Episode 008: Taking Down the Columbus Statue in Downtown L.A. with Organizer Chrissie Castro
On November 10, 2018, a statue of Christopher Columbus was taken down in Los Angeles’ Grand Park. City officials and members of the LA City/County Native American Indian Commission were present to watch. Hundreds of others gathered to witness the takedown. Chrissie Castro, Vice Chair of the Commission, was there.
“After, decades of demonstration and protests, and dialogue," shares Castro, "it was very emotional when the statue finally came down. You know, we had singers. Folks were clapping and yelling. And it was just a sense of release, of finally being heard; finally being heard.“
On this episode of Monument Lab, Castro shares insights behind the takedown, which was not isolated event, but a larger part of a decades long struggle for advocacy and representation among LA's diverse indigenous communities. Last year, Castro was one of the leaders behind the city’s official change from recognizing Columbus Day to its new title, Indigenous People’s Day. In this episode, she also reflects on her history as an organizer, her work with the city, and the next steps that may follow in response to the takedown.
Paul Farber, Host: Chrissie Castro, thank you for joining the Monument Lab podcast today.
Chrissie Castro: Thank you.
Farber: On November 10th, a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from Los Angeles's Grand Park. Representatives from the city of Los Angeles, in tandem with LA's City-County Native American Indian Commission, were on hand and were involved in the removal. Can you describe the day from your view?
Castro: That day was one that I will always hold in my memory, as far as the at-large indigenous community in LA coming together and claiming a small victory, a much needed victory. After decades of demonstration, and protests, and dialogue, it was very emotional when the statue finally came down. You know, we had singers. Folks were clapping and yelling. And it was just a sense of release, of finally being heard. And we know that there's a lot more work to do, but it was an important step towards really telling the true history of the place that we now call Los Angeles.
Farber: You mentioned that the struggle has lasted decades. How did it begin? And how has it evolved over time?
Castro: Well, the statue was gifted to the County of Los Angeles in 1973, by the Sons of Italy. And at that time, there was no indigenous consultation as far as putting that statue in the park. And so we really traced back this story to 1973. You know, 1973 was a time where there was a lot of movement. We had the American Indian Movement going strong at that time. And there was definitely opportunity to engage the Native community locally, but we were not engaged. We have oral history back since the '70s. We have folks that were part of this struggle that can have testified, that were active in the '90s. And ever since then, every decade, there was a new generation protesting Columbus Day, as well as the Columbus statue. On the day of the removal, I had community members come up to me and tell me stories about how, when they were babies on their mothers' backs — and these are 30 and 40-year-olds — that they were basically protesting the statue since they were children, and how meaningful it was for them to actually be there to witness the statue coming down. And so we, as the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission, us, as a community, we really think it's important for us to tell this story as a collective community story. That every action, that every letter, every phone call, every effort to remove the statue and tell the true history of our people helped to contribute to this. So it wasn't about an individual actor. It was really about a collective will.
Farber: It's amazing to hear that long arc. People who push against the idea that problematic monuments should be taken down often claim that history should not be erased. But in this case, and so many others, it's mind-boggling to hear that a statue to a figure from centuries ago went up in 1973. In your work, have you had to confront the idea that the statue has always been there or always belongs there?
