On June 17, the Union Protectíva de Santa Fé announced their plans to sue the city of Santa Fe and Mayor Alan Webber for the decision to remove the Soldiers’ Monument, the obelisk in the center of Santa Fe Plaza.
The lawsuit comes after Webber’s call to remove the obelisk back in June 2020, and after a group of protestors tore down part of the obelisk during a demonstration on Indigenous Peoples Day last October. There is not yet a timeline for the removal.
“What our lawsuit seeks is an injunction preventing the mayor from replacing this historic obelisk with anything other than repairing it and restoring it,” attorney Ken Stalter said at a press conference on June 17. Stalter is representing the Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, one of the oldest Hispanic fraternal organizations in America, in their case against the mayor.
The Union’s lawsuit is relying on the 1989 New Mexico Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Act, which “prohibits the government from spending public funds to change or alter a historic site unless there is no feasible alternative, and the government has engaged in all possible planning to protect the site,” according to the official complaint.
The Union argues that the obelisk is protected under state law due to it being a part of a historical site and that any changes to the obelisk made with public funds “harms the historic character of the plaza,” according to the complaint. The Union is asking for the mayor to follow the statute’s guidance and, in turn, restore and rebuild the obelisk.
“We really want to set a state-wide precedent,” Stalter said. “Government officials have to follow the law. It’s that simple. This is about the rule of law.”
Currently, there isn’t a clear timeline for when the lawsuit will actually move forward. The mayor’s office has yet to respond to the lawsuit.
The Union itself is looking to enter a preliminary injunction, which would prohibit any further action on any possible alternatives to the obelisk for the duration of the lawsuit. A regular injunction is typically something afforded after a trial, whereas a preliminary injunction aims to retain the status quo before or during a trial.
“We don’t control the court dates,” Stalter said. “We’re going to ask the court to enter a preliminary and permanent injunction, but we can’t predict when that’s going to happen.”
The obelisk was erected in 1868, according to a timeline created by the Santa Fe Reporter. The timeline shows that the purpose behind building the monument was to honor the soldiers who had died during the Civil War, specifically those who died at Velarde and Apache Canyon, according to the city of Santa Fe’s website.
“The reason it was erected was to honor those soldiers that fought in New Mexico during the Civil War and we are honoring those soldiers,” Virgil Vigil, the President of the Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, said.
The monument originally included a plaque which read: “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with the savage Indians of the Territory of New Mexico,” as written in the original Laws of the Territory of New Mexico. The word “savage” was chiseled off the slab in 1974. The plaque was never repaired.
In 1974, members from the American Indian Movement urged the city’s officials to change or remove the plaque, according to the Albuquerque Journal. However, the city felt that “any alteration could endanger the plaza’s status as a national historical landmark,” an argument nearly identical to the one being used by the Union Protectíva de Santa Fé.
When asked whether the plaque containing the word “savage” would be restored to its original condition following the requested restoration and reconstruction, Vigil said the Union would be open to the possibility of changing the plaque if the obelisk is restored.
“All we’re asking is to restore the obelisk and if (the mayor’s office) would like to change the plaques, we encourage them to change that plaque,” Vigil said.
When asked about the probability of the obelisk being able to be rebuilt despite the faulty condition it’s currently in, Stalter said that if it can’t be repaired, then it should be “as close as possible” to its original form.
“Under the law, the city government has to explore the best reasonable alternatives that honor the historic and cultural integrity of the site,” Stalter said.
John Scott is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JScott050901