‘Whose memory do we honor?’
As protesters for racial equity topple monuments across the country, historians weigh in on how their removal can spark conversations resulting in an inclusive understanding of American history.
The history of the monument in front of the statehouse honoring the 1st Colorado Cavalry was complicated. So was the expression of public frustration that drove protesters to topple it in the early morning of June 25.
The statue of a cavalryman was designed by Capt. Jack Howland, a member of the cavalry, and erected by the state in 1909 to recognize Colorado volunteers who fought for the Union in the Civil War; it lists Sand Creek as a battle in which cavalry fought. In fact, at dawn on Nov. 29, 1864, at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, a militia led by Col. John Chivington massacred more than 150 Arapaho and Cheyenne people, mostly women and children. The state in 1999 added a plaque to the statue that read: “By designating Sand Creek a battle, the monument’s designers mischaracterized the actual events.”
The destruction of the monument last month can be seen as people trying to cause chaos, said historian Matt Makley, Ph.D., historian and professor at Metropolitan State University whose scholarship includes Native American history. But it can also be seen as Coloradans making a statement about public memory.
“The fact that (the monument) came down is complicated,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful example of just how complex public memory is that I think is something every American and every Coloradan should think about: Whose memory do we honor?”
That question rages across the U.S. as protesters for racial equity have brought down monuments honoring Christopher Columbus, Confederate leaders and Americans who owned slaves. In Colorado, the question of who should be honored is in the hands of the new Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, which was formed through a July 2 executive order by Gov. Jared Polis. The board will evaluate proposals concerning name changes, new names and name controversies of geographic features and certain public places in Colorado and provide recommendations to Polis.
Until 1999, there was only one other monument acknowledging Colorado’s painful history at Sand Creek, set near the site in what is today Kiowa County, Makley said. After a nearly decadelong campaign to recognize the significance of the attack on the village, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site opened in April 2007. In late 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper formally apologized for the “atrocity that our government and its agents visited” upon the Arapaho and Cheyenne people. But the statue remained on the west side of the Capitol until the early morning of June 25.
We don’t learn history from statues, and their removal whether by governments or protesters doesn’t change our understanding of history, said Shelby Balik, Ph.D., associate professor of history at MSU Denver. She teaches about historical memory, which often takes shape through controversies over statues and symbols.
“When we’re having those difficult and painful conversations about which statues should be removed and which ones should stay – I think we’re learning more history from those conversations than from the statues,” she said.
The removal of statues and monuments both clarifies and muddles our history, Makley said. The acts are expressions of frustration and changing societal dynamics that demand our attention.
“We would be foolish to dismiss it as misguided anger,” Makley said. “We need to take seriously what the physical act of removing or defacing a monument tells us about the health of our society.”
Many of the statues falling across the country memorialize racist narratives that are deeply damaging and instrumental in perpetuating inequality and systemic racism, Balik said. For instance, Confederate monuments were put up to spread the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War – the false idea that the Confederate states were fighting for a heroic cause during the Civil War rather than defending a socioeconomic system revolving around slavery.
Removing such statues removes those narratives and is a piece of dismantling inequality and racism, she said. Statues of some controversial historic figures can also be moved to museums where they can be contextualized and not glorified.
“The story of how a statue, monument or flag came to be is often even more important that the object itself,” Balik said. “A museum can help tell that story and in doing so can help us achieve a more complete historical understanding that is also more inclusive.”
As the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board gets to work, the ongoing dialogue over commemorating memory and history must include diverse voices, both scholars said.
“Inclusive dialogue is the only way to appropriately memorialize our past,” Makley said, “because the past means different things to different people.”