Decolonization Action at the American Museum of National History

reparations, repatriation, gentrification
Centerfold of the flier distributed by Decolonize This Place during the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Action at the American Museum of Natural History.

On Monday, October 8th, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Marabou joined hundreds who filled the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) as a statement to decolonize the museum’s cultural halls. The cultural halls are Northwest Coast Indians, Plains & Eastern Woodland Indians, African Peoples, Asian Peoples, Mexico and Central America, South American Peoples, and Pacific Peoples. What cultural group is missing from the cultural halls of AMNH? If you said Europeans, you are right, but to be more specific, white Europeans. Why is that? Think about the implication of having all cultures of the world, except European, represented in a museum of natural history that also displays dinosaur bones, taxidermied animals, and minerals. Without saying a word the museum suggests to its visitors, including their biggest demographic – school children, that the cultures represented in the cultural halls are curiosities, something to be wondered at, something different, other. It says that white culture is civilized, while all others are not. Just like reading a book, the narrator is telling the story and shapes interpretation from his perspective. In terms of the AMNH, the narrator is a white, affluent man who does not see his collecting (taking of objects) and curation (interpreting someone else’s story through a colonial lens) as oppressive or violent. As leaders of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day convening at the museum said, the AMNH is the “Hall of White Supremacy.”

The AMNH opened in 1869. Its first cultural hall, Northwest Coast Indians, opened in 1896. The other cultural halls are created starting in the 1960s. The last two halls to open were Asian Peoples in 1980 and South America, completely redesigned, in 1989. Marabou finds it troubling (but unsurprising) that these stereotypical depictions of cultures are relatively recent creations. Little work has gone into the updating of the museum’s cultural halls because they do not have the appeal of their big blockbuster siblings like the Hall of Biodiversity, the Planetarium (shout out to Neil deGrasse Tyson), and the dinosaurs. Although not the biggest draw to visitors, people still walk through the cultural halls, if not to take in the content then to get from one part of the museum to another. The convening at AMNH on Indigenous People’s day was organized by Decolonize This Place and called for the museum to decolonize not only its displays, but also in its structure and the way it functions. Protestors handed out fliers that outlined the tour throughout the museum in which various groups would activate the cultural halls and challenge the white narrative told in the space. “Decolonize! Reclaim! Reimagine!” were printed on the cover of the flier and repeatedly spoken over 2.5 hours as protestors filled the halls.

Last year, protestors started outside and covered the statue that stands on the main steps of the museum with a black shroud. The statue depicts an idealized Teddy Roosevelt on horseback. A Native American man and a black man stand on either side of Roosevelt, both men wearing minimal clothing. This statue has been a point of contention for activists who see this statue as a celebration of white supremacy. Not only does it show Native American and black men in stereotypical, submissive positions, it also honors someone who was an advocate for genocide and the clearing of native populations. Marabou will get into more details about Roosevelt later. Since the property outside of the museum building belongs to New York City, the city has the jurisdiction to remove the statue. The City of New York has acknowledged the racist and oppressive nature of the statue, but decided that it will not be taken down. This protest was not just about AMNH and not just about renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This protest was about challenging the systems that oppress in the very cultural sites we visit, in our cities, and in the nation we live. Knowing that the statue would be one of the targets of the protest again this year it was surrounded by police barricades, policemen, and security from AMNH. People gathered next to the statue and marched around it into the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall on the museum’s lower level. This is where the action started.

Organizers began with acknowledging that all participants and the museum stand on the homeland of the Lenape who are one of the indigenous nations of what is now New York City. Representatives from participating activist groups addressed the crowd, asking us to work together to decolonize and fight white supremacy and to look out for one another, especially the most vulnerable of us. The sentiment was of action, but also of care for our community members. Before the program commenced, a leader from Decolonize This Place stated that “Decolonize is not a metaphor. Decolonize is a verb.” Decolonize This Place has been working for the past two years to decolonize AMNH. As stated in the flier,

As a result of two years of pressure from Decolonize This Place and its allies, museum officials have begun to recontextualize select dioramas in the AMNH cultural halls. In the plaques around this diorama [referring to the diorama of Chief Oratam (Sachem of the Hackensack Tribe of the Lenape) and Peter Stuyvesant] you will read a critique of colonial representation as it applies to the depiction of Lenape people in this purported meeting between the Chief Oratam and Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant in 1660. These are baby steps, but consider how easy they are to undertake–no more the work of one afternoon. Imagine how quickly all of the exhibits in the cultural halls could be reconceived. Imagine how you would do it!

