Maybe it’s time to start rewriting history, or at least discuss the possibility.
Confederate monument removals, along with requests by some tribal representatives that a mountain and valley in Yellowstone National Park named in honor of racist men be changed, have sparked discussions about how far such tactics should extend.
“I think the fact that we’re polarized, we need to talk about things we disagree about,” said Tim Lehman, a Rocky Mountain College history professor. “We need to listen better and feel more empathy with those who disagree with us.”
He said the conversations should be about which history we celebrate, not ignoring or erasing what’s happened in the past.
“I don’t think that we’re in danger of forgetting history,” he said. “But there are some monuments that are offensive that should be removed” or given more context.
Lehman’s comments contrast sharply with the current political climate in Washington, where President Trump almost daily bullies anyone who contradicts him. Some of Trump's views are echoed by his appointees.
Earlier this month, in an interview with conservative Breitbart News, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said no monuments would be removed from federal land during his watch.
“Where do you start and where do you stop?” he said. “It’s a slippery slope. If you’re a native Indian, I can tell you, you’re not very happy about the history of General Sherman or perhaps President Grant.”
Both men were known for their tactics meant to remove American Indians from the West, or at least reduce their populations and push them on to reservations. The methods were undertaken to open up development of the West for Euro-Americans — mostly white settlers.
“Nobody has ever come to us for our input on those incidents,” said Jonathan Windy Boy, an American Indian state legislator from Box Elder. “If the Indians do make a hoopla, the powers that be should take everyone’s input.”
Zinke went on to justify his reasoning, telling Breitbart, “When you try to erase history, what happens is you also erase how it happened and why it happened and the ability to learn from it.”
That wasn’t the case at Little Bighorn National Battlefield, a historic site that falls under Zinke’s management. Over the past three decades the memorial has been renamed with more explanation given about the American Indian side of the fight, as well as honoring those tribal members who died on the battlefield with a memorial and grave markers.
“This is a perfect example of how divorced Secretary Zinke is from the Native community,” said Simon Moya-Smith, a writer and editor for “Indian Country Today,” in an email. “Were he intimately familiar with Natives he'd already know that for decades we've called for the eradication of monuments to Native murderers like Andrew Jackson, Christopher Columbus, etc. These statues are a celebration of white domination, and it's time for them to be ripped down. Sec. Zinke should stop using Natives as an excuse to keep racist monuments erected.”
An email to Zinke’s press secretary for further comment was not answered by press time.
In the past, some states have taken on the renaming of geographical features that were offensive to minority groups. Montana and Wyoming removed the derogatory word “squaw” from creeks and mountains. Should that be extended to other features?
“It does open a whole can of worms,” said Adrian Heidenreich, professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Montana State University Billings. “But I think the discussion should occur.”
To further complicate the conversation, though, who would get to choose the new name for a feature? Tribes wandered a long way prior to the Euro-American push westward. The Crow name for a river might not be the same as the Shoshone Tribe’s.
“Should we return to those early names? That’s a big question,” Heidenreich said.
Yet he added in a email that, “National (or state and local) places, including parks and monuments, should represent all who are (or were) associated with them. The most important issue is not so much any one location name, but overall representation of multiple individuals and groups.”
He suggested that names could also be added to more generic sites, such as Rock Creek, to “reflect a larger constituency.” Establishing intertribal and intercultural guidelines could help move such discussions forward, he added.
“Location names should reflect the broad scope of American history, neither supporting white supremacy nor elevating Native Americans to ‘noble savages,’” Heidenreich wrote. “There must be persistent pressure, not just popular spontaneous protests riding on the coattails of events such as removal of Confederate monuments.”
Some tribal members’ spirits seem revived following the Standing Rock Protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota last winter, which drew national and international attention along with some celebrity support. Black Lives Matter protests have also sparked a renewed discussion about how, or if, America has evolved socially since the days of outright racism, which Windy Boy said still exists toward American Indians in Montana.
“Where are our heroes’ monuments?” Windy Boy questioned. “Going through school and learning the history of my nation, I wondered, ‘Where am I in this history?’”
Looking ahead, he said maybe the discussion should be less about changing what’s on the landscape or written on monuments and more about giving American Indians and other minorities a place at the table where their views can be heard and considered.
“The whole story isn’t really being told,” he said.