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Proposed Statue Raises Controversy Among Native Indians - 2002-02-09

Officials in the city of El Paso, Texas, are in a bind trying to erect a statue to honor the man who first brought settlers to the area but whom Native American Indians see as an oppressor. The controversy has pitted traditional historians against the forces of political correctness.

The idea behind the monument, when it was approved by the El Paso City Council several years ago, was to honor the opening of the Paso del Norte, the pass of the north, from which El Paso gets its name. The man credited with having blazed the trail is Don Juan de Onate, a Mexican-born member of a wealthy Spanish family.

In 1598, he brought 500 settlers across the Rio Grande River at the point where El Paso now sits and then went north to found the city of Santa Fe, which served as an important trade center in the Old West and is today the capital of the state of New Mexico.

But, along the way, historians say, he ran roughshod over many Indian tribes, and their descendants despise him to this day. Even many Hispanics, whose heritage he established in the region, view Onate as a villain and oppose honoring him with a statue.

El Paso author and historian Leon Metz says most Hispanic people he knows in El Paso tend to overlook the man's accomplishments.

"They see Onate as not being so much a colonizer, a settler, an explorer and a developer; they see him as a man who was an exploiter and a rapist and a brutal individual who beat the Indians wherever found," Mr. Metz says.

The incident that has galvanized many people against Onate is said to have occurred in 1599 when the explorer allegedly ordered his men to cut off the right feet of dozens of warriors from the Acoma tribe. El Paso City Councilman Larry Medina is one of the city leaders who has opposed a monument to Onate because of this and other incidents that have led some Indians to compare the trailblazer to Adolf Hitler.

That comparison seems overblown to some people, but Mr. Medina says it depends on your point of view. "What I tell everybody is that you are right, Juan de Onate is not your Hitler; he is not my Hitler, but he is the Acomas' Hitler and the Acomas are our neighbors. We are the front door to their home, to their reservation, here in El Paso. They are only about a four and one half hour drive from here. As elected officials, we are here to be sensitive to all of our peoples and our neighbors to the south as well as our neighbors to the north," Mr. Medina explains.

Leon Metz says the idea of the statue should not be to honor Onate, the man, but to acknowledge the historic impact of the Spanish settlement in what is now the southwestern United States. He finds it ironic that non-Hispanics, generally called Anglos, relate to this Hispanic figure more than do the descendants of the people he brought to the region.

"He was the first to bring Spanish settlers out of Mexico; bring them through the pass. He is responsible for what we call here the Camino Real and the pass of the north he named El Paso - el paso del norte. Onate was, from the Anglo perspective, the man who put it together, who had the vision and the fortitude to bring settlers out of Mexico, bring them through dangerous country and lay out an area where major roads and major cities now exist," he says.

Councilman Larry Medina agrees with the idea of honoring the Hispanic achievements in the region. He notes that Hispanic people were living and prospering here long before English colonists arrived on what is now the East Coast of the country.

He likes the idea of a statue, but, he says, he would prefer to give it a generic name so that it does not represent just one man, but the settling of the area by Hispanics.

Even better, from Mr. Medina's point of view, would be an accommodation with the representatives of the Acoma tribe. He says he would like to make a proposal to them.

"What a fantastic thing to do, if you were to open up your heart and say this thing happened 400 years ago, so let us forgive, let us not forget so we do not repeat the same mistakes over again, but let us forgive. At a time, 400 years later, when there is so much strife in the world, this little tribe of about five or six thousand Indians can give a beautiful example of forgiveness to the world," he says.

The 10 ton bronze statue of Don Juan de Onate, sitting atop a rearing stallion, is nearing completion at a studio north of Mexico City. Artist John Houser hopes to have it ready for inauguration in 2003.