Participants were called to action to reclaim the space, to reimagine the space, but also invited to remember.

Before moving into the other halls, everyone assembled in the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial Hall was reminded of his racist views. This quote was repeated by activists, both spoken and through signage:

Roosevelt once proclaimed, “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 into the case of the tenth.”

Along with that quote, all were asked to remember that Roosevelt’s actions perpetuated oppression and facilitated early attempts of American empire with the acquisition of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam as spoils of war following the Spanish-American War in 1898. Our beloved National Parks system required the clearance of indigenous people off the land to make refuges and nature preserves initially only visited by white elites. This information was intended to galvanize and remind all present that history has been whitewashed and the purpose of the day’s action at the museum was to poke holes in the narratives told within the AMNH’s halls.

abolish white supremacy, decolonize
Small fliers decorate the floor of the AMNH’s Hall of North American Forests. The fliers read, “We are NOT extinct.” and “Abolish White Supremacy.”

People flooded out of the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, into the rest of the museum. Eight halls were activated by chants, banners, and speeches. Marabou was not able to see everything, but is going to take you on their journey. The first stop was in the Hall of Biodiversity, one of the museum’s most recently refurbished halls with backlit panels of taxidermied animals from around the world and a walk-through simulation of a rainforest. Representatives from People’s Cultural Plan spoke in front of a human-sized clamshell and held up a banner that read, “Support for the AMNH was provided by Slavery, Genocide, Imperialism, Theft.” People’s Cultural Plan drew attention to the museum’s economic support, which includes $23 million of taxpayer dollars. Monsanto was highlighted as a major funder of the Hall of Biodiversity, citing the company’s attempt to greenwash their reputation and actions of biopiracy. Particular members of the board were called out including Rebekah Mercer, daughter of Robert Mercer, both of whom are major financial supporters of Donald Trump. Robert Mercer was once a large stakeholder in Breitbart News, and sold it in 2017 to his daughters, including Rebekah. People’s Cultural Plan called for a withholding of taxpayer dollars to the museum until a decolonization plan is put into action. Demands were made to remove board members like Rebekah Mercer who represent and are active in the perpetuation of our disproportionate distribution of wealth and power in the United States. When you follow the money and look at the Board of Trustees, its clear to see why the American Museum of Natural History has not taken active nor continuing measure to decolonize. People’s Cultural Plan provided tangible, real-life examples of what Marabou outlined in a previous post “Money Makes the Museum Doors Open”.

Marabou and fellow protestors moved from the Hall of Biodiversity to the Hall of North American Forests where NYC Shut It Down hung posters of indigenous women and girls who had been murdered or gone missing in 2018. 1 in 3 indigenous women in the United States and Canada are murdered or go missing. According to the Indian Law Center, more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Federal and state authorities who have the ability to help these women and girls in many cases do nothing. The Indian Law Center explains the challenge indigenous populations have when trying to legally prosecute those who rape, assault, and kill indigenous women.

It is outrageous that the vast majority of these women never see their abusers or rapists brought to justice. An unworkable, race-based criminal jurisdictional scheme created by the United States has limited the ability of Indian nations to protect Native women from violence and to provide them with meaningful remedies.  For more than 35 years, United States law has stripped Indian nations of all criminal authority over non-Indians. As a result, until recent changes in the law, Indian nations were unable to prosecute non-Indians, who reportedly commit the vast majority (96%) of sexual violence against Native women. The Census Bureau reports that non-Indians now comprise 76% of the population on tribal lands and 68% of the population in Alaska Native villages…United States law creates a discriminatory system for administering justice in Native communities−−a system that allows criminals to act with impunity in Indian country, threatens the lives and violates the human rights of Native women and girls daily, and perpetuates an escalating cycle of violence in Native communities.  Women who are subjected to violence should not be treated differently and discriminated against just because they are Native and were assaulted on an Indian reservation or in an Alaska Native village!

