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San Francisco prepares to remove part of racist statue

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Native groups and others have complained about Pioneer Monument for decades

Part of the Pioneer Monument statue. Photo by Loren Javier

San Francisco’s seven-person Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to remove part of Civic Center’s Pioneer Monument, almost clinching the statue’s fate and delivering vindication to Native American groups and other critics of the circa 1894 sculpture who, for decades, have agitated for its removal.

The question of the monument’s fate now goes to the San Francisco Arts Commission for a final decision, but it seems inevitable that SFAC will agree that the eastern portion of the installation, titled “Early Days,” should go, after voting in October to begin the alteration process.

Created in 1894, Pioneer Monument depicts the founding of California through a series of allegorical scenes, including one of gold miners and others of classical goddess figures representing agriculture and commerce.

Those figures have garnered no complaints and will remain unaltered. But “Early Days” depicts a scene of a downtrodden Native American—anachronistically dressed in plains tribe garb for some reason—who has been knocked to the ground by a conquering vaquero and is being helped up by a sanctimonious-looking missionary.

At past public meetings—and indeed, for decades prior—many San Franciscans decried the scene as racist, alleging that it whitewashes the conquest of California natives by framing the conflict as their salvation.

Photo by Joe Mabel

Activist Mari Posa declared last year that she was “tired of seeing Natives depicted as savage” and said that the statue should go.

Planning Department staff reported that the removal would be a fairly simple process and expressed the opinion that it wouldn’t harm the overall historicity of the neighborhood:

The sculpture will be placed in long-term storage and the abandoned anchor points in the granite base will be patched in accordance with approved treatments of historic materials.

Staff finds that the proposed alteration to the monument and related repair work to the granite base will not affect the monument’s overall craftsmanship, setting, or relationship to the landmark district.

The project will remove one component of the monument, which will be retained and preserved at an off-site storage facility. The work, as proposed, is reversible in nature. Alteration of the monument, which is identified as a small scale character-defining feature in the district, will not affect the integrity of the Civic Center Landmark District as a whole.

Some on the commission sounded ambivalent. Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman suggested that the “Early Days” statue be preserved as a reminder of past atrocities, comparing it to the preservation of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

“I’m very concerned about now having the story there, for the specific reason of people seeing it. It is part of our history, it is our story, while it is a bad one,” said Pearlman . “It demonstrates man’s worstest [sic] qualities, [but] somehow we should follow through on understanding that, that’s what makes us a better society today than in 1894.”

Nevertheless, the commissioners voted to approve the alteration.