The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some representations of Native Americans erase their history

This makes it harder to grapple with their current situation

A statue in Grant Park in Chicago. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

After last summer’s reckonings around racism, many U.S. cities are reexamining their public memorial landscapes. For example, a Chicago monuments commission is now in its fourth month of soliciting public comments on 41 monuments throughout the city that have been flagged as controversial.

Among the statues under review are the Bowman and the Spearman sculptures on Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s downtown. The sculptures, created in 1928 by the celebrated Croatian artist Ivan Mestrovic, are impossible to miss. Two 17-foot-tall anonymous figures in romantic Plains Indian headdresses sit atop horses guarding the entrance to Grant Park, where thousands of city residents stroll each week. These statues rank among the most prominent representations of Native Americans in Chicago.

Chicago Indigenous history experts, art historians and Croatian heritage leaders have met to discuss the Bowman and the Spearman, with some defenders of the sculptures pleading that the pieces are objects of Croatian pride rather than an attempt to harm Native American people. But, as this debate unfolds, it is clear that the problem is about more than one artist, one immigrant group and one monument. What is at stake in the debate is how Indigenous history is understood in American society more broadly.

Many students are surprised to learn that Chicago — or Zhegagoynak in the Potawatomi language — has an Indigenous history, not to mention present. Today, 71 percent of Native American people are urban, not rural, and Chicago is home to one of the largest urban populations of Native Americans in the United States with over 65,000 residents.

Over 13 unique Indigenous nations resided there before French settlers arrived in the 1600s, and many other Indigenous nations across the Upper Midwest have ties to the area because Chicago sat at the confluence of several important waterways. It was for this reason that American settlers became so attached to the space at the turn of the 18th century, with their settlements facilitated by the government’s violent expulsion of Indigenous people from the region. As American developers began to transport grain, timber and other resources from farms across the Midwest into the international economy by way of Chicago, the Blackhawk War of 1832 and the Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1838 resulted in the death and removal at gunpoint of thousands of Indigenous Midwesterners to Kansas and Oklahoma.

As these groups attempted to rebuild their governments and communities in lands foreign to them, they became targets of predatory land policies that resulted in the theft of yet more territory. In the 1880s, Indigenous children from both these removed tribes and from groups that had remained in the Midwest were taken away to Indian boarding schools across the country. Forbidden to practice their religion or see their parents, missionaries washed their mouths with soap when they spoke their native languages — an effort that aimed to eradicate Indigenous people and practices from the country.

A half-century later, in the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago became one of the biggest sites of the urban relocation of Native American people in yet another government attempt to “civilize” them through urbanization. Native Americans are thus at the heart of a winding and complicated history of violence and survival that is built into Chicago’s core.

The lack of knowledge of this history stems from inaccurate representations and outright erasure of Native Americans at every level of our society.

Mestrovic’s statues are part of this destructive legacy.

While Americans displaced Indigenous people from their land, they also appropriated their images and culture. In particular, after the closure of the frontier in the 1870s, Indigenous imagery helped Americans solve an identity crisis. Historically, war against Indigenous people had helped unify the hundreds of different ethnic and religious groups who settled North America. But with no Indian wars to wage anymore after the removal of Indigenous people across the West to reservations, Americans found that representations of Indigenous people could do some of that work of forging an American identity.

Images of Native Americans became about representing America’s vision of itself as a nation distinct from the European countries from which many of its White settlers hailed. Europe had great art and classical ties, while America had its “virgin” landscape and its “Indians” — who were portrayed as frozen in a distant past. Situating Indigenous people in the past was an important conceptual step for new Americans to make in the process of conquest. If they were never meant for the modern world, then it was easier to justify removing them from their lands to allow for the settlement of European immigrants in North America.

Romanticized statues of Native Americans proliferated in the early 20th century, often portraying figures as “noble savages” in Plains Indian headdresses. This was traditional dress that warriors from Oceti Sakowin, