and Western civilization to what became the American Southwest. But Oñate's brutality was well understood by his contemporaries. He was eventually recalled, tried and convicted by his own government for what today would be called crimes against humanity. He was banished forever from New Mexico, and ended up moving to Spain.
Native Americans are deeply offended by the sculpture, but many wealthy whites and Hispanics throughout the region—who trace their ancestry back to the Oñate expedition—welcome the monument and defend the bloodshed, saying that the Indians were the aggressors and that Oñate brought peace and stability to the region.
Is there a better example of America's cultural myopia? Oñate is a documented conqueror who killed, enslaved, or brutalized Indians. He was tried and convicted by his contemporaries for crimes against humanity. But "wealthy whites and Hispanics" want to honor him for founding Southwestern communities.
You gotta love the claim that "Indians were the aggressors." They wouldn't have had anyone to react aggressively if Oñate hadn't invaded their homelands. And again, Oñate's contemporaries blamed him, not the Indians. Who are these idiots to say they know the facts better than Oñate's peers?
How freakin' naive is sculptor Houser? He didn't think anyone would complain about a statue of a conquistador? Is he aware that Europeans conquered America and not everyone is happy about it? Duhhh.
Who's next on his sculpting schedule: George W. Bush? Mao Zedong? Vladimir Lenin? Why not? They all invaded other countries or expanded their own countries. They're all forward-thinking, even revolutionary, agents of change...just like Oñate.
FYI, this sculpture appeared in the Stereotype of the Month contest in January 2002. The heading was Sculptor Says Oñate Statue "Honors History, Not Heroes." Houser was supposed to complete the work by 2003, but obviously he didn't.
So he worked on this statue for several years. Yet he was still surprised that someone might be offended? He should've abandoned this project when it gained notoriety back in 2002.
Sheesh. What a waste of talent. For more on the subject, see Best Indian Monuments to Topple.