At 5:30 a.m. on September 14, a small crowd gathered near San Francisco’s City Hall. It was dark and cold, but with a smell of burning sage lingering in the air, the mood was expectant. All eyes were on city workers using a crane to hoist a 2,000-pound statue from its perch and place it on a flatbed truck. As it drove away, it took with it some of the excess baggage of American history.
For 124 years, the bronze statue known as Early Days had enshrined a narrative of California’s early settlement that is finally being challenged. Commissioned by local millionaire James Lick as part of a cluster of statues known as “Pioneer Monument,” Early Days was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1894. The decision to remove it came September 12, 2018, when San Francisco’s Board of Appeals voted for it to be carted off to a storage facility. The city’s Arts Commission had elected to take down the statue in April, but the Board of Appeals, catering to opposition, overturned them, blocking the statue’s removal in a decision that Mayor Mark Farrell said “embarrassed” him.
The statue’s racist message was clear. It depicted a fallen American Indian cowering at the feet of a Catholic missionary who points to heaven and a Spanish cowboy raising his hand in victory. “That statue politicized me,” says Barbara Mumby-Huerta, a Native visual artist and director of community investments for the San Francisco Arts Commission.
At a panel discussion hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, on the eve of the removal of the statue, Mumby-Huerta recalled seeing Early Days as a teenager. She described its corrosive effects on the self-image of young Native people like her.
That Early Days would come down in 2018, just in time for San Francisco’s first official Indigenous Peoples Day, was hardly a foregone conclusion. Calls for the removal of the statue went unheeded for decades. In 1995, a letter written on behalf of the American Indian Movement Confederation declared Early Days a symbol of the “humiliation, degradation, genocide, and sorrow inflicted upon this country’s indigenous people by a foreign invader through religious persecution and ethnic prejudice.” The city’s response was to add a small plaque—soon obscured by plants—linking the fate of Native Americans to “whites’ diseases, armed attacks, and mistreatment.”
Opposition to Early Days was long viewed as a niche issue that mattered only to Native Americans, says Kim Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate and a member of the northern California Cherokee diaspora. It wasn’t until 2018 that city officials reached a near-unanimous decision to take it down. That is, until Frear Stephen Schmid, an attorney in Petaluma, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, launched an appeal, using historic preservation laws to hamstring the process. According to local media, Schmid counts among his ancestors the president of San Francisco’s Second Vigilance Committee, a largely white, Protestant militia that attacked political opponents in the 1850s.
The end of Early Days comes at a “tipping point for the politics of Native American memory,” says Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. It’s part of a larger movement of marginalized people asserting their stories and pushing back against the memorialization of their oppressors. They have toppled Confederate monuments, renamed buildings honoring Confederate leaders, and added new holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day to the calendar.
“There remains a lot of work to be done,” says Gover. “But there have been successes in challenging depictions that make us all look the same and render us imaginary. One of the best examples is the movement against making Indians into mascots, which has been going on for about 40 years.”
“We approach this with a terrifying patience,” says Shuck. In her lifetime, Shuck, who is 52, has seen the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the end of a national policy of sterilization—though some states, like Washington, still have laws on the books—and promises of justice around Indian Residential Schools. “And I hope to see more attention given to the disappearance and murder of Native women, which is starting as well,” she says, referring to researchers who are bringing attention to the thousands of Native women and girls who go missing each year across the U.S., a crisis long ignored by the FBI and other law enforcement officials. “The tide is definitely moving in a different direction. I think things go back and forth and we don’t ever resolve these issues permanently, but I feel like we make certain progress.”
Yet Shuck, who spent years advocating for the removal of Early Days, and who penned 55 poems about its meaning in the run-up to the historic vote, received insults and threats for her stance on the statue. “Who knows what the next shift will be?” she says, suggesting that progress, while evident today, is anything but certain.
While activists like Shuck have worked tirelessly to challenge narratives that have historically erased Native perspectives, academic research has filtered down into the broader consciousness. Philip Deloria, professor of Native American history at Harvard, says the watershed moment came with the 2016 publication of Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. The book is a thorough accounting of the vigilante and extrajudicial killings and mass murders committed by Anglo Americans against Native Americans in California, and that contemporaries falsely called “wars.”
“Scholars had debated the applicability of the concept of genocide to Native American history,” says Deloria, “but Madley’s book lays it all out there. His research implicates the state of California and the federal state. It makes clear how the funding streams went. It explodes the whole cultural discourse around Indian death. It shows intent to exterminate.”
Madley’s book is part of a shift that allowed Californians to see Early Days for what it always was: a statuary tribute to mass murder.
“Charlottesville brought home the constituency for the maintenance of these memorials,” says Gover, referring to last year’s deadly white nationalist rally. “I bet that in their candid moments, San Francisco city officials would acknowledge that Charlottesville played a large role in their understanding of Early Days.” Public art that might have once seemed innocuous, or a sign of “understanding things differently at the time,” was put into its historical context: when white supremacy was the accepted wisdom of the majority and the country’s intellectual class.
Yet even after Charlottesville and even in San Francisco, which prides itself on progressive values, the prospect of change has met with resistance. “I’ve been accused of being a Nazi,” says Shuck of her advocacy for the removal of Early Days. “And someone on the Appeals Board likened taking down the statue to genocide.”
Abandoning the tidy narratives of U.S. history will take generations, not decades. “Learning to separate ourselves from what our ancestors did is challenging,” says Gover, explaining what’s at stake. “Because we've spent our lives sort of basking in the glories of the things that they did.”
With Early Days now in storage, local activists are exploring how to activate the empty space left behind with Native art or performances. The question is relevant beyond San Francisco: what should take the place of these toppled statues? Earlier this year, New York City undertook a review of its public art, also prompted by events in Charlottesville. Its Monuments Commission concluded that new and more inclusive work is needed to reflect the city’s diversity. After all, memory is additive, not subtractive. History is represented by what goes up, not down, in the public square. “There will come a time when it's accepted that every kind of person has contributed to the American project in ways that were essential,” says Gover. “We're not there yet, but you can see it emerging in the landscape.”