Castro: I have to say that the statue removal, the most recent process that we'd been engaged in was about a year-long process. And it came off the heels of us winning Indigenous Peoples' Day, and the fact that we replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day. And that campaign, again, was decades in the making. And the most recent leg of that was a two-year campaign. And in that campaign, we stressed the reasons why Columbus should not be lifted up as a heroic figure. Our community came out in the hundreds to testify at various committee meetings, at various meetings brokered with the Italian community, to really share what this figure means to the intergenerational trauma that our community still suffers today. And we heard stories, for example, of mothers that came forward. One, in particular, story of a young boy who had a long, beautiful braid. And he went to his school on a day where they taught about Columbus, and how wonderful Columbus was, and that fact that he was an explorer, and what he brought. And whatever was said in that class, we don't know. But we do know that the parent was called because the young boy went under his desk. He cut off his braid, and he didn't want to come out. And he basically told his mom, when they got home to talk about what happened, that he didn't want to be Indian anymore. And so, a lot of people talk about Indigenous Peoples' Day, this whole movement towards telling the true history, locating Columbus where he should be located and say that this is not really the most important issue, that there's two sides of this story that we need to look at. And we need to tell the accurate story from both perspectives. And what we're saying is that no matter what you think about the situation, that lifting up Columbus is harmful to children. And our communities suffer amongst the highest rates of, you know, going down the list of socioeconomic conditions. And among them, one of the most troubling for us as a community, and something that we are really fighting against, is the high rates of suicide of our young people. And the American Psychological Association has basically come out to say that harmful, race-based mascots, you know, that the dehumanizing symbols and holidays contribute to the negative self-image of our young children. And that is directly linked to feelings of self-worth, and of our young people not feeling like they're valuable in this society. And so we definitely connect our health outcomes, and our ability to thrive in our communities, our children's ability to prosper and to live a life of dignity, we connect that with these historical monuments and holidays. I'll just say for myself, that's why I am so passionate about this. With regard to your question about, you know, are there arguments that people have around, "we have to maintain this historical piece." Because we did so much work with the Indigenous Peoples' Day campaign, we brokered a lot of relationships with the Italian community, where they left rooms that we were with them in saying, "You know what? I'm really sorry. I didn't know Columbus meant this to you. We are here to celebrate our culture as Italian Americans, and we don't want to support this figure that has this meaning in your community." And so we didn't get as much pushback on the statue removal that I would have anticipated, because I think we already challenged the narrative in a lot of ways. But I will say, for those few voices, because it definitely was not a strong opposition to the statue removal. If anything, I feel like the majority of Angelenos were on the side of the removal, when we look at things like the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, they've put out a policy statement on controversial commemorative works. And to anybody that would argue that this is a historical statue, and we should be leaving that up as a piece of history, as I shared, this statue went up in 1973. And so it's actually not a historical artwork. One of the points around this policy statement talks about how you need to address whether the item is actually historically significant. So is it recasting history? Or was it an actual part of history? And I think, given the relative newness of the statue, we can all agree it's recasting history. And it's actually not a historical monument.
Farber: I'm just curious to hear more about how these testimonies and periods of public discussion, influenced this process, and, if you knew, going into it, if it could have that kind of effect?
Castro: As we invited the community to share their views on changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day, I think all of us in the community, in one way or another, felt, in a way, I want to say re-traumatized, or you know, getting in touch with the trauma. I'll say, for myself, talking about genocide, mass genocide, reading the diary entries of Columbus and his crew; as I don't need to say these things, let me read to you what they said about themselves; and thinking about the atrocities that happened, and the ways that Columbus and his crew described the indigenous peoples whom they first encountered. So, for example, I'll just read one statement. They write, "Endless testimonies prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy." Right, so that tells you what their motivations were. And then, you know, they're writing about the actual Lucayans, Taínos, and Arawaks. And they write, "They are the best people in the world, and above all, the gentlest; without knowledge of what is evil, nor do they murder or steal. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world; always laughing." And so to re-embody the experience of indigenous peoples who, by the settlers' own words, of saying how they lived, and how they were treated, and welcomed, and the response was around murder, and enslavement, and rape, and torture. Us, speaking those things as a community, I'll say for myself, as I witness other people and myself, it was a lot of emotional trauma. And at the same time, I think it was necessary. It was necessary for policy makers. In this case, the city of Los Angeles, we had the most engagement with around changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day, but it was very much a somatic experience. There was one day where I was sitting in the city council chambers. And you know, at first, when we started, there was a big Italian opposition. And as they heard us talking, and as we had meetings with each other, their numbers really dwindled. And so at the end, there were only, I would say, a handful, like three to five people that would continuously come to offer opposition. And we had hundreds behind us. And I heard this woman who was front and center with the opposition. And she kept talking about how Columbus was a discoverer, that we should not judge him by all of his actions, that we have to put him in the context of what was acceptable at the time, and that he was responsible for the exchange of goods and the exchange of people. And I kept hearing these talking points, over and over, at all the hearings. And I'm sure she heard us as well, about the effect and impact on us then and now, as a people.
