Rediscovered Stories: The History Behind a Statue’s Desecration

by Rob McMahon

Lauren Rusk’s poem “Sight Unseen” tells the respective stories of Juan de Oñate and his deeds following the battle at Acoma and the small band of American Indians who sought justice for Oñate’s acts.

In January 1998, on the fourth centennial of the Acoma Pueblo massacre, a small band of Acoma crept upon the grounds of Juan de Oñate’s legacy in Alcalde, New Mexico: an equestrian statue. Together the small band worked through the night to remove the right food of the statue. This act stirred both the support and outrage of the local populace. The statue was repaired, but a line still remains, like a scar, where the amputation occurred. A second statue stands, unblemished, in El Paso, Texas, though it too has caused a stir among the population.

When confronted with the (reportedly) largest bronze equestrian statue in the United States, one might feel a sense of awe. The conquistador, the epitome of imperial Spain’s ambition, wealth, and might, sits tall in his saddle. In his hand, he carries the La Toma declaration, signifying Spanish dominion north of the Rio Grande and the beginning of Oñate’s conquest.

La Toma (literally translating to “The Take” or “The Capture”) declared legal the Spanish conquest of the native Pueblos, enabling them to establish Santa Fe de Nuevo México, the first Spanish colony north of the Rio Grande, on April 30, 1598. For his efforts, Oñate was named the province’s first governor. The conquered pueblo villages were soon remodeled and renovated to fit European standards. Outlying pueblos were summarily looted by Spanish soldiers, making their domination of the region and its people complete.

The local Pueblo natives wallowed under the spurred boots of imperial Spain’s dominion. The local missions sought new converts, while the military stole and squandered what wealth it still possessed. The natives toiled fruitlessly at the bottom of the Spanish social hierarchy, leaving the native populace effectively worked, converted, and taxed into cultural submission. That was when the first rebellion began.

Though the specifics vary, it is agreed that the Acoma rebellion began in December of 1598, when an encounter between a small contingent of Spanish soldiers, led by Juan de Zaldivar (Oñate’s nephew) and the Acoma natives, turned violent. Supposedly the Spanish soldiers met with the Acoma to acquire their grain, which the tribe needed in order to survive the winter months. The Acoma refused to hand over the grain. The initially amicable meeting quickly turned sour when the Spanish stopped asking and demanded access to the tribe’s grain, threatening the tribe’s women in the process. The actions of the Spaniards prompted violence among the Acoma, leaving thirteen soldiers dead, including Juan de Zaldivar. Governor Oñate responded in kind, intent on making an example of the Acoma, and on January 21, 1599, he dispatched a small force, consisting of his best soldiers, to attack the Acoma.

Oñate’s small army, seventy men in total, charged the mesa, which was guarded by some 2,000 Acoma warriors. Over the next three days, the Spanish force fought its way through a hail of arrows and rocks and into the pueblo proper. The fighting continued until the Spaniards brought a cannon to bear, rendering the Acoma outmatched. The battle became a slaughter, and the rebellion was crushed. In the end, some 800 Acoma natives (warriors and otherwise) lay dead in the smoking ruins of their pueblo.

Yet the defeat of the Acoma natives proved to be unsatisfactory for Oñate. Following their capture, the governor decreed that every male over the age of twenty five would have his right foot amputated, while the other survivors were to be enslaved for a period of twenty years. In the end, twenty four to eighty (accounts vary) Acoma males had their right foot amputated, while the remaining five hundred natives—women and children included—were enslaved.

In 1606, Governor Oñate was tried for his cruelty and summarily banished from Nuevo México, living out the remainder of his days in Seville, Spain. The Acoma Pueblo still reside on the mesa, which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.


“Juan de Oñate.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. 

The Last Conquistador. The Kitchen Sync Group Inc/Valadez Media, 2008. Film.

Simmons, Marc. The last conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the settling of the far Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Print.

Brooke, James. “Onate’s Foot Story.” Division of Social Sciences at UC San Diego. Division of Social Science, 1 Jan. 1998. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.