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This afternoon, October 8, artists and activists from Decolonize This Place gathered for their third annual Anti-Columbus Day tour of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). A drum circle of protest chants greeted unsuspecting visitors to the museum as a substantial police presence guarded the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt facing Central Park West. Some activists wore traditional Indigenous clothing, while others preferred military fatigues or genderqueer attire that signified their dedication to battle the White orthodoxies of the museum.
Demonstrators handed out fliers and pamphlets to curious onlookers outside the museum, where one activist told Hyperallergic that she thought this year’s attendance was slightly lower than last year’s, probably because of the public’s general exhaustion with the political climate and the Brett Kavanaugh controversy. Nearby, three counter-demonstrators mounted a weak rebuttal from behind police fences; they held signs that read, “Thank you ICE” and “Jail Blasey Ford.”
Ahead of their action, the coalition released a list of demands via press release, requesting that elected officials remove the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the museum and join a growing number of cities that have renamed the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. They have also requested that the AMNH establish an independent Decolonization Commission to assess the impact of persistent racist stereotypes and demeaning representation of non-European people on display within the fifth most-visited museum in the country.
Inside the museum, Decolonize This Place packed hundreds of participants into the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. One of the lead demonstrators told the crowd that 900 of its 1,000 flyers had already been handed out. (The group estimates that more than a thousand people attended last year’s anti-Columbus day event.) Both reporters that Hyperallergic sent to cover the protest would estimate around 800 people took part in today’s activities in some capacity.
Decolonize This Place’s demonstration this year particularly focused on how the protest was happening on traditionally Lenni Lenape land. Activists spread across several galleries within the AMNH, including the Hall of Biodiversity, the Hall of African Peoples, and the Hall of Asian Peoples. Organizations that joined Decolonize in today’s actions include NYC Stands with Standing Rock, American Indian Community House, Black Youth Project 100, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, Chinatown Art Brigade, Take Back the Bronx, The People’s Cultural Plan, and Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE).
“Decolonize this place is a verb,” one lead activist shouted across the hall. “We don’t want to be here next year, but we will if we have to.”
Through years of demonstrations, the Roosevelt statue has become a rallying point for protesters who have noted that the statue is city-owned and sits upon land managed by the NYC Parks Department, so city officials have jurisdiction over its fate. “No truly reputable museum,” observed Decolonize This Place’s Nitasha Dhillon in a statement, “should allow such a racially inflammatory monument to guard its entrance.”
Participants also called on the AMNH leadership to decommission the museum’s “deeply flawed adoration” of Roosevelt, “a champion of male chauvinism and white supremacy,” which continues inside its walls in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Additionally, Decolonize This Place argues that the museum perpetuates outdated ethnographic curatorial practices within their collection that denigrate non-White and non-Western peoples.
In January 2018, the mayor’s office released a report on New York’s most controversial monuments, which included the Christopher Columbus monument in Columbus Circle, and Roosevelt statue at the ANMH. It concluded that both statues would remain in place. The Roosevelt statue, which was smeared with red paint in October 2017 by the anonymous Monument Removal Brigade, was supposed to include new signage, with updated educational programs undertaken by the museum to offer a more objective background on the 26th president of the United States. A representative of the ANMH told Hyperallergic in an email, “That work is underway and we are coordinating with the City.”
“We have a number of projects underway to address aspects of our cultural halls that are out of date. These include the complete renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall and adding context to the Stuyvesant Diorama in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. We have met with Decolonize this Place several times and have benefitted from their perspective, as well as that of others, in doing this work,” the ANMH representative added.
Roosevelt was a prominent patron of the museum, but nearing the 100th anniversary of his death, Roosevelt’s legacy as a politician and conservationist being reexamined under the contexts of male chauvinism, white supremacy, and imperialism. After all, Roosevelt was explicit in his abuse of Native Americans during his presidency. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians,” he once said, “but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” The president was also an advocate for eugenics.
A critical proponent of Western expansionism, Roosevelt is beloved by many for his rough-riding crusade through Cuba during the Spanish-American War, a conflict that culminated in America’s annexation of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. The president also invited educator Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, which was the first time an African-American had ever been invited to dine there. The subsequent political fallout and racist vitriol were so immense after the meeting, though, that Roosevelt never attempted such a dinner ever again.
Tourists wondering through the museum were caught off-guard by the demonstrations. Some stopped to watch while others passed directly through the action unphased. One elderly White man with a cane approached a Black activist from behind as she shouted her decolonizing speech across the North American Forest Gallery. He yelled at her, “God bless the USA,” to which a group of nearby protesters screamed back in response a rallying cry that was heard throughout the afternoon: “Fire, fire, to the colonizer. Fuego, fuego, fuego a la colonia.”
Decolonize This Place believes that its closed room conversations with the museum have also run their course. In a public letter, they note that officials were “usually always in agreement with us about the need for a decolonization process (with full attention to demands for reparations and repatriation of human remains and sacred objects) but we feel the oppressive weight of institutional inertia in the room, and the responses are too measured and painfully slow in coming.” The AMNH has begun its overhaul of its Northwest Coast Hall, but Decolonize believes that the current rate of progress indicates another 50 years of work until all the cultural halls will be amended.
Separately, another group of activists calling for institutional change have issued a Land or Territorial Acknowledgement Guide for museums, archives, libraries, and universities to recognize and respect Indigenous homelands, inherent sovereignty, and survivance. Developed by Felicia Garcia (Chumash) with Jane Anderson, the project was created in coordination with multiple Indigenous groups across the city.
Social media played an important role in organizing such a large event. One student named Hayley who attended the event mentioned that she had followed Decolonize This Place’s Instagram account for years before joining the anti-Columbus Day demonstration, which she could do because she had the day off from school.
Handing out a variety of small figurines labeled “Christopher Columbus was a bad cowboy” to the crowd of activists and onlookers, another young demonstrator named Joseph Pierce (an assistant professor at Stony Brook University) explained why he came to the Decolonize event. As a Cherokee citizen growing up in New York City, the AMNH had an enormous impact on how he viewed himself and Indigenous culture. The demeaning ethnographic curation of Native American history conveyed a message that he and his culture were part of the past. He came to the Anti-Columbus Day tour to show the museum that he is very much part of the present.