Some Representations of Native Americans Erase their HistoryRoundup
tags: Chicago, statues, Native American history, public history
Hayley Negrin is an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she teaches courses on Native American history.
After last summer’s reckonings around racism, many U.S. cities are reexamining their public memorial landscapes. For example, a Chicago monuments commission is now in its fourth month of soliciting public comments on 41 monuments throughout the city that have been flagged as controversial.
Among the statues under review are the Bowman and the Spearman sculptures on Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s downtown. The sculptures, created in 1928 by the celebrated Croatian artist Ivan Mestrovic, are impossible to miss. Two 17-foot-tall anonymous figures in romantic Plains Indian headdresses sit atop horses guarding the entrance to Grant Park, where thousands of city residents stroll each week. These statues rank among the most prominent representations of Native Americans in Chicago.
Chicago Indigenous history experts, art historians and Croatian heritage leaders have met to discuss the Bowman and the Spearman, with some defenders of the sculptures pleading that the pieces are objects of Croatian pride rather than an attempt to harm Native American people. But, as this debate unfolds, it is clear that the problem is about more than one artist, one immigrant group and one monument. What is at stake in the debate is how Indigenous history is understood in American society more broadly.
Many students are surprised to learn that Chicago — or Zhegagoynak in the Potawatomi language — has an Indigenous history, not to mention present. Today, 71 percent of Native American people are urban, not rural, and Chicago is home to one of the largest urban populations of Native Americans in the United States with over 65,000 residents.
Over 13 unique Indigenous nations resided there before French settlers arrived in the 1600s, and many other Indigenous nations across the Upper Midwest have ties to the area because Chicago sat at the confluence of several important waterways. It was for this reason that American settlers became so attached to the space at the turn of the 18th century, with their settlements facilitated by the government’s violent expulsion of Indigenous people from the region. As American developers began to transport grain, timber and other resources from farms across the Midwest into the international economy by way of Chicago, the Blackhawk War of 1832 and the Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1838 resulted in the death and removal at gunpoint of thousands of Indigenous Midwesterners to Kansas and Oklahoma.
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