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Erasing Genocide and Fantasizing Honor with Tilden’s ‘Indian’

A charge to remove Douglas Tilden's "The Bear Hunt" sculpture from the California School for the Deaf campus, said to "honor" Natives, has been made.

First Peoples are all too familiar with disparaging “fantasies of honor.” By “fantasies of honor” I mean those wooden Indians holding boxes of cigars, sacred artifacts suffocated in museum showcases, new age spirituality, and other “stuff” like mascots, caricatured logos, Halloween costumes, and Hollywood images that make “real” Indians invisible.

Some of the rhetoric used to defend “fantasies of honor” is in a peculiar way almost innovative. For example, what happens if a racially stereotyped sculpture is considered a work of fine art and those defending the sculpture claim that displaying the work honors the sculptor? You read that right—honoring the sculptor. Such a claim significantly differs from claiming the artwork honors First Peoples. Or does it?

In the late 19th century there was a Deaf sculptor by the name of Douglas Tilden. A talented genius, Tilden was tutored in Paris by some of the best sculptors of his time. He became known as the “Michelangelo of the West.” While in France he crafted a work called “The Bear Hunt.” The sculpture presents a ferociously violent scene between an “Indian” and a bear. The scene is difficult to interpret because the Indian does not appear to be Indian and the bear is conspicuously out of proportion. Indeed Tilden’s “Indian” that is alleged to be fine art so much resembles Fremiet’s LeDenicheur d’oursons, Jardin des Plantes in Paris that one can safely assume that the “Indian” is actually French. Viewers will appreciate Tilden’s bear as an imitation of Fremiet’s bear.


Emmanuel Frémiet’s “Le dénicheur d'oursons” Jardin des Plantes, Paris, on which “The Bear Hunt” is said to be based.

From a Deaf First Peoples’ view, however, the entire scene just looks odd. Will Yaska, a Deaf member of Koyukon Tribe (Caribou Clan), describes it best, “… no Indian would be so dumb as to walk into a mother bear with cubs. The statue is like saying Indians are dumb.”

Tilden’s “Indian” was crafted during an era of political, economic, and social transformations driven by racism. First Peoples were almost extinct. Tilden’s “Indian” was part of a collective denial that a holocaust took place. Euro-Americans needed to escape accusations of genocide. The great escape required myth building processes that bastardized the identities and cultures of First Peoples. The Americanized version of First Peoples’ identities and cultures facilitated historical amnesia and made genocide invisible.

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Tilden’s “Indian” was crafted in the same historical era as a number of other artworks that conveyed Native images as the defeated warrior, the primitive, and subhuman. Tilden’s “Indian” was somewhat unique in that the sculpture represents a yet to be defeated warrior. The sculpture offers no foreseeable conclusion to the conflict. Tilden’s “Indian” and bear are cast in a state at war—forever. The near extinction of First Peoples was reframed into contexts of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Euro-American participation in the holocaust was conveniently erased. It is for those reasons that Tilden’s “Indian” erased genocide.

A more detailed view of the “Bear Hunt” statue by Douglas Tilden.

Tilden’s "Indian" is aesthetically and pedagogically vile. Deaf First Peoples are committed to having Tilden’s “Indian” expelled from the California School for the Deaf campus. The superintendent, Dr. Sean Virnig, was notified of the problem in 2012. Much like Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football team, Dr. Virnig, decided to defy that request. However, there are no trademarks to challenge. The school is part of the California Department of Education. How can Deaf First Peoples convince the State of California to expel Tilden’s “Indian” from the campus?

This statute is on the California School for the Deaf at Fremont campus.

The California School for the Deaf receives state and federal funding. At some point Deaf First Peoples will be compelled to pursue the nuclear option of having the school de-funded. For most, this seems counter-intuitive since Deaf First Peoples fully understand Deaf schools to be an epicenter of cultural transmission for communities of American Sign Language Peoples. Deaf First Peoples have no desire to attack a community which has also suffered from the eugenics movement. Closing the school would serve the interests of those who seek to deprive Deaf children of access to sign language. Yet, we cannot pretend that everything is fine either. Cultural transmissions that teach Deaf children that racism aimed at First Peoples is okay teaches Deaf children to be ignorant. Teaching Deaf children to ignorantly embrace fantasies of honor and revere hegemonic portraits of racism is not an acceptable option.

Dr. Richard Clark Eckert is a Deaf member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Most of the material in this article is derived from a chapter called “Grey Privilege” in his forthcoming book “American Sign Language Peoples & Civil Society.”