New Yorkers says ‘decolonise this museum’ in anti-Columbus Day protest

Photo: Margaret Allum.

About 500 people took part in the second annual Anti-Columbus Day Tour on October 9 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The Columbus Day public holiday celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492.

After an acknowledgement of the ancestral territory of the Lenni Lenape First Nation people, three demands were put forward by those gathered: Rename the day, remove racist statues and respect the ancestors.

There is a growing movement in the US to rename Columbus Bay as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to celebrate Native Americans and commemorate their history and culture. The action demanded that the mayor and City Council declare the state of New York join Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota in the rejection of celebrations of the conquest of First Nations people.

The main entrance to the museum is dominated by a large statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by figures that appear to be Native American and African people, in positions of subservience. A large hall in the museum is also named for him.

In an 1886 speech in South Dakota, Roosevelt declared: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely about the tenth.”

The action demanded the removal of Roosevelt’s statue from the museum.

Speakers also pointed to a lack of respect for Native Americans in many of the museum’s exhibits. They highlighted the content of exhibits, one of which glosses over the death and relocation of thousands of Lenape people in the Manhattan area alone. Other exhibits were criticised for downplaying European colonial violence. 

The premise of the museum, which houses cultural artifacts from colonised indigenous, Asian, Latin American and African people, was also questioned. The colonisers, it was pointed out, have their cultural achievements on display in the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art instead, dividing the colonised as “nature” and the colonisers to the realm of culture and science. 

The afternoon “alternative tour” of the museum ended outside with speeches at the statue and a moving First Nations cultural performance. Hashtags for further discussion include #decolonizethisplace and #notmyhero.