Growing up in a small rural migrant farming community, the only monuments or museums I had ever seen were in books or on television. Moving to San Francisco as a young adult, I often walked through the city in awe of the tall buildings that blocked the sun, the sculptures and moldings that decorated the edifices, and the bronze sculptures that loomed over me. The first time I saw the Pioneer Monument in the city’s Civic Center, I was overwhelmed by the behemoth of metal and stone that rose in the middle of a busy roadway. As I moved closer, I could see that someone had doused red paint over the missionary in the “Early Days” sculpture. A visceral reaction came over me and I began to cry. I felt overwhelming sadness and fear as I looked at the representation of a Native man, defeated and demoralized beneath the weight and might of Catholicism. If there was ever a single moment that defined my future trajectory and politicized me, this was it.
Over the next twenty years, I joined many efforts to right historical wrongs. My journey brought me full circle back to the Pioneer Monument, where once again I stood in front of the “Early Days” sculpture: this time as an employee of the Arts Commission and steward of the monument. In my role, I was determined to use my influence to shift the narratives around the Native American community and highlight their needs and desires. By the fall of 2017, the demand to remove the “Early Days” statue came to the forefront as efforts to remove Confederate monuments heated up in the South. This was an opportunity to mobilize the community and work with city officials to ensure that this time we were successful in removing a degrading piece of public art.
Over the course of two years, the decades-long battle to have the “Early Days” statue removed came to a victorious end. The grotesque state-sanctioned genocide that took place in California during its formative years, and the ongoing harm and trauma that racist public art inflicts upon marginalized communities were repeatedly shared with the City’s decision makers and the public during numerous hearings. Sharing collective trauma in public forums comes with a price: the Native community had been emotionally stretched as they faced continued ignorance about the existence of Native Americans.
Many of the arguments against the removal of monuments lay in the idea that once they are removed, their history is forgotten. I began to ask myself, how can a city that has inflicted harm upon marginalized communities support the healing of ancestral wounds? How do we use this removal as an opportunity to continue dialogue and support learning that is authentic, accurate, and empowering to Native Peoples?
As we solemnly gathered in song and prayer the morning the statue was removed in September of 2018, some community members mounted the empty plinth, standing atop the pedestal with their fist in the air. This image of defiance and victory was the spark that ignited the first American Indian initiative for the city of San Francisco. What started as a small photo project with a single photographer and about thirty people, grew into a two-day production with three photographers and more than 150 members of the Native community. The removal effort had become such a unifying force, both for the Native community as well as city government, that the idea to photograph modern Native peoples on top of the empty plinth received overwhelming and unprecedented support.
Over the course of the next six months, I met with the Native community and began to curate various photo groupings that would showcase the beauty, vitality, and contributions that Indigenous people make to society in the present day. Some of the groupings consisted of Native lawyers, educators, city employees, artists, musicians, dancers, and families. Each individual chose how they would be portrayed: either in traditional or modern clothing, or a combination of both.
On April 5, 2019, the morning of the first day of the photo shoot, we were met with a steady downpour of rain. Undaunted, community members excitedly climbed to the top of the plinth and embraced the weather conditions. Photographer Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Dine and Seminole) took great care and consideration in taking the group photographs on top of the plinth.
Jean Melesaine (Samoan) used her documentarian eye to capture the essence of each person in individual portraits. Approaching her work through humility and honesty, each portrait was a powerful story that, when woven together, portrayed the depth of the community.
Tere Almaguer, Mexica Community Activist and Environmental Justice Organizer, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019).
Helen Coats, Sierra Mi-wuk / Paiute Elder and Retired Nurse, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019)
Cristina Gonzales, Chumash Cultural Practitioner and Museum Professional, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019)
Ursula Jones, Sierra Mi-wuk, Coast Mi-wuk, Kashaya Pomo Cultural Practitioner, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019)
Rodney Littlebird, Lakota Consultant and College Student, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019)
Patrick Makuakane, Native Hawaiian Kumu Hula, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019)
Huyana Kai Mumby, Powhatan, Kaska Dene, Taku River Tlingit, and Konkow College Student, photo by Jean Melesaine (2019)
A third photographer, Britt Bradley, (Algonquin, Irish, Mexican) introduced an antique wet-plate collodion process: a process that has been considered exploitative of Indigenous people when photographed at the turn of the century by white photographers. Originally used by predominately white male photographers to document a ‘vanishing race’ of Native Americans, their attempts at ethnographic photography came under deep criticism for the purposeful, and inaccurate staging of subjects and artifacts to emphasize the stereotypes of Native Peoples. Sometimes subjects were forced to pose under duress. Through Britt’s humor and warmth, the process was reclaimed by Indigenous people who were now in control of how they were portrayed.
Native American Artists: Tisina Parker (Sierra Mi-wuk), Huyana Kai Mumby (Powhatan / Kaska Dene / Taku RIver Tlingit / Konkow), Keith Secola (Northern Ute / Anishinaabe), L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva), Emmanuel Montoya (Apache), photo by Britt Bradley (2019)
Strong Hearted Women: Michelle Maas (Anishinaabekwe / Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior), Betty Trujillo (Dineh), Matoominskiahki Mamea (Amskapi-Pikuni Blackfeet), Jacqueline Lomeli (Luiseno / Shoshone); Janet King (Lumbee), photo by Britt Bradley (2019)
Our Storytellers: Jewelle Gomez (Ioway / Wampanoag), Mary Jean Robertson (Cherokee), Kim Shuck (Tsalgi), photo by Britt Bradley (2019)
Yosemite Elders: Helen Coats (Sierra Mi-wuk / Paiute), Julia Parker (Coast Mi-wuk / Kashaya Pomo), Ralph Parker (Sierra Mi-wuk / Paiute), photo by Britt Bradley (2019)
We witnessed the determination, beauty, and power of the Native community as they gathered and waited their turn to climb to the top of the plinth. The sound of laughter permeated the area as the sun broke through the clouds. Reunions took place and new connections were made. Many were moved to tears by what they were observing. What was once a place of great distress and harm had now been reclaimed and transformed by the Native community into a place of healing and celebration.
The large production spurred interest and support from other leaders throughout the city and created partnerships across municipal government, the National Parks Service, and local non-profits. Jill Manton, the Director of the Public Art Trust and Special Initiatives at the San Francisco Arts Commission, insisted that the faces of the Native community should be projected onto the buildings that flank the empty pedestal. Working with the Public Library and the Asian Art Museum, for one week, from dusk to dawn, the faces of the Native community looked down on to the area where the statue once resided.
San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery Director Meg Shiffler and her team agreed to an exhibition of the photographs, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz and Native American Heritage Month. Working with a local Native American/Native Hawaiian curator, Carolyn Kuali’I, the exhibition launched the larger citywide initiative that ran from October through December 2019.
The Continuous Thread: Celebrating our Interwoven Histories, Identities and Contributions portrayed the Indigenous community as modern people rather than relics of a forgotten past. Using a comprehensive marketing campaign featuring various portraits from the photo shoot, the initiative aimed to reclaim space, challenge perceptions, and shift narratives about Native Peoples. The faces of Native community members adorned city buses, the kiosks that run along Market Street, and the banners flown over the cable car turnaround on Powell Street, and the project was prominently featured in local media. A commemorative poster was created by artists L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva) and Emmanuel Montoya (Apache). Exhibitions ran simultaneously at the airport, the main branch of the public library, and on Alcatraz Island. The community celebrated the second annual Indigenous Peoples Day music and art festival at Yerba Buena Gardens and the 44th annual American Indian Film Festival. To honor those that occupied Alcatraz Island 50 years earlier, a free concert featuring Buffy Sainte-Marie was held at the Herbst Theatre with welcoming remarks by the original organizer of the occupation, LaNada WarJack. To close out the three months of events, an Indigenous fashion show took place in the rotunda of City Hall, featuring Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo and former contestant of Project Runway), Leah Mata Fragua (Chumash), and Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Tlingit).
Many changes have taken place in the city since the initiative concluded. Ohlone leadership has been recognized, land acknowledgments are now commonplace, and a designated American Indian Cultural District has been established. Contrary to the beliefs held by those against monument removals, the removal of the “Early Days” statue wasn’t the end of the story. The removal was the opportunity to write a new chapter narrated by a community that had been historically silenced.