Albion Monitor /News

Public Art: Whose Version of History?

by Diana Scott

Controversy over hundred year-old San Francisco monument

Old civic monuments seem to fade away -- camouflaged by familiarity, city grit, pigeon droppings, and graffiti. Yet, now and again they're brought back to life, through restoration efforts, physical relocation... and public controversy.

San Francisco's Pioneer Monument, created by F.H. Happersberger and dedicated to The City by James Lick in 1894, has experienced all three. Previously located at Marshall Square, near the intersection of Hyde and Grove, it marked the site of the Old City Hall, destroyed by fire in the earthquake of 1906. Two years ago, when plans to relocate it a block away, preservationists opposed this relocation, wishing to retain the marker as the last tie to the vanished civic building. It now rests prominently in front of the new Public Library.

At the feet of the padre and vaquero is a submissively seated Indian

Native Americans opposed the move for a different reason: its demeaning portrayal of native peoples. The Victorian monument, an elaborate series of cast iron figures and bas-reliefs, commemorates the early settlers of California. On a central pedestal, Eureka stands with her shielf, 30 feet in the air, in front of the State bear, as if she's stepped off the State seal. Around the pedestal's circumference are inscribed the names of the founders (all white males): Lick, Fremont, Drake, Serra, Sutter -- stretching from 1648 to 1850.

On four lower pedestals, arranged around the column, like compass points, are life-size and larger figures from California history. Two classically draped goddesses on opposite pedestals represent Agriculture and Commerce, one with a cornucopia and the other, an oar symbolizing the shipping trade. At the other two points are "'49" -- a triad of prospectors panning for gold -- and "Early Days," a triumvirate of Mexican vaquero, Franciscan padre, and submissively seated Indian.

According to Debra LeHane who heads the S.F. Art Commission's Civic Art Collection, this last grouping has been repeatedly singled out over the years as a target for graffiti and vandalism; the vaquero was long ago stripped of the lariat he once held. Native Americans wanted this statue removed (and still do).

SF Catholic Archdiocese and the Consul General of Spain wants wording changed

After prolonged public testimony and negotiations, a compromise was proposed, about a year ago, to address opponents' objections and curb future acts of vandalism: three plaques would be displayed around the monument's base, to commemorate its link to Old City Hall; detail its origin and symbolic meaning; and address the sufferings of Native Americans at the hands of missionaries and settlers.

Two weeks ago, the new Public Library was dedicated. Plaques have not yet mounted, and because of newly erupted controversy, text for the last may undergo some change. Originally, it read:


The three figures of "Early Days," a Native American, a mission padre, and a vaquero, were created to represent the founding of California's missions. In 1769, the missionaries first came to California with the intent of converting the state's 300,000 Native Americans to Christianity. With their efforts over in 1834, the missionaries left behind about 56,000 converts -- and 150,000 dead. Half of the original Native American population had perished during this time from disease, armed attacks, and mistreatment.

Native Americans are unhappy with the wording (which they say understates the real number of deaths), and with the new location of the statue (more prominent rather than less so).

The SF Catholic Archdiocese and Consul General of Spain, home to the Franciscan priests who founded the missions, also objected -- but for different reasons. The Spanish Consul asked the commission "not to be toying around with divisive issues and much less posting them in bronze..." The Chronicle quoted Kelly Cullen, a Franciscan friar who works with the poor, calling the plaque "unnecessarily negative."

And now library boosters are also sensitive to the wording since the monument is more closely associated with the new building, both by its close location proximity and their investment in moving expenses.

While no one is blaming contemporary Spanish people for Native American deaths, responsibility for deeds done must be accepted

Stanlee Gatti, recently appointed head of the Arts Commission, has responded to new critics by suggesting that the words "and 150,000 dead" be dropped, as redundant. This hardly placates Native Americans, who still want the statue removed. "It's racially oriented and very demeaning to native its spiritual and moral aspects," says Martina O'Dea, district coordinator for the Leonard Peltier Defense Fund in San Francisco, who has worked with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and on many Native American spiritual issues.

"[We want] complete removal of this monument. We find it offensive and insulting," she says. If that isn't possible, she'd like a plaque that states the true numbers of Native Americans who died in the period depicted: ten million elders, adults, and children from all tribes nationwide, through incarceration in overcrowded, unsanitary jails, on reservations, and in Indian schools, where native dress and spiritual practice were forbidden.

"In this day and age," asserts O'Dea, "I feel that for cooperation [to occur], and for people to live in harmony and balance -- all brothers and sisters -- we must have respect for cultural and spiritual differences." She maintains that while noone is blaming contemporary Spanish people for Native American deaths, responsibility for deeds done must be accepted.

LeHane points out, "This is not something we, alone, are struggling with." Talking with employees of the National Park Service, she's discovered that a battle is raging over the proposed name change of Custer's Battlefield, a national monument, to The Little Big Horn, following a tradition of assigning names to reflect the winning side. Custer supporters are, clearly, opposed.

"What we're looking at is, 'Should one interpret history? What interpretation should one take? Do you put both sides up there?'" says LeHane, adding, "I don't know if you'll ever satisfy everyone." She says she'd initially wanted to erect a series of plaques to explain fine points of the monument's historic style of depiction as well.

"I would have loved to put that whole history out there," says LeHane, to use text as an educational tool. Symbolic aspects of neo-classical sculpture are no longer easily "read" by today's public, which is more accustomed to having important civic figures commemorated by the renaming of a street or plaza, than by commissioning a civic monument. Some, however, maintain that all art should speak for itself.

Now, "People are being forced to consider the question, whether we're proud of it or not. It's something that's part of California history," she notes. Statistics were taken straight from the California State Historical Library.

Despite denunciation as "political correctness," it makes a lot of democratic sense

In fact, coming to terms with the downside of history seems to be an idea whose time has come. Despite denunciation as "political correctness," it makes a lot of democratic sense. From belated acknowledgment by heads of nations for war crimes of past generations, to admissions of official responsiblity for domestic cover-ups, public figures are increasingly admitting -- or being pressed to admit -- they've made mistakes, and apologize or make amends for them.

In late April, the United Methodist Church in Colorado apologized for the 1864 slaughter of hundreds of Native Americans in a massacre led by a lay preacher, Col. John Chivington. It extended "to all Cheyennes and Arapahos a hand of reconciliation" (SF Examiner, April 27).

In San Francisco's Mission Dolores cemetary, a national historic landmark, plans are underway to erect a monument commemorating Native Americans who died during the Mission period. The idea originated with plans to restore the Mission after the Loma Prieta earthquake, as a dream of Monsignor O'Connor who oversaw the effort, says Mission curator, Janet Almeida. "It's been a long time in coming," she says, and while the monument is approaching it's final design stage, it probably won't be realized until a year from this October.

A bronze disc, 20 feet in diameter and slightly elevated on one edge, will hold a bas-relief of a dancing Native American warrior, woman, and child, marking 5,500 deaths of Native Americans recorded during a period when only 134 settlers are known to have died. It will be the first and only monument to Native Americans who were part of the Mission period, according to Ohlone tribe chief Andy Gavan, of Mission San Jose in Fremont, says Almeida.

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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