CHICAGO — In June 2020, as the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd prompted debates and interventions around Confederate monuments in the United States, statues of Christopher Columbus also began to draw scrutiny. Activists in Chicago focused their attention on the Columbus statue at the southern end of the city’s storied Grant Park. After a skirmish between police and protestors, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered that the statue be removed. The statue made news again earlier this year when Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability recommended the firing of an officer who punched a young activist who was filming police activities at the protest so hard that he knocked a tooth out. This is the context in which Mayor Lightfoot made the baffling declaration that she “fully expects” the Columbus statue to be returned to Grant Park, reigniting a debate that had cooled over the past two years. It’s hard to believe we’re here again.
Monuments shape public space by illustrating who belongs in a city — and who the city belongs to. US monuments have grown out of a largely European tradition of publicly celebrating gods, kings, and conquering heroes; monuments are effectively idols to be revered. In placing Columbus on a pedestal, the city invites us to see him as a symbol of something admirable. And by now it’s clear that the man and his actions were not admirable. Columbus was almost certainly not the first European to make landfall in the Americas (that would be the Viking expedition led by Leif Erikson). What he represents — especially to Native, Black, and Brown people in the Americas — is not a spirit of discovery but rather the arrival of the brutal exploitation of non-White people through colonization and enslavement. And as with statues of Confederate generals that began dotting the Southern landscape during Jim Crow, the arrival of the Columbus statue was the product of a very specific historical moment and had multiple links to Italian fascism. One of two unveilings of the statue in 1933 celebrated the fascist aviator Italo Balbo; the other included remarks from Benito Mussolini that promoted fascism to his Chicago audience.
On a more positive note, debates surrounding the Columbus statue and its site have drawn attention to how public space in Chicago has been shaped by celebrations of European settler colonialism. Over the past few years, urbanist movements that are Native-led or Native-inspired have questioned the status of Chicago’s lakefront as, arguably, unceded Native land. In 1914, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi filed a lawsuit claiming a portion of downtown Chicago east of Michigan Avenue as their land; because landfill constructed out of rubble from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 did not exist at the time of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, it could not have been ceded. It was an ingenious legal gambit that went as far as the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case on the questionable grounds that the Potawatomi were not currently “occupying” the land. Whatever the outcome within the US legal system, the case highlights the historical claims of Indigenous people and in particular the placement of institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Field Museum, and Grant Park itself, on contested territory.
In May of 2021, the Center for Native Futures hosted a virtual event, “That Image of a Dead Man on DuSable Bridge,” which raised questions about ceded and unceded Indigenous land, starting with the visual representation of conquest in Henry Hering’s 1928 relief sculpture “Defense,” which adorns the bridge that crosses the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue. (The title refers to Hering’s image of a slain Potawatomi man.) The following October, as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the collective Whose Lakefront ceremonially “painted” a line of red sand along the historical edge of the lakefront, inciting further consideration of the status of the lakefront land. The Settler Colonial City Project asked similar questions in the 2019 biennial by placing historical plaques and other displays around Chicago’s Cultural Center.
These projects join other creative interventions into the way we think about public memorialization. Laurie Palmer’s project 3 Acres on the Lake (2000-2003), an unofficial call for proposals to redesign DuSable Park, prompted new conversations about how the city has failed to honor Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the Black man who was the first non-Native long-term settler of the area. In 2011 the group Chicago Torture Justice Memorials used a similar “open call” format, seeking proposals for monuments to survivors of police torture in the city. In 2015, after years of activism by a coalition including Black People Against Police Torture and the People’s Law Office, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance granting reparations to survivors. One of the agreed-upon items was a permanent monument to these survivors — which has yet to be funded.
As a child, I was taught a fairy tale about Columbus too. It was light on details — it had to be if it was to maintain its status as a fairy tale. The truth is brutal and violent. If we confront our history squarely and don’t retreat into fairy tales — despite the current backlash against teaching American history accurately — we will be better for it. When monuments mislead, they are taking space that could go to other, more accurate histories, or to artworks that pose questions instead of asserting answers. Indigenous Chicagoans were not adequately consulted about the statue’s possible return; nor, apparently, was the city’s monument committee. The Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago roundly rejects Columbus as a symbol of Italian heritage. The Columbus statue should not be returned to Grant Park. But more than this, we should not retreat from approaches to public art that are both creative and critical, that democratically balance appropriate commemorations with a spirit of questioning, to better represent who we are and consider thoughtfully who we want to be.