Indigenous, Black and Decolonial Activists call for renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and for the removal of Theodore Roosevelt’s Statue
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New York, NY – Activists from New York’s Indigenous and Black communities, along with decolonial advocates led an “Anti-Columbus Day Tour” at the American Museum of Natural History on October 9, 2017; the groups are demanding that Mayor de Blasio and members of the New York City Council join the growing list of cities in the U.S. that have renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
New York City boasts the largest indigenous population in the country—more than one hundred thousand people—and it sits on the territory of the Lenape.
In their public letter to the City of New York and to the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), several grassroots groups (NYC Stands with Standing Rock, Decolonize This Place, Black Youth Project 100, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, and the Eagle and Condor House) insist that the public holiday should honor the persistent presence of Indigenous Americans, and that it is no longer acceptable to commemorate Christopher Columbus, a figure widely associated with exploitation, enslavement, and conquest.
The letter also demands that elected officials remove the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt (outside the AMNH), which has often been cited as the most hated monument in New York City. A stark embodiment of the white supremacy that Roosevelt himself espoused and promoted, the statue is seen as an affront to all who pass it on entering the museum, but especially to African Americans and Indigenous Americans. The letter insists that a statue glorifying racial hierarchies should be retired from public view.
“No truly reputable museum” observes Amin Husain from Decolonize This Place, “should allow such a racially inflammatory monument to guard its entrance.” The call for removal is in line with an international movement that began with the dismantling of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town, and escalated in the U.S. with the removal of Confederate flags and generals from public display in the South. The statue is city-owned, and sits on land managed by the Parks Department, so city officials have jurisdiction over its fate. The demand is especially timely in light of the systematic review of public “symbols of hate” currently underway by the Mayor’s monuments commission.
The letter also calls attention to the Museum’s discredited racial classification system that relegates colonized peoples to the domain of Nature and and colonizer to the domain of Culture and Science. For example, the Hall of African Peoples still shares the same exhibition framework as the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Even more bizarre, as Amrit Trewn, Black Youth Project 100 organizer points out, “there is no space in the museum where African and African-descended people are allowed to exist in modern time, they are frozen in the past.”
Regarding the inappropriate display of artifacts, Crystal Migwans, from NYC Stands with Standing Rock, calls for respect for these “artifacts” as ancestral beings, and for true collaboration with their descendants: “The AMNH sits atop a mountain of cultural wealth drained from our communities. The objects in those cases are our relatives, and their mistreatment here, in the heart of this American metropolis, reflects our own.” The letter demands that the museum’s display plan be reviewed and re-conceived by curatorial representatives of the “exhibited” populations, and that human remains, sacred things, and objects of power be placed under the authority of their descendants.
Recently, the AMNH leadership announced plans to renovate the Northwest Coast Hall, its first cultural gallery, largely untouched since it was built at the turn of the twentieth century. While this is a welcome initiative, it is long overdue and there is much more to be done to catch up with other museums much further down the path of decolonization. The letter calls for the immediate establishment of an independent Decolonization Commission to assess how the AMNH can rearrange the other halls, and for town hall meetings to be scheduled so that members of the public can testify openly about the impact of the racist stereotypes and demeaning representations on display.
Since more than 2 million school children visit the museum annually, the letter also calls on Department of Education officials to undertake their own review of the harms perpetuated upon New York’s highly diverse youth. Currently, the AMNH, which receives $17 m of taxpayer funding annually, and uses land and facilities managed by the city, is not held accountable for the damage done to these young minds.
According to Tlingit artist Jackson Polys: “Real decolonization–a repatriation of all objects and land to Indigenous peoples–may seem beyond the reach of an institution that to its core acts to reinforce settler colonial mentalities.” In his view, “there’s real opportunity here to begin dialogue, but can our voices truly be heard when framed–contained –by these constant justifications for a foundational violence that permeate every representation of non-European peoples?”
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