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San Francisco Votes to Remove Statue with Racist Depiction of Native Americans

The monument shows a Mexican vaquero and Franciscan monk towering over a Native American man

smithsonian.com

Officials in San Francisco have decided to remove a controversial monument that depicts a Native American man sitting at the feet of a Mexican vaquero and Franciscan monk.

According to Richard Gonzales of NPR, the city’s Arts Commission voted unanimously on Monday to take the statue down. The monument has long been a source of contention, but the Arts Commission finally began the removal process in October, in the aftermath of the white nationalist rally to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in deadly violence.

The sculpture, titled “Early Days,” belongs to the Pioneer Monument cluster, which stands near San Francisco’s City Hall and depicts the founding of California, as Joshua Sabatini reports for the San Francisco Examiner. The monuments were completed in 1894.

"Early Days" depicts an unidentified Native American man sitting on the ground. Towering above him are allegorical representations of a Mexican vaquero and Franciscan monk.

Because “Early Days” sits in a historic district, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission had to approve the statue’s removal. The Commission agreed that the statue should come down, and has required that a plaque be erected to explain why it was removed.

Activists who have lobbied against the monument cheered when the Arts Commission voted to remove it, reports Janie Har of the Associated Press.

“It definitely feels like a long time coming,” Barbara Mumby, an Arts Commission employee who is descended from Native tribes in California and New York, tells Har. “I think some people may not understand how big of a symbol it is to be able to take this down.”

The Arts Commission said in a memo that it sought to remove the monument due to “the allegorical sculpture’s depiction of the degradation and genocide of Native American peoples, utilizing visual stereotypes common at the turn of the twentieth century to depict all Native Americans which are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading, and racist,” according to Sabatini of the Examiner.

Tom DeCaigny, director of cultural affairs for the Arts Commission, pushed back against claims that removing the statue was an attempt to revise the state’s history. “I would argue quite the opposite,” he said, as Sabatini reports. “This is us recognizing history and the evolution of history and doing the right thing on the right side of history.”

The Arts Commission has decided to put the monument into storage. It may one day be relocated to a museum.

Editor's note, March 8, 2018: This piece has been corrected to reflect that the standing figures in the statue are not Sir Francis Drake and Junipero Serra, as an earlier version of NPR's story reported, but rather are an allegorical representation of a Mexican vaquero and Franciscan monk. 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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