Monday, July 27, 2020

Rethinking Monuments

Statues are very much in the news these days. It’s just part of our finally coming to grips with our past through the eyes of the present and making conscious decisions as to who we want to be. A statue, a monument, a memorial is a testimony to a person or event that is considered worthy of celebration, designed to make us pause and appreciate and consider and thank those that sacrificed to bring us the world we now inhabit.
In that light, it’s extraordinary that it is over 150 years past the Civil War that we are finally taking down Confederate flags and statues of those who defended the institution of slavery. Naturally, removing things alone or changing Monuments accomplishes nothing if it’s not accompanied by the deep teaching and consideration of the history we all should have learned. But it is a step that announces clearly: “We will see this in a larger, more just and more inclusive light.”
Take the Little Bighorn Monument in Montana, the site of “Custer’s Last Stand.” In my childhood, Custer was a hero tragically defeated by savage Indians. The moment we drove past the sign on Route 90, I was determined to find out how they were telling that story now, even if it cost $25 per vehicle. So we went into the park and the first thing we saw was the gravestones of the fallen soldiers. The white soldiers, that is. Not a good start.
But up the hill was a monument to the Indian Warriors and the pamphlet began with an acknowledgement of the battle as one of the last attempts of the Lakota and Cheyenne in the area to preserve and protect their sacred land. This new addition and the change of name from Custer’s Battlefield to Little Bighorn Monument (signed and approved by George W. Bush in 1991) is a step in that direction. Naturally, I would like to see it go a few steps further. In one short sentence, the pamphlet mentions that the government treaty agreed to “allow” the Lakota and Cheyenne to live in the Black Hills, their ancestral home. First thing to note: What gave them the power and audacity to “allow” people to live where they had lived for centuries?
But—pay attention here—the big change happened when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The gold-driven white culture (set in motion by Columbus and his ilk centuries before) felt that this was enough to nullify the treaty and Custer was there by the permission of the U.S. government to break its word and drive out the native inhabitants. That battle was a victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne, but naturally, the government simply re-doubled its efforts and within a year, they both were driven out. Follow the moneyis the mantra of any history teaching worth its salt and we need to see that force at play not only with Native American genocide and slavery, but with yesterday’s news. Arkansas Trumpublican senator Tom Cotton just said that “slavery was the necessary evil upon which our Union was built.” He’s correct that our economic prosperity came from a few hundred years of free labor, so if you follow the money, it was indeed “necessary.” But if you have a humanitarian bone in your body and a single moral fiber, you would never, ever, ever, justify such barbarity, terrorism, psychopathological relationship as necessary. And if you were an alert citizen and decent human being, you would never, ever, ever, elect such a person to a position of leadership and power. And yet we have. And yet we do. 
Further down the road, we went to Mt. Rushmore, sight of a recent POTUS rally that defied social distancing in the time of COVID. Here the narrative was likewise in the “follow the money” mode. Washington was revered for helping create new union, Jefferson for expanding the territory with the Louisiana Purchase (another blow to Native American inhabitant), Lincoln for re-uniting the country that still remains divided (as mentioned, Confederate flags just now coming down and Southern Senators still ambivalent about the demise of slavery) and Teddy Roosevelt not for creating National Parks (thanks for that, Teddy!) but for expanding our international presence through the Spanish American war and more. Power and money, power and money, the mantra of our nation, so often at the expense of culture and justice. 
One thing I haven’t heard any news about is Stone Mountain in Georgia. Do you know that it is a Southern Mt. Rushmore, faces into the rocks in a similar way? Only these faces are Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and were carved with money donated by the Ku Klux Klan as a monument to the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” And more shocking yet (just found this out while writing this), the person first hired to carve it was none other than Gutzon Borglum, the guy who did Mt. Rushmore! Aargh! Apparently he was involved with the KKK, but somewhat disdained because he was a Northerner and they fired him in the midst of his planning. From there, he went on to carve Mt. Rushmore. 
Looking that up, I also discovered that there have been protests to remove this monument to white supremacy, one as recently as July 5th, but that to do so would require approval from the Georgia State Legislature. Well, maybe if Stacy Abrams becomes our next Vice-President, there might be some hope to get that moving.
That’s the monument report from the trip. One or two more posts and then ready to return to the present!

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