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Minnesota, we need to talk about our Columbus monument

How is it that there came to be a statue of Columbus erected by Italian American Minnesotans on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol?

monument to Christopher Columbus
The idea of a monument to Christopher Columbus came from a meeting of the Italian Progressive Club of Duluth in 1927.
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

As Indigenous Peoples’ Day is celebrated across Minnesota with parades, powwows, and feasts, it is worth revisiting the fact that a memorial to Christopher Columbus stands on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol enshrined by the power of the state.

Some who know of the memorial, most prominently Native American activists and their allies, have called for its removal. This call has never gained enough steam to prompt such an action, but has been vital to shaping a dynamic dialogue about public memorials and inclusion.

The story of how this memorial to Columbus, a historical figure separated by time and geography from Minnesota, came to be located on the State Capitol Grounds adds an important dimension to this ongoing discussion. So how is it that there came to be a statue of Columbus erected by Italian-American Minnesotans on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol? And should the statue remain there today?

A monument of inclusion, a monument of erasure

Between 1880 and 1920 more than 4.1 million Italians immigrated to the United States, the highest of any ethnic group in the history of the country. Of those millions, very few chose Minnesota as their new home. In 1910 the Italian-born population of Minnesota peaked at 9,688 and then began to fall as Italian immigrants continued to pour into other Midwestern states. The Italian immigrants gathered in four main areas of the state: St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth, and towns across the Iron Range.

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In this era of mass immigration, migrants faced discrimination and hostility from those Americans who were considered white. From early in the nation’s history, to be white meant access to social, economic, and political opportunity and power. “White” as a requirement for citizenship dated back to a 1790 naturalization act, and from that time forward the racial order and citizenship were defined by the state. By the beginning of the 20th century, powerful corporations utilizing immigrant labor also influenced the definition of white. “Whiteness” was an invented and constantly changing category, in flux as the racial order reshuffled with the introduction of new people.

Starting in the 1890s a racial ideology of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Nordic superiority held sway in America and served as the basis for “whiteness.” This ideal of Northern European ancestry excluded many immigrants, including Southern Europeans, from full-fledged participation in American society.

For example, on Minnesota’s Iron Range, employers referred to Italians and other Southern Europeans as “black.” Iron Range officials called southern Italians, “inefficient and worthless … fit for but the lowest grades of work in the open-pit mines.” Whole towns were disqualified from being white if too many Southern Europeans lived there. Although Italian-American Minnesotans faced discrimination throughout the state, it was most prominent in the Iron Range region.

The Immigration Act of 1924 marked a crescendo of national anxiety about ideas of race and American identity. Fears of racial degradation to the American population were circulated as those deemed “non-white” were identified as being inherently inferior. The act severely limited immigration, especially of southern Europeans, and had the effect of banning virtually all Asians as strict quotas were put in place. It was in the wake of the 1924 Act that the Italian-Americans of Minnesota conceived of a Christopher Columbus Memorial.

The idea of a monument to Columbus came from a meeting of the Italian Progressive Club of Duluth in 1927. It was endorsed by the Minnesota Federation of Italian-American Clubs at a meeting in Hibbing that same year. Shortly thereafter, the Christopher Columbus Memorial Association was established with chapters across the Iron Range and in the Twin Cities. In the midst of the Great Depression, Italian-Americans contributed money to the cause and the memorial was erected in 1931 across from the Minnesota Historical Society building. That same year, in conjunction with the memorial dedication, the state proclaimed Columbus Day an official state holiday.

On Oct. 12, 1931 — a cold clear day — more than 24,000 people gathered for the unveiling of the Columbus Memorial. It was a grand affair. Italian-Americans from the Midwest, local Minnesotans, and political officials from across the nation thronged to the Capitol grounds in St. Paul. The federal and state governments fully embraced the memorial and helped to craft its meaning. Gov. Floyd B. Olson and other dignitaries spoke from a platform erected on the steps of the historical society building. President Hoover sent a telegram lauding Columbus.

historical photo of crowds surrounding columbus statue at dedication
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Crowds throng the Columbus memorial at its dedication on Oct.12, 1931.
For the Italian-Americans who fought to create the memorial, the representation of Columbus in stone affirmed their pride and unity as a people. Yet, the monument was mostly about becoming American and being included in the political, economic, and racial orders. It was also about being viewed as “white.”

Members of the memorial association made it clear that they considered Columbus to be the first American and that Italians as a people had helped found and shape the United States. The memorial, embraced by the power of the state and federal governments, and accepted by the state historical society, affirmed Italians’ place in the nation’s history. By 1931, with immigration restrictions in full effect, nativist anxieties had dissipated, and politicians, along with cultural leaders, were eager to assimilate immigrants into the American fold in a move toward white hegemony. For the state officials present, the memorial represented a symbolic acceptance of Italian immigrants as Americans.

By proclaiming Columbus the “first American” and making no mention of Indigenous people, either nationally or locally, the memorial association perpetuated the myth of Indians as “savages.” In effect, history on the continent of North America was stated to begin only with the first appearance of Europeans. Indians were viewed as existing in a frozen and timeless past, and Europeans as driving the progress of the continent toward its historic and manifest destiny.

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There is no evidence that the paramount importance of Native American people was ever considered among the histories and cultural expressions celebrated at the statue’s unveiling. In fact, Native American history was deliberately erased and the violent histories of colonialism and genocide perpetrated by Columbus were not acknowledged.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Today, communities across the country will observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day either in lieu of or alongside Columbus Day. Meant to celebrate the history and culture of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, the holiday was conceived of in the late 1970s.

