Public art is a difficult thing to manage in a democracy, but failure to manage it can render a civilization invisible to subsequent generations. In this country, the National Endowment for the Arts is always on the chopping block, not because we can’t afford it but because one of the major political parties objects to the government “picking winners and losers” among artists.
In all human history, artists have been impecunious more often than not and have had to seek the sponsorship of wealthy individuals and governments. We remember a civilization through the public art it sponsors, provided the art survives.
About 25 years ago, there was a traveling exhibition of art indigenous to the Americas. The timeline ended with the New Deal, which kept lots of artists from starving by commissioning murals in public places, as well as paying photographers to document the Great Depression and even paying Woody Guthrie to write songs about public works projects.
The timeline began with an Olmec statue, a head that would have been a lot of trouble for the Spanish to destroy. I was struck by how much indigenous art was on loan from European museums. I did not know what fine work the Aztecs did in gold until I saw what was borrowed back from Spanish sources. Most gold statues and gold decorations for building interiors went to Spain melted down into ingots.
The Spanish burning of Mayan codices destroyed art and science together. The great pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas were not lost by failure to support their artists but rather by purposeful destruction. Most of the surviving Mayan glyphs we have because they were carved into public buildings. Paint was destroyed by fire or allowed to weather but stone carvings remain. Much of the Mayan art that escaped destruction—that part not illustrating their stories—is dedicated to immortalizing Mayan leaders.
The United States entered this public art tradition in 1864 as a thrifty way to make use of the chamber for the House of Representatives that had been rebuilt after the British burned the original in the War of 1812. Poor acoustics had rendered the chamber unusable for its intended purpose. The states were invited to submit two statutes of their citizens “as each State may deem worthy of national commemoration.”
Thirty-five states then and 50 states now were invited to make choices that would illustrate who they believe was critical to their history, who laid their historical foundations. The re-purposed chamber is now known as Statuary Hall, and it is one of the most visited rooms in the Capitol. The first statue was placed in 1870 but it was not until 1971 that all states had contributed at least one statue.
When it became apparent the space would not be sufficient, a law enacted in 2000 authorized display of the statues anywhere in the Capitol. Since then, each state is limited to one statue in Statuary Hall while the other statue is displayed elsewhere.
Of the 100 slots available in Statuary Hall, Natives occupy seven. That seems a low number, since all the states were occupied when the colonists showed up, but it makes it even more interesting to examine which historical figures the colonists found worthy of honor and which states made the seven decisions.
Before addressing the magnificent seven, just a few observations about the others are irresistible.
Those states that submitted past presidents were wasting an opportunity, because presidents are well known and get plenty of honor without appearing in Statuary Hall.
Possibly the most obnoxious choice to Indians is California’s choice to honor Fr. Junipero Serra, known among us for slavery and sadism.
The oddest choices for honor have got to be Virginia’s choice of Robert E. Lee and Mississippi’s of Jefferson Davis. Both honorees committed treason against the U.S. and were responsible for the war that killed more Americans than any other in U.S. history. Is this the kind of conduct “worthy of national commemoration?”
There were no Natives in Statuary Hall until 1917, when Oklahoma submitted a bronze rendering of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. The statue was designed by Vinnie Ream and completed after her death in 1914 by G. Julian Zolnay.
In 1939, Oklahoma became the only state to submit two Native statutes when it offered a bronze by Jo Davidson of Will Rogers. This means that the seven Natives in Statuary Hall come from only six states and two of the seven are Cherokees.
Oklahoma stood alone until 1969, when Hawaii contributed a Thomas Gould bronze of King Kamehameha I, known in history for being the first monarch to unify all the Hawaiian Islands under one government.
In 2000, Wyoming contributed a bronze by Dave McGary of Washakie, who was born Flathead but joined the Shoshone and led several Shoshone bands. Among the Shoshone, he is known—in addition to his military honors—for having negotiated the three-million-acre Wind River Reservation. Washakie was famous frontiersman Jim Bridger’s father in law.
North Dakota contributed a bronze of Sakakawea in 2003, sculpted by Leonard Crunelle. North Dakota believes they are using the best spelling of the name often rendered as Sacajawea for the Shoshone woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition and has also been honored by appearing on a one dollar coin.
Natives scored a double header in 2005. Nevada contributed a bronze of Sarah Winnemucca by Benjamin Victor, who teaches his craft at Boise State University. Victor, at age 26, was the youngest artist to have his work in Statuary Hall.
Sarah Winnemucca was a gifted Paiute diplomat who gave over 300 public presentations in support of Paiute rights and negotiated with U.S. representatives up to and including the president. Winnemucca was also the first Native woman to publish a book, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883).
Finally, and perhaps most unlikely, New Mexico completed the magnificent seven in 2005 with a marble rendering by Cliff Fragua of Po’pay (often spelled Pope’), the organizer of the Pueblo Revolt. In 1680, Po’pay united the pueblos along the Rio Grande to expel the Spanish from what is now New Mexico.
The peaceful Pueblo farmers had been colonized by the Spanish since 1540 and Spanish rule was maintained by murder and torture. The Pueblo Revolt took the lives of about 400 Spanish and sent the rest in retreat to El Paso del Norte. Po’pay’s revolt bought the pueblo people another 12 years of freedom before the Spanish army came back up the Rio Grande and resumed their ultimately unsuccessful attempts to destroy pueblo cultures.
Washakie was also a freedom fighter in his time, but Po’pay is the only Native in Statuary Hall who was known primarily for resistance to colonization without ever surrendering. The decision to honor Po’pay was made by the New Mexico Statuary Hall Commission, a body appointed by Gov. Gary Johnson, who was elected as a Republican but later became a Libertarian and ran for POTUS last year on the Libertarian ticket.
Why should Natives who fought the colonists be honored?
It makes more sense to honor people who fought for their freedom before the United States existed than to honor people who committed treason against the United States after it existed.