December 04, 2008

Massasoit the noble savage

Another report on the Massasoit Statue in Utah:

Why not a Ute statue at state Capitol?

Chief Massasoit piece triggers questions about why Utah Indians not represented.Lovell protested the statue's pending return last week after discovering Massasoit hailed not from Utah but from the Eastern state that bears the name of his tribe. Lovell softened his stance after learning more of the statue's history. It was a gift from world-renowned sculptor Cyrus Dallin, a Springville-born artist who also crafted the Angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake City LDS temple.

"It's a great piece of artwork," Lovell said. "They can put it wherever they want."
And:Lovell would like to see a statue of a famous Utah Indian--perhaps a Ute leader--added to the east side of the Capitol, where Chief Massasoit will have a new home and granite pedestal when he returns. Lovell estimates he will need about $50,000 to commission a sculpture, and he already has received interest from potential donors.

Cuch suggested one noteworthy Utah Indian who could be memorialized in bronze: Chief Black Hawk. He was a Ute who rallied not only his tribe but also Paiutes and Navajos during the Black Hawk War of 1865 to 1868, when violence erupted between Mormon settlers and American Indians over food shortages.
Would Mormons put up a statue to an Indian who helped kill their ancestors? Would any white people do that? Generally speaking, no. Whites prefer statues of the good Indians who helped the Euro-Americans conquer the land.

Here's the additional information about the sculptor that has softened Lovell's stance:Cyrus Edwin Dallin was born in a Springville cabin in 1861 to Mormon pioneer parents but later became a Presbyterian. He had an early interest in art and American Indian life.

At age 18, he moved to Boston to study sculpture and later took two trips to Paris to learn the art from master sculptors.

He soon gained international recognition for his monumental, award-winning statues of American Indians and patriots. He returned to Utah to craft the Angel Moroni statue for the Salt Lake City LDS Temple and the Brigham Young Monument on Main Street.

He created three Chief Massasoit statues. Besides Utah's Capitol, the statues are in Plymouth, Mass., and on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo.
Comment:  This passage is somewhat revealing. Dallin loved doing statues of Indians and "patriots." He believed in Mormonism enough to sculpt the Angel Moroni and Brigham Young. And he had a fetish for Chief Massasoit, one of the primary good Indians who helped the invaders make themselves at home on Indian land.

With his interest in Mormons and patriots, it's easy to believe Dallin had a messianic view of America's greatness--the shining city on a hill whose Manifest Destiny it was to civilize and rule the continent. Did he envision Massasoit as the leader of a Lost Tribe of Israel who held the land in reserve for the white man? Was Massasoit the equivalent of the caretaker who kept the house running until the master returned to live there?

I'd say this is less of a reason to honor Massasoit, not more of one. Not that I'd ever suggest destroying a nice statue. Send it to Massachusetts where it belongs, or put it in a less prominent place at the Utah Capitol. Add a plaque that interprets the statue--that tells what Dallin intended to convey and what Indians think of it. Something like this:Sculptor Cyrus Dallin saw Massasoit as a great man because he paved the way for the Europeans who brought the light of civilization to an untamed wilderness. Today Indians dispute this view, saying the newcomers had no right to settle here because Native peoples and cultures already occupied and owned the land. In their view, Massasoit was more of a dupe and an enabler than a leader and a visionary.Naked warrior = great chief?

If that isn't enough of a reason to downplay the statue, just look at it. This is essentially Massasoit as a young Indian warrior or "brave." A pure physical specimen like Michelangelo's David. The emphasis is on Massasoit's animal-like qualities--the lithe, muscular body--and not his human qualities of leadership and wisdom.

This statue doesn't honor Massasoit the great chief for his vision of interracial harmony. It "honors" Massasoit the noble savage for his resemblance to Adam or a big cat. This Indian is at home in his unspoiled Garden of Eden but knows nothing of "civilization." He's literally a babe in the woods when it comes to religion, philosophy, law, art, or science.

In short, the statue is a pure stereotype. The state should keep it out of the limelight for that reason.

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

3 comments:

Christine said...

Portraying Dallin as a sculptor who liked to create "good" Native Americans and "patriots" does a tremendous disservice to his entire body of work. Dallin fought hard for Native American rights and was appointed by the Algonquin Nation to represent their interests in the Legislature. His depictions of Native Americans were an attempt to capture a vanishing race's way of life and to tell the story of the Native Americans and their unjust handling by the white settlers, having seen it first hand growing up in the Utah Territory.