Castro: And I just started to shake in my body. And it wasn't cold. I wasn't afraid. And I just had this physical reaction to what I was hearing. And I really believe that, you know, that was touching that intergenerational trauma that we all carry, because of all of these genocidal, and you know, policies that were meant to destroy; destroy our culture, destroy our children, destroy our families. And at the same time, I felt like, in order for the city council and other decision makers to understand why this was so important, that those testimonies were really necessary. Because this is not just something that's an academic exercise. This is not something that's just a symbolic gesture. This is something that actually has real meaning for us. And I knew that our storytelling, and us sharing that trauma and that impact, was really necessary to shift people.
Farber: As an organizer, how do you balance that real, emotional trauma with the vision to share stories, and to push forward in the work that you're doing?
Castro: You know, I don't want to speak for the whole community. We're a very diverse people. But just from my personal perspective, and I think others would share this, is that we have a responsibility. Although it could be painful, there was a real opportunity here to change the narrative, to change how people think about how this country was discovered or not, how this country was founded. If you look at any normal textbook, you will not get the indigenous perspective. You will not get the fact that we are now on, anywhere you're at in the Americas, you're on indigenous land, and that the land has a history that far exceeds the history of the United States. And history doesn't start from that premise. It starts from the premise of European-settler colonialism. And so we are really pushing back against that narrative. And so, yes, these issues are difficult. But we also see the real opportunity to shift the at-large consciousness. You know, I'll say, the day after we won, city council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day in August of 2017. And in October of 2017, even though the first official holiday wasn't celebrated until 2018, the LA County Public Library posted all over their social media, and all in their library, posters. "We are going to be closed for Indigenous Peoples' Day this year." [Laughs.] And that meant so much to me, because for people who are not involved in movement, or who just a majority of people don't have any kind of sense of American Indian history or struggle. That that notion of, "We're closed for Indigenous Peoples' Day," that will, I think, invite people to ask, like, "Oh, what is this about?" You know, it will reach people that we aren't able to normally reach. You know, I had friends writing to me, saying, “My children's school sent a letter home saying, 'We are now closed for Indigenous Peoples' Day.'" So it just feels like that, that's a testimony to how important it is, and you know, the fact that we are willing to share our stories, to have that larger impact that we want to have.
Farber: Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration of indigenous communities in the country. City Councilperson Mitch O'Farrell, who is Native American, is part of the Wyandotte Nation. How do these factors shape the commission’s relationship with the city?
Castro: So I do want to say that Los Angeles County is home to the largest concentration of urban-indigenous peoples in the whole country. The local first peoples, original peoples of Los Angeles, are Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash Nations. And the county is also home to hundreds of other tribes that have were relocated to Los Angeles as part of the federal Relocation Act, which sought to remove indigenous peoples from their traditional homelands and basically assimilate them into mainstream American life. And so today, because of relocation, more than 70% of native peoples in what is now the United States call a city home, and don't live on their reservations or traditional lands. And furthermore, there are dozens of indigenous tribes from Mexico, Central and South America. There are indigenous peoples here from Aotearoa, which we now know as New Zealand, from Hawaii, from Samoa. And as we saw with this Columbus statue removal, that we have Taíno indigenous peoples that now call Los Angeles home. So the fact that LA has such a strong indigenous community was a huge factor in us being able to win and to persuade. And I will say, for myself, it was the first time in my life, anyways, that I saw so much cross unity between those indigenous communities. And it's a really beautiful thing to see. And we don't want to stop here, right? So people sometimes criticize, to say that we should be worried about climate change, and housing, and homelessness, and all educational equity. And we say, "Yes. We're working on all of those things, too." [Laughs.] So you know, with this movement that's happening, not only in LA, but we are part of a movement that's happening all across the country, around standing against resource exploitation, around missing and murdered indigenous women, around Indigenous Peoples' Day — you know, a lot of organizing in cities going on around the country around that — so that we are wanting to position ourselves and to continue to build that unity, so that we can make change on all of those other issues that are impacting our community.
