Detail of “Fountain of the Pioneers” (photo by Brian Rawson-Ketchum via Flickr and used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Workers in Kalamazoo are preparing to remove a fountain that features a white settler, weapon in hand, towering over a Native American in full headdress — an encounter many have criticized as racist and a reminder of colonial genocide. Known as the “Fountain of the Pioneers,” the concrete fountain has stood at Bronson Park, the city’s oldest park, since 1940.

By the end of this week, the site will be fenced off and a crew will dismantle it, according to WOOD-TV. The plan follows a March 6 vote by the Kalamazoo City Commission to remove the fountain, but retain artistic elements for preservation and display elsewhere. The decision came after community backlash against the carved figures, which intensified last year among other nationwide calls to rid public spaces of potential hate symbols. But economics also played a factor: the fountain was in need of refurbishing, which would have cost over $1 million. By comparison, the removal will cost about $200,000, the city said. More importantly, it will create space for healing.

“This vote was not to erase history, destroy art or deprive our community of a beloved feature of Bronson Park,” Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell and City Commissioner Don Cooney said in a joint statement. “This vote recognizes that there is a place for this type of reflection, but one of our most public areas is not that place.”

Fountain of the Pioneers in Bronson park, as photographed in February 2017 (photo by Jim Roberts via Wikipedia)

Designed by Alfonso Ianneli, an Italian American modernist who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, the fountain features a decorative parapet that conceals its mechanisms. The controversial figures stand outside the fountain and represent its highest point, and were envisioned to complement the nearby Art Deco-style City Hall building. The entire project was realized with about $37,000 of city and Works Projects Adminstration (WPA) funds.

As Catherine Larson, a history specialist at the Kalamazoo Public Library notes, the figures have been called racist, “horrendous,” “a monument to mistreatment,” and even “evil,” for many years. However, in the wake of debates over controversial public monuments after last summer’s fatal white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, opposition to it amplified.

Last October, after the city voted unanimously to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, locals raised concerns about Ianneli’s figures and how they embody white supremacy. That same evening, someone covered the statue with a tarp. In November, the fountain was vandalized with red paint and struck with an axe — defacement that other controversial statues, such as one of Christopher Columbus, have also experienced. In February, Kalamazoo activist Monica Washington-Padula, who is of Ojibwe descent, launched a petition calling on Commissioners Cooney and Shannon Sykes to remove the fountain.

“Although a large amount of the White population in Kalamazoo is documented to express a belief that the statue is a representation that reminds them of the horror caused by European domination of Native-Americans,” Washington-Padula wrote, “we as Native-Americans find it is a reminder of long overdue justice after brutal and inhumane treatment following European contact.”

Photograph of the Fountain of the Pioneers in Bronson Park, Kalamazoo (1940, public domain image)

Her petition cited a statement that Inalli sent the Kalamazoo Public Library in 1940 that described how the fountain culminates “in the tower-symbol of the pioneer while the Indian is shown in a posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances; the pattern of the parapet rail indicates the rich vegetation and produce of the land.”

The city is currently exploring options for where the artistically significant parts of the fountain could be shown. The Fountain of the Pioneers has also been on the National Register of Historic Place since 2016, and although it will not be removed from this list because of the city’s decision, it could be delisted if a petition calls for such an action, according to MLive. Kalamazoo’s Historic Preservation Committee has already taken extra steps to create a digital record of the structure. The fountain was scanned with lasers last month, and these can be used to create a 3D model of the fountain to provide accurate replicas of the original work.

Copies could be sent to the Historic American Buildings Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record in the Library of Congress. (The Historic Preservation Committee joined others in recommending that the city keep the fountain in situ, arguing that it serves as a necessary reminder of history.)

In their statement, Mayor Hopewell and Commissioner Cooney acknowledged that the vote to remove the fountain “will not immediately resolve all of the racial issues that we face in our City and our region, but it is a recognition that symbols matter.”

“It is a step towards healing,” they said. “We made a difficult choice, but it was the best choice for our City as a whole.”

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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,...