Among the many protests and other symbolic gestures that have rocked the US this year, my eye is caught by graffiti scrawled on the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe:
1680 Land Back
The date refers to the Pueblo Revolt, a rising of native people across New Mexico and beyond against Spanish rule and especially against imposed Catholicism. The revolt was a remarkable event, in which more than forty different communities speaking several unrelated languages came together to drive out the Spanish and kill all the priests they could get their hands on. The organizer was a man we know as Popé. He solved the problem of how to coordinate the rising by giving messengers cords tied into a long series of knots; they and then the recipients were to untie one knot each day until there were no more; this would be the agreed day of the rising, August 11. There were complications and the rising actually began in many places on the 10th, but it worked; more than 400 Spanish and converted Indians were killed and the rest were besieged at Santa Fe, then allowed to escape back to Mexico.
The native towns kept their independence until 1692, and they agreed to Spanish overlordship only under certain conditions, the most important of which was being allowed to maintain their own religions. And they did; there are still more than 20 formally independent native communities in New Mexico, most of which still practice their traditional religions.
Some activists have lately been demanding that statues of Spanish governors and Franciscan priests – "conquistadors", activists call them –be torn down and replaced with statues of native leaders, especially Popé. They seem to intend this as a radical act, but I would point out that there is already a statue of Popé in the US Capitol, placed there by the state of New Mexico, by way of acknowledging the diverse heritage of its people. (see photo at top)
This gets us back to the vexed question of statues, because the people of New Mexico do not universally support statues of Popé. After all New Mexico has many more Catholic citizens than followers of traditional Native American religions, and Popé tried to slaughter all the priests. On a deeper level, some Hispanic activists point with pride to the origin of their culture in a fusion of Native American and Spanish traditions. They recognize that the process of creating Hispanic identities was sometimes violent and otherwise awful, but they like the result and do not like to see its creation portrayed as merely conquest and oppression.
Although, of course, we don't know all that much about Popé, from what we do know he seems to have utterly rejected everything Spanish. He even wanted his followers to slaughter all their European livestock and throw away their iron tools. If they did this, he is supposed to have said, then their gods would return to earth to live among them, ushering in a new golden age.
Maybe he taught those things, maybe he did not; from this distance it is hard to say. But he certainly rejected Spanish culture, and therefore the fusion of Spanish and native traditions that led to the modern Hispanic identity. He certainly advocated the killing of Catholic priests.
Me, I have no objection to statues of Popé. I see them as representing Native resistance to Spanish conquest, and the determination of some native communities to maintain their own ways and their own beliefs. As I said, they had a lot of success in this, and I see nothing wrong with their being proud of that heritage. If Popé was a violent man who believed some very weird stuff, I don't much care; as a statue he is not a person, but a symbol of Native resistance and survival.
I feel the same way about statues of Franciscan missionaries and Spanish generals. Many Hispanic activists see those statues as representing their own identity, as distinct from that of the Anglo majority, and they see calls to take them down as attacks on their own tradition. They want those statues to be understood as I understand statues of Popé, not as particular men guilty of particular crimes but as symbols of the Spanish colonial experience and all that emerged from it.
And (you knew where this was headed), that is how I feel about statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There is much about both men I do not admire; you will not find me among those praising Washington as a great general or Jefferson as a great thinker and statesmen. But statues, to me, do not just represent people. They are symbols. Statues of our Founding Fathers represent the work they did in establishing the United States, the first, large, diverse Republic in the history of the world, a fantastically bold experiment in human self-government. I am perfectly comfortable setting aside whatever else they said and did to honor those acts.
What I ask about a statue is this: what does it represent? I have trouble seeing statues of John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis or Roger Tawney as anything other than symbols of white supremacy, so, hey, tear them down. But the careers of most famous people are a lot more complicated than that.
Every heroic statue in the world represents a flawed person. Which is why, I think, we should have a lot of them, in diverse profusion. We should have statues of everybody's heroes. Beside Washington and Lincoln we should have Popé, Red Cloud, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Richard Feynman, whoever. If we're going to tolerate each other, we're going to have to tolerate statues of each other's heroes, whenever we can find a plausible excuse to do so.