Pulling Down Statues Is Not the Same as Blasting Sacred Sites

Pulling Down Statues Is Not the Same as Blasting Sacred Sites June 11, 2020

As I noted earlier this week, there have been a lot of efforts in the last few weeks to remove statues of notoriously racist white men, as well as memorials to the Confederate cause. I noted then that our iconography reflects our cultural values. Statues are erected for a reason: to celebrate specific figures. It’s no surprise that one of the first things to come down in eastern European countries on the dissolution of the Soviet Union were statues to Lenin and Stalin.

Yesterday, indigenous protestors in St. Paul, Minnesota, pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus. Video of the event is profound.

While American schoolchildren know Columbus for “discovering” America, Columbus’ real legacy was in opening the Americas to European colonization. Columbus didn’t just give European nations the idea of colonizing the Americas. He started the enterprise himself. Columbus wrote of the Taino as follows:

“They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery. … They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces. … They do not carry arms or know them. … They should be good servants.”

Columbus enslaved hundreds of the Taino people and took them to Spain, and gave orders that Taino should be tortured or maimed if they failed to bring back the quota of gold that he demanded from them—the Taino did not have gold, but Columbus refused to believe this. His men raped women and girls and killed any Taino people who got in their way, or resisted.

It’s unsurprising—and understandable!—that indigenous Minnesotans would pull down a statue of Columbus that stood at the state capital. But that’s not how Texas Senator Ted Cruz saw it. Not at all. “American Taliban,” he tweeted.

So I thought I’d take a moment to explain the difference between what’s happening here and what the Taliban did when they blew up ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. I’ll tell you what the equivalent would be: defacing a sacred mountain with dynamite. Oh wait, the United States already did that. We call it Mount Rushmore and visit it as a tourist attraction. That mountain was named Six Grandfathers, and it was sacred to the Lakota Sioux.

White America has never cared about sacred sites. Instead, we have shown utter disregard, destroying or defacing them at will.

This isn’t really over. See, for example, ongoing efforts to put a massive Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Moana Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians. Construction on this project has been paused, in part because other countries partnering with U.S. observatories on this project are concerned about running roughshod over ongoing native protests. The arrest of several dozen Native Hawaiian elders last summer was a turning point, but the project has not been officially discontinued—only paused for discussions to take place.

But Ted Cruz isn’t actually worried about ancient sacred sites, despite any claims to the contrary. What he’s really worried about is protestors pulling down statues memorializing and glorifying individuals whose racist beliefs and actions caused untold harm.

Those are interesting priorities, to say the least.

Very interesting priorities.

There is no reason these statues can’t be removed and taken to a museum. No one is saying the statues must be literally obliterated. I would love to see a museum of discontinued statues, where the figures these statues and monuments memorialize are placed in their historical context, accompanied by a telling of the stories of the who sought to remove them, and why.

This isn’t about destroying history. It’s about ending a glorification of figures whose principal act was to destroy, enslave, and rape. If Cruz can’t understand that, that’s his problem.

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