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For Pacific Islanders, a statue in Washington state recalls a dark chapter in history

<i>Courtesy Lawrence Cebula</i><br/>Pacific Islanders and their allies marched through downtown Spokane to amplify calls to remove a plaque on the base of the John R. Monaghan monument in Spokane
Courtesy Lawrence Cebula
Pacific Islanders and their allies marched through downtown Spokane to amplify calls to remove a plaque on the base of the John R. Monaghan monument in Spokane

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

In downtown Spokane, Washington, in front of a private social club, stands a statue honoring the 19th century US Navy sailor John R. Monaghan.

Most of the city’s residents have no idea who Monaghan was. But for many Pacific Islanders in the area, his legacy is one of violence, colonialism and racism — and they want the statue to come down.

Pacific Islanders and their allies marched through downtown Spokane this past weekend to amplify calls to remove the monument — a demand that community members have made for years and have since renewed this past June, according to Joseph Seia, founder and executive director of the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington.

Activists have also started a petition to take down the memorial.

“There’s no honor in lifting up somebody that killed our ancestors,” Seia said.

Monaghan is believed to be the first Washington resident to attend the United States Naval Academy and served in the Navy at the height of US imperialism in the 1890s, historian Lawrence Cebula said. In 1899, the Navy attacked Samoa in an attempt to impose US rule over the islands. The USS Philadelphia — on which Monaghan served — shelled native villages, while officers went ashore to burn survivors, Cebula said. Their actions targeted and killed civilians, including women and children.

It was during this operation that Monaghan was killed. As Samoan troops advanced on the combined US and British forces encroaching on their homelands, Monaghan’s commander was wounded. Monaghan is said to have died while attempting to rescue him.

While the American and British forces were defeated in that battle, Samoa was soon divided up between the US and Germany and subject to foreign control. Though the western islands eventually gained independence in 1962, the eastern islands remain under US sovereignty.

The statue of Monaghan in Spokane was erected in 1906 in a ceremony that included numerous racial slurs against the Samoan people, according to Cebula. Those slurs and offensive characterizations persist to this day — a plaque at the base of the monument refers to the Samoan forces as the “savage foe” and inaccurately depicts them with bows and arrows.

“They’re purposely shown as primitive and Monaghan is clutching his breast and falling,” Cebula said. “It’s very ‘Custer’s Last Stand.‘”

To many of the Pacific Islanders in the area, the statue is a continual reminder of racism that Samoans endured at the hands of US forces and celebrates a man who participated in a violent and unjust war.

“This statue, with its offensive imagery and racist language, stands as a message that says that we are unwelcome here and/or thought of as less than human, which is usually what the word ‘savage’ tries to imply,” Kiana McKenna, director of Eastern Washington services for the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington, wrote in an email to CNN. “We deserve to feel safe here and even more, we deserve the ability to thrive here without oppression.”

McKenna added that removing the statue would symbolize a step toward reconciliation and healing and that she and other advocates were hopeful that the Spokane community was ready to do just that.

“Critics say that these efforts will erase history,” she said. “But you cannot erase a history that is untrue.”

The city of Spokane said it had so far been unable to determine whether the statue and the property on which it sits are owned by the city or a private party, and that further investigation was needed.

“The City is aware of discussion in the community about the statue and understands the sensitivity of the situation,” Brian Coddington, a spokesperson for the city of Spokane, wrote in an email to CNN. “There is an open question about ownership of the property and the statue that would need to be resolved before appropriate next steps can be identified.”

The effort to remove the Monaghan statue in Spokane is part of a larger fight across the US to remove historical symbols honoring leaders who perpetuated racism and oppression.

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