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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

War hero or criminal? Monaghan statue continues to draw debate at Spokane Human Rights Commission meeting

The memorial statue of John Monaghan sits at Monroe Street and Riverside Avenue in downtown Spokane.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Some say John Robert Monaghan committed atrocities, including genocide, by killing civilians and burning Samoan villages.

That point has come up regularly in recent years, with calls to remove a downtown Spokane statue in his honor growing.

But on Thursday, the debate again took center stage at the monthly Spokane Human Rights Commission meeting, this time with one advocate calling Monaghan a war hero who died defending a fallen comrade.

Monaghan died near Apia, Samoa, in 1899 in the United States’ effort to colonize the Pacific Ocean island between Hawaii and New Zealand.

He was the son of a wealthy Spokane business man, James Monaghan, who made money in mining and railroads. The younger Monaghan was part of the first class to graduate from Gonzaga College and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy.

The plaque on the downtown statue 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.”

Ivan Urnovitz, president of the Navy League of the United States Spokane Council, said he is opposed to removing the statue at the corner of Monroe Street and Riverside Avenue.

He said Monaghan stayed with Lansdale after he was shot in the thigh.

“This is where the heroism of Monaghan needs to be recognized,” he said. “He refused to leave a fallen comrade.”

Kiana McKenna, director of Policy and Civic Engagement at Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington, said earlier this month at a Gonzaga University panel discussion about removing the statue that the U.S. Navy, including Monaghan, initiated violence against Samoans. The USS Philadelphia shelled Samoan villages, targeting and killing civilians, including women and children. U.S. sailors, including Monaghan, went ashore to burn Samoan villages, she said.

McKenna spoke Thursday as well, advocating for the removal of the statue.

Urnovitz said American forces did not indiscriminately kill Samoan villagers. He said civilians were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the shelling occurred.

“Monaghan didn’t do anything racist,” he said. “He was just there following orders.”

McKenna agreed that Monaghan was following orders.

“But this does not excuse the atrocities that he committed with his own hands and full consciousness,” she said.

McKenna said the statue is unwelcoming to Samoans and Pacific Islanders.

“How would you feel if you had to walk by your oppressor every day?” McKenna asked.

She said the Spokane Tribe of Indians should have a say in what happens to the small piece of land the statue sits on if it is removed since the tribe is indigenous to the region.

Urnovitz said the term, “savage,” on the plaque is inappropriate and should be changed. He said he wants to speak with the Samoan community and find a “win-win situation.”

“I am convinced we can,” he said.

Urnovitz said the two sides can be an example to the rest of the nation on how two groups can come together in good faith and work toward a solution.

He said there is already a great deal of animosity building toward the Samoan community from people who believe the statue is about heroism.

“If the statue comes down, a lot of that animosity is going to turn to hate,” Urnovitz said.

McKenna said removing the statue would not be a vengeful act. “We’re after justice,” she said.

The commission approved and issued a resolution in November supporting the removal of the Monaghan statue, with an emphasis on the racist language, Commission Chairman Lance Kissler said in an email. The resolution was passed along to the City Council.

Seven people spoke about the statue during the public comment period Thursday, with most siding with removal of the statue.

Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts, said the nonprofit and the Spokane Arts Commission recommend removing the statue.

Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, asked that the statue be taken down.

One man, a U.S. Army veteran, called Monaghan a “naval hero” and said the statue should stay.

Spokane city attorney Mike Piccolo said the statue is in the city’s right of way, so the City Council has the right to remove the statue. It’s unclear if or when the council will take action.