The reason that Dallin did not sculpt a Ute and instead sculpted a Wampanoag was this: he presented his original plaster figure of Massasoit - the bronze casting of which was erected at Plymouth, Massachusetts to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock - to his home state as a gift. It was not a commissioned work by the state of Utah. Had it been, I am sure, sensitive as he was to the plight of the Native Americans at the turn of the century, he would have sculpted a member of a Ute tribe not a member of an East Coast one.

Further, it is very short-sighted to see him as only a sculptor of Native Americans. He was classically trained as an artist in Paris and taught his craft for 40 years at the Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston alongside other memorable artists including Raymond Porter while still sculpting, exhibiting, and winning critical acclaim for his works. He was friends with John Singer Sargent who sketched the veranda of his house during a visit. It was Sargent's human model posing for Apollo that Dallin used for his heroic figure, Massasoit.

His works, numbering over 300 at last count, include civic figures, Native Americans, classical nudes, mythological and allegorical representations, military figures, and landscapes. They were crafted in a variety of media including sculptures, reliefs, coins, medals, and paintings.

Interpreting the intention of this artist is important - we need to look with the eyes of an early twentieth century sculptor not with the eyes of a twenty-first century spectator.

Christine Sweet-Hart
BA Art History
Currently working on a catalogue raissone of Dallin's works in conjunction with the Cyrus E. Dallin Art Museum and the Springville Museum of Art.

Rob said...

Thanks for the information, Christine. For my response, see Defending Cyrus Dallin.

Utah State Capitol Curator's Blog said...

I read with interest the article on Massasoit at the Utah State Capitol. I am the curator of the Capitol, responsible for re-installing the sculpture. Let me correct a couple of bits of misinformation: Dallin did not create a number of images of Massasoit, thus having a "fetish" for him as you suggest. Rather, the bronzes that exist in Massachusetts, at the Capitol, at Brigham Young University and in several other locations are all one image, multiple castings of the same sculpture. Second, the particular cast of Massasoit was a gift to the state of Utah by Cyrus Dallin himself, after he had become internationally famous. Actually Dallin gave the State a plaster version of the sculpture which was, until 1923, exhibited in the rotunda of the newly created state capitol. The state was peniless at the time and accepted with some degree of gratitude a gift from perhaps one of its most famous sons. In the early days of the state, I rather doubt that there was consideration of any kind of political or religious statement involved except that Dallin, who had left Utah long before that to become such a successful and well-known artist, gifted the state, which was empoverished and largely ignored or even loathed by Easterners, with artwork for their new Capitol they could not have otherwise afforded.

In 1923, the sculpture was moved outside to the south lawn of the building (incidentally designed by a non-Mormon immigrant from Austria via Paris).

Dallin was classically trained in Paris and was sculpting during a period in art history which was a flowering of classical (think Renaissance as well a ancient Greece) architecture and sculpture. Hence, we should expect that Utah's-favorite-son-made-good Dallin would idealize a man who was the 17th century leader or sachem of a number of treaty-bound tribe/nations around Salem, Massachusetts. Contemporary accounts of the Pilgrims' first encounter with this very politically and culturally powerful man describe his first meeting with about 20 desperate and starving men. He appeared in nearly sillhouette,on a hill with 60 other warriors. His face was painted red, his hair styled with bear grease, and he wore all the trappings of leadership and honor among the Native American nations of the time. The record describes a man who was "a very lusty [meaning strong] man, in his best years," with an "able body," "grave countenance" and "spare speech." As the greatest of the sachem he was cultivated and intimidating, and dare I say noble. It is only in this day and time that the word noble, coupled with "savage" puts upon Dallin's sculpture a derisive or even condescending attitude for Dallin, the Capitol Preservation Board or the Utah State government.

In the debate about bringing back the Massasoit sculpture to Utah's capitol, I wonder if we risk superimposing today's politics and the hardened ideology of comtemporary culture wars onto what is first, a remarkably fine work of neo-classical (and admittedly romantic) art and second, a valuable gift to the state from a man who remains to this day one of its most artistically successful citizens. I support the idea of raising funds to commission a sculpture of someone who might represent the best of the five Native American tribes of Utah. I do not, however, support that idea at the expense of excluding Dallin's work. And while I am fully aware that history now questions some of Massasoit's actions -- in much the same way any powerful political leader's behavior is second-guessed by history -- the sculpture Massasoit, by Cyrus Dallin, is an intepretative image of a leader who in a 17th century Native American context was hardly a savage and most likely very noble indeed.