Writers on the Range: A Montana town takes down a monument
As debate over our nation’s legacy of white supremacy continues to roil cities and towns from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Los Angeles, California, Confederate memorials fall like dominoes. According to The New York Times, approximately 22 are on the chopping block and at least 23 have already been removed, including three in Western states, where such markers are rare.
One memorial in downtown Helena, Montana, was especially unique, and the circumstances of its removal offer a regional perspective on the national debate about the meaning and value of Confederate monuments.
Since 1916, a granite fountain with a handsome brass cap has stood at the crest of Hill Park in Montana’s capital city. Until last month, the fountain was the only monument honoring the Confederate cause in the Northern Rockies and the only one on public land in the Northwest.
According to century-old newspaper records, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the monument because “history has never yet told the true story of the devotion to the South and the courage on the battlefield displayed by the Confederate soldier.”
From the perspective of Shane Morigeau, a state representative and enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, the fountain tells a very different story.
This Aug. 15, three days after white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, the Helena Independent Record published an open letter from Morigeau to the Helena City Commission. The letter was also signed by eight members of the American Indian Caucus of the Montana Legislature, including seven Democrats and one Republican, representing all seven Native reservations in the state. Their letter explained that the United Daughters of the Confederacy “openly supported the white supremacist views and mission of the early Ku Klux Klan,” and public property “should not be used to promote Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism, separatism or racism.”
Those words proved to be a tipping point for elected officials. That evening, city commissioners unanimously agreed to remove the monument. The following morning, a small group of protesters looked on as a crane lifted the fountain from its foundation. Two were arrested while another filmed the proceedings with his phone, a Confederate flag wrapped around his shoulders.
Local historians also communicated their displeasure, including Bruce Whittenberg, executive director of the Montana Historical Society. “Rather than just destroy it and pretend like it never existed,” he told the Independent Record, “we should use it as a teachable moment.”
However, the main lesson he and his staff hoped to impart was equally controversial: the notion that the monument’s builders were not racists. The Historical Society’s interpretative historian, Ellen Baumler, told the Independent Record, “Some people believe that (the UDC’s) ulterior motive was support of the early Ku Klux Klan and to promote white supremacy. That may be true in other places, but I simply do not believe that was true in Helena.”
Morigeau takes issue with this belief, which ignores the timing of the installation — in the heart of the Jim Crow era. “The perspective of folks at the Historical Society is very ethnocentric,” he told me. “They’re not asking what Native people or other people of color thought (about this monument).”
He also expressed concern with the Historical Society’s failure to address the history of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “The UDC were out to rewrite history, to make the Civil War about states’ rights rather than slavery,” Morigeau said. “When you put the monument in (this) context, then you can understand it as a glorification of inequality.”
Despite these concerns, Morigeau shares Whittenberg’s interest in teachable moments and said he’d like to participate in a dialogue about how to interpret the monument site as the community moves forward.
“This is a great opportunity for us to come together and talk about what should go there,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to send a signal to people across the country.”
The fountain was “a reminder of an attempt to tell you who controls you,” Morigeau said. “When I saw photos of the space without the fountain, I was at ease. I thought, ‘What a beautiful site.’”
Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Montana.