Transport a racist, oppressive and caste-affirming representation as far as you want. It’s still racist, oppressive and caste-affirming.

The headline in The Smithsonian should have been the last word:

“The Racist Statue of Theodore Roosevelt
Will No Longer Loom Over the American Museum of Natural History”

Except…

North Dakota.

Good Riddance, Roosevelt

The so-called “Equestrian Statue” depicts Roosevelt astride a horse with a representative of the continent’s First People walking behind him on one side and a Black man on the other side. No matter what angle you look at this abomination from, the Native American and Black man are in subservient positions on the ground and at the horse’s haunches. 

The statue stood in front of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan for decades, until the city finally listened to its residents and acknowledged it is a racist representation of history.

Sam Biederman, chief of staff and assistant commissioner at NYC Parks, at a meeting about removing the sculpture, summed up the views of many New Yorkers in noting that its “…compositional hierarchy … visually supports the thematic framework of colonization and racism.”

In June 2021, the New York City Public Design Commission decided to remove the statue, and after decades it finally came down in January 2022.

The vile old statue is now, presumably, in storage somewhere between New York and North Dakota waiting to be placed into the new Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, N.D. (ZIP Code 58645), thanks to a long-term deal it made with New York to take it off the city’s hands.

Native American Tribal lands finder results for Medora, N.D.,

But just as the viewing angle can’t change the overt racism and colonialism depicted in the Equestrian Statue, neither can a change in geography. A sculpture deemed too racist, oppressive and caste-affirming in Manhattan’s Upper West Side is no less racist, oppressive and caste-supporting in the Badlands of western North Dakota

That’s as obvious and insulting as the granite, mustachioed, pince-nez-wearing visage of Roosevelt carved into a cliff face stolen from the Lakota in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

Even so, there was the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, its board and its foundation (TRPL, collectively), shouting, “Wait! Wait! We’ll take it!”

So, Yeah. Except… North Dakota.

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is being funded with private donations and soon will be constructed in Medora. Roosevelt once lived near there, first in the Maltese Cross Cabin and later on his Elkhorn Ranch.

Whether North Dakota should host a presidential library for a man who wasn’t even born in the state is a matter for debate, and it has, indeed, been debated, in New York where he was born, in North Dakota where he spent a few years and between the two. However, whether the library, once completed, should host the offensive statue should not even require a second thought, let alone a debate. 

Teddy’s own great-grandson summed it up well:

“’The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice,’ said Theodore Roosevelt IV, age 77, a great-grandson of the 26th president and a (American Museum of Natural History) trustee.”

Teddy Roosevelt quote
Quote via the Theodore Roosevelt Center
at Dickinson (N.D.) State University

Many among the First Peoples in North Dakota agree with Teddy IV’s assessment. 

According to Native News Online, the powers that be from New York and TRPL failed to consult with the state’s tribes.

Mark Fox, chair of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, a.k.a., the Three Affiliated Tribes, said to Native News Online, “If the state of North Dakota or the (library) asked for our endorsement directly…My answer would be hell no. I think it’s ignorant and inappropriate.” 

Melanie Moniz, a grassroots organizer and member of the MHA Nation, started an online petition protesting the deal struck for a perpetual loan of the statue to TRPL by the city of New York. 

“We are not a dumping ground of the problematic, colonialist tributes that other states are no longer willing to house, and North Dakota is no place for hate,” she wrote in the introduction to the petition. “Leaders, advocates, and organizers from across North Dakota have worked tirelessly to end racism and build better relationships in North Dakota, a state with a long unending history of oppression toward the original inhabitants of this land.”

TRPL, for its part, says the statue is “an important tool to study the nation’s past.” It also claims that, “With the support of members of the Roosevelt family, the TR Library will establish an Advisory Council composed of representatives of the Indigenous Tribal and Black communities, historians, scholars, and artists to guide the recontextualization of the statue.”

Apparently someone forgot to inform at least one member of the Roosevelt family – Theodore Roosevelt IV.

As for “recontextualization,” well, that’s an interesting word.

One wonders what it might entail, because the reality is no amount of context is ever going to change the fact that TR is depicted in a position of extreme power over Native Americans and Black people, suggesting that is the proper, perhaps even “natural,” order of things, the way they ought to be. Messages like that tend to stick with people, even if they don’t realize it, no matter how much explaining you try to do.

