Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: See also the previous news story in our last issue .]

SF "Pioneer" Plaque Changed, New Calls for Library Statue Removal

by Diana Scott

By a unanimous vote of those present, the San Francisco Arts Commission earlier this month approved new wording for a controversial plaque to be placed beside The City's Pioneer Monument, in the plaza beside the new Main Public Library.

Erupting controversy delayed installation of the plaque, to be placed in front of the segment of the monument entitled "Early Days," in which a Franciscan friar, Mexican vaquero, and Native American are grouped. At issue were whether or not the explanatory text accurately reflected the historical record, specifically its reference to 150,000 Native American deaths during the Missionary period (1769-1834).

Phrasing changed to add "colonial occupation" of California

The plaque itself had originally been proposed to address an earlier conflict over the statue, in which some Native Americans opposed restoration and relocation of the monument, which they said was insulting in its portrayal of tribal culture, and preservationists supported protective maintenance, while opposing re-siting to make way for library construction.

But while the wording of the plaque was hammered out a year ago, recent scrutiny by other parties re-opened debate, was picked up by the press, and continued in public testimony at the Commission meeting May 6.

The Commission-approved text for the plaque now reads:

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. As a result of colonial occupation, half of the original Native American population had perished during this time from diseases, armed attacks, and mistreatment.
Key changes in the text adopted were the deletion of the phrase " -- and 150,000 dead" after the word "converts," and the addition of the subsequent phrase "As the result of colonial occupation..." The rewording resolved the issue before the Commission, which Arts Commission chair Stanlee Gattee articulated: whether to install the plaque at all, and if so, how to rephrase it accurately, to the satisfaction of all parties.

"You insult us because the truth has never been told -- especially in front of a library"

Public comment preceded the Commission vote. Louis S. Ponce de Leon of San Francisco testified, "After [the missionaries] left California, the worst was left to come to the Native American people," concluding "All people of European descent are to blame."

Bobby Castillo, international spokesperson for the American Indian Movement (AIM) and a self-described "born-again Indian" asserted, "If this were to happen today, we'd have a war crimes tribunal taking place...the monument shouldn't be there in the first place. It belongs in the Hall of Shame."

Castillo urged the Commission to accept as a gift another monument to Native Americans, now in storage in Oakland: five one-ton granite blocks chained together, under which the foot of a reclining Native American warrior was pinned. "You insult us because the truth has never been told -- especially in front of a library," said Castillo, who accepted the wording compromise but said he'd continue to press for the statue's removal. Several Commissioners indicated they'd be receptive to considering his proposal for a new monument.

George Wesolik, representing the Archdiocese of San Francisco, urged revision of the text on the plaque for historical accuracy. "Don't focus blame on another group," he urged. "It begins with evil and ends with scapegoating."

Dr. Albert Schumate, president emeritus of the California Historical Society and former arts commissioner, said "We all agree that Native Americans were treated badly." He suggested that many fled inland, away from coastal missions, and that 75 percent died in the Sacramento Valley malaria epidemic of 1830-34, according to one historian.

Archivist and historian Kevin Starr expressed his sympathies to the Commission. "The fundamental problem is you have a rather demeaning shows a patronizing attitude toward Native Americans," he observed. "You can't trust historical truth to make a contemporary historical statement," he maintained, and attributed Native American deaths of the period to "cultural trauma and disease." (Paradoxically, Mexico, which broke away from Spain in 1822-24, was an Indian-based civilization, he noted.)

Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., who spoke at the begining of the meeting, advised the Commission not to intercede as referee in working out text changes, but to encourage Native Americans and Franciscans to discuss the issue freely. "I would suggest that the trouble, the experience of 1769-1834/5, cannot under any circumstances be corrected by a single plaque," he said. He urged commissioners, instead of attempting to interpret facts, to create "an environment of mutual respect," in which "the citizens of San Francisco must be the winners."

Kelly Cullen, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Developent Corporation and one of several Franciscan friars present, observed, "Franciscans have a checkered past. We know when we look back now, we may have been progressive but were not respectful of Native Americans...[their] culture or religion. Out of goodness, we did some harm." He said Franciscans would like to have the statue taken down, citing as a precedent the removal from many missions of historic statues in which friars have an arm placed around an Indian's shoulder.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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