May 05, 2009

Rob vs. curator on Massasoit statue

In response to Massasoit the Noble Savage, someone posted the following comments: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.The curator originally posted his remarks on the Utah State Capitol Curator's Blog. He also posted some disparaging comments about me (unless you consider "young man" a compliment). See that posting for his full response, my response to him, and the latest on the statue.

Meanwhile, on with the debate.

Thanks for the info, curator. This discussion is relatively timely since we've just seen Massasoit portrayed in the After the Mayflower episode of PBS's We Shall Remain series. Readers should peruse your full response to learn more about him and Dallin.

One could consider Dallin's multiple castings of one statue a "fetish," of course. Or at least a sign of self-satisfaction with his work. He facilitated the dissemination of his vision of the "noble savage." That's all I meant with that comment.

Eager to display stereotypesSecond, 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.You made a big deal of my alleged mistakes. You implied I made a whopper when Christine Sweet-Hart said the statue "was not a commissioned work by the state of Utah." But I never said Utah commissioned it. The mistake is yours if you think I did.

Besides, whether Utah eagerly commissioned the statue or eagerly accepted it as a gift is a minor point to me. The main point is Utah's eagerness to display a stereotypical image of Indians. Feel free to address this point.

As Sweet-Hart said, Dallin gave Utah his original plaster figure of Massasoit, not a bronze statue. Apparently the state commissioned someone to cast the statue from that. In other words, it paid someone to transform the plaster figure into a metal figure--an act of commission.

The point is that Utah was an active participant in the stereotyping of Indians, not merely a passive recipient. The state is continuing this attitude by proudly displaying the statue while ignoring Utah's real Indians. Again, feel free to address the point.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.You say Massasoit "wore all the trappings of leadership and honor among the Native American nations of the time." This means he probably didn't resemble the nearly nude warrior portrayed by Dallin. I suspect Massasoit was wearing robes or skins of some kind to set him apart from the half-naked warriors who accompanied him.

What the statue represents

Your position is that Dallin was interpreting only the Pilgrims' first sighting of the noble Massasoit standing on a hill. My position is that he was interpreting the whole history of Indians from his Mormon perspective: the lost tribesman of Israel welcoming his lost brothers, the uncivilized savage showing off his animal-like qualities, the "creature" doomed to become extinct as America fulfilled its Manifest Destiny.

Unless Dallin left notes about his intent, we can't be sure whose speculation is correct. And even if Dallin explicitly said he was only thinking of the first view of Massasoit, I wouldn't necessarily buy it. I'm speculating about his unconscious motives as well as his conscious ones.

Besides, our two positions aren't incompatible. Dallin's statue could represent his interpretation of the first meeting and the symbolism of the "noble savage," with all it implies. The "noble savage" concept was well-known at the time and Dallin must've been familiar with it. Unless someone can prove he didn't know about it, I'd say it had to have influenced him.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.I don't think anyone is suggesting you get rid of the art of "Utah's-favorite-son-made-good." But there's no reason it has to be on display in front of the capitol, misrepresenting Utah's history to visitors. Instead, put it in a museum with explanatory plaques and honor Dallin's work there.

You didn't say exactly what you'd recommend doing with it. Are you arguing that it should retain its place of prominence? That it should be the first Indian people see when they visit Utah's Capitol?

If that's your position, see above about what the statue represents. Are you comfortable sending that message to people who know little or nothing about Indians? Whose only exposure to them has been the half-naked "noble savages" they've seen in Thanksgiving pageants and Western movies?

Because I'm not comfortable with that. And I suspect most of Utah's Indians wouldn't accept that position either. I say move the statue and stop misinforming the public about Indians.

For more on the subject, see Thanksgiving in After the Mayflower and Massasoit Statue in Utah.

No comments: