SPOKANE — Mysterious little pyramids can be glimpsed poking out of the grass on roadsides throughout Washington.
One stone and mortar pyramid, about 12 feet tall and the largest of these monuments, can easily be seen from Highway 2 across from Fairchild Air Force Base.
“People drive by it every day and have no clue what it is,” said Warren Seyler, a Spokane Tribe historian.
Instead of Egyptian pharaohs, they memorialize events of a more recent past. Amid a national debate around Confederate monuments in recent years, these obscure, sometimes forgotten monuments that honor the region’s settlers — while often minimizing their harm to Indigenous people — are getting a closer look.
The Washington State Historical Society is beginning a comprehensive review of its monuments and historical markers across the state. The project, called Dialogue in Place, will evaluate each monument individually for historical accuracy and inclusion of tribal perspectives, as well as their physical condition.
The Historical Society has identified a list of about 40 monuments that the organization built between the early 1900s and 1950 to commemorate events related to white settlement in the 1800s.
“These markers often use harmful language, or don’t present an accurate or inclusive view of history,” said Janae Chapman, heritage outreach coordinator for the Historical Society.
While most are clustered on the West Side, a dozen are in Eastern Washington.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Historical Society made a declaration acknowledging the organization’s role in promoting racist and inaccurate historical narratives, and committed to taking concrete steps to be more inclusive.
One of those steps is to audit the monuments under its purview.
While some of the Historical Society monuments are seen as problematic, or at least simplistic, it is a small sample of the hundreds or thousands of such monuments across the state. Some of the more controversial examples in Eastern Washington have nothing to do with the state historical society, which is a nonprofit trustee agency of the state based in Tacoma.
The society hopes this project will offer a blueprint for other organizations to review their own monuments.
Last year, the project received a $142,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for outreach and gathering input from tribes and local communities.
“This initiative grew out of our statement of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as the desire to respond to growing public interest in critically reviewing the histories memorialized in public spaces,” Washington State Historical Society Director Jennifer Kilmer said when the grant was announced. “Through ‘Dialogue In Place’ we are also acknowledging and working to remedy the Historical Society’s own past role in promoting racist histories.”
Researching and locating the monuments was itself a big project, since some have been moved from their original location and many of the local organizations that helped place them no longer exist.
“We identified core information about who, what, when, where and some of the how, behind the placement of these monuments,” Chapman said.
The project will focus on three or four monuments at a time going forward and may last several more years.
An advisory committee considered the inventory and prioritized three to address first: a monument called “Firsts” in Vancouver, Washington; Cowlitz Mission near Toledo, Washington; and Battle of Spokane Plains near Airway Heights.
These three were chosen because they are some of the more controversial, the most visible or representative of the different types of monuments to be considered for the rest of the project, Chapman said.
“Firsts” is a six-sided dreidel-shaped monument marking the beginning of the “civilization of Washington” and boasting other Washington “firsts” that happened in Vancouver, including the first school, the first sermon, “the first marriage of American citizens” and the first United States military post.
The monument has been criticized for ignoring the numerous civilizations that already existed here.
The Battle of Spokane Plains
The inscription on the monument to this battle is basic: “The Battle of Spokane Plains was fought near this spot on September 5, 1858 in which U.S. troops under command of Col. George Wright defeated the allied Coeur D’Alene, Palouse and Spokane Indians — Erected by Washington State Historical Society.”
The battle, also known as Fire on the Plains, was a turning point in the Coeur d’Alene War of 1858. The tribes lit grasses on fire in an attempt to disrupt the Army’s advancing pack train.
After facing a humiliating defeat near Rosalia earlier that year, the Army returned in the fall with more weapons.
The monument is in a small park owned by Washington State Department of Parks and Recreation.
“It’s about us being put in our place,” Seyler said. “If you read it today, that’s what it’s saying.”
Hundreds attended the monument dedication on July 23, 1926. It coincided with the second Indian Congress in Spokane, a large gathering of tribes from the region.
