Racist statue removal stalled: ‘Who is this wait worth it for?’

The Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander community has asked for the removal of a monument they call ‘racist and misleading.’ A mayoral veto and an empty city council seat stand in the way.
The Monaghan statue has loomed in downtown Spokane for more than a century. (Photo by Alyssa Baheza/Valerie Osier)

“In Spokane, we all belong.” That’s Spokane’s new official motto adopted by the City Council in early July. The motto is meant to express the city’s commitment to making everyone feel welcome and included. But certain sites and monuments, like the John R. Monaghan statue located downtown, are making cultural communities in Spokane feel like they don’t belong.

An ordinance passed by the city council (also in early July) would have created a process for removing or reimagining city-owned properties that make people feel unwelcome. That ordinance, which City Council passed, has since been vetoed by Mayor Nadine Woodward. 

The impetus for the legislation is a statue of ensign John R. Monaghan that looms tall in a triangular median at the intersection of Monroe and Riverside, just blocks from city hall. 

The Monaghan statue was erected in 1906 at what was and continues to be a center of civic, commercial and governmental power, including the Spokesman-Review tower and Federal Courthouse (pictured) as well as the Spokane Club, the Mother Church of the Diocese of Spokane, and the former home of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Ben Tobin)

In the 117 years since the Monaghan statue was dedicated, the bronze has gained a greenish-gray patina, but all of its details remain well-defined. On the side of its tall stone pedestal, the statue features a bas-relief image depicting Monaghan fighting the native inhabitants of the islands of Samoa. 

The pictured Samoans wield primitive weapons, a representation that has been called out as inaccurate and racist. Text on the opposite side of the pedestal refers to the Samoan people as a “savage foe.” However, it was the invading military units Monaghan belonged to who brutally shelled villages from warships and burned families out of their homes.

The United States ultimately conquered Samoa, and Monaghan died in one of those raids. The statue is a monument to both a wealthy Spokane family’s grief and America’s colonial greed at the end of the 19th century. 

Both sides of the Monaghan statue. On the left, an inaccurate and racist bas-relief depiction of a battle on Samoa. On the right, a commemorative plate describing the scene. (Photo by Alyssa Baheza)

Rather than a valiant battle worth commemorating though, the Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHPI) community remembers the war as an extremely traumatic event.

To this day, the atrocities committed against the Samoans deeply affect the NHPI community. “We have staff at PICA who are from these villages and have accounts of what the mourning and grief still looks like,” said Kiana McKenna, Director of Policy & Civic Engagement for the Pacific Islander Community Association of WA (PICA). “It’s not powerful in any way to have a statue which puts down an entire group of people right central in the middle of our city.” 

For nearly three years, PICA and Spokane’s NHPI community have been working to have the Monaghan statue removed. After nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020, and the renaming of Whistalks Way in Spokane later that same year, it felt like there was momentum towards making it happen.

After PICA contacted city council members and made presentations to the Spokane Human Rights Commission about the statue’s history and their concerns, the commission passed a resolution to work toward removing the Monaghan statue. At the time, then-Council President Breean Beggs tasked the Human Rights Commission with developing a process for not just addressing the Monaghan statue, but for any similar concerns that might arise in the future. 

The resulting ordinance created a process for the public to make suggestions or raise concerns to the Human Rights Commission. Then, if the city-owned property was determined “likely to cause mental pain, suffering or disrespect,” the request would be forwarded to the Spokane Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion (OCREI). The OCREI would then gather information, reaching out to relevant commissions, boards and community groups before reporting their findings back to the Human Rights Commission. The ordinance would have empowered the Human Rights Commission to make recommendations to the City Council including, but not limited to, having a city-owned property renamed, recontextualized or removed.

The ordinance passed along what has become a familiar five-to-two margin, with only conservative members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle opposing the bill. 

Council Members who support the ordinance say it’s vital for citizens to have a way to make their concerns about city-owned property heard and for the city to have a way to process concerns swiftly, so that citizens don’t have to navigate the complex web of departments and jurisdictions alone. 

Without a system like this in place, it took Spokane’s Native American community nearly 50 years to see Fort George Wright Drive renamed to Whistalks Way. The street was once named after U.S. Army Colonel George Wright, who was known for waging a campaign of genocide against the region’s tribes. The new name honors a female warrior from the Spokane tribe who fought against Wright.  

“I think changing Fort George Wright Drive to Whistalks Way was really a big deal,” said Council Member Karen Stratton, who sponsored the ordinance. “I think it opened all of our eyes that there needs to be a process in place.”    

