PORTLAND, Ore. — In June 2020, protesters at the University of Oregon in Eugene toppled a statue called The Pioneer, which depicted a White man with a gun slung over his shoulder and a whip in his hand, and a second sculpture titled The Pioneer Mother.
Both monuments had drawn criticism from Indigenous student groups and historians for commemorating settler violence in the West.
Even as Southern states face a reckoning over Confederate monuments, communities in the Western United States are beginning to reconsider monuments that, in many locations, celebrate what dominant American culture has portrayed as the conquering of the region by Europeans.
Among them are hundreds of pioneer monuments, many of which celebrate White dominance over Indigenous people as the nation expanded west. Some were toppled or damaged during the racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd.
In Portland, protesters pulled down or damaged five statues in the summer and fall of 2020, including The Promised Land, a celebration of White westward expansion erected on the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Portland protesters also toppled monuments to Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, citing their policies and actions against Native Americans. And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, city officials removed a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate after a shooting during a protest at the site.
Many Western cities, including Albuquerque, Denver and Portland, have been slow to replace statues or monuments toppled by the protests, or artwork that was removed from public display before they could be damaged. Some of the monuments likely will never return.
Instead, Western communities are beginning to consider what comes next for monuments, as well as what future public art projects should look like. Artists are leading many of those conversations, including in Portland, where dozens of people submitted monument concepts to a prototype exhibit sponsored by the arts group Converge45 last fall.
“Why monuments, period?” asked Roshani Thakore, an artist-in-residence with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Thakore, along with the urban planning scholar and artist Lisa Bates, proposed a monument that would deploy skywriting and loudspeakers and even moving trains to pose questions derived from the issues they’ve experienced in the Asian and Black communities where they work.
"Can there be another language? Is this time to think about another language?" Thakore said. "If we're reckoning, we need to really go all the way … instead of putting these Band-Aids on.”
Pioneer monuments may appear to some observers as wholesome representations of the hard-working forebears of many White Westerners, said Cynthia Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota and the author of "Pioneer Mother Monuments." When she first began documenting the effects of 200 or so pioneer mother monuments across the West, she thought of the genre as "grandma in a sun bonnet."
But the monuments’ intent was far from benign.
She cites research from 2019 by University of Oregon scholar Marc Carpenter, who as a doctoral candidate looked at the speeches by donors and the intent of the sculptor when the Pioneer sculpture was installed at his university. (The same artist, Alexander Phimister Proctor, crafted the Roosevelt monument in Portland and a statue of Robert E. Lee in Dallas that was removed from public view in 2017 and now resides at a Texas golf resort.)
At the University of Oregon, it was obvious even to those who attended the installation of the statue that they were honoring not just White settlement, Carpenter suggests, but also remembering White dominance of Indigenous people. In a paper urging the University of Oregon to remove the Pioneer statue, Carpenter wrote that unlike the Confederate statues of the South, “in the West, our problematic monuments are to America’s other great sin, the violent seizure of Native lands and murder of Native peoples.”
"You don't have to dig very far to find out that there's a racial subtext intended here," Prescott said of pioneer memorials. "That was what donors and the people involved in their dedication are thinking about.”
How to Heal
In the months following the June 2020 shooting at the Oñate statue, the city of Albuquerque convened a Race, History and Healing Project to consider how to proceed with its monuments. The project concluded that year, but the city council has yet to take any action on a final report. A survey of 1,290 residents in Albuquerque found that 53% did not want the statue returned to its original location. Another 36% did, and 11% had another idea or didn’t state an opinion.
In Portland, as the city grapples with replacing or recontextualizing its toppled monuments, city leaders say they want to memorialize stories that were underrepresented in previous public art collections.
"After the protests and after 2020…voices were rising up," said City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees parks and recreation and arts and culture, and was the first Latina on the city council. "It made us really reflective.”
Rubio’s goal is public art that better tells the story of the city by capturing the "important, complex, beautiful, sometimes hard, maybe stark moments of truth."
Some, though, saw the toppled statuary as a sign of strife and unrest fueled by radical protesters. Stan Pulliam, the mayor of Sandy, Oregon, told a television station last year that the toppled presidential statues represented “American treasures” that he and others would welcome in his Portland suburb.
"It's time for communities like Sandy to step up and say, 'Not everyone feels this way!'" said Pulliam, who recently ran and lost in the Republican primary for Oregon governor. “They're heroes that we should recognize and really teach our future generations about both the positive and negative attributes."
Monuments often have failed to tell a complete story of the history of the United States, said Paul Farber, the director of Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. The lab, in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in late 2021 released a national audit looking at who and what gets memorialized in bronze and marble. Monuments shape our shared historical narratives and national memory, the audit notes, but also perpetuate existing injustices and inequality.
Monument Lab’s audit found that the nation's monuments mostly reflect war and conquest; the monuments themselves mostly depict White and male figures. Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman and Sacagawea are the only women in the top 50 list, although "feminized bodies" often appear as "fictional, mythological, and allegorical figures," the audit notes.
The audit also points out that monuments always have been in flux. The first recorded monument removal in the United States was the toppling of a statue of King George III in New York, following a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776.
Creative reuse already is a part of Portland’s art landscape. Protesters in 2020 also tore down a statue of Harvey W. Scott, a newspaper editor during Oregon's early days who opposed women's suffrage and universal high school education. The Scott statue was replaced for a time with a bust made of temporary materials of the enslaved man York, who accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition. The bust was installed overnight by an anonymous artist later revealed to be the sculptor Todd McGrain. Then, a few months later, conservative protesters tore it down.
The pedestals will see reuse by Jeffrey Gibson, an Indigenous artist with an exhibit this fall at the Portland Art Museum. Gibson, who is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, will use the bases as platforms for portraits he’ll display in the show.
The New Monuments
The Mellon Foundation has committed $250 million toward supporting public monument projects that “more completely and accurately represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories.” One of the first projects is Re:Generation, which helps pay for 10 new monuments.
Among them is the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands Project in South Dakota. The project is developing an interpretive site and memorial to the children who died at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School, a federal school that operated from 1898 to 1933.
The project got its start in 2013 while people in the community were writing a history of the 75th anniversary of an Indian Health Service hospital on the site, said the monument’s executive director, Amy Sazue, who is Sicangu and Oglala Lakota. A volunteer began investigating after elders in the community mentioned there were unmarked graves. Record keeping was spotty at best, Sazue said, but volunteers eventually determined that 50 children may be buried there. They were able to secure the return of some land to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
The South Dakota project will be among the first significant monuments to children who died at such schools, which forced Indigenous children to assimilate by removing them from their homes and culture. A preliminary report issued in May by the federal Interior Department found that at least 500 children and perhaps many more died at 53 sites around the country.
The monument, which is scheduled to open in October 2023, will be a contemplative place with a sculptural element. The names of the 50 children who died will be carved on boulders placed on the grounds. Because not all graves are known, the monument will strive not to penetrate the earth–all artistic elements will be floating. It will sit in quiet contrast to the massive, mountainside busts of former U.S. presidents just 25 miles away.
“The landscape where we live in the shadow of Mount Rushmore is really this larger symbol of White supremacy, it's a symbol of indoctrination. It's a symbol of attempted assimilation,” Sazue said.
“And so what we're doing is telling our story, in our way. For Indigenous people, the land itself is a monument. We don't need to build on top of it or do things to it to make it look any different than what it is.”