Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Massasoit in the News.

This is a letter that appeared in the Brockton, MA newspaper the week of November 27-29, 2008

Far be it from us to get in the middle of a debate over what kind of American Indian should be portrayed by a statue on the grounds of the Utah State Capitol, but, well, what the heck.

For many decades, a bronze statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag Indian chief who made peace with the Pilgrims in 1621 and helped the new settlers to establish their thriving Massachusetts colony, has stood there. It is a copy of a statue that looks out over the harbor in Plymouth and was erected on Coles Hill in 1921.

So why is there a copy in Utah? Because the well-known sculptor, Cyrus Dallin, was a native of Utah and gave his original plaster cast to the state, which then made the bronze copy. But since the statue and the area in Utah has been undergoing renovations, some Navajos have come forward to complain that the statue is not representative of local tribes.

That may have some validity, but the Navajos don’t speak for all the Indians of Utah, which was named after the Ute Indian tribe. There are reservations in the state for Goshute and Paiute Indians, but it still remains a state dominated by Mormons, with Indians pushed to the periphery.

Several arguments can be made for keeping the Massasoit statue right where it is. Peggy Baker, director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, said it is more of a tribute to a famous artist than to Massasoit. There also is the point that no one really knows what Massasoit looked like and Dallin used a “representative” figure to illustrate Chief Massasoit, who also was known as Ousamequin and helped keep peace between Indians and Pilgrims settlers for four decades until his death and the later carnage of King Philip’s War.

Dallin was born in 1861 in Springville, Utah, and studied sculpture in Boston. Among his more well-known works, including Massasoit, are statues of Gov. William Bradford and Paul Revere. But his best-known work is probably “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” which stands in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There also is a museum dedicated to his work in Arlington, but he always maintained his connections to Utah and many of his sculptures remain on display there.

If Utah leaders and Indian groups decide that Massasoit isn’t quite right for Salt Lake City, so be it. But Dallin, a colleague of Augustus St. Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, represents Utah as well as any artist and the state should be proud to prominently display the work of the man who was born a Mormon and never forgot from where he came.

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