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The Pioneer Mother Statue and the 'Conquering Peace'

At the University of Oregon (U of O), just south of the administration building, amidst the beautiful green scenery of the campus, is a bronze statue, “The Pioneer Mother.” On the front panel of the statue’s pedestal is the Latin word “PAX” (“Peace”). As a student, I read the text enscribed on the back of the statue’s base. It is some text from a letter written by Burt Brown Barker in honor of his mother, Elvira Brown Barker who traveled with her family across the Oregon Trail in the 19th century when she was a young girl.

While recently visiting the U of O campus, I once again read Brown’s acknowledgement to “my mother Elvira Brown Barker, a pioneer of 1847…” The end of the text reads: “but to us there lives that spirit of conquering peace which I wish posterity to remember.” Why a “conquering peace?” Because, in the context of the expansion of the American empire, a “pioneer” is typically defined as “a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.” A pioneer is an agent part of what is called the “conquering” colonial expansion, of an empire helping itself to the lands and territories of original nations.

Brown’s phrase “conquering peace” was taken from a letter that he wrote while he was planning for such a commemorative statue. Brown eventually used that letter to convince the sculptor, A. Phimister Proctor, to create The Pioneer Mother statue. Elsewhere in his letter Brown expressed his ideal image of a pioneer mother, part of which states: “She was a woman born into life with all it has of labor and of pain; but she chose to multiply these as a helpmeet [sic] in blazing the westward trail that the course of empire might make its way, as the God of civilization has ordained.” In Brown’s view, the God of the Bible ordained that the destiny of “God’s empire” be manifested. Thus, the phrase “Manifest Destiny.”

The Oregon territory was established as part of the Westward expansion of the American empire that the founders of the United States had envisioned. Pioneers are the colonizers of a given geographical area which is new to them. That geographical area is new to the invading and colonizing society which expands its control by forcibly imposing its own foreign cultural pattern on the nations existing in there. This is commonly termed the process of “civilization.”

From the viewpoint of the original nations overrun by the trajectory of empire, the Pioneer Mother is a colonizing mother. From the self-congratulatory viewpoint of the colonizing society, she is a Conquering Mother. From an original nations’ viewpoint, she is the Mother of a system of Domination; the accuracy of this statement is made evident by Burt Barker’s phrase “conquering peace.” As the Roman historian Tacitus said of the Romans’ expansion of their “conquering” domination: “They create a desert and call it peace.”

In his letter, Brown envisioned a future time when, “The Indian and his arrows are but fireside tales dear to her posterity; the flintlock hangs rusted on the wall; the wild beast and his terror have long since given way to the protection of civilization.” Notice how Brown managed to combine the concepts “Indian,” “arrows,” “wild beast,” “terror,” and “civilization” all in the same sentence. The underlying message seems clear. “Civilization” (“the forcing of a cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign,” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) is portrayed as the antidote to Indians, wild beasts, and terror.

When The Pioneer Mother statue was dedicated at the University of Oregon campus, C. L. Hart—Chairman of the State Board of Education—made some remarks which are found in the Special Collections at the Uof O Knight Library (UA Ref 4 Box 78). Among other things, Hart also invoked the theme of “terror” and “savages” with the following:

The Pioneer Mother exemplifies the real genius of the west—the ages of the Nation. Coming to the Great West the Pioneer Mother risked every possible danger including cold, hunger and even death at the hands of savage Indians.

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To the north of the University of Oregon administration building, directly in line with The Pioneer Mother statue, is the bronze statue of The Pioneer, which was also made by Proctor and modeled after a nineteenth century trapper. In the Special Collections at the UofO Knight Library (UA Ref 4 Box 13) we find a booklet of speeches delivered during The Pioneer statue dedication on May 22, 1919.

In his opening remarks, University of Oregon President Campbell spoke of “this splendid memorial of all the dreams, hopes, and ambitions, of all the strength, courage, and self-sacrifice of the noble men and women who laid firmly in education and religion the foundations of a great future civilization.”

“The Honorable R. A. Booth of Eugene” delivered a talk entitled, “The Outlook from the End of the Trail,” in which he said: “Today we are not much interested in the cause that determined the course of empire…” Thus did Booth confirm that it was the American empire that the Oregon Trail was expanding. He then turned to an Old Testament religious analogy:

It is not difficult to see in the Mayflower the new Ark-of-the-Covenant and as easy to believe that whatever it contained that was holy, true, and progressive, was transplanted to the broad fields of the West when Pittsburgh became the new Plymouth. The unison of the tramp, tramp of the thousands of feet that crossed the Alleghanies extended the trail until it led and spread over Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri…(p. 12)

But there was still another stride to be taken before the continent was crossed. Then came the sons and daughters from the states just named, not to make the western boundaries of the world, but to find, claim and dedicate them [those states]. These were the Oregon Pioneers, and it was they and their influence and their children that planted here...a loyalty to country and to unselfish devotion to human interests that has been so frequently expressed…(pp. 12-13)

I am willing that these discoverers may be listed among the Saints… (p. 13)

Colonizers listed among the Saints. How interesting, then, that Pope Francis and the Vatican are about to list the name of Junipero Serra, a Catholic colonizer, among the Catholic saints. The pope is doing so in the name of evangelistic battle against heathendom and in celebration of the westward course of the Christian empire (imperii christiani).

Pope Francis and the Holy See are giving sainthood to Serra for being among the vanguard who worked at chaining Indian lands for the Roman Catholic Spanish Empire by creating a “chain” of missions that could be used for reducing the heathen barbarous nations (“barbarae nationes”). Serra, on behalf of the Holy See, marched forward in the name of a Catholic Pioneer Mother, the Mother Mary, “La Conquistadora.” Today, in 2015, the pope and the Vatican are celebrating Serra’s deadly legacy in an effort to reinvigorate their imperial, evangelical enterprise.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.