The Monument Controversy We Aren't DiscussingRoundup
tags: memorials, Native American history, monuments, public history
Cynthia C. Prescott is professor of history at the University of North Dakota. She is the author of Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory.
Over the years, the national media has turned to places like Richmond and Portland, Ore., where Confederate and colonialist monuments to White male political and military leaders have been removed despite vocal opposition. But there’s another story of monumental proportions brewing that has received far less attention: statues dedicated to Native American women have gone missing.
Far more than a crime of economic opportunity, these thefts — and subsequent attempts to sell the statues for scrap — are aimed at erasing these people and the histories they represent from the historical record and public imagination.
Most Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and 1930 at the height of Jim Crow to enshrine white supremacy. In those same decades, western communities installed an array of statues similarly centered on white supremacy that celebrated early White settlers and the disappearance of Native peoples. Monuments in cities like San Francisco and Salt Lake City portrayed a progression from Native “savagery” to White “civilization.” Deviations from that narrative sparked public controversy among White settlers for weakening their message of White dominance.
In 1907, Frederick MacMonnies sculpted a fountain for Denver that depicted this progression from savage Plains Indian warrior to White prospectors and pioneers. But the White public was outraged that MacMonnies inverted traditional designs, placing the “disappearing Indian” at the top and White settlers around the base. A man on trial for his life even used his notoriety to decry the placement of the Native American atop the monument design.
In the 1920s, as White westerners grew more confident in their dominance of Native peoples, they dropped visual references to Native Americans in their monuments, instead erecting dozens of new statues that portrayed generic pioneer mothers in sunbonnets carrying White “civilization” westward.
While the 1950s and 1960s backlash against the civil rights movement inspired renewed interest in Confederate monuments and symbols in the South, in the West, things unfolded differently. In many instances, interest in the monuments declined. But in the case of St. Louis’s “Colonial Mother” monument, erected in 1929 and commissioned by the Daughters of American Colonists, a different sort of backlash took place. In 1969, the statue was stolen from its granite base and recovered by police — thanks to an anonymous tip — before it could be sold as scrap metal.