“Early Days,” a sculpture near the base of the Pioneer Monument in San Francisco (photo courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission)

After years of criticism, a controversial statue of a Native American will be removed from its longstanding post at the base of a prominent San Francisco monument. Yesterday, the city’s Arts Commission voted unanimously to take down the bronze sculpture that stands near City Hall, which many locals consider racist and celebratory of America’s violent colonial history. The statue, titled “Early Days,” depicts a fallen Native American male who looks up at a missionary as a vaquero (cowboy) gazes into the distance. It is one of four smaller statues that surround “Pioneer Monument,” dedicated in 1894 to commemorate chapters of California history.

“The Commissioners agreed that this racist and disrespectful sculpture has no place in the heart of our city,” the agency said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, Arts Commission staff will take steps to remove the sculpture and place it in storage. Staff will also create a didactic plaque on or near the monument explaining the rationale for the sculpture’s removal.”

Pioneer Monument in San Francisco (photo via Wikipedia)

Monday’s vote follows months of community outcry against the statue, which were reinvigorated when right-wing protests in Charlottesville, Virginia — over the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument — left a counter-protester dead. Spearheading the protests were members of the local Native American community, who said the statue “promotes a white supremacist ideology that is connected to the mass genocide of indigenous people.”

Their calls renewed two earlier efforts by Native activists to remove the statue. In 1991, in response to criticism from local organizations, the Arts Commission added a plaque beneath the figures that added historical context. Plants, however, obscured the plaque over time, and activists argued that the sign did not provide adequate information to explain the racist images. Demands to remove it emerged once more in 2007, led by a Native American task force representing the Bay Area.

This time, amid a national reckoning with Confederate monuments, the city responded differently, at least after a bit of bureaucratic pingpong. In October, the Arts Commission voted unanimously to begin the process of removing the statue. The vote then went to the Historic Preservation Commission, as the Pioneer Monument stands within a historic district. The Historic Preservation Commission voted on February 21 to remove the statue, with the stipulation that the city add a plaque explaining the reasons behind its removal. Yesterday the Arts Commission gave its final approval. The city plans to take down the figures within months.

Detail of “Early Days,” (photo by Patrick Flanagan)

“The Arts Commission heard the public outcry against the imagery represented in the ‘Early Days’ sculpture and took the appropriate steps to help rectify an historic injustice,” Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny said in a statement yesterday. “It’s important for us to respect and honor the original inhabitants of this land and to remember that they remain a part of our community today and their voices deserve to be heard.”

Originally located around the corner from its current site, Pioneer Monument was funded by the estate of local businessman James Lick, who died in 1876 as the wealthiest man in California. The historical scenes were created by Frank Happersberger to encircle a large figure of Athena. “Early Days” was one of four sculptures near the base of the monument; the others represented allegories of Commerce and Plenty, as well as a group of miners to commemorate the California Gold Rush (which itself displaced many indigenous people). The city moved the monument to its current position to make way for the construction of the San Francisco Public Library.

San Francisco’s vote marks the latest decision by a local government to remove or relocate controversial public monuments, as national debates over their value wage on. In January, a New York City commission voted to move a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who experimented on female slaves, to a Brooklyn cemetery. The San Jose City Council also voted to relocate a Christopher Columbus statue installed in its City Hall, although council members have not yet determined where it will go. While the San Francisco Arts Commission has decided that “Early Days” will be placed in storage, it has not ruled out the possibility that it will go to the museum one day, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Update, 3/26/2018: Frear Stephen Schmid, an attorney from Petaluma, has filed an appeal to challenge the Commission’s decision. According to the San Francisco ChronicleSchmid believes that placing “Early Days” in storage is akin to “destroying” the statue. A hearing will take place on April 18.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

13 replies on “San Francisco Will Remove Statue of White Settlers Towering Over a Native American [UPDATED]”

  1. ridic. its a stunning statue regardless of the subject matter, which i agree is tawdry. display it in a museum or somewhere.

  2. Removal of statues of dictators, kings, emperors and other “heroes” (mass murderers) of the past would make European cities look empty. It’s the past one has to accept in order to reach a better future. Maybe, a simple plaque below – explaining the history and its cruelties – would have been enough? What’s next? Removal of paintings (actually done already in some museums)? Burning books? Where’s the end?

