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Where does the statue controversy end?

20 10.26.17_earlydays1 PAGEThe “Early Days” statue in San Francisco is under review by the San Francisco Arts Commission as a first step toward possible removal. Part of the Pioneer Monument, a legacy of philanthropist James Lick, the statue depicts a vaquero, a Spanish padre and an indigenous man from a 19th-century European pioneer perspective. It survived a previous public debate in the 1990s, which was resolved with the addition of a plaque describing colonizers’ devastating impact on the native population, especially after gold was discovered in 1848. (Photo by Catholic San Francisco)

 

A debate over public memory of pioneers, padres and native Californians

October 26, 2017
Christian Clifford

The San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Oct. 2 to consider the removal of the “Early Days” sculpture of the Pioneer Monument near Civic Center. One of the three figures on the sculpture is a Franciscan priest. The timing of the push to remove the statue coincided with the removal of Confederate statues in the South; anti-Columbus Day news, when many were celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month; and the recent vandalism of memorials of the 18th-century Franciscan St. Junípero Serra, who brought Catholic Christianity to California. Are those demanding removal of “Early Days” barking up the wrong tree?

St. Junípero Serra, the founder of the California missions knew history and wanted to distance himself from the conquistadors and encomienda system. He wanted to change hearts and minds with the Gospel, not the sword. His heroics were recognized by the monuments benefactors in 1894 with a portrait medallion near the “Early Days” statue. George Yagi Jr., professor of history at San Joaquin Delta College, is not the first to argue how Junípero Serra defended the California Mission Indians against Spanish military abuse. Like any institution, the California missions had its saints and sinners and all types in between. The greatest tragedy was an unintended consequence of the cultural exchange – the majority of the Mission Indians died due to diseases for which they had no immunity.

The plaque “California Native Americans” added in 1994 to the Pioneer Monument rightly notes that pre-contact with Europeans, the California Indian population was estimated to be 300,000. Scholar Barry Pritzer estimates that by the early 19th century there were 200,000. By the end of the century there were 15,000. The near annihilation of the California Indians came during the Gold Rush from the 49ers and with the blessing of the government of California. The native got in the way of so-called progress and genocide ensued.

Accusation does not mean guilt. California Mission history is complex and generalizations, when looking at any history, should be avoided. It would be crazy to believe that all Pueblo Indians were bad because of Popé, the religious leader who headed the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 that killed 400 Spanish and relocated 2,000 settlers. Yet Popé has been honored with a statue in Washington, D.C.

If city officials are really set on righting a wrong of history, maybe they should demand that the San Francisco 49ers change its name. If they are really serious about removing offensive monuments, then they should consider the monument to the Lincoln Brigade. The Republican forces (the side they fought for) in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) murdered 6,844 Catholic clerics and religious.

Yale University historian David Blight, an expert on slavery, and other historians presented a very sensible criterion when judging historical monuments: “… discussions [should] weigh many factors, among them: the history behind when and why the monument was built. Where it’s placed. The subject’s contribution to society weighed against the alleged wrongdoing. And the artistic value of the monument itself.”

Maybe this will help San Francisco officials avoid politicization when it comes to the fate of the “Early Days” statue of the Pioneer Monument.

Christian Clifford is a veteran Catholic school teacher and author of three books about Catholic Church history in Spanish-Mexican California. Clifford’s writings have appeared in Aleteia, California Teacher, Catholic San Francisco, Catholic Standard, Crux, Patheos and Today’s Catholic Teacher. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son. For more information, visit www.Missions1769.com.

Editor’s note: The Oct. 2 San Francisco Arts Commission agenda, minutes and supporting documentation, including a staff report and public correspondence, may be accessed at http://sfgov.org/arts/meetings/15.

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