America’s monument problem
Debate over Confederate monuments has made headlines over the past two years, but Confederate monuments are not alone in extolling a fictionalized version of military heroism and endorsing white supremacy.
In the midst of the beautiful tree-lined walkways at the Fallen Timbers Battlefield Memorial Park outside Toledo, Ohio, stands an imposing monument. Sculptures of General Anthony Wayne, an Indian warrior, and a white settler perch atop a fifteen-foot-tall pedestal with scenes connected to the Battle of Fallen Timbers depicted on each side of the base. The monument is dedicated to Wayne and his 1794 victory in a battle that pitted bands of Ottawa, Ojibwe, Wyandotte, Shawnee, and Miami people, among others, against Wayne’s Legion of the United States, which had been ordered by President George Washington to take control of the region.
“In all history there is no more heroic or inspiring chapter than that which records the conquest of this continent from savagery for civilization,” declared Secretary of War James W. Good at a banquet celebrating the dedication of the monument on September 14, 1929. “In a short space of time, as the history of humankind is measured, it has transformed a vast wilderness, inhabited by savage beasts and little less savage men, into a seat of civilization which is the marvel of the world.” In these initial remarks, Secretary Good hit upon one of the great contradictions of American history: the freedom, democracy, and prosperity of the United States is built upon the dispossession, slaughter, and subjugation of Native people. Far from denouncing this as an historic injustice, Secretary Good reveled in the militancy of the past and sought to dignify and validate the violent wresting of land from America’s Indigenous inhabitants.
Four images, one on each side of the pedestal, illustrate the worldview that justified violence against Indians. Below the statue of the male settler, the phrase “Indian Warfare. In Memory of the White Settlers Massacred (1783-1794),” is accompanied by an image of a naked Indian warrior on horseback attacking a white settler and his small daughter. Speaking at the monument dedication, Arthur C. Johnson, President of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, decried Indians as “deluded savages” who “spread blind terror along the border.” The caricature of the “ignoble savage” demonized and dehumanized Native people and justified conquest and removal on that basis. Indians were, as President Andrew Jackson would state in 1833 in rationalizing removal, “in the midst of another and a superior race” and “have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition.”
On the back side of the monument, the inscription “The Battle of Fallen Timbers, To Chief Little Turtle and His Brave Indian Warriors” accompanies a scene of combat. Although ostensibly dedicated to the bravery of Native participants, the image shows the Indians in full flight or in the midst of being trampled by their white adversaries. H.C. Shetrone, Director of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, justified violent conquest in his dedication address in noting, “The transfer of title to this great land from native Indian to invading white man is not of itself a matter for regret, nor yet a wrongful act, although the methods employed were not always beyond reproach. It was not in the scheme of things that such a vast and fertile country should remain the abode of a handful of savages -- perhaps never more than 50,000 in number; the advance of civilization demanded the change, and the Indian gave way to civilization.”
For the slave owner, the supposed racial inferiority of black Americans made the institution of slavery inevitable, and for apologists and advocates for the expansion of the United States, the avowed inferiority of Indians doomed them to the violent loss of their homelands; Indians were an inevitable casualty of the Manifest Destiny of the United States.
The image directly below the statues features negotiations for the Treaty of Greenville, where Indians were forced to give up their historic lands. From notions of racial inferiority and the inevitability of white expansion flowed the assumption that Indians did not possess the same sovereign title to lands as whites. Secretary Good lamented how “Indian tribes stubbornly clung to the claim of exclusive right to occupy the lands west of the Ohio, and by frequent forays upon scattered white settlements, with cruel massacre of men, women and children, they sought to keep back the resistless tide of white migration.” The territorial claims of the new United States trumped the historic claims of tribal nations. While the newly arrived white settlers engaged in justifiable, defensive warfare, Indians perpetrated “cruel massacres.”
The final image portrays a settler family and the phrase “Onward in Peace.” Secretary Good related how Fallen Timbers initiated “the vanquishing of a primitive race whose tents from then on slowly receded before the oncoming waves of western civilization.” For the audience at the 1929 dedication, Indians no longer existed, and the monument builders had no compunction in lionizing white settlers in their dispossession of Native people. The pain Native people might feel at the celebratory images of the slaughter of their ancestors and usurpation of their traditional homelands need not be considered.
Prior to the unveiling of the monument, Arthur C. Johnson told the assembled crowd what they were going to behold and its meaning for future generations. “We are told that you will see the figure of an Indian warrior bearing the peace pipe, typifying the weaker race which knows no persuasion but force and which inevitably gave way before the needs of the stronger race. Just or unjust, such has been the way of mankind from the beginning. On the other hand you will see the figure of the pioneer, that sturdy type which has ever been the forerunner of civilization and development and culture and progress; which ever has dared to cross the border, braving the unknown to plant out there the seeds of human rights in clean new ground. That figure represents the pioneer who brought into the Northwest Territory the principles upon which this nation is founded, and if, before God, it is to endure, we must take stock of ourselves to see that we do not depart from those principles.”
I would humbly assert it is time to reexamine certain principles upon which United States was founded. There was nothing inevitable about invasion or removal -- they were choices made by white politicians and encouraged by popular sentiments. Notions of the racial inferiority of Indians justified those choices. To truly plant the seeds of human rights, the racist presumptions of the past must be jettisoned along with public monuments celebrating and perpetuating that racism. Removing or altering this monument will not erase history or the injustices of the past. We cannot change the past. We can, however, reject the veneration of white supremacy by confronting the racist ideas embedded in stone in monuments like the Battle of Fallen Timbers Monument.
David Dry is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an enrolled member of the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma. The tribe resided along the Maumee River prior to removal in the 1830s.