Tribal members, including Alice Garry, a descendant of Chief Spokane Garry, wore regalia to the dedication. But their participation was complicated.
Native Americans had been granted U.S. citizenship just two years earlier.
“I think they were thankful that at least we’re not forgotten,” Seyler said.
People of that era thought the tribes were going away, that Indigenous people would blend into America’s melting pot. Systematic efforts to force that integration and erase tribal sovereignty and culture were nearly successful, Seyler said.
Other Coeur d’Alene War monuments
Seyler named four more monuments, not part of the Historical Society’s audit, that commemorate the war of 1858. Together, these monuments tell a larger story.
But each of them is inaccurate from a tribal perspective, Seyler said. He leads bus tours to these sites, giving that perspective orally.
The conflict began in May 1858, when Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe led about 160 soldiers north from Fort Walla Walla intending to mediate tensions between the tribes and residents of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colville. The march was seen as a show of force.
The expedition was turned around by warriors from area tribes near present day Rosalia in a conflict known as the Battle of Pine Creek, or the Battle of Tohotonimme.
Estimates of the number of warriors from the tribes who died in the battle range from nine to 15, and most sources say seven of Steptoe’s men died in the battle, according to an article from the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
Steptoe Battlefield State Park, a few acres on top of a hill in Rosalia, has an obelisk dedicated by name to seven U.S. soldiers who died in the battle and to the Nez Perce Indians who guided the Army. It does not recognize the Native Americans who lost their lives.
According to the state parks department, the monument repeats an account of Steptoe’s retreat that is now widely discounted in which Chief Timothy of the Nez Perce was said to have aided the U.S. Army soldiers in their escape. Although the soldiers were aided by Nez Perce scouts, there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Timothy was involved.
Signs at the park say updated exhibits are in the works. A QR code links to the park’s website, which provides more historical context.
The State Parks recently hired a new tribal relations director to help with the process, spokeswoman Emily Masseth said. The goal is to create a discussion guide that interpreters can use with the public.
An old interpretive sign, erected by the state highway commission, gives another account along U.S. Highway 195.
“Here on May 17, 1858, 159 American soldiers, commanded by Lt. Col. E. J. Steptoe, engaged in a running fight with a large band of Spokane, Palouse and Coeur D’Alene Indians. Taking cover on a nearby hill, they beat off a series of attacks until night halted the battle. With ammunition almost gone and facing disaster, they retreated hurriedly with their wounded, and under cover of darkness toward Fort Walla Walla. Steptoe’s defeat was among the results of unenlightened dealings with the Indian tribes in this region. Later in the year, the Indians were ruthlessly subjugated in a full-scale campaign.”
The “un” in unenlightened is starkly faded, indicating the sign was defaced to give it the opposite meaning of the apparent original: that the campaign against the Indigenous people was somehow enlightened.
“It basically tells a nontribal version, for the most part inaccurate, at least in our eyes,” Seyler said.
He thinks all of the monuments should remain standing, but tribal versions should be added next to each of them.
“The same story can always be told from two different sides,” he said. “Most of those monuments tell it from a non-Indian perspective. The tribal perspective is never told.”
Battle of Four Lakes
After Steptoe’s defeat, more U.S. troops returned in the fall, this time led by Col. George Wright.
A triangular granite monument, erected by the Spokane County Pioneers Society in 1935, marks the site of the first battle.
The Pioneers Society, which disbanded in 1975, tended to place monuments at more controversial sites than the state historical society, said Jake Rehm, who recently wrote a master’s thesis at Eastern Washington University on local monuments.
Today, it’s on an undeveloped parcel owned by Spokane County Parks off a side road in Four Lakes, Washington.
“On this historic ground, Sept. 1, 1858, 700 soldiers under Col. Geo. Wright U.S.A. routed 5000 allied Indians.”
Scholars agree the number of Native Americans is exaggerated by an order of magnitude. It was more like 500.
The last zero in “5000” is slightly faded and appears as if someone has tried to chip it away.
