From San Fransisco to New Hampshire, Communities Wrestle with Problematic Public Art

Here are  two more cases where negative images of Native Americans in historic public art have stirred citizen complaints, echoing the debates about confederate statues in the south.

The “Early Days” statue in San Fransisco will be removed. It is one five pieces of a larger monument.

Communities are facing critical questions about what values and stories they want displayed in their public spaces — and whether to hold onto some artwork simply because it’s old.

In San Fransisco, the city’s Arts Commission voted unanimously March 5 to remove a public statue titled “Early Days”. The statue “depicts a vaquero and a missionary standing over a sitting Native American,” according to an NPR story. It sends a clear message of who is on top and who is on the bottom, who has power and who does not.

“Early Days” was erected in 1894 as part of the five-piece Pioneer Monument, according to a San Fransisco city report. Pioneer Monument consists of one central monument standing 47-feet tall, surrounded by four smaller pedestal monuments.

Pioneer Monument is a testament to Manifest Destiny. One bas relief on the main monument shows “California’s Progress Under American Rule,” and one of five portrait medallions honors Father Junipero Serra who created the California mission system.

The five-piece monument was moved from its original site in the 1990s to make way for the new San Fransisco City Library. At the time, Native American community members pushed, unsuccessfully, to have the whole monument retired. They especially wanted “Early Days” removed, as it was “seen as a symbolization of the degradation and genocide of Native Americans,” the city report said.

“Early Days” now will be  “retained and preserved at an off-site storage facility,” according to the NPR story. A plaque will be installed at the site to explain its removal.

Meanwhile, in Durham, New Hampshire, home to the University of New Hampshire, an offensive Post Office painting remains. Community efforts to remove it are butting up against inflexible Post Office regulations.

Durham’s Post Office has a 16-panel mural, and one panel is problematic. It’s titled: “Cruel Adversity,” and shows a Native American man with a torch hiding outside an early government garrison, ready to attack. The Women’s Club of Durham commissioned the mural for the Post Office’s opening in 1959, according to news reports.

You can find the image and news coverage in a Boston.com story and in a piece in Edge Radio. According to Boston.com:

The town said the Native American panel is based on a 1694 massacre in which about 250 Wabanaki warriors attacked a settlement in what is now Durham and killed or imprisoned 100 settlers. But some residents have complained it’s offensive, and the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs has written to the U.S. Postal Service asking that it be removed or covered up.

One town leader proposed removing the entire mural while another proposed installing new art to give a “more complete perspective” on the state’s history. The Post Office is rejecting both ideas.

According to the September 6, 2017 piece in Boston.com:

[A Post Office employee told a city leader] the postal service no longer accepts artwork in its buildings and has a policy of prohibiting art from being altered or removed. A spokesman for the postal service, Steve Doherty, referred to a postal service regulation that concluded artwork in its lobbies “forms a vital part of America’s national heritage and every effort is made by the Postal Service to preserve and safeguard this collection for future generations.”

Comment: The Post Office is freezing us in the past. It is saying that whatever art you have in your Post Office now, that’s it. It is saying that our “heritage” can never change. It is saying that other perspectives and stories about our heritage cannot be added. This is a tragic effort to retain some flawed vision of “the Good Old Days” that were never that good for a lot of people.

 

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