Blogs > Cliopatria > Onate or the Equestrian?

Jan 12, 2004 6:20 pm

Onate or the Equestrian?

Last Saturday’s New York Times had an interesting article about a giant statue of Don Juan de Onate, the Spanish leader of a 1598 settlement on the Rio Grande, that’s being built at the airport in El Paso. The statue has provoked controversy, largely because Onate was responsible for atrocities against Native Americans, and is presently scheduled to be renamed as an anonymous"Equestrian" to soothe the critics of the statue.

There is nothing that I find more interesting that these kinds of controversies over the representation of history, which I owe partly to my graduate advisor, David William Cohen, and some of the other professors I studied with at Johns Hopkins. They’re a central part of what my advisor called “the production of history”, and they’re especially interesting controversies for historians in the United States and Western Europe as they invariably intertwine professional historians and popular ideas about history.

The temptation is just to step back and study these controversies for themselves, of themselves, because they themselves bear extraordinary witness to the substance of historical experience, as the British historian Raphael Samuel passionately argued in Theatres of Memory. As the South African historian Carolyn Hamilton observes regarding the Zulu monarch Shaka, in all subsequent representations of Shaka right up to the miniseries “Shaka Zulu” or the heritage amusement park Shakaland, one can discern the footprint of an original, source history—but it cannot be separated out or subtracted from the later history of thinking about or imagining Shaka.

The same is true in this case: the attempt to represent Onate has intricably embedded inside of it the entire history of Spanish colonization of the American Southwest, its annexation by the United States, race relations on the US-Mexico border, the treatment of Native Americans, and contemporary identity politics. Studying the debate isn’t just a matter for a contemporary sociology.

Satisfying as it is to simply stand on the sidelines and look on with interest, it seems to me that the responsibilities of professional historians go beyond Olympian detachment—even if they don’t demand an equally problematic Promethean intervention. A thread at Invisible Adjunct asks, “What does the public want from historians?” There were a lot of interesting answers in the thread, but clearly one of the things the public wants is that historians enter into disputes over the meaning and uses of history as participants, not just observers.

The problem is that a debate like the one over Onate offers no simple point of entry for a scholar. What the statue’s makers observe is true. Onate is part of the history of El Paso; in his own time and place, he could legitimately be called courageous, and equally, was not notably more or less brutal than most of his European contemporaries in the New World. True enough that to oppose a statue to Onate is almost necessarily to oppose all celebratory representations of European settlers. And what historian Marc Simmons observes in the Times article is also true, that vilifying Onate and ennobling the Acoma Indians, his victims, overlooks the extent to which the Acoma themselves once were victimizers before they became victims, much as the Sioux were imperialists who became the victims of imperialism. A scholar can agree that what Simmons says is true—but a scholar can also confirm that what the Acoma say is true, that Onate committed acts of brutality and aggression, and his notable achievement was no more and no less than an act of imperial conquest.

The problem is that this doesn’t tell us anything about how we should choose to represent history in our public spaces. The past stretches out in infinite variety. Why Onate on a horse, and not Onate ordering the mutilation of women and children? Both representations have a truth to them: they happened, they’re part of our historical imagination, they resonate with an actually existing part of the American public.

Do we make monuments to celebrate or venerate the past? What person, then, is so unambiguously worthy of celebration that we could all feel comfortable with a statue of them, while also being important to or emblematic of the past? Do we make monuments to educate about the past, or to mourn it? What, then, shall we choose to teach about, and how can we select the singular moments to mourn in the long procession of humanity’s pain? (Not to mention the fact that if we’re building a monument to history at an airport, there really might be something rather odd about saying, “Welcome to El Paso, where 406 years ago, some Native Americans were mutilated by Spanish conquerors”.)

In my Production of History course, one of my favorite assignments in terms of results has been when I’ve handed students events and individuals not normally the subject of monuments or museum exhibits and asked them to lay out a design for a public representation of their topic. The best paper ever came from one student who was handed the Whisky Rebellion. She designed a museum exhibit that was built as a series of concentric circles. In the core circle was a “just the facts, ma’am” overview of the Whisky Rebellion, written as a series of scholarly presentations. The next circle out was primary documents and materials from the Whisky Rebellion. The next circle beyond that was later representations of the Whisky Rebellion by American writers and intellectuals over the years. The next circle beyond that was connected histories: histories of tax revolts, of American populism from Jackson to early 20th Century progressivism, of rural-urban antagonism, of the “paranoid style” in American politics and hostility to “big government”. Finally she had a circle where visitors would craft their own impressions of the history they’d seen—where current tax dissenters might be able to make an exhibit, or where contemporary moonshiners might be able to talk about the history of their craft, or audiences could debate the importance of what they’d seen through their own contributions.

