A Sioux tribe has weighed in about the controversial mural at George Washington High School. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Native American leaders pressure school district over plans to cover mural

The struggle continues over the controversial murals at George Washington High School.

A group of Native American leaders from across the country delivered a message Friday to the San Francisco Unified School District superintendent and school board president protesting against the decision to cover the murals last year. The leaders said the mural depicts the truth about history and therefore should be used as an educational tool.

“The tragedy that comes with trauma is the truth that’s not told,” said Barth Chief Eagle Robinson of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “If we could develop a curriculum that changes that narrative and flips the dialogue that shows this nation was always here.”

Superintendent Vincent Matthews and School Board President Mark Sanchez were not present, but district staff accepted the letter on their behalf.

The leaders were invited to perform a smudging ceremony and deliver the letter by the high school’s alumni association, which filed a lawsuit in October against the school district’s decision as violating the environmental review process required by state law. The lawsuit is ongoing.

The “Life of Washington,” a 13-panel fresco painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936 depicting images of slavery and Native American genocide, has been hotly debated in The City as far back as the 1960s. Arnautoff, a student of Diego Rivera, created the murals as part of a New Deal Public Works program and as a critique on U.S. history.

However, black and Native American students, parents and community members have protested the images as traumatizing and reinforcing stereotypes. In 2018, SFUSD’s Indian Education Program listed removing the mural as one of its top priorities

“People wanting to keep it are older and distant from the present students, who have a hard time viewing these images every day,” said Gabriela Lopez, board vice president. “Students deserve to feel safe, so I will continue stand with what the students are asking for.”

In June 2019, the school board voted to paint over the murals, a decision that was met by fierce opposition from supporters of the mural. In August 2019, the board revised its original decision, directing district staff to assess options including covering the painting with panels, which would cost an estimated $825,000.

“The answers that they’re suggesting, the people who want to destroy or permanently cover it, all they’re going to do is repeat the same lessons,” said Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the alumni association. Yap said the school board could save money by not censoring the historical artwork.

The Coalition to Protect Public Art announced a ballot initiative for the November ballot to prevent public funds from being used to destroy or censor the artwork. The coalition is still working to collect signatures.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t tell the truth about America’s history after we cover up these murals in response to student-led demands for a more inclusive and safe learning environment,” former Board President Stevon Clark said in an op-ed to the Examiner in July 2019. “We should be talking to the arts community about how to commission art in our schools that represents those stories, not defending images that showcase and relegate our people as a dehumanized subplot in the life of a wartime general.”

mjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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