July 16, 2008

Monument to a murderer

The Last Conquistador, a PBS documentary about a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, debuted on the POV series Tuesday. I missed it, but here's what it's about:

Film SynopsisJohn Houser is a man with monumental sculpture in his blood. He can remember his father working as an assistant carver on Mount Rushmore. Enthralled with the power of art, he has dedicated himself to making history come alive in large-scale public sculptures. So when the El Paso City Council commissioned a larger-than-life statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, Houser conceived his grandest project yet: the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world. He envisioned a magnificent and long-overdue tribute to the contributions of Hispanic culture and history to the United States.

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.
Comment:  You can watch the trailer here.

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.


dmarks said...

"George W. Bush? Mao Zedong? Vladimir Lenin? Why not? They all invaded other countries or expanded their own countries"

If you are going to add George W. Bush to this, might as well add FDR, Truman and Clinton. They also invaded other countries.

Rob said...

Which countries did FDR and Truman invade, exactly? Which countries did they invade preemptively without the justification of winning an ongoing war?

If you wanted to indict Democrats, a better example would've been the Kennedy/Johnson escalation of America's presence in Vietnam. That war was as unnecessary and unjustified as Bush's folly in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Albuquerque, NM, had exactly the same issue come up in the late 90s. I was living there at the time and it was an incredibly controversial issue. (Which, as you note, is a big fat "duh." Controversy? By honoring the guy who cut off Pueblo Indians' feet? Huh. Go figure.) Had the El Paso sculptor bothered paying attention to his neighboring state, he might've at least lost some of his "naivete" (read: "ignorance due to white privilege").

dmarks said...

I forgot to mention Johnson and Kennedy. I was not really looking for Democrats. Just examples of other Presidents who invaded countries during the time perion from Lenin onward.

As for what countries they invaded, look no further than France and Germany and the countries in between. And then Japan.

The Firestorm in Dresden, in which the US had significant participation, had a civilian death toll similar to the actual total death count of the entire Iraq war... and it lasted only 3 days.

There are many other examples, including the US killing 150,000 civilians when bombing Okinawa. That's the equivalent of from 1 to 3 entire Iraq war body counts.

Well, we won't even go into the two atomic bombs.

Despite Rumsfeld, Halliburton, cluster-bombs and all, the US tactics in Iraq can be described as "careful" in regards to civilians when you compare them US conduct against German and Japanese civilians during those "Great Wars" of the 20th century.

It could all have been called pre-emptive back then, really. FDR surely wanted to prevent more Pearl Harbor's, and to pre-empt German's possible takeover of Great Britain and further German attacks on US shipping, and maybe the US itself. As for the "ongoing war", Saddam had broken the cease fire of the first Gulf War years before, and there was an "ongoing war" which included Clinton's bombinbs of Iraq, and Saddam firing upon and targetting patrols.

The inclusion of Lenin in your list was interesting. Few remember that he overthrew a democratic government, killed up to 3 million, and conquered and outright annexed about a dozen nations to create his empire. More than anyone, he was the founder/inspiration of the worst of 20th century aggressive fascism. Stalin becomes a little less "notable" when you realize that he merely built on the precedent created by Lenin.

(As for Vietnam, the North's invasion of the South was the real unnecessary thing. North Vietnam/USSR came to South Vietnam not to liberate it, but to plunder and slaughter it. Notice that the "boat people" crisis, when people of South Vietnam risked their lives to flee the terror, happened after North Vietnam "liberated" it)

Zora: A recent Smithsonian magazine had an excellent article on this guy.

Rob said...

A-ha. As I thought, DMarks, your counterexamples don't involve preemptive invasions of countries we weren't at war with.

Yes, the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably unjustified. I've made that point in Diplomacy Works, Violence Doesn't.

But at least these actions occurred in the context of an ongoing war. Bush has no such excuse for his moral crimes.

Rob said...

Minor violations of a cease-fire agreement that don't threaten American lives aren't a valid justification for war. They barely justify Clinton's bombing raids, much less Bush's full-scale invasion.

Besides, I believe Saddam's cease-fire deal was with the UN, not the US, so only the UN would've had a right to launch a "preemptive strike." In fact, most UN members disagreed with Bush's rush to war and tried to stop it.

More important, the no-fly violations and halt in weapons inspections were history before Bush decided to attack a sovereign country. That's why he didn't use these things as his excuse for invading Iraq.

Instead, he fabricated a dozen or two new rationales, including his fictitious WMDs. And he deceived the American public about the nonexistent connection between Iraq and 9/11.

Rob said...

I guess you haven't quite grasped the reason I listed Bush and not, say, FDR. Bush will go down in history as the crook who launched America's first (and one hopes only) preemptive war. In contrast, FDR will go down in history as a hero for launching the New Deal and winning WW II.

Unlike Bush's orders to kill, FDR's and Truman's orders to kill are only a footnote in their legacies. Bush's record of invading countries, torturing prisoners, and shredding the Constitution will be his whole legacy. Future generations will remember him as a wrongdoer similar to Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

Here, let me spell out the legacies of the people we've discussed:

Oñate: Invaded and overthrew Indian nations.

Lenin: Overthrew Russian government.

Mao: Overthrew Chinese government.

Stalin: Political repression.

FDR: New Deal.

Truman: "The buck stops here."

Kennedy: New frontier/assassination.

Johnson: Civil rights/Vietnam.

Nixon: Watergate.

Clinton: Impeachment.

Bush: Invaded and overthrew Iraq.

Notice what Oñate, Lenin, Mao, and Bush have in common? That's right: overthrowing sovereign governments. That's why I asked if Houser would do Oñate's fellow travelers after he finishes with Oñate.

Anonymous said...

Actually, what Lenin, Mao, Onate Stain, and Hitler all have in common is incredible blood on their hands for the slaughter of thousands to tens of millions.

Seriously, Mao is responsible for the death of 70 million people. Let's not cover that up by calling it "overthrowing" a government.

Had Onate killed white/Europeans, there would not be any talk of a monument.

Rob said...

If I had meant to list mass murderers, I would've included Stalin as well as Mao. I didn't include him because he didn't overthrow a government. Lenin, Mao, and George W. Bush did.

Bush is responsible for more deaths than Oñate and possibly Lenin. That's another reason for including him on the list.

Here are the facts to back up this assertion:


The Lancet, one of the oldest scientific medical journals in the world, published two peer-reviewed studies on the effect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation on Iraqi mortality. The first was published in 2004; the second (by many of the same authors) in 2006. The studies estimate the number of excess deaths caused by the occupation, both direct (combatants plus non-combatants) and indirect (due to increased lawlessness, degraded infrastructure, poor healthcare, etc.).

The first survey published on 29 October 2004, estimated 98,000 excess Iraqi deaths (with a range of 8,000 to 194,000, using a 95% confidence interval (CI)) from the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq to that time, or about 50% higher than the death rate prior to the invasion.

The second survey published on 11 October 2006, estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population, through the end of June 2006.