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Removing the statue is not about “canceling” Roosevelt’s legacy but, rather, an effort to honor it. (Photo: Liao Pan/China News Service/Gett)
Indefinitely Wild

Why Removing Roosevelt’s Statue Is Good for Hunters

The American Museum of Natural History is taking down its memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, and the hunting world should take note

Daily Life In New York Amid The Coronavirus Outbreak
Liao Pan/China News Service/Gett(Photo)

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I believe in the important role hunting plays in conserving North America’s wild animals and wild places. This conservation model was created around the turn of the 20th century by big thinkers, among whom Teddy Roosevelt was arguably the most important. But removing a racist statue of this former president is good for the future of hunting.

I’m writing this because I’ve heard a lot of my friends in the hunting world questioning, mocking, or decrying the American Museum of Natural History’s decision last month to remove the statue of Roosevelt that’s stood on its steps since 1940. I’m not here to call any of you out but to help you understand why your actions are racist—even if you don’t mean for them to be—and to urge you to do better. (I don’t mind calling out Cam Edwards, though, since he’s the lying pawn of anti-hunting interests.)

This is an especially important message right now, not only because of the national reckoning around systemic racism and institutional violence against Black people, but because the number of people who participate in hunting is collapsing, threatening the funding for animal conservation and the public lands it provides, and therefore Roosevelt’s most important legacy, too.

Here’s a quick history lesson for nonhunters: our country has benefitted enormously from something called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. This model takes fees paid by hunters, as well as voluntary taxes we impose on ourselves, and uses that money to protect habitats and fund the scientific management of wildlife populations. The public lands you hike and camp on, and the animals you enjoy seeing on them, are largely paid for by hunters. Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in developing and implementing this approach and has come to symbolize its success story. But without participants paying into the system, it can’t continue to work. 

Our country is in desperate need of more hunters, and we won’t be able to recruit them unless we make our world less intimidating to more Americans—which is where we get to the statue in question. 

Because the majority of hunters come from traditionally conservative political backgrounds, they’re more exposed to disinformation than the rest of this country. If you only consume right-leaning media, you may not be aware that the reason for the statue’s removal isn’t Teddy himself but rather the two other figures alongside him. 

If you look at a full, uncropped photo of the statue, you can see Teddy riding a horse, dressed in outdoors garb from the period. Behind and below him are smaller figures depicting a Native American and an African. Both appear to be tasked with carrying the president’s rifles. 

It was not the intention of the artist to present a racist message. “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races,” wrote sculptor James Earl Fraser in 1940

But the purpose of art is to be considered; its meaning is derived both from the creator and the viewer. And people who have viewed the statue have not always interpreted its message as friendly. 

“You can see how these two figures have allegorical meanings relative to Roosevelt,” Philip Deloria, a professor of history at Harvard University and person of Dakota descent, told the American Museum of Natural History. “They speak to Roosevelt as an American, as a person who happily goes as a dominating white figure to Africa, as a person who goes and takes advantage of the possibilities that [arise] by Indian land being dispossessed.”

Interpretations like Deloria’s led to calls for the statue to be removed. The museum itself has been evaluating the need to do so since at least 2017 and last year dedicated an entire exhibit to the monument’s troubled history.

Removing the statue is not about “canceling” Roosevelt’s legacy, as The Wall Street Journal argues, but, rather, an effort to honor it. “The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice,” wrote Teddy’s great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, in a statement supporting the removal. “The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward.”

Prominent right-wing voices disagree. President Trump called the move “ridiculous,” while political commentator Glenn Beck stated that because he’s never been oppressed by the presence of a statue, it must reason that removing this and others is simply an attempt to destroy the country

Perhaps unintentionally, both Trump and Beck are making the point that symbols matter. The people we choose to publicly honor, and the way in which we do so, represent the values we’re trying to communicate about our society and culture. And this is a great illustration of the ways in which racism can be communicated, even when it was not the original intent. Rather than an assault on hunting’s legacy, it seems to me that the debate around this statue represents a learning opportunity. 

“I don’t think any educator in New York City would describe Roosevelt as a racial unifier,” said Andrew Ross, director of the American studies program at New York University, in one of the museum’s displays. “In fact, quite the opposite.” He’s referencing Roosevelt’s promotion of racial-control theories, the erasure of Native American history, and imperialistic tendencies abroad.

Even if we weren’t aware before that Teddy’s legacy was incredibly complex, mixing important achievements for the United States with harmful exploitation of Native Americans and hateful opinions on racial superiority, we can, as a community and an industry, see that now. We can also see that the personalities, imagery, and context that we choose to represent us can unintentionally carry meanings that communicate exclusion, or even hate, depending on who receives them. It is possible to put out a racist message without meaning to. 

This isn’t an argument that the image or legacy of America’s 26th president should be extirpated from the hunting world. It is an argument that there are important, powerful lessons being taught right now. And all we have to do to benefit from those lessons is listen. The very ways in which we can make hunting more appealing to a more diverse audience are being communicated to us by that audience. That doesn’t happen often. 

I asked Henry and Lakeisha Woodard, two hunters from Mississippi, for their take on the statue saga in relation to the hunting world. “I never feel like anyone sees me as a Black man first. Everyone just sees us as fellow hunters,” Henry said. The couple emphasized that the hunting industry is exceptionally inclusive, with a welcoming sense of camaraderie—once you’re in it. But the Woodards also acknowledged that hunting has a high barrier to entry, and strong pro-hunting messages are often absent outside of the industry. The Woodards are working to expand access to hunter education courses in city centers to include a more diverse audience. “People need to be able to see representations of hunting that look like them,” said Henry.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, New York City announced the creation of the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission, whose mission is to tackle issues related to systemic racism. It will review other problematic public monuments and work to replace them with more inclusive symbols that better portray the city’s diverse history, with the goal of a more inclusive future. 

If nothing else, we should compare the environmental legacy we like to associate with Roosevelt’s presidency to the environmental legacy of our current leader, who has so loudly voiced his opposition to the statue’s removal. During his two terms as president, Roosevelt created 230 million acres of new public land. In contrast, in the first three years of his only term, President Trump has already removed protections from 35 million acres.

Symbols matter. If hunting is going to continue to live up to Roosevelt’s vision as the savior of North American wildlife populations, then hunting needs to find symbols that support that goal. 

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