From the window of her State Capitol office, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan has a prime view of the towering bronze likeness of Knute Nelson, a “brave son of Norway” in the words of the statue’s engraving, who served Minnesota as a legislator, congressman, governor and eventually U.S. senator.
Among this Minnesota forefather’s accomplishments in Congress: the Nelson Act of 1889, which relocated Indigenous Minnesotans to the White Earth Reservation and sold their land to European settlers.
“That’s something,” said Flanagan, the first Native American statewide elected official in Minnesota’s history. “I don’t think the author of the Nelson Act could have imagined there would be an Ojibwe woman staring out the window at a statue of him.”
Christopher Columbus (above)
Sculptors: Carlo Brioschi and Leo Lentelli
History: The 10-foot bronze statue of the Italian explorer was unveiled before a crowd of more than 20,000. It was presented as a gift from Minnesota's Italian-Americans, who saw the statue as a symbol of their contributions to the country. But the statue has been protested for years for depicting him as a discoverer of America and as a symbol of genocide for Native Americans who were here before him.
Near Nelson’s spot on the Capitol mall, a statue of Christopher Columbus stood until the middle of June, toppled by a group of activists who saw a symbol of Native American genocide in the discredited idea that he “discovered” America. It was one incident in a sweeping racial reckoning that has followed the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, one that’s prompted a worldwide re-examination of things ranging from policing practices to who we memorialize — or don’t — in public spaces.
In the 115-year history of Minnesota’s Capitol building, memorials have only ever been added, never subtracted. And as the state has grown more diverse, the cast of sculpted faces that greet tens of thousands of visitors yearly has not.
That could soon change. Flanagan is at the heart of the debate as designated chairwoman of the state panel that approves new memorials, and which under her direction is crafting a process that could lead to the removal of some of the two dozen statues and memorials spread across the sprawling Capitol grounds.
“It’s an opportunity for us to take this moment and take this spotlight that is shining on the board and really run with it,” Flanagan said. “The structures and the systems have to be able to respond to the changing demographics and the changing viewpoints that weren’t included, frankly, when many of these statues and monuments went up.”
All over the world, statues are falling. In Boston, a Columbus statue was recently beheaded. Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Bristol, England, tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into a harbor. The Minnesota Twins recently removed a Target Field statue of Calvin Griffith, a former owner with a well-documented history of racist remarks.
On the Capitol grounds, Columbus and Nelson aren’t the only statues that have sparked controversy.
On the building’s west side, a 13-foot-high bronze statue of Norse explorer Leif Erikson has stood since 1949. Akin to Columbus, its plaque declares him to be the “discoverer of America.”
Others have taken issue with a statue of former Gov. Floyd Olson, who led the state in 1931 when “Columbus Day,” now celebrated by many as Indigenous Peoples Day, was established as an official state holiday. Minnesota’s Jewish community has long been uncomfortable with a Capitol campus statue, dedicated in 1985, of noted aviator Charles Lindbergh, who spent his boyhood in Minnesota.
A solo airplane flight from Long Island, N.Y., to Paris in 1927 made Lindbergh a national hero, and his statue at the Capitol celebrates that accomplishment. It depicts him as a boy, arms spread like the wingspan of a plane, back-to-back with himself as an adult.
But it makes no mention of Lindbergh’s later, lesser-known history as a spokesman for the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. involvement in World War II.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, points to a 1941 speech by Lindbergh in Des Moines where he said the Jewish community was pushing the country into war with Nazi Germany by using their control of the media.
“There are many different Charles Lindberghs, he’s a complicated personality,” said Hunegs. “The Jewish view of Lindbergh is profoundly disturbed over all these years by his rhetoric in favor of America First.”
Sculptor: John Karl Daniels
History: Norse explorer Leif Erikson is believed to be the first known European to reach North America in 1000 A.D., nearly five centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. The ceremony was attended by thousands, including dignitaries from Norway, Iceland and Alaska. But like the statue of Columbus, some groups have taken issue with its characterization of Erikson having discovered America, despite the fact that Native Americans were already here.
