Four hundred indigenous rights activists occupied the American Museum of Natural History Monday afternoon in protest of Columbus Day and museum exhibitions they consider to be demeaning to indigenous peoples.
The protest, which featured a rally on the museum steps, a "de-colonization" tour, and the draping of a large parachute over an equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, was organized by the artist activist group Decolonize This Place in collaboration with a number of community groups, including NYC Stands with Standing Rock.
Activists made three major demands of the museum: Remove the Roosevelt Statue, modify exhibits related to indigenous peoples and return various indigenous artifacts to the descendants of those to whom they belonged. They also called on the city to rename Columbus Day as "Indigenous People's Day."
The "de-colonization" tour kicked off around 4:30 p.m., with organizers leading roughly 200 protesters through 10 stops in the museum. At each stop, speakers described how a specific exhibit represented or revealed the legacy of colonialism.
"Africans are depicted as pre-modern, bearing curious instruments and colorful costumes, instead of present-day people," a speaker explained during a stop at the Hall of African Peoples. "Discrimination against African diasporic peoples is everywhere reinforced by these primitive stereotypes."
Luis Ramos, 50, a Taino activist who serves as the director of ceremonies at the Eagle and Condor Community Center, a Native American organization in Astoria, said the museum should return cultural artifacts to indigenous tribes. "Those are sacred objects for us. We honor our ancestors, they should not be in museums," said Ramos, who also goes by the name Sanakori. "They should be reburied or honored by its own people."
At the end of the tour, the crowd, which had swelled to 300 people, gathered in the museum rotunda and raised banners while chanting slogans like "Respect, Remove, Rename."
The call for the city to rename Columbus Day came as several cities, including Seattle, Denver and Phoenix, have made the name change.
After exiting the museum, protesters stood on the steps and called for the museum to tear down the Roosevelt statue, a small group struggled to get the parachute over the 20-foot-tall monument. (Museum security tried to block the protesters from covering the statue, but backed off when the crowd started forcefully chanting.)
According to a statement issued by Decolonize This Place, the Roosevelt statue, which features the former president on horseback, with a Native American man and a black man on either side of him, their heads bowed, "has often been cited as the most hated monument in New York City." The statement called the statue a "stark embodiment of the white supremacy that Roosevelt himself espoused and promoted" and an "affront to all who pass it on entering the museum, but especially to African and Native Americans." This isn't the first protest against the statue. In 1971, six members of the Lakota tribes were accused of defacing the statue with paint.
In recent weeks, protests on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as solidarity protests across the country, have placed indigenous rights in the national spotlight.
Monday's protest concluded with speeches from representatives of each organization that participated, who called for the U.S. to protect indigenous sovereignty and spoke in support of the Standing Rock protesters.
Maggie Gray, 48, who brought her young daughter to the event, said she was impressed with what she saw. "I think being able to meet here at this colonized space of this museum, which not only highlights white supremacy, but is so blatant in its efforts, I think really brings together so much of what's happening politically today, from Black lives Matter to the Trump campaign," she said.
The American Museum of Natural History and and the Mayor's Office did not respond to requests for comment on the protest.