Calls to remove Confederate statues have been on the rise since August 2017, when white supremacists held a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, those aren’t the only types of monuments that have drawn recent criticism. In September, protesters painted the hand of a Christopher Columbus statue red in New York City, decapitated a statue of St. Junipero Serra and doused it with red paint in Santa Barbara, and painted the foot of a Don Juan de Oñate statue red in Alcalde, New Mexico.
All these monuments have one big thing in common: They depict men who systematically killed and enslaved Native peoples while advancing Spain’s foothold in the New World.
“There’s a bigger issue here, and that is what it means to tell the truth about history,” says Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of American Indian Studies and Psychology at the University of Washington. Depicting Columbus as heroic—for instance, by honoring him with a statue—presents a “sterilized, romanticized version of history.”
Columbus, who is credited with establishing European presence in the Americas, captured over a thousand Native people and took them to Spain to be sold at slave auctions. He also served time in a Spanish prison for the violence he inflicted upon the people of Hispaniola (the Caribbean island that includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti).
Painting Columbus’ hand red is a way of drawing attention to the blood on his hands, just as painting Oñate’s foot highlights the conquistador’s penchant for chopping off Native Americans’ feet (a protester also removed one of the statue’s feet in the 1990s). Oñate is famous for establishing the Spanish colony of New Mexico in the mid-1500s, but also for leading a massacre that killed 800 Acoma Pueblo people.
Statues of Serra, especially, have been targeted since 2015, when Pope Francis designated the Spanish Franciscan friar as a saint. Some people consider Serra an important evangelizer of what is now the American West. Yet his mission captured Native Americans and used them as forced labor.
What, then, should be done with these statues? Christopher B.Teuton, professor and chair of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, isn’t sure. But he does think these historical figures need to be recontextualized through accurate historical education. “I think issues surrounding the colonization of North America continue to be ignored and erased in American history,” he says.
“When we celebrate these figures unreflectively, and have monuments made to them—such as Oñate—that just continues that colonial narrative that is such a huge part of American history,” he says. This narrative “includes ideas such as that North America was empty of people, or that Native peoples received Christianity and so-called civilization in exchange for their lands.”
Fryberg agrees that these statues present an inaccurately laudatory view of figures like Columbus, Oñate, and Serra. Continuing to reify figures who hurt Native Americans can be harmful for indigenous groups and non-Natives alike, she notes.
“When [Native American children] get an accurate view of history, then they can see their people as people who have survived, overcome, resisted, and pushed back,” she continues. “Moreover, for non-Natives, when they only know the sterilized version of history, they don’t have accurate empathy or compassion for the plight of Native people.”
Indeed, a tweet from filmmaker Ava DuVernay shows how different perspectives can reframe conversations around history: “If someone kidnapped your child and sold them, where would you want us to put the statue of that person?”
In this instance, DuVernay was talking about Confederate monuments. But the question could easily be posed regarding Columbus, or even one of the newest saints.