The Statue Formerly Known as Columbus

The statue of Columbus should come down, but one of Prince shouldn’t replace it

Illustration by Emily Hill

You can find the controversial question everywhere. On your favorite national or local news station, on the front page of Sunday’s newspaper, during SNL’s popular satire news sketch “Weekend Update,” it can even be found on the Twitter page of your uncle who has four followers, all of which being “free sex now” accounts. The question of course being: Should statues of persons who were openly racist be taken down?

One Minnesota group wishes not only to take down the statue of the highly controversial slave dealer and slave owner, Christopher Columbus, which lies on the east lawn of the state Capitol building in St. Paul, but also replace it with one of the legendary Minnesotan musician, Prince, who passed away in 2016, and was described by President Barack Obama as “one of the most gifted musicians of all time.” It could be argued that the statue needs to be replaced, but not with one of the famous musician.

The petition, which has already been signed by nearly 6,000 people, states, “Rather than glorify a man who wanted to extinguish black and native peoples, we should honor members of our community whose leadership we find inspirational.”

Undoubtedly, Columbus wasn’t the first European to “discover” the Americas, as history suggests. Historians firmly believe that Leif Erikson was the first European to truly “discover” America in 1000 A.D. as his 68-year-old statue west of the Minnesota state Capitol building suggests. However, for 43 years, both these statues coexisted with plaques claiming that they both were the true “discoverer.” This is mainly because the removal or change of the statue of Columbus could be seen as offensive to Minnesota’s Italian Americans who donated the statue in 1931, 18 years before the Erikson statue was erected. Another reason why Minnesotans didn’t call for the removal of the statue is because it wasn’t widely accepted or known that Erikson was the true founder of America until 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Oct. 9 as “Leif Erikson Day.”

Eventually in 1992, during restoration efforts, the state changed “discoverer” on Columbus’s plaque to read “initiated the merging of cultures between the old and new worlds” after public outcry.

It is now widely accepted in the United States that Columbus wasn’t the fearless explorer we learned about in the popular nursery rhyme about sailing the ocean blue in 1492. Rather, Columbus was a profit-hungry businessman who had no morals when it came to Native peoples.

“Rather, Columbus was a profit-hungry businessman who had no morals when it came to Native peoples.”

After returning to Spain from his first voyage with seven “red women,” who he wrote “would make excellent servants,” the explorer asked the king and queen of Spain for the funding to return to the island with 50 men: “enough to conquer the whole of them, and govern them as I please.” With the knowledge that Columbus would be using the Native people of the island as slaves to mine for gold, the king and queen ordered him to “obtain from doing any injury,” to the inhabitants. Columbus, of course, didn’t listen. Each Native Person over the age of 14 was forced to deliver a quota of a “hawk’s bell worth” of gold every three months. Those who didn’t meet this quota were to be punished by either “having their hands cut off until they bleed to death,” “being burned at the stake,” or “decapitation,” all of which were described by Ferdinand, the second son of Columbus.

Columbus did not only use those who were over 14 to his advantage. Bartolome de las Casas, the Spanish priest who accompanied Columbus on this voyage, wrote that Columbus directed his men to “cut off the legs of children who ran from them” in order to “test the sharpness of their blades.” After Columbus’ third voyage to the Americas, he was still not happy with the amount of gold he had obtained, so in order to make even more gold, he took 500 natives back to Spain to be sold as slaves. Only 300 of them survived the journey.

Since there is evidence that Columbus was not the first European to discover America, there is no reason for him to be honored with a statue. Unless we are honoring the sailor’s life achievements, which have been shown to be accomplished by way of inhumane tactics.

The reasoning for Prince replacing the Columbus statue according to the petition’s author, Wintana Melekin, is that he represents Minnesota values and is a person from which we have gained inspiration.

Of course, one does not have the capability to change their name to an unpronounceable symbol without proving to be an inspirational leader first. However, Prince was not a proven leader to those in Minnesota’s Native communities.

In a CNN interview only days after Prince’s death, Van Jones, a good friend of the artist who also worked with him on financial giving projects, stated that “he was very concerned with poor people and black people.” Prince’s legacy shows much dedication worthy of a statue to improving the lives of many people, but none in particular that focuses on the Native people of Minnesota.

“Prince’s legacy shows much dedication worthy of a statue to improving the lives of many people, but none in particular that focuses on the Native people of Minnesota.”

The question of who should be the replacement if the statue is ever torn down still remains. That question must not be one that non-Native Minnesotans are allowed to answer. With the arrival of Columbus being the beginning of 500 years of unthinkable suffering to many tribes with the “merging of cultures,” the Minnesota State Legislature should allow local tribes to decide what the replacement statue should be. Whenever they wish to raise a statue of someone who was an advocate for Native peoples’ rights or a memorial for all those who have suffered due to the unfair treatment from Europeans, the choice should be theirs.

The petition can be found here.