MONROE, Mich. (WXYZ) — Monday marks Indigenous People’s Day.
Started as an alternative to Columbus Day, it brings recognition to native peoples’ histories. Indigenous groups and their allies around the country are doing important work to educate and eliminate what they say are remnants of racism.
That includes right here in metro Detroit, where the push to remove Monroe’s George Armstrong Custer statue continues.
Drive alongside I-75 in the area and you’ll see a provocative billboard. Opponents hope it’ll spark change.
In the City of Monroe, on the site of former tribal lands, is a statue that one Native American man can’t even bear to look at.
I asked: “For people that are not familiar with that statue, why is it so offensive to native American peoples?”
Nat Spurr, a citizen of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, answered, “Custer is known as the Indian killer.”
Spurr was referencing the statue of General George Armstrong Custer. His history is complicated, a U.S. Army officer credited with helping the North in the Civil War- but also…
“He’s someone who preyed upon tribal elders and women and children,” Spurr says.
History shows Custer violated peace treaties – led ruthless attacks on native communities.
Today, the statue is perceived by many as a painful reminder - and has left more than just indigenous communities feeling unwelcome.
Katybeth Davis, a Monroe resident, took me for a drive to understand the extent of Custer’s influence there.
“It’s not just that statue, it’s the amount and symbolism that has spread throughout the entire county,” Davis says. “Right now we’re on Custer Drive.”
There are Custer-named roads, elementary schools, an airport, and more.
“It’s a symbol of inequity and racism,” Davis says.
One that pushed Davis to organize a 2020 petition, with nearly 15,000 signatures, and protests alongside indigenous communities.
Speaking up has come with a price.
“Been treated like crap, been called the N-word a lot - I get told to go back to where I came from even though I’ve been a Monroe resident my whole life,” Davis says.
Opponents of the statue are hoping for an outcome similar to Detroit’s Columbus monument, which Mayor Mike Duggan removed in 2020 after repeated incidents of protest and vandalism.
But will the Custer statue meet the same fate?
Last year, the city pitched hiring a consultant to mediate. Both proponents and opponents said they feared the process wouldn’t be legitimate, so the city scrapped the plan.
But opponents continue to state their case before Monroe City Council, including Davis, now running for state senate.
I asked Spurr, “There’s been a prevailing argument from the opposition that says not all Native Americans care, not all Native Americans think it’s important to remove that statue.”
“A misconception out there is that native Americans are not completely universal on this, and we are,” he says.
To date, all federally recognized tribes in the U.S.. have issued anti-Custer resolutions.
“Completely unanimous about wanting that statue gone,” Spurr says.
But until that happens, Spurr says he’ll continue to hold up a hand where his eyes and this monument meet.