The American (statue)
Holmes Peak, located in southeastern Osage County some 7 miles (11 km) northwest of downtown Tulsa, is the highest point in the immediate region with an altitude of 1030 ft (314 m). It is within the grounds of the Centennial Botanical Garden.
Towering more than 21-stories, The American will be the tallest, freestanding bronze monument in the world that visitors can enter and ascend to a viewing area near the top. The monumental sculpture depicts an Indian brave standing with his right arm extended upward as a bald eagle lands on his shroud-covered forearm. The left arm, relaxed at his side, catches a blanket fallen from his shoulder.
On a higher level, the Indian represents the diverse cultures of the American people, a people who have faced hardship and peril with the hope that comes from the freedom offered to those making their homes on our shores. The monument will face East toward the rising sun, symbolizing the coming of a new day with its challenges and opportunities for new beginnings.
Let's examine the problems with The American:
I'm sorry artist Shan Gray has put so much effort into The American. If it were up to me, I'd tell him to start over. I'm not convinced Tulsa needs a giant statue as a calling card. I'm definitely not convinced it needs this particular statue.
In fact, I'd suggest a moratorium on public art featuring half-naked Indians. The idea is old, tired, and cliché. It's been done to death.
For an instructive comparison, let's look at the statues outside the Montclair Art Museum. First there's The Sun Vow, an Indian father helping his son shoot a bow. Although both figures are nearly naked, at least they're doing something other than standing "proudly." The work makes them look human and imbues them with a sense of culture.
Moreover, The Sun Vow was conceived in 1899, so it has an excuse for its old-fashioned depiction of traditional Indians. More than a century later, what's Gray's excuse?
Even though Gray is an Indian, his statue presumably was chosen by non-Indians for the state capitol. That suggests Gray may have compromised his vision to win the competition. It suggests The American represents a non-Indian view of Indians.
Next at the Montclair is Earth Mother by Allan Houser. Like The Sun Vow, its general theme is parent and child. But to me Earth Mother is more interesting.
Why? The woman doesn't look exactly like a real Indian, but you couldn't mistake her for anything else. She's realistic but in a slightly abstract way. That plus the Earth Mother title make you think about what she represents. It's a brain-tickler compared to The Sun Vow and especially to The American.
Alternatives to The American
Consider the assumptions inherent in The American. To "honor" Indians, the statue portrays someone young, male, athletic, and half-naked. The only thing missing are feathers and a weapon.
Since Indian cultures tend to value age over youth, how about a statue of an elder? Since they tend to value community over the individual, how about a statue with several figures? Since they're more matriarchal than America's culture, how about featuring a woman? The Sun Vow and Earth Mother represent Indian cultures better than The American does.
Another assumption inherent in The American is that most Indians were anonymous and interchangeable. Why not include something specific to Oklahoma's tribes? Add some clothing or accouterments that people might recognize as Cherokee, Creek, or whatever.
For that matter, why not do a statue of a real Oklahoma Indian? For instance, Sequoyah, Quanah Parker, Will Rogers, Jim Thorpe, Wilma Mankiller, N. Scott Momaday, or Maria Tallchief. If Indians of every tribe can admire the Crazy Horse Memorial, they can admire one of these stalwarts too.
Or do a combined statue: the traditional "brave" and a present-day Indian in a business suit or rancher's outfit. Put the brave in the background, make his figure symbolic, to show that Indians rely on their traditional values. But put the emphasis on the modern figure striding forward. Wouldn't that suggest "hope" and "new beginnings" better than a worn-out cliché?
Gray hasn't depicted a modern Indian because today's Indians aren't stereotypical enough. They don't represent America's image of the noble savage: a half-naked brave. Like millions of other Americans, Gray wants to "honor" the romantic past while ignoring the prosaic present.
What I've said about movies, TV shows, and comic books applies to statues as well. If you're going to depict Indians, don't use the same old stereotypes and clichés. Do something new and original. Tell us something we don't know from a hundred Westerns featuring Indians standing and staring proudly.
For more on the subject, see Best Indian Monuments to Topple.
P.S. Anyone else need help designing a statue that represents the best of Indian country? Give me a call.