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Kalamazoo Removes Sculpture Depicting Armed White Settler Towering Over a Native American

“Fountain of the Pioneers” has been controversial since it was erected in 1940

Contracted crews remove the Fountain of the Pioneers complex from Bronson Park, Tuesday, April 24, 2018. (Mark Bugnaski/Kalamazoo Gazette-MLive Media Group via AP)
smithsonian.com

Until this week, the Fountain of the Pioneers had stood for almost 80 years at the center of Kalamazoo, Michigan's oldest park.

While proponents considered the art deco sculpture an artistic achievement that offered residents a place to cool off and reflect on history, the fountain was controversial since it was first erected in Bronson Park in 1940.

That’s because it depicts an armed white settler towering over a Native American in a headdress. This, critics point out, glorifies the genocide of indigenous people through American colonialism.

Now, following a petition calling on the city to remove the fountain, and a city meeting last month with five hours of public comment, Kalamazoo has taken down the Fountain of the Pioneers from the park.

Construction crews began removing the fountain for preservation work on Monday night. The pool areas will be converted into lawns until the city decides what’s next for the space.

The fountain itself won’t be destroyed, but rather will be dismantled and stored until it is moved to an as-of-yet undetermined location where its artistic and historical significance can be contextualized, according to a city press release.

In a joint statement following the vote in March, Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell and City Commissioner Don Cooney called the decision a “step towards healing.”

“This vote will not immediately resolve all of the racial issues that we face in our City and our region, but it is a recognition that symbols matter,” they said.

While the decision to remove the statue was made due to resident input, finances also played a role. The fountain needed restoration work that would have cost nearly $1 million. Removal will cost only $200,000.

As Claire Voon reports for Hyperallergic, the Fountain of the Pioneers was designed by Italian-American modernist Alfonso Iannelli, who famously worked with Frank Lloyd Wright to create design elements on the Midway Gardens project that debuted in 1914.

As it happened, the Fountain of the Pioneers was replacing a replacement statue. Fay L. Hendry details in her Michigan outdoor sculpture project that in 1927, a 19th-century fountain in the park was first replaced by the McColl Memorial. However, criticism of its "siloesque” form ultimately led to the Kalamazoo Business and Professional Women’s Club holding a design competition to replace the unpopular fountain in 1936.

Iannelli wasn’t originally among the artists who submitted ideas, according to Pamela O’Connor in Michigan Modern, a project of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. In fact, another artist, Marcelline Gougler, took the prize for her design. But she asked Iannelli, a mentor of hers, for help in engineering the piece and eventually let him and his studio take over the design. The entire project cost about $37,000.

Community members have voiced opposition to the statue for years, Voon reports, and pressure to remove it increased as similar conversations on controversial monuments and memorials have intensified across the country.

While the fountain has been removed, the dialogue isn't over. As the local News 8 web team reports, the city is currently in conversation with the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi to incorporate new elements to the park that will accurately portray Native American history and culture. There's a lot to tell. Michigan reportedly has the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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