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Know the West

Take down monuments to Native American oppression

As monuments to slavery come down in the South, others, too, deserve scrutiny.


A larger-than-life bronze bust of Christopher Columbus surveys Pueblo, Colorado, from atop a 15-foot limestone column. The monument, designed by New York sculptor Pietro Piai and erected in 1905 to celebrate the first-ever Columbus Day, rules the corner of Union and East Abriendo Avenue.

Columbus, wearing an explorer’s hat and vest, gazes out upon downtown. A crest affixed to the front of his pedestal features an eagle with its wings outstretched, perched on a shield emblazoned with a cross and flanked by American and Italian flags.

An inscription on the front of the monument reads:


Commissioned during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, the statue celebrates Europeans’ discovery and mastery of the Americas at the same time as the nation took up what Rudyard Kipling called the “White Man’s Burden” abroad in the Philippines, Cuba and Latin America.

It is, above all, a public monument to conquest.

Currently, monuments to our country’s reprehensible history of slavery, segregation and oppression of African Americans are a heated battleground in our ongoing culture wars—most notably in New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently delivered a moving speech after he oversaw the removal of four Confederate monuments.

“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity,” said Landrieu. “It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

New Orleans is but the latest site to face down memorials to controversial figures. From South Africa to the University of Oxford and many cities and college campuses in between, a long-overdue conversation about how the past is memorialized is in order—particularly around markers honoring men who led regimes and campaigns rooted in racial oppression.

Not all histories of oppression are equally visible, however. While politicians and the public have called for a more accurate reflection of racism and oppression against African Americans, monuments to the history of genocide against Native Americans have received little to no attention.

The Columbus statue is but one prominent monument to America’s forgotten colonial past.

There are statues of former President Andrew Jackson, the man responsible for the Trail of Tears; Saint Junipero Serra, the architect of California’s mission system designed to obliterate Native culture and spiritual beliefs and enslave Indigenous peoples; General George Armstrong Custer, a noted Indian killer who eventually died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn after repeated incursions into Lakota territory; and Juan de Oñate, the first colonial governor of what is now New Mexico, who enslaved and brutalized the Pueblo people.

A monument to Saint Junipero Serra stands above Interstate 280 between San Francisco and San Jose. Serra’s goal was to convert Native Americans to Catholicism, in order to save them. But many Native Americans died as his missions moved into what’s now California.
Steve Boland, cc via flickr

And there are other monuments across the United States that similarly celebrate a history of oppression and dispossession—not to mention countless cities, counties, schools and parks that also derive names from ruthless colonists, frontiersman, politicians and military idols.

The language of “discovery,” “expansion” and “manifest destiny” that Americans use to describe this history obscures the bloody massacres that this continent-sized theft entailed. Monuments to Columbus, Serra, Custer and Oñate represent and celebrate this theft and genocide.

Monuments are the products of societal decisions, often driven by public subsidy and private wealth, about which historical moments and figures universities, churches, cities, states or nations choose to enshrine for posterity. Because they are built almost exclusively by victors and elites, statues, monuments and memorials often signify and re-inscribe hierarchy and hegemony.

History, society and culture, however, are not set in stone. As time passes, one-sided monuments become sites for political struggle, where oppressed and marginalized groups contest narratives of conquest and the values and hierarchies they represent.

If we look at other English-speaking nations with similar histories of brutality against Indigenous peoples such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it’s clear that the United States is exceptional in its inability to confront its own history of colonization.

Why is the U.S. different?

The heart of the issue is that the United States’ first peoples are largely invisible. Many Americans have never met a Native person. Most think that we have vanished or are so marginal as to be statistically insignificant. The erasure of Native presence enables the inheritors of this continent to speak of “discovery,” “expansion” and “manifest destiny” without reckoning with the lives of people plowed under so that this nation could stretch from sea to shining sea.

In Canada, a country founded upon a myth of “fairness,” there is daily public attention to and debate about the treatment of First Nations. In Australia, there are ongoing “History Wars” over whether the country’s origin-story is in fact genocide. Meanwhile, Aotearoa/New Zealand is officially a bicultural nation, where the country’s Indigenous Maori are accorded equal status as founding partners alongside “Pakeha” or English colonists.

In these English-speaking countries, all founded on parallel histories of settlement and colonization, Indigenous peoples stand at the center of ongoing national debates about racism, history and national identity. But in the U.S., there is silence.

Some might claim that all is quiet on the Indigenous front because slavery and segregation were such morbid stains on the fabric of the nation that one injustice overshadows the other. But this view is unconvincing. There is no need to use an imagined moral yardstick to measure and compare these reprehensible wrongs to determine which is deserving of public attention.

The continent-sized theft of land, labor and life from Native Americans is monstrously unjust as is the Atlantic-wide enslavement, colonization and segregation of Africans. Moreover, in a nation that claims a fierce history of anti-colonial independence, lionized with monuments to the “Founding Fathers,” it is puzzling that the denial of the same independence to Native Americans would not give rise similar cultural shame and dysphoria.

In 2016, after a long campaign led by Native students, Columbia University — named after the conqueror — erected a small plaque honoring the Indigenous Lenape, who gave the borough of “Manhattan” its name. It reads:

The Lenape lived here before and during colonization of the Americas. This plaque recognizes these indigenous people of Manhattan, their displacement, dispossession, and continued presence. It stands as a reminder to reflect on our past as we contemplate our way forward.

By asserting our current presence and enduring history, Native people break the silence of erasure. In so doing, we force the United States to reckon with the true history of dispossession and death upon which this union was founded—one statue, monument and plaque at a time.

Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is a writer currently reporting from across Turtle Island with support from High Country News’ Diverse Western Voices Award and the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s CBC Indigenous Fellowship