All photos by Catherine Gonzalez.
On Monday, Indigenous People’s Day, more than 200 people attended an activist-led Anti-Columbus Day Tour at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Artists and activists involved in a project called Decolonize This Place led a crowd into 10 of the museum’s exhibitions, where tour guides reframed many colonialist narratives.
In their declaration, Decolonize This Place listed three demands as part of their tour: for the museum to respect those racially depicted in its exhibitions, for the museum to remove the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt at its front entrance, and for Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day.
The tour began in the “Hall of Asian Mammals,” where animals from India, Myanmar, and Thailand are replicated behind glass window displays. From there, the group wound its way through the museum with activist tour guides offering commentary on the exhibits, pointing out racist dioramas that lump Indigenous people into the same domain of nature as animals. “These people, who are on display as an example of a long-extinct, primitive phase of humanity, are actually living on the land today,” read one activist tour guide in a hall featuring Indigenous artifacts. “Why are they stranded in prehistory?”
In the Hall of African People, tour guides addressed how these dehumanizing depictions work in hand with state violence. “Here, the vast multiplicity of African social and cultural life is thinned out and labeled like flora and fauna,” the entire crowd mic-checked. “Discrimination against African diasporic peoples is everywhere reinforced by these primitivist stereotypes.”
At the end of the tour, organizers symbolically threw a dark tarp over the statue. Awash in cheers, the crowd chanted, “Rename, respect, remove!” As the tarp covered Roosevelt, and security guards attempted to take it down, people spoke about the specters of history that exist today: how settler occupation continues all around the world but is rarely covered in media.
“Indigenous people exist today and every day,” said Vaimoana Niumeitolu, an artist and member of Decolonize This Place. “Not only do we exist, but we resist and honor that this is our land and will always be our land, no matter what is here.”