SF to remove ‘Early Days’ statue over racist depiction of Native Americans

San Francisco will take down the controversial “Early Days” statue depicting Native Americans in a demeaning manner after the Arts Commission voted unanimously to have it removed Monday.

The bronze statue of three figures has sparked controversy in the past, but renewed calls for The City to take it down came after last year’s protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The statue, which is part of the larger bronze and granite Pioneer Monument located between the Main Public Library and the Asian Arts Museum, depicts a Native American cowering on the ground before a mission padre and a vaquero, who tower over him.

The removal of “Early Days” was supported by the late Mayor Ed Lee, as well as by Mayor Mark Farrell and Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the Civic Center area where it is on display.

The commission voted to remove the the statute and place it into storage. It’s possible that it could one day find a home in a museum.

A memo from the Arts Commission said calls for the statue’s removal stem from “the allegorical sculpture’s depiction of the degradation and genocide of Native American peoples, utilizing visual stereotypes common at the turn of the twentieth century to depict all Native Americans which are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading, and racist.”

Tom DeCaigny, director of cultural affairs for the Arts Commission, called the vote “a very significant and historical moment” for San Francisco and the nation.

“There have been lots of conversations about appropriate representation of monuments in the public realm,” DeCaigny said. “What’s challenging about these conversations is that I have heard feedback that in some way we are looking to revise history or forget history. I would argue quite the opposite. This is us recognizing history and the evolution of history and doing the right thing on the right side of history.”

“One of the justified objections to it being on public land, in a public place, is that by it continuing to be there it signals any city’s or municipality’s implicit endorsement of the racism within the statute,” said JD Beltran, chair of the Arts Commission. “Whereas when it is in a place where it is recognized as being historical and being able to be surrounded by other historical artifacts and put into context then that endorsement disappears.”

The Arts Commission first voted in October 2017 to initiate the steps for the statue’s removal, which required approval from the Historic Preservation Commission since it’s located in a historic district.

The Historic Preservation Commission voted Feb. 21 to allow the statue’s removal with a condition that a plaque is installed explaining why it was removed. A staff analysis found “alteration of the monument, which is identified as a small scale character-defining feature in the district, will not affect the integrity of the Civic Center Landmark District as a whole.”

The Arts Commission estimates the cost for removal of the statue could range between $160,000 and $200,000, which includes $60,000 for 10 years of offsite storage.

Arts Commission staff said removal is expected to occur within months.

The origins of the Pioneer Monument began with a $100,000 gift to The City by real estate investor James Lick upon his death in 1876. American sculptor Frank H. Happersberger was commissioned for the work, which he completed in 1894.

In the early 1990s, there were unsuccessful calls for removing the statue when the monument was relocated from Hyde and Grove streets to its current site on Fulton Street between Larkin and Hyde streets to make way for construction of the Main Public Library.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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