The Iowa Capitol — its ornate golden dome surrounded by monuments throughout the Statehouse grounds — ought to be a welcome sight for all Iowans.
People from across the state come to the Legislature to perform their civic duty by advocating to their elected representatives. Iowans encountering statues they perceive as racist might feel unwelcome, a subtle but potent way of limiting the input of oppressed people in the political process.
Iowa doesn’t have prominent monuments to slavers or Confederate leaders, which have been the subject of controversy amid Black Lives Matter protests this year. But Iowa’s government monuments depicting Native Americans are racist, too.
Last week, protesters gathered in Des Moines to raise the issue. Among 45 monuments at the Capitol complex, protest organizers are calling for the removal of only two, and one indoor mural.
• “Pioneer Statuary Group,” erected in 1892, depicts two pioneers “guided by a friendly Indian.”
• The Christopher Columbus memorial is a bronze bust of the European man wrongly credited with “discovering America.”
• “Westward,” a giant 1905 mural atop the main staircase inside the Capitol, depicts white pioneers guided by angels.
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Indigenous activists say those works of art are examples of “whitewashing” — they willfully ignore and obscure the pain white settlers imposed on Native Americans living in the place we now call Iowa.
If the people coming to the Statehouse to make laws haven’t noticed, perhaps that’s because they overwhelmingly are white. While about 15 percent of all Iowans are ethnic or racial minorities, only about 3 percent — just five members — of the 150 state lawmakers are people of color.
State officials should call on Indigenous Iowans to lead a review of government monuments, and propose a plan for their removal or replacement. Centering the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of color is the best way to ensure the stones we sculpt today will stand the test of history.
Don’t stop there. There also are movements afoot to rename government assets with racist names, such as Linn County’s Squaw Creek or the 10 U.S. military bases named for confederates, the latter of which President Donald Trump has vocally opposed.
Removing statues and changing names might be symbolic — and no substitute for the types of systemic policy change racial justice advocates also demand — but symbols are important. Monuments in public spaces create an image of who we are and who we aspire to be.
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