Gabriel Furshong writes from Helena, Montana. His writing has appeared in High Country News, In These Times, Dialogist, Natural Bridge and elsewhere.
Native-American lawmakers pushed the removal of a 100-year old Confederate monument in Helena, Montana, in 2017. It’s being replaced by a public art project.
The scarred surface of a granite pedestal is all that remains of a century-old fountain in Hill Park in downtown Helena, Montana. Approaching a small square at the crest of the park, Ron Waterman pauses to ponder the remnants of the landmark and consider its controversial inscription, also now gone: “A Loving Tribute to Our Confederate Soldiers.”
“We don’t often get opportunities like this to redo, to start anew,” says Waterman, a 75-year-old retired lawyer and civil rights advocate, gazing into the newly vacant reflection pool. “We’re looking to the future. We want to do this the right way this time.”
This summer, Montana’s capital will “start anew” by installing a public art project in this spot where the fountain had stood since 1916. It will make Helena the first U.S. city to remove and replace a Confederate monument since such symbols began drawing widespread scrutiny after the 2015 deadly shooting at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to information collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Since then at least 114 Confederate symbols, including 48 monuments, have been removed in 22 states, the law center confirmed. Helena city commissioners joined this movement at the urging of eight Native American legislators who called for removal of the old fountain following the 2017 deadly rally of White supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was hauled away despite strong criticism from the Montana Historical Society, which argued it was not a symbol of White supremacy and should remain as an important part of Helena history.
Waterman and other community members, however, were eager to focus on the future rather than an ugly past. They formed a group called the Equity Fountain Project and won approval from city commissioners in January to place a new fountain symbolizing unity at the spot where the divisive Confederate fountain once flowed.
“There is going to be something historic on this park site,” Waterman says, assuredly. “We are making history.”
For 101 years, Helena was home to the only Confederate monument in the northern Rockies and the only one on public land in the Northwest. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the fountain at a time when Jim Crow laws were being enacted across the country and Ku Klux Klan membership was surging locally and nationally.
The morning following the violence in Charlottesville, several Montana newspapers carried an op-ed by the Montana American Indian Caucus calling for removal of the monument from the capital. It pointed out that the United Daughters of the Confederacy supported the early KKK and that “the Confederacy and its symbolism has stood for segregation, secession, and slavery.”
“White nationalists, neo-Nazis, alt-right, and any other groups that propagate hate, discrimination, violence and bigotry have no place in our country,” the editorial read. “These groups dishonor the basic principles of equality on which this nation exists.”
Commissioners ordered the fountain removed within 24 hours, despite vocal opposition from protesters, including one man who wrapped himself in a Confederate flag as a crane lifted the fountain onto a truck for transport to an undisclosed location.
“The monument was part of a larger effort to rewrite the history books,” says Shane Morigeau, a Democratic state legislator from Missoula who authored the editorial. An enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Morigeau was referring to well-documented efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to separate the Confederate cause from the institution of slavery. “We were trying to unravel some of the damage that was done,” he says.
For Waterman and other members of the Equity Fountain Project, removal of the fountain represented an important first step. As soon as the fountain was gone, the group began to imagine an art installation that was “not just simply a replacement fountain,” but a statement “about core values that everybody could share.” Over the next year, the group issued a national request for proposals and launched a public selection process. It also raised nearly $100,000 for the project.
Last September, residents voted for their favorite design. The project was awarded to Los Angeles-based landscape designer James Dinh and San Diego-based metal sculptor Michael Stutz. Their “Sphere of Interconnectedness” will be composed of steel strands that crisscross in all directions and will rest on a round millstone that appears to float in falling water. The curved sides of this stone will be engraved with words in English and Native languages that represent unifying values such as diversity, service, and justice.
For Dinh, whose parents fled South Vietnam in 1975 when he was just 7, the function of the stone is an essential feature of the overall design. “A lot of cultures have used millstones,” he explains. “It expresses a certain solidity and timelessness.” It also serves as a reminder that building common ground is a daily grind that requires practice and persistence.
“It takes hard work to express our values, especially in a democratic society,” he says. “If we let our guard down, then darker forces will express themselves.”
Across the country, there are more than 1,700 public properties still standing in honor of the Confederacy, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And a recent investigation by the Smithsonian and The Nation found that in the last 10 years taxpayers have spent over $40 million on these sites and the Confederate heritage organizations that help maintain them.
Looking ahead, Waterman hopes the efforts of Helena residents will help propel the movement in cities and states not only to remove these racist symbols that divide people, but also to replace them with public art projects that unite.
“We have an opportunity to start to rebuild what I think is missing in this country,” Waterman says. “It comes back to civility. We need to look across the divide and see that people on the other side of the political spectrum share the same values.”
This article was originally published by YES! Media and is reposted here with permission.