Recently I was up in Victoria, B.C., 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 up 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.”
So they took down the Canadian equivalent of George Washington. In Macdonald’s case, he was a father of the country, but also of the Canadian “residential schools” that separated Indigenous children from their families, resulting in a horrific legacy of abuse which Canada is still grappling with today.
The plaque listed a website, which has detail about Macdonald’s positive contributions, and also a “truth and reconciliation” process examining his bad deeds. Victoria is still struggling, four years later, to decide what to do with this tangled history, and ultimately with the statue.
I bring all this up because this past week, on Tuesday, students at the University of Washington in Seattle called on their school to do a similar public reckoning with a pivotal moment in this city’s history.
The student senate voted overwhelmingly that the UW continues, today, to “white-wash” 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 the 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.
“As a UW student I am embarrassed and ashamed,” one student told the UW Daily — both about the history, he said, and also not knowing about it.
That history is indeed problematic. Fairs and expos at that time were obsessed with presenting human exhibits — either carnival “freak shows” or, in this case, living displays of tribespeople from around the world.
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 for example dance and throw spears for the crowds.
The northern village featured Inuit people from Alaska, Yup’ik people from Siberia and others who were dressed in pelts and furs and called on to perform everything from leapfrogging to sled dog rides.
As the students point out, women gave birth in these villages, and several babies died of disease, apparently after being passed around by fairgoers as part of the attraction.
As a UW Libraries digital history notes, these human exhibits were the most popular at a fair that drew 3.7 million visitors.
“Without a doubt, the greatest benefactor from the AYP was the University of Washington,” says the online history. “Whenever you come onto the campus … you are surrounded by the legacy of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.”
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.
“One has to be already aware of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition’s racist legacy in order to know of the events that exploited Indigenous peoples for profit,” wrote the students, who included members of UW’s American Indian and Filipino American student groups.
For the fair’s centennial in 2009, the UW’s Burke Museum did do an exhibition, “A-Y-P: Indigenous Voices Reply,” about its tainted history. And while within five years of the Seattle fair the Philippines had banned the exhibition of Filipino tribespeople abroad, some Inuit people went on to appear in other fairs and in movies, according to a nuanced account of their experiences by history professor Lisa Blee.
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. We had a bill proposed in the Washington Legislature this session seeking to stop instruction on topics that might cause any student to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” (It did not pass.)
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.