Just before the arrival of the UVA 2017 freshman class, hundreds of tiki-torch wielding white nationalists marched the University of Virginia campus, the images of which eerily reminiscent of assemblages from more than half a century ago. The removal of statues of confederate leaders prompted these marchers in Charlottesville and those who participated in the violent and deadly rallies that succeeded them. Though tension surrounding the maintenance or removal of these symbolic bastions of the Confederate South have been longstanding, the current series of demonstrations occur during a particularly contentious time in our nation’s history when civil liberties are centered within political, social, and economic debates. Complete removal of these artifacts is needed, some argue, to discontinue a celebration of some of this nation’s greatest atrocities. However, removal alone fails to achieve justice for the wrongdoings these symbols represent. What is needed instead is a fuller telling of history.
History is often told from a competitive framework that is grounded in dominance where winners get to tell their story as truth and losers have their story misconstrued. As these monuments tell a version of history that honors racial oppression, their removal is indeed a victory. But the result of removing them can be to erase the painful reminder from this nation’s past and to replace it with a false history of inclusion.
A danger of replacing painful memories with decontextualized positive sentiments is the unintended reproduction of social injustice. The removal can feel therapeutic because the daily reminder of pain and oppression is taken away. However, mere removal cannot heal the trauma inflicted. The statue or plaque can be gone, but people will remember what was once there because the pain and modern day implications of the oppression it represents still exist.
Consequently, this approach to history allows scapegoating of the continued injustices that permeate our political, legal, economic, and social systems. It allows allotment of the shared responsibility of eradicating oppression to specific groups (e.g., White Nationalists, KKK) and inhibit us from all recognizing and addressing the systemic implications of historically oppressive events and ways we participate in and purport their legacy.
Removing historical markers contributes to societal amnesia and perpetuation of American myths of equality and meritocracy that have long run their course. Shared myths of unity and equality work to hurt communities that are marginalized and underserved. By erasing these physical reminders of history, we may unintentionally mitigate the lived reality of injustices rooted in the racism and hatred that helped shape the systems that live on today. There are ways to remember a fuller history that may lead towards healing and justice.
This is just what Fort Peck Community College (FPCC) did in reclaiming a historical artifact on their campus. FPCC is a tribal college in Montana and serves the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes and broader FPCC community. In 1881 a Civil War ordnance cannon was used by the United States Army to forcefully relocate the Sioux people from their home in northeast Montana to Fort Buford in the Dakota Territories in subzero temperatures, killing eight Sioux resisters fighting to maintain their land. This cannon remained centrally located on the FPCC campus until Spring of 2016 when it was restored by a team that included Fort Peck Native Megan Gourneau. The restored cannon was relocated from the front of campus’ main buildings to the campus library which also serves the broader Fort Peck community. This artifact reflects the past and continued oppression of native peoples; in its relocation it is now accompanied by a historical installation that tells the story of the violence it inflicted on the people who fought to remain on their lands.
In Megan’s words, the restoration process was also a process of healing that she felt compelled to extend to her community which still lives with the trauma of displacement and disinvestment: As a Fort Peck native, it was through my undergraduate internship with the Museum of the Rockies as a history student at Montana State University that this event came to life. I received the charge to restore the cannon and through the restoration history was told. For a person to know who they are and where they are going, they must first know and understand where they have been. It is my hope that through this restoration and the telling of what my ancestors endured, my people will understand where we have been and what our ancestors experienced so that we could be here and that perhaps this exhibit can provide a healing of some sort to my people and to my home.
Communities committed to liberation and healing must focus on telling a fuller story. Megan and FPCC provide a counter example of how to navigate daily monuments laden with the oppressive history behind them. Monuments should not tell false hero myths, they should challenge and complicate widely-held truths, remind a people of their history and push the nation to be better. Those most directly impacted by the oppression these symbols represent should be the ones to choose what constitutes a historical artifact worthy of preservation and determine how its story should be told. There is a possibility of these monuments being augmented, transformed or replaced to show people the interconnectedness of past and current history; ways to not just avoid the collective pain of our country through erasure of symbols but opportunities for healing from it through the inclusion of fuller histories. Instead of focusing on what a nation wants to forget, perhaps the more powerful question is, what do we want future generations to remember?
Dr. Desiree Zerquera (she/her/hers) is Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at the University of San Francisco, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at desiree.zerquera. Dr. Alejandro Covarrubias (he/him/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of San Francisco and can be reached at Afcovarrubias@usfca.edu and on his consulting page at CovarrubiasConsulting.com. Megan K. Gourneau is an alumnus of both Fort Peck Community College and Montana State University, and is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Administration. She is an enrolled tribal member of Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana and can be reached via Twitter at MKGourneau or by email at email@example.com.