Farber: How did you begin your work as an organizer?
Castro: I was born and raised in LA. My grandparents came to LA from Wendell Rock in 1952. They weren't part of the relocation program, but they were part of the wave to come during relocation. And so, I'm third-generation to live in Los Angeles. And our family was connected to the native community in LA until I was about 10 or 11. And then, for whatever reasons, we really started to become more isolated as a family. We had other Navajo families that we were connected to, but we didn't participate in big community events. And it wasn't until I was in my 20s, I went to grad school at UCLA for American Indian studies, and I come to realize that the largest Indian center was about a mile away from where I grew up; and I had no idea. And as I started to go through the program, and learning about the federal relocation program, and the whole host of policies meant to assimilate us, I realized that our isolation wasn't by accident. It was by design. And I just got very passionate about wanting to make sure that our community was connected and not socially isolated, and that we didn't have to go to graduate school to learn about the whole history of federal Indian policy; and that I really wanted to reach young people in middle school and high school, to connect, and to learn about our history, and more importantly, to come together, to see what was possible. And so I started out as a youth organizer in the community. And then after doing some work in youth organizing in LA, the aunties, and grandmas, and elders came to me to say, "Okay. This is great, what you're doing with the youth. But what about the Indian Child Welfare Act? And what about our economic development?" And you know, so I started to just build relationships in the community, in addressing other issues. And then that led me to joining the Los Angeles City-County Indian Commission, which I think I've been on for more than 10 years. We're still working on trying to figure out how to connect to all those other native families that are still currently isolated. We have about 200,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives that live in the County of Los Angeles. And we know that the majority of those are actually not connected to our work, to the social service infrastructure. And so it's still a big question that we're trying to solve.
Farber: Through the Commission, how do you balance community goals and city goals?
Castro: That's a good question. It's an interesting position to be in. You know, as the Los Angeles City-County Indian Commission, our responsibility, at least in my view is, first, to our community. And so we are looking to engage the community, listen to their concerns, listen to their agendas, and then pivot to figure out how we can champion that agenda within the city and the County of Los Angeles. And so to this point, at least in my tenure with the Commission, we haven't had a situation where the city or the county is trying to drive an agenda for native peoples that is counter to what the community wants. That's not to say that that won't happen, but we haven't experienced that. I think more of the problem is that native peoples are invisible to the city and the county. So the city and county has no agenda around native people, you know? So it's more that we're trying to raise awareness, raise visibility, put forward policy, make sure that we're included around whatever resource allocation might exist for various programs. It's more that we're trying to be included, than we're trying to change an agenda that's going the wrong way within city and county government. I will say that, with the election of Mitchell O'Farrell, the first ever Los Angeles City Council member, member of the Wyandotte Nation, we have been able to advance, I believe, in our community, in a way that wouldn't have been possible if we did not have an indigenous, elected leader in office. He has been championing our efforts. We work very closely with his office. You know, we also have champions in the County Board of Supervisors that we're very grateful for. And so it does feel like there is, in this moment, political will to support our issues. And we're very excited about the prospect of that, for all of the reasons that I've shared before.
Farber: Next year, on Indigenous Peoples' Day in Los Angeles, do you have a vision for what that day will look like or feel like? How could you imagine it in looking ahead?
Castro: That's an interesting question. So for Indigenous Peoples' Day, I would imagine that it's not a singular event, but that beyond the one day, beyond the symbolism of the day, I really feel that we need to get into the school systems. I believe, as California residents, everybody that now calls California home has a responsibility to the original peoples of California, to know their history, to know how California, above any other state, really has a responsibility to address the genocide that happened here. California has a very, very bloody history. I mean, the state sponsored bounties on native peoples, and that wasn't that long ago. And I feel that it's the responsibility of every person who now lives here to know that history, and to also recognize the contributions that California native peoples have had to the state historically and in a contemporary way. And it's not okay for people to just put native people out of their consciousness. That the story, that the story from the past, the story of today is continued to be told, and there's more consciousness around it. So you know, while we can have these beautiful events, which I also embrace, I feel like we need to do more to truly honor Indigenous Peoples' Day in LA.