Moniz, in passionate and powerful testimony before the N.D. Indian Affairs Commission in January, effectively countered the idea that contextualization can mitigate the “racist historical narrative” the statue represents. 

“Displaying this statue in North Dakota is a misguided action that will cause more tragedy, discord, and will significantly set back racial healing,” she said. “If the goal is to create dialogue that cultivates better relationships, sheds light on systemic and institutional racism, and provides better understanding to those that do not understand its inherent oppressive depiction, what it represents and how harmful it is to any community and our state, then we do not need this statue to meet this goal. We can do all of those things in a number of ways without adding to the harmful oppressive symbolism that already exists here.” 

That last bit bears repeating:

“We can do all of those things in a number of ways without adding to the harmful oppressive symbolism that already exists here.” 

It is not needed.

It will do more harm.

All Quiet From Western N.D.

I emailed TRPL Foundation CEO Edward F. O’Keefe to ask:

  • Why does the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library (TRPL), its board and/or its foundation want the Equestrian Statue of Roosevelt, a Native American and a Black man in the library?
  • How and why would the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library (TRPL), its board and/or its foundation consider a statue that was deemed too racist and caste-supporting to remain in public view in New York any less racist or caste-supporting in North Dakota?
  • A TRPL Foundation press release dated Nov. 19, 2021 states that the new library believes the statue can “serve as an important tool to study the nation’s past.” Why does the TRPL, its board and/or its foundation think this statue is an important tool for that purpose, considering it is absolutely possible to achieve the same goal without permanently displaying representations of racial hierarchy, racial degradation and “racist historical narratives”?

The only response came a few days later from a subordinate who did not address any of the questions. Instead, she attached a copy of the very press release I quoted in my inquiry in the first place.

No surprise there.

If only we were more like Dan… We would understand that place, culture and artistic expression are not stand-alone parts, but interwoven strands of the one rope of existence.

Heed Dan’s Words

Coincidentally, as news of the statue’s removal from its American Museum of Natural History perch circulated, I was reading “Neither Wolf nor Dog,” by Kent Nerburn. The book shares the story of “Dan,” a Lakota elder who lived through some of the worst instances of oppression of Native Americans by white people, and who had spent a lifetime ruminating on the injustices, their circumstances and their causes.

Dan explained to Nerburn, “You couldn’t understand that what was sacred for us was where we were, because that is where the sacred things had happened and where the spirits talked to us… The worst thing is that you never even listened to us. You came into our land and took it away and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one.”

We didn’t listen, and we certainly didn’t learn. 

So now, again, whites are failing to listen to the First Peoples as they, again, try to explain. And what little effort there is to understand is offset, again, by promise breaking.

If only we were more like Dan. We would acknowledge Native Americans’ historical and ongoing experiences of attempted genocide, cultural homicide, marginalization and racism in the USA. We’d think long and hard about them. Try to understand them in all their ugly, uncomfortable truth. Wonder how we can avoid the same errors in the future. And do whatever we can to make the present better for everyone, regardless of race, skin color or place of origin. We would understand that place, culture and artistic expression are not stand-alone parts, but interwoven strands of the one rope of existence.

If we were more like Dan, rather than conjuring excuses for continuing the subjugation of our fellow human beings, we would welcome each new day genuinely and respectfully. We’d thank our personal version of the Creator for another sunrise and the gift of everything and everyone bathed in the light.

Some Legend

North Dakota claims to be “Legendary.”

But legends worth more than a spit in the wind tell the stories of people throughout history who did the right thing. Presentation of this sculpture in North Dakota or anywhere else is not right through any lens, life experience or “recontextualization.” If the statue shows up in North Dakota, the only legendary thing about the state will be how monumentally bigoted and cruel it remains. 

Construction of the library is slated for completion in 2026.

If TRPL has any sense of true justice, it will do the right thing long before then. Not only will it forego display of the racist, oppressive, caste-affirming Roosevelt Equestrian Statue, but it also will work with New York to melt the damn thing down so it’s never displayed anywhere else, ever again.

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Graphic - MCFIV Copyright 2022 Green

Featured image by Edward H. Blake. edwardhblake, CC BY 2.0; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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