History isn’t carved in stone, and what gets carved in stone isn’t necessarily history.
Discoverer of America
Words on an empty pedestal outside the Minnesota Capitol are all that remain since protesters sent Christopher Columbus sailing to the pavement last week.
Columbus didn’t discover America. Describing what Columbus did to America would take a lot more than three words.
He’ll always be part of our history. But did he have to be one of our lawn ornaments?
People used to pelt the Columbus statue with blood-red paint.
Lawmakers used to call for the removal of the words “Discoverer of America” from the granite base. But other lawmakers, in an act of mutually assured correction, would threaten to erase “Discoverer of America” from the Leif Erikson statue on the other side of the Capitol, and nothing ever changed.
Until last week, when members of the American Indian Movement looped a rope around Columbus and brought him crashing down.
Historians and state officials are still debating what to do with the toppled statue. What place does a monument like that have in a city where Columbus Day has been Indigenous Peoples Day since 2015?
Maybe Columbus retires to a meadow or a museum. Maybe he ends up back on the Capitol lawn, surrounded by a thicket of historical plaques about genocide.
Either way, it falls to the historians and preservationists at the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board to fill the Columbus-sized hole in the history Minnesota has been telling itself.
No one has ever removed a statue from the grounds before. Now that someone has, the board plans to meet after the special session to come up with a procedure to deal with it.
You can find two statues of aviator and Nazi enthusiast Charles Lindbergh at the Capitol. But not one of a Minnesota woman with a name. The women smiling down benevolently from the murals and rafters tend to be allegorical images of goddesses and topless nymphs.
Telling a more complete, inclusive story of Minnesota has been a process of addition, rather than subtraction, for Cap Board executive secretary Paul Mandell.
Take the plaque in the rotunda honoring the 13th Minnesota Volunteer Regiment’s service during the Philippine-American War.
That plaque has its own plaque, explaining that the original plaque was inaccurate and insulting to the Filipino freedom fighters who had pretty much won their own independence from Spain when American troops showed up in 1898 and started shooting at them.
Over the past five decades, they’ve added more voices and faces to the history at the Capitol. A memorial garden for women’s suffrage, a space honoring military families, a monument celebrating civil rights legend and former NAACP leader Roy Wilkins.
Rather than erase outdated, offensive images, Mandell prefers to acknowledge the error and correct the record.
After years of study and public hearings, the board removed several murals from the governor’s reception room in the Capitol. A few went into storage. Two others — including an artist’s fanciful image of Father Hennepin “Discovering the falls of St. Anthony” while surrounded by half-dressed Dakota people — were moved to a space on the third floor with enough room for the history the artist left out.
Last year, a group of state lawmakers threatened to slash $4 million from the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget because the historians added one word in Dakota to a welcome sign at Fort Snelling.
Revisionist history, the lawmakers called it.
But if you listen to just one side of history over and over, you can miss the most important parts and the most interesting people.
One man, architect Cass Gilbert, used to get all the credit for building the Minnesota Capitol. Until a group of middle schoolers from Owatonna came along.
The students wanted to learn about the craftsmen and laborers who actually built the place. Especially the six men killed during its construction.
The students lobbied lawmakers, testified at hearings and today there’s a plaque in the Capitol honoring Felix Arthur, John Biersack, John Corrigan, Alfred Magnuson, Albert Swanson and Florian Zauner.
“It was just awesome,” Mandell said. “Watching these sixth-graders testify to lawmakers, and keeping them spellbound, was one of the highlights of my 33 years here.”
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He explored, he exploited, he enslaved. He’s one of our stories.
Columbus is history.
How we reckon with that history is our future.