Farber: I want to just go back to the beginning of our conversation, and the day of November 10th in Grand Park. You’ve described the day as really meaningful, to see the collective efforts toward the removal of the Columbus statue. How can energies from that day be put forth, or channeled to not just stop there?
Castro: Well, I want to say that our struggle is not over on this issue. So the removal of the statue, I would say that we're midway through this process. The LA City-County Native American Indian Commission is advocating that the statue is deaccessioned from the county arts collection. So based on the civic arts procedures, the county can deaccession a piece for 10 reasons; one of which, if the artwork has received consistent, adverse, public reaction for a period of five or more consecutive years. And we believe that if there was ever a time to enact their own policy around consistent, adverse reaction, it would be about this Columbus statue, which, I shared, there's been oral history, and testimony, and photographs, and a lot of documentation that this has been protested for, at least since the '90s, that we have record for. And so this is an interesting point, because we just don't want to store the statue. We want to kick it out of the county arts collection. And what I've understood from the arts world is that deaccessioning could be a dirty word? A lot of museums, as I understand, deaccession a piece so that they can sell it, and then purchase and diversify their collection, which I have come to understand is looked down upon in the arts world. But we are wanting to deaccession for a different reason. And the deaccessioning question and conversation is a controversial one. And so we know that we're not done with this, but that we're wanting to harness all of that community and political will to actually set a precedent around deaccessioning the piece. Now, it calls into question a whole host of issues. Are we going to deaccession and sell the artwork? Are we going to deaccession and donate it to an institution that is seeking to educate the public about why the monument was removed? If we sell or donate, do we have any control of how the statue will be displayed, or stored, or what have you? And so there are a host of questions about deaccessioning. And as we understand, you know, whatever action we take is going to set a precedent. I believe that this Columbus statue that we've removed is only the second statue. I believe the first was in San Jose, California. And our hope is that, I would say, on two levels; one on a national level, that other jurisdictions and other communities see what's been happening here, and that they are inspired, and there's the political will to have the dialogue, to have the public education, and ultimately to remove figures that, in a shorthand way, we think of as hate speech against indigenous peoples. So that's one hope that we have. The second is that, you know, the removal of the Columbus statue in LA is only one step in a much broader agenda to indigenize public spaces, to lift up the first peoples of Los Angeles, to tell the true narrative of this land that we now call LA, this land that we now call California. So given the fact that LA has the largest concentration of indigenous peoples in the country, you wouldn't know that if you looked at our public arts. You wouldn't know that if you looked at our street names. And so we have a much broader agenda around accurate history telling, around public art. And so the statue is one piece in that much broader agenda.
Farber: If you had the ability to shape the future for the statue, especially around the ways that you've been discussing, whether it's around further advocating for indigenous peoples' rights or as an educational tool, if you had that control, what would the future of this statue be?
Castro: Originally, I had thought that the statue should be used as an educational tool. My dream was to place the statue within a museum that had a framework of social justice, and that the statue would be one piece of a larger exhibit that was about indigenous movement building, and resistance, and reclaiming a narrative. And I thought that would be the best-case scenario. But then I started to, because I am not an expert in the arts or museum world, I started to talk to native artists, and other activists, and museum studies professors. And what I heard, at least from some of them, was that they thought that was a horrible idea. [Laughs.] And they thought it was a horrible idea because they say that the statue of Columbus is inherently a flawed art piece. And so if we're going to be talking about indigenous movements, and the move from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day, or even the statue removal, that we should be doing that from the lens of a native artist, of native artworks, of native and indigenous forms of expression. I resonated with that, and I understood it. And I honestly think that this is a challenge that not only, you know, we're going to face with Columbus statues, but I think it's a challenge that's being faced with Confederate monuments. We know that the majority of Confederate monuments that have been removed are placed in storage. And the fact is that nobody wants to receive them. The Columbus statue, at one time, was offered to the Italian American Museum here, located in Central Los Angeles. And they said, "Absolutely not." They do not want the statue. So I think it is a real challenge to understand. You know, if we were going to take down all of the racists monuments across the country, where would they all go, other than storage? And I don't think it's a reason for us not to remove them. I think that we need to have a larger national dialogue about what happens to these pieces. And it's a question that has not been solved or answered for, I don't think. I mean, the only other jurisdiction I understand that has deaccessioned for adverse public reaction was Baltimore. And they deaccessioned their Confederate monuments. And as I understand it, they're still in storage. So something that we have seen as a short-term solution might end up being a long-term solution. But it's really one of those things we're still trying to figure out.