Sculptor: Paul Granlund
History: Minnesotan and aviator Charles Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 made him a national hero. His statue depicts Lindbergh as a boy dreaming of flying back-to-back with Lindbergh as a man who accomplished that dream. But the Jewish community has expressed concerns about the monument, citing Lindbergh’s close ties to Germany leading up to World War II and his advocacy against the U.S. entering the war. In a famous 1941 speech, he said the Jewish community was pushing for American involvement using their control of the media.
Floyd B. Olson
Sculptors: Carlo Brioschi and his son Amerigo
History: Floyd Olson was Minnesota’s governor during the Great Depression and a leader of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, serving until his death in office in 1936. His statue was dedicated as part of the state’s centennial celebration. But Olson was also governor when “Columbus Day” was created as a state holiday and he dedicated the statue of Columbus, spurring some complaints over his placement on the Capitol grounds.
Sculptor: John Karl Daniels
History: Knute Nelson had a long career serving Minnesota as a politician, first in the Legislature, then the U.S. House, followed by stints as governor and U.S. senator. The statue depicts Nelson as an adult, flanked on a pedestal by smaller statues of him as a Civil War soldier and as a child with his mother, who was Norwegian. But he is controversial for his namesake Nelson Act, which relocated indigenous people to the White Earth Indian Reservation and allowed their land to be sold to settlers.
Some say statues should be reinterpreted, not removed. State lawmakers embarked on a similar debate in 2015, while the State Capitol building was under restoration and community members took issue with portrayals of Native Americans and depictions of history in artwork spread throughout the interior of the building.
The paintings at issue were eventually moved to a new space on the third floor of the Capitol, with added plaques and perspectives on the historical implications.
Debates like these quickly grow philosophical. What is the goal of a statue or monument? Are they erected to glorify and celebrate specific individuals? Or are they meant to be a broader lesson in history?
Rep. Dean Urdahl, a former high school history teacher and preservationist, thinks it’s a little of both.
“The purpose of art is to inspire our people and to enshrine our history. These paintings and these statues are a snapshot in time and a depiction of history,” said Urdahl, R-Grove City, who was involved in the flap over interior Capitol art. “History and how we view it is very complicated. For us to look at what historical figures were doing 100 or 200 years ago through the lens of 2020 is even harder.”
Kate Beane, a public historian and director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society, said statues are a symbolic representation of the times when they were created.
The Columbus statue, she noted, was dedicated at the Capitol in a massive ceremony in 1931, a time when Italian Americans faced widespread discrimination. Columbus was then seen as a symbol of the Italian people’s contributions to the country.
“They used that image to [deflect] discrimination that they themselves faced,” Beane said. “But at the same time, in doing so, in creating this mythical version of Columbus as the discoverer, as the first American, it erased the longer Indigenous history of people on this land.”
After Columbus was torn down, Flanagan said publicly that she wouldn’t “feign sadness” over the removal of a statue of someone “who, by his own admission, sold 9- and 10-year-old girls into sex slavery.” She took heat from some members of the panel she chairs, the Capitol Area Architectural Planning Board, that a discussion about legally removing the statue didn’t happen sooner.
State Senate Republicans sent a letter to the Minnesota Historical Society last week asking when the Columbus statue will be returned.
“One does not get a pass on tearing down a statue because they do not like it,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. “It is against the law, and in this case, it is a felony punishable by a $10,000 fine or five years in prison.”
Flanagan said concerns about the Columbus statue were not new and had been voiced in the Native American community for years, but there was no clear process for legally removing it from the grounds. She declined to say what other statues could be considered for removal.
“My hope is that we work toward consensus so that the pathway to the removal of a statue isn’t that folks feel like they have to take it upon themselves because there’s no other pathway,” Flanagan said. “The Capitol is everyone, it belongs to everyone in Minnesota, but I don’t know that everyone in Minnesota feels that way.”