While Native people, and the American Indian Movement in particular, have always resisted and countered the celebratory narratives of Columbus, a swell of resistance began in 1992. New books critical of Columbus and his role in the genocide of Native people emerged and critiques of Columbus Day celebrations occurred across the nation. The first celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day took place in Berkeley, California, in 1992 as a direct response to the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Americas.

Beginning in 2014, a wave of state and municipal governments officially adopted the holiday. The cities of St. Paul, Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, and Grand Marais (along with Cook County), all observe the holiday, while Mankato will celebrate its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day today. Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed the holiday in 2016.

Clyde Bellecourt
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh
American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt at the Minneapolis American Indian Center celebrating the first Indigenous Peoples Day in 2014: "Today we start rewriting history and the truth of what Columbus was: the greatest pirate that ever lived."
Though the holiday has not fully replaced Columbus Day, many people have welcomed it in place of a commemoration that they argue remembers a colonizer responsible for genocidal crimes.

Most recently as Confederate monuments began to fall, discussions of and protests against monuments to Columbus reignited. Minnesota newspapers ran articles on the Columbus Memorial and an online petition was started to replace it with a monument to Prince. Another petition asked politicians to replace the Columbus Memorial with one chosen by Minnesota’s African-American and Native American communities. Native American activists and their allies protested the existence of the memorial, citing Columbus’ participation in colonialism, genocide, and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples.

So the question remains: What should be done with the Christopher Columbus Memorial?

Monuments are not history, they are public memory: Remove or reinterpret?

Monuments are mortal. Though we may naturally perceive them as innate, and as given, they are not permanent. They are erected, modified, and eventually fall. Monuments tell us more about the time in which they were erected than they do about the past they claim to interpret. Memorials are designed to convey memory — not history.

They are, however, traces of the past and should not be removed without nuanced discussion. Still, to remove them is not to erase history as some argue, for a memorial’s previous existence can be documented through other means.

People have made clear arguments about why monuments to Columbus should be removed from public places. Columbus did terrible things and he did not “discover” America — Native people were already here. Many argue that honoring Columbus in our public spaces is legitimizing the myth of “discovery” and his legacy of genocide and colonialism.

The Columbus Memorial could be removed or replaced. Perhaps the movement to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day could be mirrored in our commemorative landscape with monuments to Indigenous Peoples taking the place of those depicting Columbus.

If, however, the Columbus Memorial remains on the State Capitol Grounds it seems that it certainly cannot stand as it is. Currently, an inscription reads, “To Christopher Columbus Discoverer of America.” An additional plaque, added in 1992, credits Columbus for initiating “the merging of the cultures of the old and new worlds; Thereby changing forever the course and history of mankind.” It makes no mention of how violent that change was or why it matters today. The memorial appears as a state endorsement of Columbus and his legacy. At the very least, additional interpretation should be added to give the perspectives of Native Americans and provide contemporary views on the memorial.

There is also the option of reinterpretation in conjunction with creating a new monument to recognize the public embrace of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Maybe it would tell a better story to keep the Columbus Memorial up, so it can be viewed alongside the new memorial or art piece. This would help give an impression of how settler narratives first claimed this public space, and the subsequent growing inclusiveness of the grounds.

It would tell a social justice story of hard-fought inclusiveness gained through activism. Maybe this broader story of change and activism needs to be told. Taking down the monument would not do that. Adding a new Indigenous monument may prompt viewers to reconsider their previous ideas about who the first Americans were and the role of Columbus’ legacy.

The recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day indicates a growing number of Minnesota’s political leaders are starting to believe that ignoring the historic and ongoing presence of Native Americans while championing Columbus is indefensible. Installing a new monument to contextualize or counter the Columbus Memorial should be done in a way that puts them in conversation, rather than as dueling parts of a “dual heritage.”

This discussion matters

Examining the story of the people who were at the core of the efforts to erect the memorial reveals a struggle with race and inclusion in the state narrative. As a marginalized group, their interpretation of the past, now set in stone, was designed to serve their present. But does this interpretation continue to represent a history Minnesotans wish to commemorate?

Many Native Americans might identify with the struggle that Italian-American immigrants faced during this period as they grappled with racial regimes and their place in society. Native people were also subjected to the repression of a settler-colonial ordering of society that viewed “whiteness” as superior, albeit through different policies. Native people faced widespread pressure to disappear, for example, by way of becoming “Americanized” in boarding schools. Considering the experiences of these two groups in tandem, it becomes possible to find a commonality of racial subjugation between those who erected the monument and Native Americans in Minnesota whose history was subsequently marginalized.

If we are aware of this history, we can stay vigilant in keeping its return at bay. This is more important than ever during an historical moment when the U.S. government moves toward ever-repressive immigration policies, white supremacist groups have become emboldened, and Native people continue to fight marginalization in myriad ways.

If our State Capitol and its grounds belong to all Minnesotans, should it not be a place of inclusion, where all feel welcome? Should it not be a space that the public feels free to reimagine and reshape? Could it not be a place of healing if it generates conversations about our dark chapters as a nation, so we can learn from them and prevent them from reoccurring?

These are questions for the state’s citizens to take up when considering the important matter of how they want their civic identity represented on the State Capitol grounds.

Note: The views and arguments presented in this piece do not represent the official positions of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Peter DeCarlo is a historian whose work centers on the history of colonialism in Minnesota. He is the author of “Fort Snelling at Bdote” (MNHS Press, 2017). He is a descendant of Sicilian immigrants and works at the Minnesota Historical Society as a research historian.

Mattie Harper is a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe and has a PhD in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley. She is a historian of the Western Great Lakes region and works in Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society.