Farber: You’ve cited a decades-long movement, and in recent years, have, with collaborators and colleagues, shaped a really remarkable coalition. For organizers, and activists, and artists in other cities, what are insights that you've gained through that process, that might be helpful for others as they pursue monumental work in their contexts, and in their own cities and towns?
Castro: Well, there are a couple of important things. One, as you shared, is the coalition building. You know, the fact that we need relationships across communities. As I shared, indigenous peoples are not a monolithic community. We're very diverse in tribes. We're very diverse in geography. We're diverse in our political views. But you know, I really believe that relationship building across those differences, to say that we might disagree in some areas, but here's what we can agree on, is really critical, because we need everybody's voice. We need everybody to come out. We really need unification in the ways that are possible in our communities. And that also exists with our non-native allies. So you know, in our struggle for Indigenous Peoples' Day, we had allies in communities that believed in social justice. So we really say that this was not only for native peoples, but this move was for all peoples that believe in accurate history, and dignity, and justice. And so we had allies in the African American community, the Chicano Latino community, the Asian community. We had allies in the Italian American community. There's actually an Italian American Association against Columbus Day that would stand up there with us and say how this is a blight on their history. They do not want to be associated with him, and this is nothing that they support. And so all of those voices and testimony were very important, because we wanted to make sure that this wasn't seen as simply an indigenous agenda. This was a broader agenda for all Angelenos. The second thing is, I think, we got very good counsel from previous jurisdictions about how to form the argument. And so I'll say that I just give a lot of thanks to Matt Remle, who's a native organizer based out of Seattle, who talked with us about his work. We talked to Minneapolis about their work. And one of the things that Matt shared was, he said, "It's very important that you all use the writings of Columbus and his crew as evidence, as factual evidence of their mind frame, as well as evidence of how the indigenous peoples were receiving them." And so they said the opposition is going to come out really strong, and I think they found the most effective tool was actually utilizing their own writing, which is irrefutable. And related to that, I think, shaping the argument, and getting really clear about why, why are you against this, why now, and why is this important to the local jurisdictions, basically walking their own talk. So we would dig up their own mission statements around diversity, around human rights. We called in the state proclamations. We basically said, "This is in accordance with your own worldview and policies. So if you want to be in alignment with what you believe in, then you need to do this." And then the other thing related to that is making sure that you have a community behind you, that if there is going to be a hearing, if you put a call out, that people actually, really do care about this in the community, and are willing to take time off of work, or to come to a meeting in a moment's notice, that you actually need folks that are willing to show up with you. So it's not a singular exercise, but it really needs to be a community-wide effort.
Farber: Chrissie Castro, thank you so much for your time, and for sharing a view into this process that's ongoing in Los Angeles.
Castro: Thank you so much.
Chrissie Castro, Diné and Chicana, co-led the change to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in the city and County of Los Angeles, as well as co-led the change to remove the Columbus statue from L.A.’s Grand Park. She was a co-founder of Indigenous Women Rise, which organized the Indigenous women’s contingent of 1,000 Indigenous Women at the Women’s March in DC. She is the Network Weaver of the Native Voice Network, a national network of 35+ Native-led organizations that mobilize through indigenous cultural values. She recently launched two projects to build community and political power of Native communities — locally, the California Native Vote Project and nationally, Advance Native Political Leadership. Chrissie is a certified life coach, and is passionate about utilizing coaching for personal, organizational and community transformation.