The inscription continues by echoing the Spokane Plains monument: “Four days later the rallied hostiles were decisively defeated in a running battle. They sued for mercy and have ever since maintained lasting peace.”
County Parks Director Doug Chase said the parks department provides “basic stewardship” of three properties that contain monuments.
Chase said he is working with Logan Camporeale, historic preservation specialist for the Spokane Historic Preservation Office, to research the history of the ownership.
The monument is not listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, though the office has surveyed the monument.
Camporeale said there has been some community discussion about revisiting the monument’s language, but he is not aware of any active attempts to reinterpret or remove it.
After the Battle of Spokane Plains, the Army slaughtered more than 800 tribal horses on the banks of the Spokane River in order to destroy their cavalry.
The Pioneers Society placed a monument in 1946. Today it stands on the Centennial Trail, about 2 miles from the Idaho state line. From the interstate, it is hidden behind a state Department of Transportation weigh station.
There are no signs pointing to it, and it requires at least a mile walk along the trail to reach it.
Qualchan Hanging Site
The war ended with the tribes’ surrender.
Wright ordered Yakama Chief Qualchan and six Palouse Indians to be hanged.
The Pioneers Society in 1935 placed a monument at the site along Latah Creek, which came to be known as Hangman Creek.
The monument has been treated as a shrine. It is often adorned with flowers, horseshoes, spirit sticks and other Native sacred objects.
Today, Wright would be considered a war criminal, Seyler said.
In 2021, two Spokane namesakes, Mukogawa Fort George Wright Institute and George Wright Drive, were changed after decades of activists campaigning.
George Wright Drive was changed to Whistalks Way, in honor of Whist-alks, the wife of Qualchan who fought alongside him.
“Far too often in history, women aren’t given enough credit for what they do during battles,” Seyler said.
Mullan Military Road
Seven of the Historical Society monuments in Eastern Washington mark the Mullan Military Road, a 600-mile path winding from Fort Benton, Montana, through Spokane to Fort Walla Walla.
Lt. John Mullan built the road for the Army to connect the two military posts after the Coeur d’Alene War.
The road today no longer exists as such. Interstate 90 follows part of it from Montana to Spokane, then it is a mix of side roads, highways and overgrown wagon trails.
A couple of the pyramids are in Spokane, while the rest are scattered along the way to Walla Walla.
The markers are terse and nondescript. They simply note that the road went by these spots, without much explanation or context.
Jake Rehm, the EWU monuments expert, published an article on the road’s monuments in April for the Pacific Northwesterner journal.
“Symbolically, it opened up the Inland Northwest,” he said.
Rehm is a senior physical education lecturer at Eastern Washington University. He also has a master’s degree in theology and, in 2021, he decided to pursue a third master’s in history “for fun.”
One hundred years ago, when most of these monuments were built, people were looking for ways to draw attention to certain locations while automobiles began to replace trains as the dominant form of transportation, Rehm said.
Monuments were used as a way to mark new road routes. There wasn’t much, if any, collaboration with the tribes.
News that the U.S. Army planned to build a road through tribal lands was a catalyst that led to the battles of 1858, Seyler said.
To the tribes, the road represented impending encroachment by the United States.
“That road represents that first step to take our land,” Seyler said.
As soon as the tribes were defeated, construction on the road resumed.
Mullan was a member of George Wright’s campaign who participated in the battles of 1858. But Mullan himself is not as controversial a figure as Wright, Rehm said.
“People like George Wright get a lot more attention than John Mullan because he built a road that obviously symbolized a lot of things, but scandal didn’t follow him the way it did Wright.”
Rather than calls for removal, the monuments have been largely forgotten and few have heard of the road.
“The Mullan Road is a pretty obscure subject,” Rehm said.
Rehm discovered it riding his bicycle south of Cheney. He didn’t know what it was, the crumbling pyramid partly covered by sagebrush and tumbleweeds. The text was mostly illegible.
“That’s how most people become acquainted with the Mullan Road,” he said. “They stumble upon it.”
