The history of some world cities is tainted by genocide, colonialism, the displacement, and continuous marginalisation of Indigenous peoples over hundreds of years. This history is often depicted in public monuments in urban centres. Over the past few decades, Indigenous communities have organised to demand for their rights for self-determination and positive representation. Increasingly, these cities have been working to address the issue, though the process is often complicated and highly polarised.
Early Days, one of five sculpture groups that comprised the 1894 Pioneer Monument in the centre of San Francisco, has been considered offensive by many due to its depiction of the Spanish conquest of California, which resulted in the near extinction of Native Americans. Tension surrounding the Monument began in the early 1970s and resurfaced in 1990s when it was moved from its original location near the centre of local government during the building of the city’s new main library. Following a number of public meetings, it was reinstalled in 1996 with a plaque contextualising its history. As the years go by, the plaque became inaccessible to the public due to new fences and landscaping and the Native American community in the Bay Area continues to advocate for its removal. In 2017, after many more public hearings where over a hundred members of the community came out to speak, the City’s Arts Commission and Historic Preservation Commission voted to remove the statue.
The process surrounding the removal of Early Days exemplifies the complicated role of art in the public space. Throughout the process, some argued that the Monument served as an important reminder of one of the worst episodes in US history, while for many in the Native American community it served as a glorification of the violence against Indigenous people. As a City Agency, the Arts Commission had to navigate both sides of public opinion, mindful of its role in stewarding and preserving San Francisco’s Civic Art Collection, while equally responding to a marginalised community’s concerns about racism and a historical lack of positive representation. The Arts Commission acknowledged that the sculpture used dated visual stereotypes of Native Americans which are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading, and racist. On September 14, 2018, the Arts Commission removed the sculpture with around 50 members of the Native American community from throughout North America who bore witness and participated in a healing ceremony.