WARNING: this story describes racist violence against Indigenous protesters, and the genocidal violence of Spanish conquistadors.
Protesters in New Mexico decorated an empty pedestal last week with signs demanding an end to the monument for a Spanish conquistador who orchestrated countless atrocities against Indigenous people.
The crowd – mostly made up of Pueblo people – was celebrating a Rio Arriba County decision to postpone the resurrection of a statue of Juan de Oñate removed in 2020 and demand that it never go up again.
That’s when a shot rang out.
A gunman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat shot Jacob Johns, a Hopi Pueblo activist and muralist who lives in Spokane, Wash. Johns survived and is in stable condition, according to friends. The shooter, who Underscore News is choosing not to name to reduce the likelihood that stories about the incident result in his glorification, was apprehended by Pojoaque Pueblo Police later that day.
The conquistadors invaded New Mexico wearing metal helmets, and last Thursday, a gunman attacked peaceful Pueblo protesters in a red MAGA hat. Both were thwarted by Pueblo people. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Pueblos successfully chased out European settlers in response to Spanish colonial violence.
Johns, Hopi and Akimel O’odham, was immediately rushed to a hospital to remove the bullet lodged in his torso, according to the Albuquerque Journal. Friends created a GoFundMe to help support Johns and his teenage daughter.
By Monday, Johns had undergone two surgeries and appeared to be in a stable condition, according to his friend Phreddie Lane, a citizen of Lummi Nation.
Oñate the terrible
Juan de Oñate was a Spanish conquistador, New Mexico’s first colonial governor and the orchestrator of countless atrocities against Indigenous people. A statute commemorating his rule, outside the Rio Arriba County Annex building in Española, New Mexico, was removed by county officials in 2020.
Leaving Mexico in 1598, his goal was to spread Christianity and extract riches along the way – by any means necessary. He is particularly infamous for the massacre of around 800 men, women and children from Acoma Pueblo in retribution for a battle in which Acoma Pueblo soldiers killed 12 Spaniards.
The survivors of the massacre were mostly captured and enslaved. Oñate instructed his soldiers to cut off the foot of 24 men to serve as a warning for other Pueblos planning to resist.
Years later, in 1610, Oñate was forced to resign as New Mexico’s governor. The Spanish government eventually held a trial where they found him guilty of abusing his power.
Protests against the two Oñate statues in New Mexico have been common for years. For many, they represent a celebration of colonialism and erasure of Indigenous experiences.
In 1997, anonymous protestors cut off the foot of an Oñate monument that sat on the side of a rural highway, near where Oñate founded the first Spanish colony in New Mexico. Protesters sent a polaroid photo of the bronze Spanish riding boot to a columnist at the Albuquerque Journal.
The photo depicted a statue without his boot, an easy comparison to the atrocities Oñate committed — symbolically showing the conquistador a taste of his own medicine.
A climate activist
Spokane, Wash. is currently home for Johns, an activist and artist. John’s murals adorn streets across the city. His most recent mural was unveiled Sept. 19 at the underpass on Howard Street in Spokane. It’s a celebration of National Voter Registration Day and features the seal of Washington state with two hands making the shape of a heart in front.
His activism extends well beyond his art. In 2018, Johns traveled across Washington state, visiting 29 reservations, with Phreddie Lane — they were part of a group working to register voters and gain support for Initiative 940. The successful ballot initiative removed some protections for police from criminal liability for deadly shootings and required officer training in de-escalation, first aid and mental health crises.
Since then, Johns and Lane have spent countless hours together, working as grassroots activists on a number of causes. Most recently, Johns hosted Lane and other members from Lummi Nation’s House of Tears as they journeyed across the country, bringing a totem pole honoring Leonard Peltier to the National Congress of American Indians in Washington D.C.
“You don’t need a position or a title to be a tribal leader,” Lane said, former councilman for Lummi Nation. “And that’s what Jacob really shows.”
In two months, Johns is scheduled to lead the Wisdom Keepers Delegation at this year's Conference of the Parties (COP28). Embarking on a canoe journey through the Persian Gulf, the delegation will “offer prayers for the future of humanity” and engage in discussions about climate policy and action.
Peaceful rally turns to chaos
Johns’ activism led him to the front of the Rio Arriba County Annex building in Española, New Mexico, last Thursday. He had been in Northern New Mexico with the U.S. Climate Action Network for a meeting, according to a statement his mother gave to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Johns joined a crowd of a few dozen protestors who showed up to celebrate county officials’ postponement of the installation of a Juan de Oñate statue that had been scheduled for the day before the rally. The crowd was also asking for the statue’s removal to be permanent.
Activist organization The Red Nation has helped organize protests against racist monuments and revisionist history since 2014. Red Nation member Jennifer Marley, San Ildefonso Pueblo, was at the rally last Thursday.
Organizers asked Johns to open the sunrise ceremony with song, in order to help protesters feel grounded and begin the rally in a mindful way. Those early moments were prayerful and somber, according to Marley.
“People were happy,” Marley said. “It was celebratory because we had just got the news that the statue would not be reerected that day.”
However, opposition started early. Marley said the shooter and a group of four or five other men stood nearby, yelling racial slurs.
Before the shooting, Marley said she watched the gunman walk up to members of the media and introduce himself.
“It was pretty clear to us this was premeditated,” she said.
After the gunman shot Johns, members of the crowd attended to the wound before medics showed up 15 minutes later, according to Marley.
The gunman was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault, according to court documents.
This was the second politically motivated shooting in New Mexico related to an Oñate statue, according to an article by Source NM. The previous one was in Albuquerque in 2020.
“What kind of coward brings a gun to a peaceful, Indigenous protest?” Lane asked.
The morning of the rally, Lane texted Johns.
“I love you bro,” Lane texted.
A self-described grassroots activist himself, Lane knows firsthand the danger that can accompany activism.
Lane said he always makes a point to tell the people in his life what they mean to him — a practice that felt even more important after he heard the news that Johns had been shot.
“He could have died,” Lane said. “There he was, protecting everybody. To me, that’s what warriors do.”
Lead photo: Jacob Johns sings in front of an altar made from a pedestal where a statue of Juan de Oñate was to go, during a rally outside the Rio Arriba County Annex building in Española on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)