That’s what happened to David and Sue Eakin. The Tri-Cities couple was vacationing in Kellogg, Idaho, 11 years ago, where they saw signs referring to Mullan. David Eakin asked the museum for a book about it. But there wasn’t one in print at that time. So, he started researching it himself.
Over the next five years, the couple visited and documented every monument sign they could find.
Altogether, they cataloged 59 monuments, statues and interpretive signs across the three states.
In Washington, there are seven more monuments and four signs that are not part of the Historical Society review.
“I think we basically identified all of them,” David said.
The monuments do a good job of marking where the road was, he said.
It’s difficult to follow today, since parts of the road no longer exist, but the Eakins set out to follow it as closely as they could.
“We found it to be very enjoyable to travel with a purpose in mind, rather than just taking off and driving,” David Eakin said.
The road itself was not used for very long. Its traffic paled in comparison to other routes like the Oregon Trail.
Nevertheless, it was an important engineering survey that led to the development of Washington, North Idaho and Montana. Sections were used by multiple railroads.
“It helped people dream that they could get from the East to the West,” David Eakin said.
Through the process of reviewing their own monuments, the Historical Society plans to develop a toolkit and resources so smaller organizations can address monuments in their own communities.
“At a time when Washington state seems to be wanting to tell more of the true history, those monuments are more important than ever,” Seyler said. “Even though they are non-Indian versions, they still give credibility that these events took place.”
Perhaps the most controversial monument in Eastern Washington stills stands proudly in downtown Spokane, across Monroe Street from the statue of Abraham Lincoln.
John Robert Monaghan was a U.S. Navy ensign from Spokane who was killed near Apia, Samoa, during the United States’ effort to colonize the country in 1899.
The statue is not a Historical Society monument. It was placed by local citizens in 1906.
A plaque 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 Lt. Philip V. Lansdale United States Navy.”
A bas-relief, a plaque with carvings, under the statue shows Samoans shooting Monaghan with bows, arrows and rifles.
The bas-relief has been criticized for perpetuating racist stereotypes.
During the campaign, the military — including Monaghan — fired indiscriminately on civilian villages, those who wish to remove the statue say.
“The warfare was not honorable, and Monaghan’s sacrifice is not something we as a community should celebrate,” said Anwar Peace, chair of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission.
But Ivan Urnovitz, president of the Spokane Council of the Navy League of the United States, said statue opponents are making Monaghan the personification of American foreign policy at the time. That’s unfair, because he was an ensign in the Navy and wouldn’t have been making large-scale decisions about how the campaign was fought.
“They’re making him the scapegoat for everything that happened,” Urnovitz said.
The group pushing for that statue to remain is open to changing the wording on the plaque, particularly the use of the word “savage” as an adjective describing the rebel Samoan forces. Urnovitz has suggested the word “mighty” instead.
The statue has been relocated in the general area several times and now sits on a city-owned pedestrian island in the middle of Riverside Avenue.
The Spokane Human Rights Commission and the Spokane Arts Commission have joined the local Pacific Islander community and petitions in calling on City Council for its removal.
In response, the City Council asked the commission to come up with a formal review process citizens can use to challenge offensive monuments.
The City Council is now considering that process as part of a new ordinance, which was first heard at a Monday meeting of city government. Final approval of the process is scheduled for later this summer.
Other Historical Society monuments:
Lewis and Clark
Marks where the Lewis and Clark expedition camped at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers in Pasco.
Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile
Fort Colvile was a trading post at Kettle Falls for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1825. Not to be confused with Fort Colville, which was a U.S. Army post near present-day Colville.
A Congregationalist mission to the Spokane Indians from 1838 to 1848 by reverends Cushing Eells and Elkanah Walker. Sides of the monument list the names, birth and death dates and locations, of the mission’s white family members.
In the fields northwest of the Spokane Plains monument, a rugged slab on Coulee Hite Road marks the site of Camp Washington, where Isaac Stevens, the first territorial governor of Washington made his first camp in the new territory with military and engineering forces in October 1853.