It took me a long time, too long, to decide how to tell this story.
I have been a tour guide for eight years. The opportunity to learn and tell stories about the history of this place is one of the profound privileges and responsibilities of my position. Almost as much as journalists and non-fiction authors write history, tour guides write history: their stories are repeated over and over again, down the line, guide to tourist to guide again. As with any responsibility, this can be abused.
One day I passed the Japanese Historical Plaza and overheard a snippet of a tour guide’s story. I hadn’t trained that guide, but I had trained the person who trained them. I heard a few of my words coming from that person’s mouth and felt a deep gratitude. “This monument is meant to remember history so we don’t repeat it. It’s something humans are bad at…” “They came back to nothing. Reparations were eventually paid, less than 10 cents on the dollar…”
I used to stop at a statue in the middle of the Park Blocks, a statue of Teddy Roosevelt. I had nothing good to say about him, I’ve never liked making heroes out of white men. “Columbus” to me has been a dirty word as long as I have known how cruelly the native people were treated. Thanksgiving? I am not grateful for what the people who first came here, did. They said pretty words and learned how to grow corn. Then they called them “savages” and “animals,” stole their land, riddled them with disease, beat culture out of their children and their children’s children, stole uteruses up until the 1980s.
We are not good at learning history. We are very good at repeating it.
“This statue of Teddy is here because an early Portlander liked him and paid for it,” I said. “The same reason all statues are there: some rich guy liked them.”
When I started my own tour company I stopped going to Teddy’s statue, and Abe’s too. I’ve been angry at him for so many things since I started learning the history of the forests, given thanks to policies put in place by Abe to railroad companies, then traded for literal pennies to the timber brutalists who treated them like overgrown lawns, toppling 800-year-old trees like trophies, razing everything. I would sometimes pass another tour guide from another company, not taught by me, with big groups of school children, making jokes about Teddy bears and Honest Abe. A growl would grow deep in my throat and I would have to force myself away, giving a more-impassioned-than-usual story about how Lewis and Clark should no longer be lionized.
The giant mural, one of the only ones the city deemed acceptable in the 1990s (it was painted in 1989 and 1990), depicts Lewis above Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone tribe sold at the age of 13 as a child bride to a member of Lewis’ party, along with another woman. Clark wouldn’t even use her name and called her “Janey.”
Under Clark, his slave York, that historians persist in calling his “servant,” the man who begged Clark repeatedly for his freedom after returning from the expedition until Clark became annoyed and hired him out.
He died, maybe, of cholera. It’s thought maybe Clark eventually gave him freedom and six horses.
I am so angry, have been angry so long, at these men, who white men and women pay tens of thousands of dollars to further lionize on cruises up the Columbia River, riding on nostalgic boats dressed up like sternwheelers but powered with ordinary diesel engines. We have signs with the two of them standing, one pointing very definitely the wrong way, from St. Louis to the Oregon Coast.
They discovered nothing. They followed the directions of the sex-trafficked native girl and took charity without gratitude from her brother and, later, the Clatsop people, who they were suspicious of lying to them about the plentiful elk. (Still later they would become tired of elk, whining the rest of the way through the winter about how they couldn’t eat any more.) They stole a canoe to get back because they didn’t want to pay for it. They made way for genocide.
On Sunday night the Indigenous protestors organized a beautiful action against these white men who never saw them as people, who either called orders to execute them or made it easy, who saw themselves as superior in every way (although Lincoln did believe, despite his “moral and intellectual” superiority to Black people, they did deserve to earn bread with their own hand and eat it, some freedom).
Lincoln joined a militia against indigenous people as his first military job. They were upset about having their land taken. Of course the white men won.
The story of how we treated these native peoples always goes the same way: the white man made treaties, they lied, they took their land, they treated them like enemies for wanting to protect it.
How many little boys through history played “Cowboys and Indians.” The beautiful differences in the tribes and cultures simplified, demonized.
Instead Sunday night the protestors sung prayers, some ringing out with the whole crowd joining in, lifting them up. How can we not agree this is a sacred act?
You know by now, the statues came down. “No good cops, no good presidents, return the land to its original residents.”
We are not the sort of people who give things back. There is no such thing as due process — called for in a great act of disrespect and disingenuity by mayoral hopeful Sarah Iannarone.
It is not violence. It is the well-deserved rage of the long-unheard, the ones who were silenced like their waterfalls and rivers.
“Kill the sidewalks, save the land.”
Deep down the heart of the land beats, crying out for its people. The land has been poisoned again and again by our wars, the rivers drained by our industry, the lakes filled in for warehouses and roads. Creeks turn into the mysterious name for neighborhoods, for parks, for bars, running so far underground we will never see them.
I asked once if the bioswales help the water table levels — there are so many! — the water expert I asked shook his head as if disbelieving. No. “There is still too much impermeable pavement.”
We as a people do not easily let go of anything: sidewalks, land, our false gods on whose hands is so much blood.
Statues and windows are the least we can demand.
No gods, no masters, no heroes.