  3. I agree with Richard Roe below YOU SHOULD NOT REMOVE THE OLD STONES the past is the past and it is there to learn DO NoT take it down

  4. The removal of “Early Days” is a misinterpretation of historic political correctness, and of the sculpture itself. The name of the piece does not glorify either the colonist nor the Religious, and these figures are not the raison d’être of the piece; rather, the subdued and subjugated Native American is its focus and elicits sorrow and empathy for him, and scorn for his oppressors. Beyond that, it’s a terrific piece of sculpture.

    1. I have seen this sculpture and I agreed with your perspective. The portrait of the Native American is beautiful. I’m sorry to see his human form being hidden… discarded… he’s a powerful and majestic form in the metal arts. I think the storytelling here is powerful and obviously cautionary. It makes me cry.

  5. I think we all need to congratulate the Red Guards of the U.S. on the outstanding progress of their Cultural Revolution. It won’t be long before the White Racists are made to confess their crimes against the people in public struggle sessions, before being sent to the countryside to be rusticated in re-education camps.

    Even the Chinese are taking notice of the outstanding progress of the US Cultural Revolution:


    Chairman Mao awakens after a few decades’ sleep and asks about the state of China and the world:

    Chairman Mao: “Can the people eat their fill?”
    A: “There’s so much to eat they’re dieting!”
    Chairman Mao: “Are there still capitalists?”
    A: “They’re all doing business overseas now!”
    Chairman Mao: “Do we produce more steel than England?”
    A: “Tangshan alone produces more than America.”
    Chairman Mao: “Did we beat social imperialism the USSR?”
    A: “They dissolved it themselves!”
    Chairman Mao: “Did we smash imperialism?”
    A: “We’re the imperialists now!”
    Chairman Mao: “And what about my Cultural Revolution”?
    A: “It’s in America now!”

    1. Your comment demonstrates a complete lack of comprehension about what is going on, as well as a failure to grasp what the Chinese Cultural Revolution was about. I don’t even know where to start with you. Let’s keep it really simple: this status represents a racist POV in which the Native American is a savage who needs saving by the godly pioneers, and in this way it is revolting to people who come out of this history of oppression. Once you see this, you will understand that it also insults you, as a fellow human being. It is the argument of the ignorant to suggest that getting rid of racist symbols is evidence of something wrong. In fact, unlike Mao’s Cultural Revolution, this is in fact a grassroots movement. This in fact the people saying no to this crap. This is, in fact, Democracy for ALL.

  6. Erasing history…one statue at a time! I would have thought the San Fran liberals would be more concerned about keeping the ‘poop map’ up to date? Look at the outcry the hypocritical Americas give when Isis destroys what they consider offensive history. Yes, when the Americans do it…it is fine.

    A recent proposal by a liberal was to outlaw marriage unless it was interracial. Their belief was in a few generations all the races would be mixed and there would be no more prejudice. As if whites don’t hate whites, blacks don’t hate blacks and orientals don’t hate orientals.

    Liberals / Democrats seem to suffer from ‘perfection disease’. They are always looking to restrict freedoms of others to try and create their own little fantasy dream world. We can see how it went with the US and Australia. First they ban long guns, then they confiscate pistols, then knives. Now that London is the acid attack capitol of the world they are looking to ban acid sales.

  7. You can’t hide history but to acknowledge it. We can edify the present and envision the future.
    Perhaps, to keep ‘Early Days’ is to acknowledge the worst of civilization, and for today and tomorrow, the city could have another monument to embrace that idea and reality.

  8. I sympathize with the desire to remove the sculpture from it’s current location,where it celebrates the grotesque activities it portrays. Early Days is a profoundly condescending dismissive and cruel title. However I don’t think it should be destroyed but moved to a location where it can be seen in another context as the statue does tell terrible truths. The image of the missionary priest admonishing the the conqured and defeated indian on the ground is both repulsive and symbolic of the destruction of these people by the Spanish invaders. What actually happened, genocide and enslavement does call for another monument to acknowledge these attrocites. The statue in city hall however should be moved an relocated, as to destroy it is to erase history and deny that these things ever happened.

  9. If Early Days goes to a museum, I hope it is accompanied by an educational tag that says, “This is what racism and genocide looked like.” Anyone on this thread who does not grasp that the Native Americans did not need “improving” by white people and that religion was used as a weapon against them to “prove” their inferiority and the “right” of white people to enslave them and take their freedom needs to … go read a book. Get rid of it.

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