When people say that historical wrongs happened long ago and no longer have impact, these statistics illustrate the legacy and present impact of historically devaluing indigenous populations to justify their genocide and removal from land for white people’s profit and leisure. Just a few steps away in the Hall of New York State Environment, Take Back the Bronx addressed the contemporary equivalent to the US’s history of removing people from land: gentrification. The AMNH is complicit in this with board member Richard LeFrak representing New York’s big money real estate development interests. After Take Back The Bronx’s rallying cry of fighting back and protecting communities of color and lower-income communities from gentrification, Marabou went up to the hall of Mexico and Central America. In this gallery, a ritual was held to honor the objects within the space that represent cultures that were brutalized by Spanish colonists and then fetishized by collectors around the world. Those in the hall were asked to honor the four cardinal directions and nature, reminding us that we share the same earth, and to protect and cultivate the earth is to protect and cultivate ourselves. Leaders of the ritual invited everyone in the hall to release their lived and inherited trauma through movement and sound. Ancestors, those who created and lived with the objects on display, were remembered and honored.

American Museum of Natural History
Marabou listens at the convening around the Great Canoe in the Grand Gallery of the American Museum of Natural History.

Following this ceremony, all those participating in the action throughout the museum were called to gather around the Great Canoe, an 1870s, 63-foot vessel representing styles from a number of Northwest Coast indigenous cultures, particularly the Haida and Heiltsuk. Chants were heard from all the occupied halls and joined together around the canoe as one voice. For the remainder of time in the museum, sage was burned while leaders from each activist group and representatives from the cultures on display in the cultural halls spoke under the canoe. Black Youth Project 100 presented the question, “This is not a performance, what are you going to do to end white supremacy?” Everyone in the room committed to being accountable and an active participant in the decolonization of the AMNH, all museums, and the city. When the convening at the Great Canoe came to a close, protestors filed out of the museum holding banners and chanting while heading to the main steps in front of the museum. Police officers were still there along with the barricades protecting the Roosevelt statue. On the steps, everyone, in unison, recited the Declaration of the Indigenous Peoples Day Assembly at AMNH:

We declare this to be Indigenous Peoples Day, even though Mayor De Blasio refuses to do so.

We demand that the AMNH, which collects revenue from exhibiting indigenous cultures of the world, starts to pay back by publicly honoring the day, by acknowledging the Indigenous land it sits upon, by repatriating human remains and sacred objects, and by undertaking meaningful and radical steps to decolonize its exhibits and holdings.

We demand that the AMNH leadership publicly acknowledge the cultural violence perpetrated by the Roosevelt Monument on its steps, and its own memorial cult of Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of male chauvinism and white supremacy.

We demand that the AMNH president and board chair convene a public meeting to hear testimony from those who have experienced harm from their visits to the museum.

We call on our elected representatives in city government to suspend the annual $17 million subsidy to the AMNH until the museum has taken substantial steps to meet these above demands.

We call on these representatives to appoint a committee to oversee a decolonization process at all city museums that enjoy subsidies through taxpayer support.

We commit to join and actively participate in any efforts on the part of the Decolonize This Place coalition to pursue the above demands.

Rename! Remove! Respect!

Decolonize This City!

AMNH protest
Representatives from NYC Shut It Down speaking in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They commemorated Josephine Pelletier, a First Nations woman who was shot by Calgary (Canada) police while unarmed in June 2018.

The day’s action concluded with NYC Shut It Down memorializing Josephine Pelletier, a First Nations woman who was shot and killed in June of this year by Calgary (Canada) police while unarmed. This commemoration reinforced NYC Shut It Down’s message shared in the museum that 1 in 3 indigenous women from the US and Canada is murdered or missing and that we all need to pay attention. Concluding with Josephine’s story served as a reminder that the day’s action was not just about changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but about fighting to abolish the structures that oppress and disenfranchise not only indigenous people, but black people, people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, low-income communities, people with disabilities, and immigrants. We must work together for all our causes because they are interconnected. The Indigenous Peoples’ Day action at AMNH was a convening of a coalition of activists groups, but even though the day is over, the work must be carried on. Marabou invites you today, tomorrow, and everyday to join in and continue the work.

For more information on the activist groups involved in organizing the Indigenous Peoples’ Day action at AMNH visit their websites and get involved:

Black Youth Project 100

Chinatown Art Brigade

Decolonize This Place

New York Stands with Standing Rock

NYC Shut It Down

People’s Cultural Plan

South Asia Solidarity Initiative

Take Back the Bronx

Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E)

For other coverage of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Action at AMNH:

Gothamist, “Photos: Hundreds Of Protesters Condemn Colonialism, Patriarchy, And White Supremacy At AMNH” by Ashoka Jegroo

Hyperallergic, “Around 1,000 People Attend Anti-Columbus Day Tour at American Museum of Natural History” by Zachary Small

Decolonize This Place Facebook Album of Indigenous People’s Day Action 2018. All photos by Zachary Shulman.

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