I thought that was the most perfectly envisioned exhibit you could imagine, both about the event itself and about the way that the event has become meaningful to wider public, including scholars. I agree that it is not easy to accomplish the same density of effect with a statue or memorial, but it is not impossible, either. Perhaps that’s the role scholars can play, not by arguing for or against something like the Onate statue, but by urging us to ask why we want to remember the past, and about how we might best accomplish our diverse purposes.

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More Comments:

Ophelia Benson - 1/13/2004

Oy. Don't give in. If everyone decides ambiguity is an elitist luxury - then it will become exactly that.

This is a bit of an obsession of mine, and getting to be more so. The self-fulfilling prophecy. The way description becomes prescription in the act of being uttered. Whenever a bit of political rhetoric says 'Americans are all ____' - a lot of Americans become that little bit more ____ as soon as they hear the words.

Not that I don't realize how frustrating it is, when 95 percent of the intended audience doesn't read the panel. But one just has to be obstinate.

Timothy Burke - 1/13/2004

It's a very good point. There's an exhibit that Africanists talk about a lot that was staged in Canada that tried to offer a historically complex view of colonialism in Africa and got absolutely blasted to hell and back by many local groups for endorsing racism and imperialism. This is where my optimism about what people may want from historians is probably unwarranted: complex presentations that allow for different truths to be seen in a monument or exhibit may be as likely to inflame those who need history to conform to their own current positionality. Ambiguity is perhaps an elitist luxury. But not invariably or inevitably so: Maya Lin showed that with the Wall, I think.

David Salmanson - 1/13/2004

Precisely! Yet that type of multi-vocal presentation usually receives the most hostile receptions. Witness debates over the Enola Gay and Custer Battlefield. Once upon a time, before graduate school, I worked at a small museum in the financial center of New York City. Some of the things we did were pretty neat, (like preparing pieces for exhibition in view of the public) and somethings we tried just failed miserably. One particular example of the latter was a rather dubious portrait alleged to be of Samuel Fraunces aka Black Sam. Some people think Fraunces was black, some think he was white. An earlier researcher had discovered a note from a doctor certifying that Fraunces was white. We tried to put all of this info on a text panel and raise questions about passing and racial identity. 95 percent of the people who came in pairs had the following conversation. "Who is that?" "That's Samuel Fraunces." All that work for naught. Sigh.

Timothy Burke - 1/13/2004

Well, I don't think you ought to design a museum exhibit necessarily bowing to the 5-second rule, though it's clear that the student's design would have to skew more to the visual than she initially envisioned. A good exhibit, it seems to me, has a fast-track and a slow-track, a way to get something out of it just by breezing through, but also rewards for those who pause and digest. I think you could do that with this hypothetical exhibit.

The challenge, though, as David notes, is really how you would accomplish the same layering of effect in a public memorial or monument. Collage-forms strike me as one possibility, an artwork or statue that contained multiple representations of a moment in time or the actions of a monumental historical actor.

Invisible Adjunct - 1/13/2004

"It's great in theory but most people spend less than 5 seconds reading each text panel. In the real world, it would be a total failure."

It still might be possible to represent a sense of multilayeredness in non-textual ways. Though admittedly not easy.

The challenge is often probably more political than technical. That is, controversies over representations of history often involve competing groups who are fighting over versions of _the_ (as in, the one and only) real story.

David Salmanson - 1/13/2004

It's great in theory but most people spend less than 5 seconds reading each text panel. In the real world, it would be a total failure. Most people would leave the exhibit without getting anything out of it. So back to the drawing board, how with a minimum of text, do you make the same points.

Timothy Burke - 1/13/2004

The student and I had that same discussion, and I might choose to do the same, for the same reason, but I thought you could make a good case for doing it the other way round in that a "textbook" presentation of an unfamiliar subject potentially has a lot of compressed clarity whereas the primary documents can take a lot more effort to comprehend.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/13/2004

I love the description of the Whiskey Rebellion exhibit, but I'd arrange it differently. I'd put the documents on the outside, the "facts" on the next circle, the discourse on the next and have the comment space, the "now" in the center.

I guess for me, the primary documents have to come before the distilled "facts," or we're perpetuating the myth that the textbook history is "true" and the debate starts at the next level.

Ophelia Benson - 1/12/2004

A bit of an is-ought gap there, perhaps. A fact-values gap. A gap scholars find themselves peering into all the time, I would imagine. What discipline can, really, answer those why questions? Or the 'what should we do about it' questions. Politics, philosophy? Up to a point, but certainly not decisively.

It's a fascinating place, that gap. Full of old rusty statues, old broken swords and pikes and helmets, old chains and bills of sale, old uniforms and headgear, old sceptres and mitres - all kinds of stuff.