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. Continue reading

Comparing Minnesota Capitol Art to Confederate Monuments

A number of people have compared Minnesota’s Capitol art controversy to the controversy in some southern states over honoring the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate heroes.

Is it a fair comparison?

Both the northern and southern public art carry powerful symbols of racial superiority, though in different ways. In the case of the Confederate monuments, for instance, they are often simply statues of men. They honor Confederate leaders such as Gen. Robert E. Lee and what they stood for–the defense of the institution of slavery. If you know the men and the history, the message is clear.

In comparison, some major art in the Minnesota State Capitol has more direct, overt messages of racial superiority. For instance, two of the paintings show  Native American women half naked. They are historically inaccurate depictions. Yet you don’t need to know any history or other background to get the intended message: These people are savage, uncivilized, and racially inferior.

There is value in comparing the symbolism behind the Confederate monuments and the depictions of Native Americans in the Minnesota State Capitol art. It is easier for Midwesterners to critique the South’s Confederate legacy and argue for the removal of Confederate symbols than it is for us to look at our own art and symbols and critique our legacy of taking Native Americans’ lands and suppressing their culture.

A recent blog highlighted the decision by the New Orleans City Council to remove several Confederate monuments. To further the conversation and what what we can learn from it, check out the article Where statues of Confederate leaders do and don’t belong that ran in The Economist last October. It provides a helpful frame for Minnesota’s debate on Capitol art. It concludes:

… it would be better if state and city authorities chose to retire their state-sponsored likenesses of Confederate leaders and vocal segregationists to museums, where they can be studied but not celebrated.

Studied, not celebrated — that is the key. The commentary outlines the main arguments used by those who support leaving historic Confederate monuments in place and rebuts them. For instance, it says some argue against removing the Confederate monuments because that simply would whitewash the past; we have to remember our history. It is an argument we have heard in Minnesota. The counter argument offered in the commentary is that, in the case of Confederate monuments, “official statues and portraits wrongly suggest that these men should be not just remembered but publicly revered.”

So, the parallel argument in Minnesota is that leaving the current murals in place says we want to continue revering such things as the slaughter of Native Americans at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain or their forced conversion to Christianity by missionaries.

The bottom line for us is that the Art Subcommittee of the Minnesota Capitol Preservation Commission meets Monday to discuss its recommendations for Capitol Art. It will recommend what stays and what if anything goes. Its preliminary report is expected at the end of the month.

Healing Minnesota Stories says that at least four pieces of art should be moved from the Capitol to a museum or other location where they can be studied and interpreted, not celebrated:

  • The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi mural in the Senate chambers depicts the spiritual superiority of the colonizers and the inferiority and weakness of Native Americans. It shows God’s favoritism for the colonizers, the savage nature of Native Americans in the form of a half-naked Native woman, and ultimately the forced conversion of Native Americans to Christianity.
  • Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls at St. Anthony shows the Father renaming the falls, cross in hand, towering above Native men in the painting. Again, a half-naked native woman is shown in the picture.
  • The Battle of Killdeer Mountain honors soldiers who, with overwhelming firepower, killed many Dakota and Lakota people in North Dakota. This military adventure was supposed to punish those who participated in the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. Many of the Native Americans killed had nothing to do with the war and actually wanted peace. Such arbitrary killing should not be given a place of honor in the Capitol.
  • The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux honors an exploitative land deal that gave the future state of Minnesota much of its land base. Native people did not get a decent translation of the treaty, let alone a fair deal.