ST. PAUL -- As the nation continues to reel from the death of George Floyd and parse through the realities of racism, Americans are questioning perhaps more than ever the appropriateness of memorials to historical figures or events that have racist pasts.

Many have called for the removal or destruction of said monuments, saying they glorify violence and racism, and make minorities feel unwelcome. Some have taken matters into their own hands, knocking down or destroying statues themselves.

On the other side of the debate, some say removing the memorials would erase history and heritage, and condemn demonstrators who tear down memorials for destroying public property.

In Minnesota, during a string of protests against racism and police brutality, demonstrators took to the Capitol grounds June 10 with a mission to pull down the statue of Christopher Columbus. Columbus, who is often-said to have “discovered” the Americas, brutalized the Indigenous people on the land upon his arrival from Europe.

And so, a group of demonstrators fastened a rope around the neck of the bronzed colonist, and together they pulled until the 10-foot statue came crashing down.

The demonstration drew the ire of many, who say destruction of property is inexcusable. When the state’s Capitol Area Architectural and Planning (CAAP) Board met two weeks after the toppling, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, pressed fellow board members about any legal consequences for the demonstrators. The statue had sustained $154,000 in damages from the fall, and anyone found guilty after investigation and prosecution could be on the hook for 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Nelson, along with Senate Republican colleague Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, followed up in a Wednesday, July 1 letter to the Minnesota Historical Society, asking whether the Columbus statue will be returned to the Capitol grounds and "whether they believe another action is necessary." Nelson said that tearing down a monument is illegal, and "one does not get a pass on tearing down a statue because they do not like it."

"We can’t erase history by tearing down statutes, but we can reinterpret it – we should talk about what we believed then and what we believe now and how our thinking has changed," Nelson said in a Wednesday statement.

At the CAAP board meeting last week, Chair and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said there is a larger question to be asked about the role of such monuments in the first place, and about the public’s input in any considerations to remove memorials. There still is not such a process in place for memorials on Minnesota’s Capitol grounds -- though the board is now working on one -- and Flanagan said people should feel welcome at “their house.”

One place that did it right, Flanagan said, is Bemidji. Beginning in the 1950s, a statue of Shaynowishkung, an Ojibwe man who helped the first white colonizers survive the perils of northern Minnesota, overlooked Lake Bemidji.

But Native community members said the statue was offensive and resembled a caricature of the man. Donnie Headbird, the great-great-grandson of Shaynowishkung, told Minnesota Public Radio in 2015 that the statue looked cartoonish and “didn't do him justice."

The bronze statue of Shaynowishkung stands 9-feet 3-inches tall; Chief Bemidji is shown holding a pipe and walking stick. The new statue, replacing one that was erected in the 1950s, was unveiled in 2015 along the shore of Lake Bemidji. Forum News Service file photo
The bronze statue of Shaynowishkung stands 9-feet 3-inches tall; Chief Bemidji is shown holding a pipe and walking stick. The new statue, replacing one that was erected in the 1950s, was unveiled in 2015 along the shore of Lake Bemidji. Forum News Service file photo

For years, local organizers worked to place a new statue of Shaynowishkung on the city grounds -- one that was a better representation and told the full truth of settlers’ relationship with the Ojibwe people and other tribes native to Minnesota. Now, a 9-foot bronze statue crafted from a Shaynowishkung photo looks out at the lake, hair blowing back in the breeze.

A shrine to democracy, or a 'brand on our flesh?'

Almost 700 miles to the west, more than six-times taller than Shaynowishkung’s bronze frame, are the faces of four American presidents carved into South Dakota’s Black Hills: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

To many, the national memorial is a shrine to democracy. But Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier said June 30 that for the Great Sioux Nation, "Nothing stands as a greater reminder (...) of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore.”

Frazier, as well as Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner, have both called for the removal of the carving.

Carved into the rockface of the Black Hills -- sacred lands to the tribes native to the Upper Plains -- are four presidents who were instrumental in the forming of the nation, but committed racist acts. Washington was the nation’s first president, and Jefferson penned the words “all men are created equal,” but both held slaves. Lincoln abolished slavery, yet greenlighted the hangings of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota in 1862. Roosevelt reportedly said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are ...”

Mount Rushmore in Keystone, S.D. Rob Beer / Forum News Service
Mount Rushmore in Keystone, S.D. Rob Beer / Forum News Service

Frazier said Mount Rushmore should be destroyed entirely: “This brand on our flesh needs to be removed, and I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States, by myself if I must."

South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, on the other hand, in a statement said attempts to remove memorials are part of “a radical movement committed to undoing our nation’s history.”

“Rather than looking to the past to help improve our future, the lessons of history - lessons that we should be teaching our children and our grandchildren – are instead being wiped away,” Noem said. “This approach focuses exclusively on a person’s flaws and fails to capitalize on the opportunity to learn from the virtues that person represents.”

As for threats to Mount Rushmore, Noem has declared: “Not on my watch.”

“(T)he men honored on Mount Rushmore weren’t perfect; nobody is,” Noem said. “They all had flaws. But they all had tremendous virtues as well, and they did incredible things for our country. Today, America is the greatest nation in the history of the world, and that is in no small part thanks to each president memorialized on Mount Rushmore.”

On July 3rd, Noem, along with South Dakota’s congressional delegation and thousands of spectators, will greet President Donald Trump for an Independence Day fireworks display over the memorial. About 7,500 spectators are set to attend despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and Noem has said social distancing and face masks will not be mandatory.