The other day I asked Google to search for some information on Massasoit, the 17th-century Native American leader whose Utah State Capitol sculptured image has caused a good deal of controversy lately. What came to the top of the list was a blog whose logo features an image of some of Southern Utah’s ancient rock art. The blog seems to be one with a bias, perhaps even a chip on its shoulder, regarding Native American concerns and current affairs. The article on Massasoit had several factual errors the author had evidently picked up from some of the voices weighing in on the topic in the mainstream press. He passed them forward; he was ably corrected by a graduate student researching the life of Cyrus Dallin, the artist who created the controversial sculpture.
Christine Sweet-Hart informed the blog’s readers that No, Dallin had not been a condescending, white male who knew nothing about Native American oppression. She went on to say that “the reason that Dallin did not sculpt a Ute and instead sculpted a Wampanoag was this: he presented his original plaster figure of Massasoit - the bronze casting of which was erected at Plymouth, Massachusetts to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock - to his home state as a gift."
(The plaque above, attached to the sculpture at the time it was re-installed out of doors indicates that date. But notice that the plaque misspells Massasoit.)
"It was not a commissioned work by the state of Utah. Had it been,” she concludes, that “sensitive as he was to the plight of the Native Americans at the turn of the century, he would have sculpted a member of a Ute tribe not a member of an East Coast one."
“Take that! Mr. Blogger,” I thought to myself. And then, with a certain amount of righteous indignation and sense of vindication (As the curator of the Utah State Capitol, I have had to field an inordinate number of inquiries about why Massasoit.) I thumped furiously at my keyboard. Finishing with a flourish and a click on the “Post” tab on the website, I filed the following comment:
I read with interest the article on Massasoit at the Utah State Capitol. I am the curator of the Capitol, responsible for re-installing the sculpture. Let me correct a couple of bits of misinformation: Dallin did not create a number of images of Massasoit, thus having a "fetish" for him as you suggest. Rather, the bronzes that exist in Massachusetts, at the Capitol, at Brigham Young University and in several other locations are all one image, multiple castings of the same sculpture. Second, the particular cast of Massasoit was a gift to the state of Utah by Cyrus Dallin himself, after he had become internationally famous. Actually Dallin gave the State a plaster version of the sculpture which was, from 1923 until 1957, exhibited in the rotunda of the newly created state capitol.
The state was penniless at the time and accepted with some degree of gratitude a gift from perhaps one of its most famous sons. In the early days of the state, I rather doubt that there was consideration of any kind of political or religious statement involved except that Dallin, who had left Utah long before that to become such a successful and well-known artist, gifted the state, which was impoverished and largely ignored or even loathed by Easterners, with artwork for their new Capitol they could not have otherwise afforded.
In 1959, the sculpture was moved outside to the south lawn of the building (incidentally designed by an immigrant from Austria via Paris).
Dallin was classically trained in Paris and was sculpting during a period in art history which was a flowering of classical (think Renaissance as well as ancient Greece) architecture and sculpture. Hence, we should expect that Utah's-favorite-son-made-good Dallin would idealize a man who was the 17th century leader or sachem of a number of treaty-bound tribe/nations near the first Pilgrim settlement.
Contemporary accounts of the Pilgrims' first encounter with this very politically and culturally powerful man describe his first meeting with about 20 desperate and starving men. He appeared in nearly silhouette, on a hill with 60 other warriors. His face was painted red, his hair styled with bear grease, and he wore all the trappings of leadership and honor among the Native American nations of the time.
The record describes an individual who was "a very lusty [meaning strong] man, in his best years," with an "able body," "grave countenance" and "spare speech." As the greatest of the sachem he was cultivated and intimidating, and dare I say noble. It is only in this day and time that the word noble, coupled with "savage" puts upon Dallin’s sculpture a derisive or even condescending attitude for Dallin, the Capitol Preservation Board or the Utah State government.
In the debate about bringing back the Massasoit sculpture to Utah's capitol, I worry if we risk superimposing today's politics and the hardened ideology of contemporary culture wars onto what is first, a remarkably fine work of neo-classical (and admittedly romantic) art and second, a valuable gift to the state from a man who remains to this day one of its most artistically successful citizens. I support the idea of raising funds to commission a sculpture of someone who might represent the best of the five Native American tribes of Utah. I do not, however, support that idea at the expense of excluding Dallin’s work. And while I am fully aware that history now questions some of Massasoit's actions -- in much the same way any powerful political leader's behavior is second-guessed by history -- the sculpture Massasoit, by Cyrus Dallin, is an interpretive image of a leader who in a 17th century Native American context was hardly a savage and most likely very noble indeed.
I wonder if anyone has noticed that I did not identify the name of the Blog or the blogger. I did so because there is now, as I write and proof this little essay, some professional consternation about my comments.
The problem is this: While I stand by my preference, I also consider myself to be professional in my scholarship. And I also know that I can be a bit passionate about things like my family, junk food, good dogs, and art. But in my zeal at setting this young man straight, I identified myself and my job and I did not put my essay through a spell check. So there it will stand, right above the capable Ms. Sweet-Hart, with at least five, count them five!, spelling errors.
You think I’d learn. Or find a good editor.