Public Letter on Indigenous Peoples' Day, 2017

To: Mayor de Blasio, New York City Council, and the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History

Decolonize This Day

Many U.S. cities have chosen to do what is just and renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Why is New York not among them? There is no reason for holding out any longer. It’s time for the Mayor and City Council to stand on the right side of history. New York City sits on the territory of the Lenape, and over one hundred thousand Indigenous people live on this territory today-- more than any other city in the United States! Let’s honor the persistent presence of Indigenous Americans, despite attempts toward their elimination and reject the celebration of imperial conquest. This public holiday must be relaunched as an occasion to respect our Indigenous brothers and sisters and no longer commemorate a figure widely associated with exploitation and enslavement. American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) officials have told us that they will neither advocate for nor enter the public conversation about renaming Columbus Day. Their position of non-advocacy functions as an action against Indigenous peoples. Now is the time to reconsider and rename.

Decolonize This Statue

The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt on Central Park West outside the AMNH has often been cited as the most hated monument in New York City. It’s easy to see why. Flanked by figures that appear to be Native and African stereotypes in a position of subservience, the statue is a stark embodiment of the white patrician supremacy that Roosevelt himself espoused and promoted and is an affront to all who enter the museum. Statuary is not forever and a monument that glorifies racial and gender hierarchies should be retired from public view. The movement that began in the South with the removal of Confederate flags and generals from public display has come to New York. The statue is city-owned and sits on land managed by the Parks Department. The Mayor’s commission to review “symbols of hate” should prioritize its removal and City Council members should all agree--it’s time to take it down.

Decolonize This Museum

Why do Indigenous, Asian, Latin American, and African cultural artifacts reside in the AMNH, while their Greek and Roman counterparts are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the park? Because New York’s premier scientific museum continues to honor the bogus racial classification that relegates colonized peoples to the domain of Nature and the colonizers to the realm of Culture and Science. It’s time to accept that the Hall of African Peoples does not belong in the same exhibition framework as the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, and that Indigenous or Asian peoples cannot be represented in ways that are akin to the display of fossils and meteorites. These arrangements should be reviewed and reconceived by representatives of the “exhibited” populations. Human remains, sacred things, and objects of power stolen from Indigenous peoples should be placed under the authority of their descendants. The museum, which receives $17m of public funding annually (a sum greater than that allotted to the entire borough of Queens), has long been an embarrassment to New Yorkers and tourists. It needs a serious renovation, to be undertaken by a diverse range of curators drawn from the populations featured in the museum.

Recently, the museum leadership announced plans to renovate the Northwest Coast Hall, its first cultural gallery, largely untouched since it was built at the turn of the twentieth century. While we welcome this long overdue initiative, the false and degrading representations in the rest of the culture halls remain as a present reminder of inaction and colonial violence. AMNH must immediately begin a formal institution-wide decolonization process that addresses the saturated colonial infrastructure of the museum as a whole. An independent Decolonization Commission must be established to assess the colonial mentality, past and present, that presides over the institution. A full-time Decolonization Officer must be appointed, an internal decolonizing working group must be established, and town hall meetings must be scheduled to allow those affected by the racisms perpetuated in the culture halls to speak publicly.

Moreover, the educational guides provided to teachers and docents fail to properly acknowledge present day peoples. They perpetuate racist stereotypes and demeaning representations, which inevitably reflect back on the exhibits themselves. It is shocking that, in 2017, school children are still subjected to this level of institutional violence in the name of education. This kind of violence should no longer be tolerated. With more than 2 million children visiting the museum annually, the NYC Department of Education should initiate its own independent assessment of the AMNH. This review should evaluate how the museum is addressing, and trying to rectify, the harmful effects of misrepresentation, incorrect information, and structural racism upon New York’s diverse school populations. As a publicly-subsidized educational institution, the AMNH must be required to uphold the dignity of all peoples in this city.

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