The controversy that swept Southern states over Confederate monuments is spreading across the nation, as cities contend with calls to remove statues depicting stereotyped and subjugated Native Americans.
Among them: a sculpture in San Francisco’s Pioneer Monument near City Hall that shows a Native American at the feet of a Spanish missionary and vaquero, and one in New York City that depicts a Native American and an African holding the stirrups of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse. Earlier this year in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a granite sculpture from the city’s Fountain of the Pioneers was trucked away to storage. It showed a pioneer, weapon raised, rising above a Native American.
In all three cases, Native Americans have criticized the statues as inaccurate, demeaning and racist for decades. Red paint symbolizing blood was splashed over the Roosevelt statue as long ago as 1971, and as recently as October.
But the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August has prompted renewed activism from Native Americans protesting statues in their own communities. It has also shifted attitudes among some city officials, who now recognize that they have monuments akin to Confederate statues in their own backyards.
“It doesn’t take much to put two and two together and think, ‘Well we’ve got an issue here in La Crosse,’” said Democratic Mayor Tim Kabat of La Crosse, Wisconsin. City officials are meeting with members of the Ho-Chunk Nation to plan for the removal from a public park of a 25-foot painted concrete statue of a Native American dubbed “Hiawatha.”
The events in Charlottesville prompted San Francisco’s Historic Preservation and Arts commissions to vote in March to remove the Pioneer Monument statue, with support from the mayor and the city’s Board of Supervisors.
“The climate now is ripe for people to take it seriously,” said Barbara Mumby Huerta, an arts commission member of Powhatan and Maidu descent who began advocating for the statue’s removal before joining the commission. “People evolve.”
But in April, the city’s Board of Appeals struck down the decision. Board member Rick Swig called removing the statue “suppression of thought.”
“Taking [the statue] down is not going to remove history,” added board member Darryl Honda. “It’s amazing we don’t remove a window from a house that’s 50 years old but we’re going to take the oldest statue out of City Hall."
The Arts and Historic Preservation commissions won a rehearing of the issue by the Board of Appeals, set for the end of summer.
Mishuana Goeman, chairwoman of the American Indian Studies department at UCLA and a member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, said statues like San Francisco’s Pioneer Monument began cropping up in California after it became a state in 1850. Pioneer memorials were “a way to Americanize the landscape,” Goeman said. “To affirm American dominance over the landscape, and to affirm a certain historical past that wasn’t quite in the past yet.”
Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, which tracks white supremacist groups, said the analogy between removing Native American statues and Confederate monuments is apt.
According to the center, communities across the country have removed 110 Confederate symbols, including 47 monuments, since June 2015, when a white supremacist killed nine African Americans in a Charleston church and sparked a national conversation about commemorations of the Confederacy. There are still 772 Confederate monuments in place.
“We couldn’t be more pleased that the conversation has extended to folks and communities taking a closer look at these offensive statues that depict Native Americans as submissive or stereotypical,” Brooks said.
The debate has broadened to include statues that don’t depict Native Americans but celebrate their oppressors.
In March, San Jose, California, removed a statue of Christopher Columbus, celebrated by many Italian-Americans but reviled as a slaver and murderer by Native Americans, from City Hall and sent it to the Italian American Heritage Foundation. In Arcata, California, the city council in February voted to remove a statue of President William McKinley, who presided over the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines and signed the 1898 Curtis Act, which removed 90 million acres from tribal control in what is now Oklahoma. Arcata voters will make a final decision through a ballot measure in November.
One approach to any public art criticized as racist has been to add plaques to provide historical context and acknowledge changing values. In New York City, a mayoral commission on monuments, formed after the Charlottesville violence, issued a report in January calling for the addition of historical markers in Columbus Circle, home to a 76-foot monument to the 15th century explorer.
The commission also called for the removal of a Fifth Avenue statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th century surgeon dubbed the “father of gynecology” who experimented, without using anesthesia, on enslaved women. In April, it was moved to Sims’ gravesite in Brooklyn.
The mayoral commission could not reach consensus on what to do about an equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, located on the steps of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Some members viewed the Native American and African figures as allegorical representations of the continents, while others said the positioning of the statues depicted a clear racial hierarchy.
Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio directed the city and the natural history museum to come up with signage and programming to provide additional information. “Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to — instead of removing entirely — the representations of these histories,” de Blasio said in January when the commission released its report.
But in San Francisco, the Pioneer Monument already has a plaque — and critics say it isn’t enough. Added in 1996, it notes that European settlement decimated the Native American population and that the sculpture portrays “a conventional attitude of the 19th century.”
Mumby Huerta of the arts commission said statues such as the Pioneer Monument “were never intended to be educational tools.” Instead, she said, “the intent was to show [white] supremacy. … If you continue to have that imagery, that is what people are going to take away.”
In 2016, Kalamazoo officials crafted a $2.8 million plan to restore the Fountain of the Pioneers, which depicted a Native American in headdress standing face to face with a white settler. Under the plan, developed in consultation with the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of the Pottawatomi Indians, the city would have added contextual information to the sculpture, and erected Native American monuments elsewhere in the city.
But last Thanksgiving, the Kalamazoo statue was doused with red paint. In March, the city removed it. “We all had to recognize that the time had come to make this decision,” said Jeff Chamberlain, Kalamazoo’s deputy city manager.
The violence last August in Charlottesville “upped the ante and changed the conversation” in La Crosse, according to Peggy Derrick, executive director of the La Crosse County Historical Society. The city’s Hiawatha statue, made in 1961 by a local art teacher at the request of the chamber of commerce, was supposed to help draw tourists to the stretch of the Mississippi River that business groups in the 1940s had named the Hiawatha Valley.
There were some calls to remove the statue in 1992, amid celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America, but they were unsuccessful. The current effort appears to have more momentum.
Tracy Littlejohn, a Ho-Chunk tribal member who has been among those meeting with La Crosse city officials to discuss removing the statue, said that as a child she was happy to see Hiawatha and listen to his coin-operated voice tell a Ho-Chunk legend about the confluence of rivers.
“Forty years ago, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually seeing a Native American somewhere,’” she said. When she visited as an adult, her reaction was different. For one thing, the historical Hiawatha was a 16th century Onondaga chief (living among the Mohawks, according to some accounts) in what is now New York, not a Wisconsin Ho-Chunk.
“To me it was an ugly site. Not necessarily artistically, but to me it just felt ugly,” she said. “It’s not even representing us correctly, if that is what it was meant to do.”
After a series of meetings with Ho-Chunk representatives and members of the artist’s family, the fate of the statue is “still not totally resolved, but it seems to me that we feel like we have some strong movement to have it relocated” to private property, Mayor Kabat said.
“Just because something has been there doesn’t mean it should be there forever,” he said. “It’s about how we all grow and evolve and how society also changes. Today we view Native people much differently than we did in the 1950s and ’60s. That’s just reality.”