Why They Had to Go

Statement on the fall of the Pioneer statues

By the faculty of the UO Native American Studies Program and the Department of Indigenous, Race and Ethnic Studies

On June 13, protesters pulled down a statue called The Pioneer, formerly situated centrally on the University of Oregon campus, and dragged it to the steps of the main administration building, Johnson Hall. They subsequently removed The Pioneer Mother statue on the other side of the building, as well. In doing so, they followed the lead of activists pulling down monuments to racism and racists around the world. 

Students have protested the presence of these monuments at UO multiple times over the past decades, splashing them with red paint, hanging signs on them and circulating petitions. 

Professors introduced a measure to the faculty senate to remove the statues as far back as 1992. Faculty and staff likewise contested the pioneer narrative in general in 2015 and called for a review of campus statuary in 2017. Graduate student Marc Carpenter delivered a report to President Michael Schill in May 2019 that irrefutably established The Pioneer’s white supremacist intent. No response. 

Like people around the world, protesters said, “We’re done asking.” 

The dedication ceremony for The Pioneer in 1919 was explicitly racist, celebrating the conquest of the “Anglo-Saxon race” over “savage Indians.” Bouts of genocidal violence and forced removals designed to kill Indians were not just the work of a few bad apples — Indigenous erasure was the settled policy and practice of elected officials, with immense support from white citizens in Oregon, regardless of gender. 

Preferring a narrative of death by pandemics, the U.S. tends to ignore the historical record of Indigenous death by aggressive Anglo wars of expansion, enslavement, murder and forced removals. Why?

 In part because monuments such as The Pioneer celebrate the people who committed these acts of genocide as heroic. 

The connection of The Pioneer and Pioneer Mother to Black lives might seem more oblique to people raised on the K-12 curriculum of this state. What do the statues have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement? Why would the Black Student Collective put the removal of these statues on their list of demands?

For Black people, expansion of the U.S. meant expansion of white racial terrorism. Every new territory whites invaded meant the expansion of white supremacy and violence against Black people. Most Black people in Oregon know that it was founded as a whites-only state in 1859, with provisions for flogging any Black person who tried to stay. The Pioneer and The Pioneer Mother would likely have been among the “wide majority” who supported the Black exclusion acts that began in the 1840s.

The first half of the 20th century, when these statues were made, was the peak of the “scientific” eugenics movement, which espoused the superior “genetic stock” of the “Nordic race.” The racist mural in the stairwell of Knight Library reflects the ideology of this movement. 

The era further saw the rise of new alien land laws to keep Asians out of Oregon and anti-miscegenation laws that added Hawaiians to the list of races unfit for marriage to whites. The prominent KKK sign that rested on Skinner Butte for years continues to inform how Black people in particular relate to this place. You might still find a racial covenant in the deed of your house, saying it can only be sold to “a member of the Anglo-Saxon race.” 

After Oregon’s Black exclusion provisions were repealed in 1926, white Oregonians still found ways to make sure people of color — especially Black people — did not feel welcomed. White Oregonians of that era wanted monuments that proclaimed white superiority. The Pioneer statue was not just a monument to a racist individual, but a monument to racism itself.

We are relieved that the statues are gone. President Schill has condemned the act of vandalism, but has not repented his own inaction in the face of indisputable evidence of the white supremacist intent of The Pioneer. 

This could have been a very different story if he had listened the first time and acted more resolutely, but that opportunity was lost. We hope that the decisive actions of those who pulled the statues down will serve as a reminder of the urgency of our fight against systemic racism. We can wait no longer, because the wait is killing us. 

Brian Klopotek, Kirby Brown, Michelle Jacob, Leilani Sabzalian, Jennifer O’Neal, Jeff Ostler, Gabriela Perez-Baez, Charise Cheney, Lynn Fujiwara, Courtney Cox, Sharon Luk, Laura Pulido, Ernesto Martínez, Michael Hames-García and Alai Reyes-Santo all contributed to this piece.

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