Those statues didn't topple overnight
Mary Annette Pember
Carol Welsh has been protesting Christopher Columbus in his namesake Ohio city for decades.
Her husband even received death threats in the early 1990s, when the community became ground zero for celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of “Columbus’ voyages of discovery.”
“I could never understand the non-Native’s anger; I felt as though we bent over backwards to be caring and respectful,” said Welsh, Sisseton Wahpeton.
She and other Natives in the Columbus, Ohio, area are celebrating Mayor Andrew Ginther's announcement that the city will remove a large Columbus statue that stands in front of City Hall. It’s the latest in a string of confederate and other long-standing monuments being dismantled across the U.S. as the country reevaluates its relationship to historical figures who have unacknowledged brutal pasts with people of color.
Ginther announced last week that the city will put the statue in storage until a decision is made on its fate.
The work leading up to the recent toppling of Columbus statues and other monuments to the European conquest of America, however, began nearly 30 years ago, according to longtime Native activists.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has provided the right spark at the right moment to ignite a fire to finally bring down these symbols of Native oppression,” said Guy Jones, Standing Rock Sioux.
Jones lives in Dayton, about 70 miles west of Columbus.
“Seeing our years of efforts come to fruition is the best feeling in the world,” said Carol Welsh, of Columbus.
Jones and Welsh are among a core group of Native activists in Ohio who organized years of annual mourning ceremonies and fasts leading up to Columbus Day celebrations in Ohio’s capital city.
The city of Columbus led the way in 1992 as the U.S. celebrated the 500 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the new world. Congress established the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Act in 1984 as a means to celebrate and coordinate the anniversary through local, national and international observances and activities. According to the declaration, 30 “appropriate individuals” were appointed to a Jubilee Commission to carry out the Act’s directives. Although four of the Commission members were Hispanic and one was Black, none were Native American, reported the Chicago Tribune in 1987.
The city of Columbus was founded as Ohio’s state capital in 1812. There is no reliable history available regarding why this landlocked city with no discernible connection to Christopher Columbus was named after the 15th century Spanish explorer. There are approximately 40 cities around the world named Columbus or Columbia; Columbus, Ohio is the largest. According to Columbus Underground, Italians who immigrated to the city later helped make Columbus Day an Italian holiday.
“The city of Columbus pulled out all the stops for the Quincentenary Jubilee; they had ongoing parades and celebrations for months leading up to Columbus Day,” Jones recalls.
President George H. Bush and well-known comedian Bob Hope visited the city in honor of the Jubilee.
According to the Washington Post, Columbus leaders spent $95 million to celebrate the 1992 Quincentenary.
The Native American perspective, however, was glaringly absent from any of the events.
According to the Columbus Dispatch archives, Jubilee organizers planned to build a $2 million intertribal American Indian village that would recreate American Indian village life as it was when Columbus first landed. The village would have included “American Indians in their traditional dress, living as they did in the past and include a trading post, a campfire restaurant, primitive camping environment with wigwams, lean-tos and tepees for rent by the day, week or month.”
Jones and Welsh helped organize protests to this and other city-planned festivities that featured White settler-focused events. Jones and local and national Native leaders and citizens organized a day of mourning in response to Jubilee celebrations.
Plans to build the intertribal village were scrapped soon after Native people began protesting the Jubilee.
“Native people and allies came from all over to fast and pray; they camped out in front of City Hall and fasted for two weeks leading up to Columbus Day,” said Welsh.
“It was a beautiful experience filled with prayer and song,” she recalls.
The annual fasts continued until 1997 and were later followed by yearly actions calling attention to the fraught, unacknowledged history of Native Americans and Columbus, according to Welsh.
“We organized walks for several days leading up to Columbus Day from City Hall to the ship moored downtown; we’d have a mourning ceremony at the ship,” she said.
The city of Columbus erected a replica of the Santa Maria in honor of the 1992 Quincentennial and moored it in the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. The Santa Maria was the largest of three ships used by Christopher Columbus for his 1492 voyage from Spain to one of the Bahamian islands.
Carol and her husband, Mark Welsh, Dakota Yankton, moved to Columbus in 1980. Mark Welsh, who served as executive director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio for many years, passed away in 2013.
“Mark was seeking justice for our people, for discontinuation of our dehumanization by non-Native people,” Welsh said.
Non-Native responses to Columbus Day protests were very mixed and sometimes frightening, according to Welsh.
“Mark often received death threats; people would shout hateful words at us during the protests,” she recalls.
Local media coverage was usually dismissive, according to Welsh. “The newspaper treated our protests like a big joke, calling us wild Indians beating on drums,” she said.
“We have always presented our side from a place of love; we simply requested that the whole story about Columbus be told,” she said.
People argue that removing statues of Columbus and other troubling historic figures erases history. But according to Welsh, the commonly understood history of Columbus has mostly been inaccurate.
For instance, Christopher Columbus and his crew landed in the Bahamas and then South America during later voyages. He never set foot on the North American continent. Although his voyages kicked off centuries of exploration of the Americas by Europeans, his legacy includes the subsequent exploitation, colonization and genocide of millions of Indigenous peoples.
“We don’t want to erase history. We want to correct it,” Welsh said.
Welsh would like to see some sort of reconciliation or recognition in America of Columbus’ painful legacy for Indigenous peoples. So far, she said, “there has been only denial.”
“We’ve become a nation that is so comfortable with White supremacy that any challenge to that story line is very threatening for some people,” Welsh said.
“I think there is a great deal of comfortability for White folks, especially White men, with symbols like Columbus that portray them as conquerors, bosses of the modern world,” said Mark Stansberry.
Stansberry’s father, Leslie Stansberry, was a local Presbyterian pastor who joined Native activists early on in protests against the Columbus myth. Mark carries on his father’s social and racial justice work in the community. Leslie Stansberry passed away in February.
According to Stansberry, his father would have been very happy to see the Columbus statue come down.
“He would be glad to hear that some of the establishment is finally seeing that symbols, who we put up on public pedestals, really do matter,” he said.
“Although my father would have seen the statue coming down as a win, he would have cautioned that wins are short-lived in our society; we must remain vigilant and keep pushing for equity and justice,” Stansberry said.
“This is a dangerous time; we can go on to great liberation or fall to great fascism,” he said.
Jones and Welsh agreed.
Jones noted that the city plans to store the Columbus statue in a safe place until a decision is made on what to do with it. He anticipates future efforts to reinstate the statue.
Jones also pointed to the remaining Columbus statue that still stands on the statehouse lawn not far from City Hall.
According to Laura Battocletti, executive director of the Ohio Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, the organization governing the capital square, the board is planning a vote on the statue’s future July 16.
“Toppling statues doesn’t erase institutional and systemic racism,” Jones said.
He noted the replica of the Santa Maria ship erected during the Quincentenary wasn’t removed until 2011, and the city waited until 2018 to stop recognizing Columbus Day as a holiday.
“Black Lives Matter protesters and our young people provided the spark to bring these statues down, but we need to keep fanning that fire of change. Otherwise, it will be as though it never burned for us at all,” he said.
Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.
Support Indian Country Today by becoming a member. Click here.