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San Franciscans demand removal of anti-native monument

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San Francisco Arts Commission meeting revisited complaints about Civic Center statue

Photo by Tobias Kleinlercher / Wikipedia

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, California—a Union state during the Civil War—has no public monuments to Confederate figures.

(Fort Bragg is named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg, although this is more or less a coincidence; the military post from which the town derives its own moniker got its name before the war.)

But as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, the city does have some public monuments depicting scenes and figures from the era of Spanish colonization. At a meeting of the San Francisco Arts Commission on Monday, some San Franciscans spoke out against Pioneer Monument in Civic Center.

The most prominent figure on the circa-1894 statue, located next to the Main Library, is the ancient goddess Athena/Minerva accompanied by a bear cub. Statues representing Gold Rush prospectors and “goddesses” of commerce and agriculture surround the base of her pedestal.

But it’s the other scene at the base of the 800-ton edifice that incites complaints.

Columnist Heather Knight explains:

Lower down and on the eastern end of the monument [...] depicts a nearly naked American Indian man on the ground with a Spanish vaquero standing over him and raising his hand in victory.

A missionary also towers over the fallen man, one hand reaching down to him and the other pointing to heaven.

[...] Iesha Killip, who said she is a full-blooded American Indian, said it’s “crazy” the monument stands in such a prominent place in modern-day San Francisco.

“Why is the Indian on the ground? We’re warriors. We stand,” said Killip, a 25-year-old retail manager who lives in the Haight.

Knight cites a 2007 city Human Rights Commission report that called Pioneer Monument (or at least the eastern end of it) a city-owned display that shows “fetishized or romanticized, historically and culturally inaccurate images” of colonial conquest.

The Arts Commission will take the matter up officially in October. In the meantime, here’s a look at the history of some of those pieces of public art recalling the days of colonization.

Part of the Pioneer Monument statue.
Part of the Pioneer Monument statue.
Photo by Loren Javier/Flickr

Pioneer Monument (Civic Center)

San Francisco sculptor Frank Happersberger completed the piece in 1894, originally installed at the old City Hall building and financed posthumously by prototypical kooky Bay Area business tycoon James Lick.

As the Rights Commission noted, the Spaniard in the statue originally brandished a rifle. The city modified the image in 1993 so that now he merely stands with his fist upraised.

The report also points out that the Native American’s clothing and hair makes no sense for what’s supposed to be a California tribal member, and that “the Native American person is naked except for a blanket, is barefoot, and is in an inferior, helpless position on the ground with the conquerors standing in a superior position over him.”

Columbus Statue in North Beach.
Columbus Statue in North Beach.
Photo by James MacFarlane

Columbus Statue (North Beach)

The 12-foot tall statue of the Spanish-funded Italian explorer staring toward the Pacific Ocean (on which he never sailed) next to Coit Tower dates to 1957. It was sculpted by, of all people, an Italian count and onetime bodyguard to Benito Mussolini.

Why does San Francisco have a statue of Columbus, who never even made it as far as the North American mainland, much less the west coast?

It turns out that in the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian Americans talked Columbus up as a key figure in American history—perhaps ironically, as a way to counter ethnic discrimination. NPR explained in 2013:

Because Italian-Americans were struggling against religious and ethnic discrimination in the United States, many in the community saw celebrating the life and accomplishments of Christopher Columbus as a way for Italian Americans to be accepted by the mainstream.

As historian Christopher J. Kauffman once wrote, "Italian Americans grounded legitimacy in a pluralistic society by focusing on the Genoese explorer as a central figure in their sense of peoplehood."

Junipero Serra Statue
Junipero Serra Statue in Golden Gate Park.
Photo by Burkhard Mücke

Junipero Serra Statue (Golden Gate Park)

Serra founded the California missions, including Mission Dolores, around which San Francisco grew.

Gold Rush-era banker and San Francisco Mayor James Phelan (noted for his white supremacist platform when he tried to run for Senate in 1920) commissioned the bronze park statue, designed by Oakland sculptor Douglas Tilden and installed in 1907.

At the time, reverence for Serra was considered standard in California. But in the century since, longstanding criticisms of the destructive effects of the mission system on California’s native population became louder.

Writing for the LA Times in 2015, UC Berkeley historian Tony Platt called the missions “an authoritarian and brutal system, enforced by irons and the whip,” and wrote that Serra operated them as essentially “forced labor camps.”