But two weeks after the council’s vote, Woodward vetoed the ordinance. In the veto letter, she objected to the council placing authority over this process with the Human Rights Commission and not the Landmarks Commission, which is charged with the preservation and protection of Spokane’s historic, architectural and archaeological resources. The letter reads, in part, “The better course of action is to clarify the Commission’s duties and responsibilities … rather than creating a separate, conflicting pathway.” 

This attempt to reframe calls to rename or remove properties as historical concerns, rather than human rights concerns, has puzzled commissioners who say it is already clear to them what their duties and responsibilities are. 

Landmarks Commission Chair Austin Dickey said that while they feel it is important for the commission to be included in any conversations surrounding historical landmarks, “our focus is generally targeted at ‘listed properties’ or works that could be eligible for listing, and we wouldn’t really have much purview over works that aren’t eligible for the historic register.” 

The Monaghan statue is not on the list of historic properties recognized by the Landmarks Commission. Under the mayor’s reasoning then, a statue that is offensive to community members and historically inaccurate would have to be designated as a historic landmark before it was eligible for removal. 

Shifting the responsibility to the Landmarks Commission also wouldn’t work in other situations because, according to Dickey, the Landmarks Commission cannot rename properties.

Alex Gibilisco, the Manager of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives for City Council and co-author of the ordinance, said the creators of the ordinance purposefully put the Human Rights Commission in charge of the process because it was designed to address citizens’ concerns related to human rights and discrimination. 

Near the end of the veto letter, Woodward acknowledges that human rights concerns are outside of the current expertise of the Landmarks Commission, and suggests adding a human rights seat to the commission. “Rather than adding another process, add another perspective to the Landmarks Commission,” said the mayor’s spokesperson Brian Coddington.

In the Spokane Human Rights Commission meeting on August 4th, chair of the commission Anwar Peace took the opposite tack, asking why the mayor would complicate matters and blur the lines that separate the responsibilities of the two commissions. He questioned why Woodward was “allowing the Landmarks Commission to dabble in human rights issues.” Peace opposed the reasoning behind the veto, saying in part, “I don’t agree with that because the city has a Human Rights Commission.”

While the mayor and commissioners split hairs over responsibilities and additional seats, a city council seat that could have turned the tide for the ordinance remains unfilled. Former City Council President Breean Beggs vacated the seat in mid-July to become a Spokane County Superior Court Judge. 

In accordance with city council rules, the council is able to override mayoral vetoes with a minimum of five votes. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing for several years — but that cannot happen right now because Beggs provided the fifth vote needed to create that supermajority. 

The council won’t select a replacement until August 28, just days after the 30 day time limit to override the veto is up. And they cannot vote on the exact same ordinance again unless it undergoes a process of revision, which is the expected avenue the writers of the ordinance will pursue. “It’s just frustrating to know that they have to do this all over again, when it’s not necessary, I don’t think,” Stratton said.

In the meantime, the bronze figure of John R. Monaghan will be left standing in the core of the city into next year. Stratton places the timeline for bringing the ordinance before council again in January at the earliest. By then she hopes the seat will be filled (with an elected who supports the ordinance), preventing another insurmountable veto.

On top of the years of work that the NHPI community has poured into researching the statue’s origins and owner, staging protests and attempting to appeal to the city through official channels, the Monaghan statue’s sustained presence imposes a heavy emotional toll. “When this issue is deeply affecting the emotional and social wellness of a community, is it worth it?” asks PICA’s McKenna. “Who is this wait worth it for?”

The statue’s racist relief image and derogatory language on its pedestal continues to pain the local Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander community and the lack of action conveys the message that the city doesn’t care, she said. 

McKenna sees the veto as part of an ongoing lack of support from Woodward, who never attended any of the more than 10 presentations PICA has given about the Monaghan statue leading up to the creation of the ordinance. According to McKenna, the mayor has made no effort to connect with the NHPI community at all. “The veto itself feels like an abuse of power,” she said. “It feels very out of touch with impacted communities and also has put three years of very hard and emotional work back multiple steps.”

For McKenna, seeing the NHPI community struggle under the weight of historical traumas and continued dismissal of their concerns without seemingly anyone caring for the community’s well being is the most difficult part. 

The Monaghan statue “serves as a reminder of a very painful past and also a painful reality in which our community is not valued or included,” McKenna said. Learning of the veto was gut-wrenching, she said. “We have been waiting to just have our voice heard and this is very devastating.” 

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