Statues of Serra, especially, have been targeted since 2015, when Pope Francis designated the Spanish Franciscan friar as a saint. Some people consider Serra an important evangelizer of what is now the American West. Yet his mission captured Native Americans and used them as forced labor.
What, then, should be done with these statues? Christopher B.Teuton, professor and chair of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, isn’t sure. But he does think these historical figures need to be recontextualized through accurate historical education. “I think issues surrounding the colonization of North America continue to be ignored and erased in American history,” he says.
“When we celebrate these figures unreflectively, and have monuments made to them—such as Oñate—that just continues that colonial narrative that is such a huge part of American history,” he says. This narrative “includes ideas such as that North America was empty of people, or that Native peoples received Christianity and so-called civilization in exchange for their lands.”
Fryberg agrees that these statues present an inaccurately laudatory view of figures like Columbus, Oñate, and Serra. Continuing to reify figures who hurt Native Americans can be harmful for indigenous groups and non-Natives alike, she notes.
“When [Native American children] get an accurate view of history, then they can see their people as people who have survived, overcome, resisted, and pushed back,” she continues. “Moreover, for non-Natives, when they only know the sterilized version of history, they don’t have accurate empathy or compassion for the plight of Native people.”
Indeed, a tweet from filmmaker Ava DuVernay shows how different perspectives can reframe conversations around history: “If someone kidnapped your child and sold them, where would you want us to put the statue of that person?”
In this instance, DuVernay was talking about Confederate monuments. But the question could easily be posed regarding Columbus, or even one of the newest saints.
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