June 16, 2008

Thoughts on The American

A colossal Indian statue is planned for a hilltop near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The question here is whether it's a good idea.

The American (statue)The American is a 217 ft (66 m) bronze statue of a Native American to be built at Holmes Peak near Tulsa, Oklahoma by sculptor Shan Gray.

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.
DescriptionPicture the following cities: New York, St. Louis, Paris, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. When one thinks of New York, the Statue of Liberty comes to mind. The same can be said of the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, and the Arch for St. Louis. The American will soon join these symbolic landmarks.

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.
SymbolismGray's depiction of the Indian and eagle is meant to symbolize boldness, strength, courage, endurance, and triumph. The youthful brave is symbolic of America, still a young country. The eagle represents the American Ideal. The wind that blows the brave's hair symbolizes the adversity that Americans have overcome. Together, the two figures also suggest acceptance between man and nature as they yield to each other.

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.
One blogger's opinion:The good people of Oklahoma rejected it twice already, once as an offer to put it atop the capitol dome, but now it's being done with private funds. The only way I would be in support of this monstrosity is if it produced giant saltwater tears and they put it by the highway.Comment:  Just what the world needs: another statue of a nearly-naked Indian "brave." Because there aren't enough of them already.

The problems

Let's examine the problems with The American:

  • Being nearly naked makes the Indian look more primitive, savage, animal-like. In reality, an Indian would dress this way only during the warmest parts of the year.

  • Having an eagle at his beck and call implies the Indian is in tune with nature. As far as I know, no tribe practiced falconry with any bird of prey, much less with bald eagles. I wouldn't think the Tulsa area had bald eagles, although there might've been some in the past.

  • If you view a close-up of The American, the face doesn't look very Indian. This fellow could be Caucasian or even black. To me he looks vaguely Roman, like Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.

  • The body is facing one way and the head another, with the eagle at a third angle. It looks a bit disjointed to me. You want all the parts of your statue working together, and here they're working at odds.

  • 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.

    Case study

    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.


    dmarks said...

    re: "The youthful brave is symbolic of America, still a young country"

    I do find a problem with that, if one remembers that the Indian nations are kind of old.

    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    writerfella has no opinion on 'The American' as to whether it's good or bad. Rather, he remembers being chastised by a female fan at a 1980 Houston science fiction convention after mentioning the paucity of work then available to him in films and TV. "Cut your hair short like the other writers," she said from the audience. "Dress like they do, look like they do, live like they do. And you'll get work." To which writerfella replied, "Russell Bates never can be a white man. Being Native American is why he is a TV writer in the first place. No brag, just fact. Next?"
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    Right, DMarks. Most Indian cultures are older and wiser than ours. To reflect this, shouldn't the statue's figure be older and wiser as well?

    Rob said...

    An e-mailer sent me this response to The American:

    I'm still sort of...stunned...by the American statue project. It's so...romantic and ambitious on one hand and utterly traditional and stereotypical on the other. Plus, an Osage warrior in Creek country! That's fantastic. I'm from Oklahoma originally (my grandmother lived in Tulsa, so I know right where this is).

    Terry said...

    You mention that you didn't think the Tulsa area has bald eagles - yes, in fact, it does on a very rare basis. I've had the good fortune to see them flying near Keystone Dam. They are very rare here - only 60 spotted pairs.

    Rob said...

    If bald eagles are that rare in the Tulsa area, they arguably shouldn't be part of a statue representing the area.

    Unknown said...

    Why would one want to have an Indian in the foreground in a suit or Rancher clothes? To plant firmly into peoples mind's the forced assimilation of the indian culture into the "civilized" America? That suggestion is a slap in the face to those of us who are Native! Let the American stand as he is originally intended. The meaning may escape YOU but it does not escape us.