Are the Twin Cities listening to statue protests?

In this Nov. 27 photo, "Land Back" graffiti adorns a statue of George Washington in a Minneapolis Park after it was toppled on Thanksgiving. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

Stewart Huntington

Officials eye new approaches to outcry over public art

Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS — When protesters scrawl “Land Back” on pioneer monuments and topple statues of founding fathers or famous explorers, they often draw scorn from authorities — and stiff sentences.

That’s not the response in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where prosecutors acknowledge historical trauma and employ restorative justice measures while city officials call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Indigenous leaders to review public art installations.

Michael A. Forcia, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, faced felony charges after he knocked over a statue of Christopher Columbus in front of the state Capitol in St. Paul this summer.

But on Monday, prosecutors opted for a restorative justice approach that includes 100 hours of community service and would keep Forcia out of jail.

Minnesota State Troopers surrounded the statue of Christopher Columbus after it was toppled in front of the Minnesota State Capitol, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. The statue was later towed away. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via AP)
Minnesota State Troopers surrounded a statue of Christopher Columbus after it was toppled in front of the Minnesota State Capitol on June 10 in St. Paul. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via AP, File)

The move came after community input was sought, including talking circles that explored the painful legacies of colonization.

"The violence, exploitation and forced assimilation that has been inflicted upon Native people has been perpetuated from colonial times into modern times, and the trauma resulting from it is still present," Assistant County Attorney Sarah Cory said during a Zoom hearing Monday. "The impact of those harms is largely unrecognized by or unknown to the dominant culture."

On Thanksgiving, activists struck again. A life-sized bronze statue of George Washington was toppled off his perch in Minneapolis’ Washburn Fair Oaks Park. Across the Mississippi River in another Minneapolis Park, red paint was splattered on a statue commemorating settlers to the area.

Both monuments had the words “Land Back” painted on them, echoing a nationwide campaign to restore land to its Indigenous inhabitants.

A statue of George Washington in a Minneapolis park has paint splashed on its face after activists struck on Thanksgiving 2020. The city’s Park and Recreation Board president is calling for a truth and reconciliation commission to examine all of the public art in the city’s parks. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
A George Washington statue in a Minneapolis park has paint on its face after activists struck on Thanksgiving morning. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
A life-sized bronze statue of George Washington lies on the ground after it was toppled off his perch in Minneapolis’ Washburn Fair Oaks Park on Thanksgiving 2020. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
A life-sized bronze statue of George Washington lies on the ground after it was toppled off its perch in Minneapolis’ Washburn Fair Oaks Park on Thanksgiving morning. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
Minneapolis city crews power-wash a statue of a pioneer settler family after activists targeted the monument with anti-colonial messages on Thanksgiving 2020. No arrests have been made in connection with the protest action. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
Minneapolis city crews power-wash a statue of a pioneer settler family after activists targeted the monument with anti-colonial messages on Thanksgiving. No arrests have been made in connection with the protest action. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
Minneapolis city crews power-wash a statue of a pioneer settler family after activists targeted the monument with anti-colonial messages on Thanksgiving 2020. No arrests have been made in connection with the protest action. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
(Photo by Stewart Huntington)

Frank Paro, national director of the American Indian Movement, lauded the actions.

“It’s about time that we take something back or take something down from this colonial government,” Paro, Grand Portage Chippewa, said the day after the actions. “Whoever is responsible for this, well, I’ll take my hat off to them and say, ‘Miigwetch, thank you.’ I’d like to have been there.”

City cleanup crews acted swiftly over the holiday. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, they power-washed the statue of the pioneers. And soon, Washington was scooped up off the ground and taken away for repairs.

City leaders acted swiftly too. Park and Recreation Board President Jono Cowgill is calling for an examination of all art in the city’s parks.

“I envision first having conversations with the community and especially with our Indigenous leaders to understand what the best way would be to start a process, and then what I really envision is a community-led consideration of all the art,” said Cowgill.

Thanksgiving marked the third time this year that the Washington statue had been targeted by vandals, and Cowgill says the moment is right for a new approach.

“There are many (sculpture) pieces that are deemed to be innocuous, like the dandelion in our downtown park,” said Cowgill, who has served on the park board since 2017. “Others, like the George Washington statue, are far more fraught with a lot of different kinds of significance. Given how this summer in Minneapolis has gone as the community has taken really deep, and I think important, interest in what stories are we telling, who are we giving space to in our systems and ... who are we lifting up, I think it’s a good time to harness that interest and energy and really evaluate what we do have.”

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Jono Cowgill wants the community to weigh in on public art. “I envision first having conversations with ... our Indigenous leaders to understand what the best way would be to start a process and then what I really envision is a community led consideration of all the art,” he said. (Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)
Jono Cowgill (Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)
AIM National Director Frank Paro, shown here Nov. 27, 2020, took issue with an image of a Native American on a statue in a Minneapolis park. “It’s the depiction on that statue of that Indigenous person presenting that pipe to Father Henepin,” he said. “Organized religion is one of the top three organizations involved in the undoing of Ingenous peoples in this country. Organized religion is probably the top one.” (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
AIM National Director Frank Paro (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
City crews reacted swiftly the day after a statue to pioneer settlers was hit with protest graffiti on Thanksgiving 2020. American Indian Movement leaders lauded the activists. “It’s about time that we take something back or take something down from this colonial government,” said Frank Paro, Grand Portage Chippewa, the day after the actions. “Whoever is responsible for this well I’ll take my hat off to them and say ‘Miigwetch,’ ‘thank you.’ I’d like to have been there.” (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
City crews reacted swiftly the day after a statue to pioneer settlers was hit with graffiti on Thanksgiving. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

The pioneer monument has also repeatedly been targeted. It’s a large granite sculpture of a pioneer settler family with a bas relief panel below. One detail on the bas relief involving a Catholic priest drew particular attention from Paro.

“Organized religion is one of the top three organizations involved in the undoing of Ingenous peoples in this country,” the AIM leader said. “Organized religion is probably the top one.”

The new potential approach from the parks board fits with a trend in this Midwest metropolitan area. The Minneapolis City Council launched a Truth and Reconciliation process in October citing a stark reality: “Minnesota and Minneapolis have some of the most severe racial inequities in the country. African Americans make up 31 percent and American Indians make up 8 percent of the incarcerated population but only 7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of the statewide population.”

Mayor Jacob Fry explained the effort as a path to a healthier community. “Defining a more just future requires an honest and thorough understanding of our past, and that’s the process we’re undertaking,” he said.

Cowgill said his plan echoes the citywide initiative. “I would envision (the public art review) as kind of the park board’s own version of that.”

A bronze statue of President George Washington is off its perch in a Minneapolis park after vandals struck on Thanksgiving 2020. “Land back” graffiti was written on the statue in reference to a campaign to return territory to its original inhabitants. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
A bronze statue of President George Washington is off its perch in a Minneapolis park after vandals struck on Thanksgiving. “Land back” graffiti was written on the statue in reference to a campaign to return territory to its original inhabitants. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

And where would George Washington or Christopher Columbus fit into any new conversation?

Their future is murky.

“I do not support putting George Washington back on his pedastal,” said Cowgill. “At this point without having a robust conversation that’s led by Native people, I don’t think that there’s a chance that he should be back up there. That’s my personal position. I don't speak for the entire organization.”

The Columbus statue has not been restored to its position in front of the Statehouse, and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, has formed two panels to develop a process for public input into the monuments at the building.

“The Minnesota state Capitol should be a place where all Minnesotans are seen, heard and valued,” she said, noting that “our work can be more inclusive, engaged and reflective of what it means to build a Capitol that is truly the People’s House.”

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Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.

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