Laura Pulido finds that a racist past is often left off monuments

Laura Pulido

From Around the O, Oct. 20, 2020 — As monuments across the country are torn down to protest their connection to white supremacy, UO professor Laura Pulido argues that dismantling such structures is an important, but insufficient, step toward achieving racial justice.

And the newest research project by the ethnic studies professor and geographer offers some insights into how to further bridge the gap to racial justice. It examines historical commemoration and the degree to which white supremacy and racial injustice is acknowledged in more than 2,600 different landmarks around the United States.

Though she’s in the early stages of the project, her initial data confirms that racism is deeply ingrained in American historical commemoration and cultural memory — and that the vast majority of American landmarks neglect to acknowledge their many links to racial inequality and violence.

“Although white supremacy — the overt belief in the superiority of white people — was central to the creation of the U.S., the nation is deeply invested in denying its role,” explained Pulido, who was awarded a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue the research project.

“Historical sites are key to this systemic denial, as they denote places and events deemed worthy of remembrance.”

What the country chooses to remember and represent through historical memory — and how it does that — speaks volumes about what is important to Americans, said Pulido, a Collins Chair in the College of Arts and Sciences. And at nearly all monuments across the country, no acknowledgement is found of white supremacy or the racial processes involved in the site, which amounts to an erasure of the racial violence and injustice integral to the roots of the country.

And until that erasure is rectified, Pulido said, the United States is normalizing white supremacy and racism through thousands of landmarks, statues and structures, and allowing Americans to “forget” the country’s many connections to racism and racial violence.

In Oregon, such places include the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, the Dee Wright Observatory, the Bonneville Dam and the Pioneer Cemetery adjacent to the UO campus.

Pulido points to the End of the Oregon Trail in Oregon City as a compelling example of how most monuments handle their historical connections to racial injustice and white supremacy, or rather, how they don’t handle it, she said, as most sites simply do not, or barely, acknowledge it.

At the End of the Oregon Trail, which marks the end of the 2,170-mile wagon route used by hundreds of thousands of settlers from the 1840s to the 1860s, visitors are greeted by tour guides walking around in bonnets and aprons, and by interactive exhibits that celebrate pioneer life through activities like churning butter, making rag dolls and filling out land claims.

But despite the bustling hub of costumes, activities and historical signage, there is no real recognition of the significant ways that the Oregon Trail decimated Native American land and people.

“You’ll find many educational signs at the End of the Oregon Trail, but you won’t find much discussion of the violent wresting (away) of Native land, the massive displacement of tribes and the devastating diseases introduced by settlers traveling that trail,” said Pulido, explaining that there is just one panel that addresses a Native woman’s experience of removal, and even that does not fully address who forced her to move or why.

“Erasures and omissions are not accidental or due to ignorance; rather, they are deliberate acts of forgetting,”she said. “And forgetting is a distinct kind of memory that serves a particular purpose, in this case, white innocence.”

When a monument like Fort Harney in Eastern Oregon uses the language “this land was restored to the public domain,” instead of discussing the forcible removal of Native people, that’s a pretty clear form of erasure, Pulido said.

Such regional examples are not unique. Nearly every monument across Oregon, and the entire country, is similar in its dismissal of the dark and violent ways that the United States became a country and in the abundant ways that white supremacy is memorialized and celebrated, Pulido said.

Pulido stresses that her definition of white supremacy includes more than hate-based racism and violence. It encompasses all attitudes, values and practices that stem from the belief that white people are superior and that whites are of greater value and that prioritizes their needs and desires over nonwhites.

Pulido offers insights into how the country can work toward racial justice in historical commemoration, which she said hinges on actually engaging with the truth in a meaningful way. She points to Germany and South Africa as examples of nations that have confronted their historical ties to white supremacy and racial violence in a way that has allowed them to make meaningful progress toward racial justice.

“They have acknowledged the nature and extent of racism and anti-Semitism, how it was used to promote dominant groups, the costs imposed on those deemed inferior, and the consequences for their societies,” Pulido said. “While the U.S. has made racial progress, it cannot achieve racial justice until it comes to grips with its past.”

In Oregon, one memorial that gets closer to achieving this is the Homeland of the Cow Creeks Historical Marker near the Seven Rivers Casino. Its fairer representation of history is very connected to the fact that it incorporated tribal voices into the process of crafting a narrative for the historical marker, Pulido said.

The marker in Southern Oregon actually calls out the “forcible removal” of the Cow Creek tribe by the U.S. government and recognizes the introduction of infectious diseases and violence by settlers.

Americans need to do more of that kind of reckoning through all of the country’s historical markers before racial justice can be achieved, Pulido said.

After her research is complete, Pulido will publish an atlas and website to illuminate the white supremacy ingrained in American historical commemoration and memory, in hopes that it will spur some of that cultural reckoning with the widespread ways racial injustice is celebrated and remembered in the United States.

“The U.S. continues to be a country of intense racial conflict,” she said. “One reason for this is our refusal to acknowledge the truth of our past. Racial tension will continue to plague us until we truly reckon with our history.” 

By Emily Halnon, University Communications