The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The monument controversy nobody is talking about

Despite media attention on Confederate statues, few have noticed the theft and destruction of monuments featuring Native American women.

Authorities believe a bronze statue of a famous Native American ballerina, Marjorie Tallchief, was cut from its base outside the Tulsa Historical Society on April 28, 2022. (Mike Simons/AP)
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Over the years, the national media has turned to places like Richmond and Portland, Ore., where Confederate and colonialist monuments to White male political and military leaders have been removed despite vocal opposition. But there’s another story of monumental proportions brewing that has received far less attention: statues dedicated to Native American women have gone missing.

Far more than a crime of economic opportunity, these thefts — and subsequent attempts to sell the statues for scrap — are aimed at erasing these people and the histories they represent from the historical record and public imagination.

Most Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and 1930 at the height of Jim Crow to enshrine white supremacy. In those same decades, western communities installed an array of statues similarly centered on white supremacy that celebrated early White settlers and the disappearance of Native peoples. Monuments in cities like San Francisco and Salt Lake City portrayed a progression from Native “savagery” to White “civilization.” Deviations from that narrative sparked public controversy among White settlers for weakening their message of White dominance.

In 1907, Frederick MacMonnies sculpted a fountain for Denver that depicted this progression from savage Plains Indian warrior to White prospectors and pioneers. But the White public was outraged that MacMonnies inverted traditional designs, placing the “disappearing Indian” at the top and White settlers around the base. A man on trial for his life even used his notoriety to decry the placement of the Native American atop the monument design.

In the 1920s, as White westerners grew more confident in their dominance of Native peoples, they dropped visual references to Native Americans in their monuments, instead erecting dozens of new statues that portrayed generic pioneer mothers in sunbonnets carrying White “civilization” westward.

While the 1950s and 1960s backlash against the civil rights movement inspired renewed interest in Confederate monuments and symbols in the South, in the West, things unfolded differently. In many instances, interest in the monuments declined. But in the case of St. Louis’s “Colonial Mother” monument, erected in 1929 and commissioned by the Daughters of American Colonists, a different sort of backlash took place. In 1969, the statue was stolen from its granite base and recovered by police — thanks to an anonymous tip — before it could be sold as scrap metal.

The U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 and the culture wars over how American history was being taught at all levels of education in the 1980s and 1990s helped renew interest in pioneer monuments. Communities across the Midwest and West dusted off old statues and erected new ones as protesters challenged celebrations of White dominance. Outspoken residents in Portland, Ore., objected to the installation of a pioneer family grouping, titled “The Promised Land,” created in 1992 to mark the 150th anniversary of White in-migration via the Oregon Trail. The title, they felt, suggested that Whites were justified in taking Native lands.

Dozens of traditional pioneer mother statues were installed at or relocated to more prominent locations at the turn of the 21st century, but a handful of communities sought to be more inclusive, with mixed results. In 1998, for example, public pushback convinced Colorado Springs to tell a more inclusive history of their region. But the resulting compromise, entitled “Follow the Setting Sun,” did not satisfy local residents on both sides. The historical scenes imprinted on a stainless-steel pyramid combined pioneers with more recent history, but still told a story of White “progress” replacing Native Americans. Artists also struggled to fully incorporate Native peoples into frontier-themed statues in Prescott, Ariz.; Broken Arrow, Okla.; and Olathe, Kansas.

Challenges to Confederate and colonialist monuments expanded dramatically in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting of Black parishioners at a Charleston church and the murder of protester Heather Heyer near the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Protesters splashed red paint and spray-painted Black Lives Matter (BLM) slogans on Confederate monuments, including a Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. By 2020, BLM and anti-colonist protests spread across the nation and around the world.

These protests targeted statues of enslavers and U.S. expansionists, including presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as those depicting generic White pioneers. Portland’s “Promised Land” statue, which had been controversial in the 1990s but forgotten since its installation in a (then) less prominent location, became a center of nightly BLM protests in the summer of 2020.

As protests intensified across the nation, activists began to tear down both Confederate and colonialist monuments. Some were destroyed while city officials moved others, like “The Promised Land,” for safekeeping.

Many U.S. communities responded by erecting more inclusive public monuments. New York City dedicated a new “Women’s Rights Pioneers” monument — the first to depict historic women in statue-laden Central Park in 2020. Organizers in Chelsea, Mich., sought to combat underrepresentation of Native women by erecting a statue of an Indigenous woman to symbolize female leaders of all races and ethnicities in 2021.

Yet as many communities have invested in more inclusive statues, vandals have disproportionately targeted monuments to Native women, evidence of a different type of protest. In 2021, Kansas City, Mo., marked Missouri’s bicentennial by dedicating a new monument — sculptures created by Kwan Wu to commemorate French trader François Chouteau and the Native American men and women with whom he established a trading post 200 years earlier. Within 10 days of its dedication, vandals stole the bronze statue of an unnamed Osage woman, leaving the rest of the installation untouched.

Law enforcement recovered the Osage woman in pieces, presumably ready to be melted down or sold for scrap. Carole Kadue-Blackwood (Kickapoo), a case manager with the Kansas City Indian Center, told NPR that “her community has grown accustomed to incidents of vandalism and theft,” which dehumanize Native people.

Then late last month, thieves vandalized and stole a statue of Marjorie Tallchief sculpted by local Cherokee artist Gary Hensen from the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, part of the “Five Moons” installation honoring Native ballerinas from Oklahoma. Portions of the Tallchief statue were sold for scrap a few days later; most have been recovered and the statue is being restored.

On the surface, the thefts and vandalism of these statues of Native women, like the thefts and vandalism of pioneer women statues in 1969 and 2013, might appear to have been opportunistic crimes motivated by potential financial gain. But viewing these acts in the context of decades of contestation over Confederate, colonialist and pioneer monuments suggests a much deeper meaning.

In targeting monuments sculpted by artists of color that sought to tell a more inclusive story of westward expansion, vandals are seeking to whitewash this part of the nation’s past and erase those it represents from the historical record.

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