The murder of George Floyd at the beginning of this summer ignited uprisings across the globe that forced numerous countries to reckon with monuments and statues that glorify their racist and colonizing pasts.
Statues of slavers and colonizers were vandalized and torn down by anti-racist protesters throughout Europe. Monuments glorifying the confederacy met the same fate here in the United States.
But the debate over “UnMonumenting” across the country is far from over. In some cities, officials are calling for the removal of controversial memorials. Ordinary citizens have also taken to toppling these statues themselves. The question of which ones stay, which ones go and why depends on who you ask.
Native Americans maintain that monuments honoring colonizers such as Christopher Columbus, John Sutter and Fr. Junipero Serra promote a false narrative and the erasure of Native American history—a history that is already rarely taught in school.
Morning Star Gali, member of the Ajumawi band of Pit River Tribe, serves as the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer where she works on projects that center the history of California’s indigenous peoples.
“Within a historical context, we have village sites throughout Northern California, tribal villages that are documented to be anywhere from 12,000-14,000 years old,” said Gali, Project Director for Restoring Justice for Indigenous People (RJIP), who has been a leader in the movement to eliminate racist statues in Sacramento. “And its only been within the last 160-250 years we have faced the mass genocide and with that the erasure of California Native peoples from stories.”
A statue commemorating colonizer John Sutter—a 19th Century land baron who built his wealth upon the backs of enslaved Native Americans and established Sutter’s Fort in 1841 in what is now known as Sacramento—was removed from midtown Sacramento on June 15. Following many July 4 weekend protests, demonstrators tore down a statue of Catholic missionary and now saint Junipero Serra—whose role in establishing California’s Mission system played a tragic role in the decimation of California’s indigenous population—on the east side of the state Capitol grounds. And as of July 7, the statue of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella no longer stand in the rotunda of California’s Capitol.
For Gali, what these statues and monuments honoring people who all played a role in the genocide of Native Americans represent “is an erasure of that history…and the glorification that happened with Serra and not acknowledging the mission system was created for the enslavement and incarceration of indigenous people.”
Gali is also a board member for the California Indian Heritage Center Foundation, which is housed at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento. On July 15, Sutter’s Fort released a statement on Facebook owning up to the it’s painful past. “Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park has not shared the full, complex, and often dark history of 19th century California and its often awful consequences for California Native Americans, and the roles played by Sutter and others in that story,” read the statement. “We embrace calls for fundamental change and are looking forward to telling the whole story of Sutter’s Fort and other sites in consultation and partnership with California Native Americans.”
While Gali appreciates the statement, she feels it’s long overdue. “They talk about the unbalanced perspective and the information they are providing visitors. I feel like that’s a long time coming because too many people are leaving the fort with this impression that Sutter was this positive figure,” Gali said. “So I do appreciate that they are at the beginning steps of acknowledging that, but there is still a lot to be done.”
Predictably, these views aren’t aligned with those of the current administration. The White House issued the “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes” executive order on July 3.
“To destroy a monument is to desecrate our common inheritance,” read the order and continued to state that the administration “will not abide an assault on our collective national memory.”
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed ordered the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue at Coit Tower in the early morning hours of June 18. Arianna Antone-Ramirez—member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and a research associate at California Consortium for Urban Indian Health Community Outreach—she said there was no outreach to the Native American community about the decision to remove the Columbus statue despite years of calling for its removal by Native American activists and organizations.
“It’s very frustrating for our community,” Antone-Ramirez said. “We are happy it’s gone obviously, but we do wish we would have been notified.”
Antone-Ramirez cited the “Early Days” statue which was formerly part of the Pioneer Monument in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Dedicated on Thanksgiving Day 1894, the statue depicted a fallen American Indian cowering at the feet of a Catholic missionary pointing to the sky while a vaquero raised his hand in victory. When that statue was removed in September 2018, Native Americans were part of the removal process.
“We were notified and our community was able to go there and pray together and actually be there to see it taken down, for us that is part of our healing,” Antone-Ramirez said. “We are still carrying that intergenerational trauma, we are still dealing with things that happened to our ancestors. So it’s important to have that time together as a community. It brings mixed feelings, we feel like we were robbed of that opportunity for healing.”
In response to the removal of the Columbus statue at Coit Tower, Mayor Breed and Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Catherine Stefani issued a joint statement.
“At a time of great unrest and deep reflection by our country, we recognize the pain and oppression that Christopher Columbus represents to many,” read the statement. “We believe that through public art we can and should honor the heritage of all of our people, including our Italian-American community, but in doing so we should choose symbols that unify us.”
The statement also said that the Arts and Recreation and Park Commissions will decide what to put in place of where the Columbus statue once stood.
When asked about community outreach surrounding the decision to remove the Columbus statue, Rachelle Axel, Director of Public & Private Partnerships for the San Francisco Arts Commission, responded via email saying that “It was removed because it doesn’t align with San Francisco’s values or our commitment to racial justice.” Axel also noted that the statue had been vandalized three times a week before it was removed, and that a protest flyer was circulating online calling for citizens to remove the statue by July 19. “Doing it quickly was also a matter of public safety. A 2-ton statue falling from its pedestal presented a grave risk to citizens,” Axel said. “We look forward to engaging with the many communities we serve on these important conversations, and to providing additional information to the public in the coming weeks.”
As for both Gali and Antone-Ramirez, they see an alignment between the movements by Black Lives Matter and Native Americans.
“Every day is a fight for visibility and to change minds about the myths contributing to the erasure of Native History,” Gali said.
“We have to talk about whose narrative is being supported and whose history is being protected,” added Antone-Ramirez.