This posting is part of the Lies Across Grand Rapids series that looks at how land marks, monuments and other historical markings tell either a distorted view history or a history that defends power and privilege.
There are numerous statues scattered throughout the downtown and near downtown area by a group known as the Grand Rapids Community Legends Inc. This project has been spearheaded by a member of the local power structure, Peter Seechia.
The statues primarily honor people whom the local power structure idolizes such as Jay Van Andel, Lucius Lyons, Bishop Baraga, but does include the likes of Rosa Parks. However, the information that accompanies the statues is equally important to the statue itself. This is clearly the case with the statue adjacent to the GVSU downtown campus by the Eberhard Center, which is home to the statue of Chief Noonday, also known as Noahquageshik.
The Chief Noonday statue is an important one to think about for a variety of reasons. First, Noonday, unlike another Native leader from this area, Blackskin, signed on to the Treaty of 1821, which conceded land to Euro-Americans who were part of the expansionist colonial plans. Noonday was won over by Rev. Isaac McCoy, the head of the Baptist Mission, which was established along the Grand River in the early part of the 19th century. As we have noted before, the various christian missions played a key role in furthering white settler colonialism in what is now referred to as West Michigan.
When I asked current leader/activist from the Tribal community that still considers the land in West occupied territory, what he thought of the Noonday statue, Lee Sprague replied, “Noonday probably would not have been who the Tribe would have picked to memorialize, industrialists think differently.”
However, the more important point that the Chief Noonday statue plays lies within the intent of those who chose the statue in the first place. The Grand Rapids Community Legends Inc. no doubt chose the Noonday statue for a variety of reasons. The statue is part of the larger project that is used to market the city for tourists. The statue also is a way for white people with power and privilege to say they are honoring diversity by having some statues be dedicated to non-white people from the history of West Michigan. But the most important reason, the reason that this statue is so important to the local white power structure, is that it communicates a narrative that perpetuates a lie.
In looking at the text that accompanies the statue, one gets a clearer understanding of the function of the statue. First, it’s important to point out that it says, “In 1834, a large number of American settlers began moving into the region.” People of European descent began moving into the area at least a decade earlier, but the point to make here is on the wording. The statue names these people as settlers, when it fact they are white settler colonialists. Settler Colonialism is a process by which one group of people takes over land of another people, by force or other means. Here it is worth quoting Native scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to clarify what settler colonialism is.
“Settler colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.”
Such a recognition is critical, because it radically alters the narrative from merely American settlers coming to the area in large numbers, to Euro-Americans engaged in settler colonialism, which resulted in the theft of land and the displacement of thousands of Native people from this area.
The text that accompanies the statue does say at one point, “After the dispossession of their lands,” but such a reference is an after thought and does not center the narrative around settler colonialism.
Fundamentally, what the narrative of this statue serves is a white supremacist narrative, where white people can feel good about honoring a native person, but deny the historical factors that determined the fate of Native people. The statue is just another way of lying about the realities of settler colonialism and avoid having to acknowledge that the land that makes up Grand Rapids was stolen from Native people and is the root cause of the disproportionately high rates of poverty and poor health of the tribal members that still reside in the area.