A monument in Arizona recognizes Confederate soldiers who were killed during a skirmish with Apache warriors in May 1862. Photo: StellarD

President Trump doubles down with defense of 'beautiful' Confederate monuments

A controversy that once derailed Indian Country's funding bill is rearing its head again thanks to President Donald Trump, whose handling of racial violence continues to dominate the nation's agenda.

In a series of Twitter posts, Trump decried efforts to remove "beautiful statues and monuments" of Confederate figures. He specifically mentioned Robert E Lee, whose sculpture in Charlottesville, Virginia, attracted a rally of White supremacists, neo-Nazis, followers of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semites over the weekend.

"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," Trump wrote on Thursday. "You can't change history, but you can learn from it."

The posts echoed fiery remarks Trump gave earlier this week about the violence in Virginia. He insisted that the Unite the Right rally included people who were "innocently" protesting the planned removal of the Lee sculpture.

"I've condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me," Trump said from one of his properties in New York City, according to a transcript posted by McClatchy DC. "Not all of those people were White supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee."

When asked whether he supports the removal of Confederate monuments, Trump said the decision should be "up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located." His posts on Twitter show where he stands when it comes to federal lands.

"Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" Trump wrote on Thursday, mentioning another Confederate military figure. "Also, the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,500 monuments, statues, sculptures, names and symbols of the Confederacy can be found in public spaces across the country. Most of the 718 monuments were dedicated or built prior to 1950, the group said in an April 2016 report.

The symbols aren't limited to the Southern states that were on the losing side of the Civil War -- one can be found on federal land in Arizona, Cronkite News reported. The Arizona Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans maintains a monument to Confederate soldiers who were said to have been killed in a "battle" with Apache warriors in 1862.

Further away in Montana, Indian lawmakers are pushing for the removal of the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena, the state's capital, Mark Trahant reported. They called the monument, which was dedicated in 1916, a symbol of White supremacy.

The Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena, Montana. Photo: Montanabw

"Our ancestors fought and our family members still fight for our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thousands of American Indian soldiers fought for the Union Army to end slavery, and thousands more fought fascism and genocide in World War II," the eight Democratic and Republican members of the American Indian Caucus of the Montana Legislature wrote in a letter published on Tuesday in The Great Falls Tribune. “American Indians will continue the fight against those who are misguided enough to perpetuate those beliefs."

Local officials quickly took action on the request. The city commission on Wednesday ordered the removal of the fountain, The Helena Independent Record reported.

But those looking for support for similar efforts won't be seeing it from one of Montana's most prominent politicians. Just like Trump, Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior does not support the removal of Confederate symbols from national parks and monuments, E&E News reported.

"What did the Battle of Antietam bring us?" Zinke, a former Congressman from Montana, said at the Antietam National Battlefield, the site of a Confederate invasion, on July 5, E&E News reported. "One is that it was the deadliest battle in the history of our country, but also one can argue successfully that it also brought us the Emancipation Proclamation. So there's goodness that came out of this battlefield, but recognizing two sides fought, recognizing the historical significance of a change in our country. I'm an advocate of recognizing history as it is."

The National Park Service, one of Interior's agencies, has been at the center of Confederate controversies in the past. In 2015, a funding bill for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service was pulled from consideration after Republicans and Democrats offered competing proposals on the presence of Confederate symbols at national parks and monuments.

The issue largely receded from the national agenda after that dustup, which arose after a mass murder at a church in South Carolina that was perpetrated by a White supremacist who embraced symbols of the Confederacy. But local communities began looking at their Confederate symbols and some began removing them amid opposition from the same types of groups that showed up to Charlottesville over the weekend.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva on YouTube: Rep. Grijalva Reacts to President Trump's Comments on Charlottesville

Trump's repeated defense this week of the Robert E. Lee sculpture and his attempts to link it to other American figures has enraged Republicans and Democrats alike, although Republicans have been reluctant to directly criticize by the president or even mention his name.

"The evil which took the life of Heather D. Heyer is abhorrent," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a post on Facebook which condemned the violence that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, a resident of Charlottesville who was killed when a car allegedly driven by a White supremacist rammed into her and others on Saturday.

"The hatred and violence displayed in Charlottesville was un-American and inexcusable," said Bishop, who otherwise did not address the president's handling of the situation.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues, took a different approach. He said White supremacists and other hate groups have fully embraced Trump.

“In order for this community and our country to be secure, I think we have to continue to understand that this president is indeed unhinged and his comments yesterday emboldened [and] gave justification to people who fundamentally go against the values of this nation,” Grijalva said in a video on YouTube in response to Trump's press conference on Tuesday.

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