October 01, 2008

Visitor Center has 5 Native statues

As you may know, the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington DC features statues of two people from each state. The Washington Post reports that the 23 most recently acquired ones are being put in the new $621 million Capitol Visitor Center. (A statue of Helen Keller will be added later.)

A Veritable 'Who's That?' of U.S. History

Statuary at New Capitol Center An Eclectic BunchThe visitor center--a three-level complex with fountains, spiral staircases, skylights and theaters--is expected to draw as many as 3 million people its first year. That's double the 1.5 million who visited the Capitol last year, a spokeswoman for the visitor center said. Diane K. Skvarla, Senate curator, said one goal of the move was to make the sculptures more accessible to the public.

The statues in the collection make up one of the oldest groups of public sculpture in the country, according to historian Lachin. She said they reflect the sensibilities of many eras in U.S. history.

The collection has been criticized in the past for lacking in its representation of women and minorities.

There is only one sculpture of a black person in the Capitol complex, the bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the main rotunda, which is not part of the collection, according to the architect's office.

But the eclectic group being moved into the new limelight is diverse.

It includes dramatic bronzes of Nevada's Sarah Winnemucca, a 19th-century Paiute educator, translator and spokeswoman for Native Americans, and Chief Washakie, a renowned Shoshone warrior who was another powerful advocate for Native Americans.

Other striking statues are those of the famed Hawaiian king Kamehameha I, wearing a gilded cape and helmet, and New Mexico's seven-foot-tall pink marble image of Po'pay, a Pueblo Indian leader who directed an uprising against the Spanish in 1680.
Comment:  With five of the 23 statues, American Indians and Native Hawaiians are well-represented in this group. And with these statues being placed in the prominent Visitor Center, it's a sign of respect for Native people.

As is often the case, though, there's less here than meets the eye. Let's take a closer look at the five:

  • Sacagawea--a classic good Indian who helped Lewis and Clark's mission of proto-imperialism.

  • Sarah Winnemucca--"[S]he spent much of her adult life in white society. ... Many Paiutes view her as a collaborator who helped the U.S. Army kill her people."

  • Washakie--"Washakie became an ally of white men, deciding early that warfare was pointless and a policy of adaptation and mutual assistance should be followed. He assisted U.S. Army operations, with military forces and advice, against hostile tribes, particularly the Sioux and Cheyenne. Washakie granted right-of-way through Shoshone land in western Wyoming to the Union Pacific Railroad, aiding the completion of a coast-to-coast rail line."

  • True rebels

    Only the remaining two were truly opposed to Euro-American beliefs and values:

  • Po'pay.

  • Kamehameha I--"Although he ended human sacrifice, Kamehameha was to the last a follower of the Hawaiian religion and Hawaiian traditions (such as Lua). He believed so strongly in his religion and culture that he would execute his subjects for breaches of the kapu. Although he entertained Christians, he did not appear to take them seriously."

  • As noted here, some people weren't happy with the selection of Po'pay (Popé) to represent New Mexico. "[S]some state residents and lawmakers said they did not want to send a statue of Popé, who was from what is now San Juan Pueblo, to the U.S. Capitol, reasoning he was a murderer and responsible for the deaths of thousands of Spanish settlers." And since Po'pay fought only Spaniards, it's not as if he did anything anti-American.

    The set of 23 statues also includes Eusebio F. Kino, a Catholic priest who "helped Christianize the indigenous Native American population in what is now Arizona." Overall, therefore, we see a bias toward Indians and others who helped Indians become civilized and assimilate into the mainstream. And against Indians who fought to maintain their independence and traditional cultures.

    The rest of the statues

    The 76 statues not in the Visitor Center include a smattering of famous Americans, but not as many as you'd think. There are only four US presidents, for instance. Neither Illinois nor Kentucky chose to represent Abraham Lincoln.

    There are a couple more Natives and several people with a Native connection--usually a bad one. Again, the bias is toward Indians who tried to fit into the American paradigm of civilization. And toward non-Indians who belittled, dismissed, or hurt Indians.

    The remaining statues include:

  • Sequoyah (Oklahoma)--helped civilize the Cherokee.
  • Will Rogers (Oklahoma)--entertained mainstream America.

  • And:

  • Father Junipero Serra (California)--Christianized Indians.
  • John Winthrop (Massachusetts)--considered Indians heathens.
  • Charles M. Russell (Montana)--painted romantic Indians.
  • Roger Williams (Rhode Island)--respected beliefs of Indians.
  • Andrew Jackson (Tennessee)--relocated and killed Indians.
  • Sam Houston (Texas)--advocated for Indians.
  • George Washington (Virginia)--ordered Indians massacred.
  • Brigham Young (Utah)--considered Indians a lost tribe.

  • Conclusion

    We can't exactly criticize the government for giving us seven statues of Native Americans (including Native Hawaiians). Based on statistics, you'd expect only one or two of the statues to be Natives. But the most prominent Indians--Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh--aren't represented. That's because it's still politically incorrect to say that Indians were right and America was wrong.

    For more on the subject, see Best Indian Monuments to Topple.

    Below:  "Die, white oppressors. And then raise a statue to me for overthrowing your oppression."

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