In recent weeks, protesters across the country have spray-painted, beheaded and toppled statues of historical figures such as Christopher Columbus and Confederate soldiers, figures who are associated with racism and subjugation of people of color.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy activated a portion of the D.C. National Guard in June to protect federal monuments after protesters tried and failed to topple a statue of President Andrew Jackson, who owned enslaved peoples. Jackson also signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which led to the forced relocation of American Indians from their lands in the southeast to territory west of the Mississippi River, known as the Trail of Tears.
Days later, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to make it easier to prosecute people who topple statues.
“I think many of the people that are knocking down these statues don’t even have any idea what the statue is, what it means, who it is,” Trump said in announcing the order.
But Jade Faletoi, a Samoan Spokane resident, said she knows exactly who John Monaghan was and what the monument to him in front of the Spokane Club represents. She won’t try to take it down by force, but she said city leaders need to move it.
Monaghan died in Samoa fighting in the United States’ effort to colonize Samoa.
“Pacific peoples live with the knowledge that soldiers who invaded Pacific lands and murdered, tortured and abused Pacific people so that their government could exploit the resources and labor for generations are praised as heroes,” Faletoi said. “There’s nothing heroic about that.”
This colonial history is not part of the past, Faletoi said. Though American Samoa is, as its name suggests, American, Samoans are not born into citizenship. In fact, American Samoa is the only territory of the United States in which residents are not automatically granted citizenship at birth, and Samoans cannot vote in federal elections.
At the same time, American Samoa has a high rate of enlistment for military service compared to other U.S. states and territories. Government agencies employ more than one-fourth of all workers in American Samoa, though Samoans, as noncitizens, are ineligible to work within some law enforcement agencies.
The plaque on the base of the Monaghan monument reads, “During the retreat of the allied forces from the deadly fire and overwhelming number of the savage foe, he alone stood the fearful onslaught and sacrificed his life defending a wounded comrade Lieutenant Philip V. Lansdale United States Navy.”
Faletoi believes the word “savage” on the plaque reveals that the original purpose of the monument was to justify atrocities against indigenous people, who, as “savages,” could be considered less than human.
Joseph Seia, executive director of Washington’s Pacific Islander Community Association, said all Samoans know the history.
Americans “wiped out whole villages” with machine guns, killing thousands of people, Seia said, and pictures show the destruction and that soldiers “didn’t even aim,” killing women, children and elders indiscriminately.
But Monaghan is also a part of Spokane’s history, said Wes Anderson, a local Vietnam veteran who scrubs Spokane’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial each Memorial Day. Gonzaga’s music building was once Monaghan’s father’s mansion, and he said the family was crucial to the city’s early development.
And, he said, Monaghan did what he thought was right. He was killed by Samoans in Samoa, and to Anderson, that does matter.
“Destroying these monuments?” Anderson said. “No. I’m sorry. I’m dead-set against it.”
Monaghan was the son of a wealthy Spokane business man, James Monaghan, who made money in mining and railroads. The younger Monaghan was in the first class to graduate from Gonzaga College and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy.
Monaghan served in “naval shows of force” in China and Japan, according to an article written by Larry Cebula, an Eastern Washington University history professor. Monaghan was on hand for the ceremonies marking the annexation of Hawaii into the American domain and helped “intimidate” Nicaragua, Cebula wrote.
Monaghan’s letters showed he truly believed it was his duty, as a devout Christian, to participate in the colonization of “savages,” said Michael Field, a journalist from New Zealand who has written a book about Samoa’s history and was the press secretary for a prime minister of Samoa from 1977 to 1981.
Monaghan, in 1899, arrived in Apia, Samoa’s capital, as U.S., British and German forces battled for control of the island. Monaghan’s patrol was outnumbered by gun-wielding Samoans. An official report of the battle stated Monaghan stood beside a wounded superior and friend, “one rifle against many, one brave man against a score of savages. He knew he was doomed. He could not yield. He died in heroic performance of duty.”
Seven years later, in October 1906, the Ensign John R. Monaghan Memorial was dedicated in Spokane before a crowd of 5,000 . The Spokesman-Review described “eloquent addresses” and a “magnificent parade” a mile long.
Although Monaghan’s letters showed Field that the young soldier had deeply felt Christian intentions, the Monaghan statue caught Field’s attention from across the globe for its offensive misinterpretation of history, he said.
