At the mouth of the Saranac River in downtown Plattsburgh, a monument honoring Samuel de Champlain has stood tall for more than 100 years. As the Plattsburgh Big Read Festival unwraps through the month, the monument’s place in remembering Native Americans sparked a panel discussion on the evening of April 10.
“[In monuments], there are instances where Native Americans are pictured in less than a flattering mode,” said James Lindgren, Plattsburgh State history professor. “Many Natives see this as derogatory or dehumanizing.”
Lindgren taught a course on historic sites at PSUC and was chosen to give a presentation on the monument’s historical context before the panel.
“It’s not a Mohawk or an Iroquois. It’s just a [generic] Native American,” Lindgren said, referencing the cultural headdress at the bottom of the monument, which is more characteristic of Plains Indians of the Dakotas rather than the Northern Woodlands Indians of that time period.
Lindgren said one of the reasons why the monument’s Native American piece is so generic is because of the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” traveling camps, where Plains Indians performed for shows in the east in the late 19th century.
“White Americans didn’t know a lot about Native Americans [during this time],” Lindgren said, explaining the assimilation of Native Americans under the Dawes Act of 1887. “They knew nothing about Natives except through these stereotypes.”
Roughly 45 PSUC students and community members attended the panel discussion. Event supervisors included Center for Community Engagement director Julia Devine, CCE intern Arwa Abuwala and Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion staff assistant Lauren Gonyea.
Visitation and events coordinator for PSUC Tonya Deese was one of three panelists at Tuesday night’s discussion.
“The panel came about through a brief conversation, and it just sparked my interest,” Deese said, who collaborated with Gonyea and CDPI to organize the discussion on campus.
After reading the Big Read novel “The Round House,” Deese felt a stronger connection with her Eastern Cherokee and Lumbee heritage.
When Deese first came to PSUC as a first-generation transfer student, she said she had a hard time separating from her family and finding a connection with other students on campus until she discovered the Champlain monument.
“I’m taking a stroll in Plattsburgh, I run across this monument, I see [that] Native American structure, and I’m instantly connected,” Deese said.
It wasn’t until recently that her own research and conversations with other local tribes that Deese started to ask questions about the monument’s meaning, noting the Indian’s headdress, his stature and his height below Champlain’s figure, leaving her with some uncertainty about the monument.
“In my mind, that [piece of the] monument is a figure that represents a stereotypical image of American Indians,” Deese said. “It’s almost as if someone Google-searched ‘Native American Indian,’ and that’s what popped up.”
During Lindgren’s presentation, he compared Plattsburgh’s Champlain monument to other national monuments that depict Native Americans and showed how those monuments have been changed or altered over the years based on how they reflect Native Americans today.
Fellow panelists PSUC alumna Mahlon Smoke and current senior Tekoma Cole presented with Deese. Both Smoke and Cole are from Akwesasne and identify with local Mohawk tribes.
In terms of her individual experiences at PSUC, Cole said people would assume she was Spanish or Caucasian when meeting her for the first time.
“When I told [other people] I was Native American and I grew up on a reservation, they would either say, ‘Oh, that’s so cool,’ or, ‘Oh, you don’t look Native,’” Cole said to the audience. “I don’t know what looking Native is supposed to mean.”
Smoke expressed conflict when it comes to the Champlain monument itself.
“It would be so easy for me to say separate it or remove it, but I can’t speak for everyone else,” Smoke said, offering options of a revised plaque or moving the statue to a different location. “This is where the conflict comes in.”
Although she sees the importance of the monument, Cole hopes some kind of change will come from discussing the meaning behind the Champlain monument when it comes to the acknowledgement of Native American culture.
“To me, monuments represent a moment in time. They’re a reminder of what happened in the past,” Cole said. “But seeing the Native American below the colonizer is a little bit of a reminder of how Native Americans are still seen today.”
On the panel, Deese spoke from her own experience about the statue’s symbolism.
“These monuments are silent, but there’s a lot that they share,” Deese said, explaining her conflict with the statue’s Native American headdress. “Those symbolic pieces are extremely important to my family.”
During the Q&A session, many community members told their own stories, expressed how they personally felt about the monument, and offered solutions such as remodeling, relocating or separating the statue from the monument entirely.
By the end of the discussion, community members exchanged email addresses to form a committee that will toy with the idea of proposing official changes for the Champlain monument.
With more research, Smoke said she hopes some evolution will come to monument’s display and meaning.
“These aren’t perfect solutions,” Smoke said. “But I hope this discussion can snowball into something that will make Plattsburgh look more inclusive.”
Email Emma Vallelunga at firstname.lastname@example.org