Thursday, May 19, 2022
May 19, 2022

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Westneat: Facing history head-on

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Recently I was up in Victoria, British Columbia, at the city hall there, and I noticed a plaque outside the front doors, looking like it didn’t belong there because it was mounted on a pedestal.

It turns out the plaque is filling in for a statue that used to be on the pedestal, and which the Victoria City Council voted to cart off to the basement, amid protests, a few years back.

The plaque was there to explain: The city removed “the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the front doors of City Hall, while the City, the (First) Nations and the wider community grapple with Macdonald’s complex history as both the first Prime Minister of Canada, and a leader of violence against Indigenous Peoples.”

I bring all this up because this past week, on Tuesday, students at the University of Washington called on their school to do a similar public reckoning with a pivotal moment in Seattle’s history.

The student senate voted overwhelmingly that the UW continues, today, to “whitewash” its telling of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. That’s the world’s fair that put Seattle on the post-gold rush map and created the grand layout of the UW campus.

The students requested that UW take down several plaques and historical displays that glorify this exposition, and, like Victoria, replace them with something that also points to the fair’s exploitative side.

The history is indeed problematic. Fairs and expos at that time were obsessed with presenting human exhibits. According to author Claire Prentice, a cottage industry of carnival showmen sprang up who would travel to far-flung spots and bring back Indigenous people, presumably voluntarily, so fairgoers could gawk at them.

Seattle’s expo had at least two such exhibits — “Igorrote Village,” located just west of where UW Medical Center is today, and another called “Eskimo Village,” about where the physics building is today along 15th Avenue Northeast.

Here people bought tickets to see mocked-up tribal villages where men, women and children lived for four months on display. The Igorot (today’s spelling), from the Philippines, would dance and throw spears for the crowds.

As a UW Libraries digital history notes, these human exhibits were the most popular at a fair that drew 3.7 million visitors. Yet as the students note, there’s no acknowledgment on plaques on campus about the exploitation at the heart of this event, and only shallow mention in some historical displays.

The students called on the UW to apologize, which, to me, is beside the point. Nobody alive was involved in this. But the students are absolutely right that this history, where colonialism, racism and entertainment converged to birth the UW campus, ought to be memorialized.

Recently there have been states passing legislation to bar discussion of uncomfortable history. But I’d say the folks in Victoria are doing it about right. Don’t erase bad history — engage it head-on. Don’t just take down the statues or the whitewashing plaques. Put up something that points closer to the full story. And also explains why you’re telling it — guilt, anguish, distress and all.

Sanitizing discussions of history with book bans and “anti-woke” acts is all the political rage right now. The best part of this story? The kids at the UW are signaling they’re having none of that fad.

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