“I know that in Samoa now, where the news of the plaque’s existence is well-known, it’s deeply hurtful,” Field said.
He said warring in 1899 has sometimes been falsely labeled a “civil war.” In fact, Field said, it was “straight-up colonization.” Cebula described battles in Samoa as “imperial tug of war between the United States, Britain and Germany – none of which thought the Samoans themselves had a particularly strong claim to their homelands.”
But, to Anderson, Monaghan can’t be blamed for efforts to colonize Samoa.
“A veteran’s perspective is, you know, we in the military do what we’re told to do,” Anderson said. “We go where we’re told to go. Ensign Monaghan was told to go and quell this rebellion.”
Field said Samoans were in the middle of the three foreign powers and fought for their independence, an effort Field said with which patriotic Americans should sympathize.
Cebula pointed out that, on the Monaghan plaque, Samoans look “more like Africans than Polynesians” and instead of the modern guns Samoans carried that day, they’re shown using bows and spears.
The artist rewrote the history, Cebula said, to “play up the very stereotypes of ‘savages’ that were used to justify things like conquering and annexing islands on the other side of the world.”
In the Pacific Islander community, people have always known about that statue and that rewritten history, Seia said.
“That’s because a lot of us know intimately the white colonization of the Pacific Islands. I know this guy is responsible for killing my ancestors,” Seia said.
Monaghan’s statue is an international issue because people in the islands know of it, know the history and have been advocating for some time to correct the history.
Seia pointed to Samoan American and former Spokane resident Lika Smith, who wrote to Spokane’s City Council several times in the 1990s and early 2000s to ask the statue be removed. She received no response each time and gave up writing letters.
Seia “is more hardcore than I am. I’m trying to be nice even though it really hurts. I want it down,” Smith said. “We understand memorials. We honor our dead ancestors, too. But there’s no memorial for the Samoans that died because of Western influence.”
Field pointed out that in Samoa there are several monuments to those white soldiers who died, but, despite investigating the history of Samoa most his life, he has found no record of how many Samoans were killed during the conflict.
“Samoans, we’re in the military, we fight for the country. It’s really heartbreaking that there’s this erasure of our humanity,” Seia said. “And it’s not just a Samoan issue, it includes Native Americans, which includes the Pacific, who have been disrespected through monuments and not telling the whole history.”
Faletoi said the statue sits on the ancestral lands of the Spokane Tribe – a reminder of stolen land that still contributes to disparities for all colonized Indigenous peoples in Eastern Washington, including the Samoan people, she said.
About an 8-minute drive from the Monaghan statue, a road named for Col. George Wright leads to Fort George Wright and a monument to Wright, whose men slaughtered 800 horses from local tribes on the shores of the Spokane River in September 1858.
Wright then ordered his men to burn down the tribes’ barns of wheat and food. Two weeks later, Wright lured American Indian leaders under the ruse of a white flag and hanged 17 Native Americans, including the Yakama chieftain Qualchan.
The “most prominent thing (Wright) did in this area was murder people,” Cebula said in 2015.
Controversy over Wright’s monument, like Monaghan’s, is not new. A 1987 Spokesman-Review article reported that a class of North Central High School students was disgusted when it learned of Wright’s 1858 campaign, and wanted to see Wright’s name removed from the street.
“People like that should be thrown in jail, not have landmarks named after them,” Gary Thompson, a junior, said at the time.
To Anderson, George Wright is a part of the area’s history, and a monument or road named after him acknowledges that fact.
Jimbo Seyler, a Spokane tribe member and former education specialist for the tribe, said he has pride for his ancestors like everyone else does. But he doesn’t believe removing monuments removes history. Instead, it makes room for a more accurate telling of history.
“When someone’s main objective is to do harm to another race of humanity, it should never be glorified or held in high esteem,” Seyler said.
Faletoi pointed to Trump’s assertion that people advocating for statue removal don’t know their history.
“I wonder how many people who defend these statues know the whole truth and are still OK with glorifying the subjects,” Faletoi said. “There is a better, more accurate and more humanizing way to tell history.”
Faletoi recommended replacing Monaghan’s monument with one honoring a Spokane tribal leader.
Anderson said he wouldn’t want to see statues taken down, but he could imagine a monument to a Samoan added to the monuments along the Centennial Trail.
Seia said the city needs to issue an apology to the Pacific Islander Community worldwide. He said Pacific Islanders would come from across the state for a ceremony where, “We’re there, we witness it, and they bring it down.”
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