Many international dignitaries were invited to attend the unknown soldier burial on Armistice Day in 1921, honoring those who had died in anonymity during World War I. However, the invitation of one of these guests, Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow tribe, carried a greater significance. His attendance represented the Native American contribution to the Great War as well as the contentious relationship between Native Americans and the United States government at the turn of the twentieth century.
In July of 1978, thousands of Native American demonstrators arrived in the capital to protest eleven pieces of legislation, and raise awareness about issues faced by Indigenous peoples. This was the end of a 3,000 mile journey known as the Longest Walk.
With the recent protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and the continued unearthing of our nation’s racist history, conversation regarding what history we set in stone is back at the forefront. In the District, memorial removals are extremely rare occurrences, but that doesn’t mean they have never happened before. In the late 1950s, two of the Capitol building’s most significant monuments were removed, despite the fact that a future president himself advocated for their installment: Horatio Greenough’s The Rescue and Luigi Persico’s Discovery of America. Largely due to public pressure, the statues were taken down during the building’s remodeling in 1958 and never re-erected.
The Smithsonian museums attract millions of D.C. locals and tourists alike every year, but in the late 1980s, the Institution found its reputation at risk. As Smithsonian spokeswoman Madeline Jacobs described in October of 1989, “The calls and letters” during that period were “like a flood." "Even important topics like our divestment from South Africa didn't get this much attention,” Jacobs told The Washington Post.
What sparked the uproar? In 1989, the Smithsonian reportedly held 35,000 skeletal remains of Indigenous peoples, 18,500 of which were Native American remains.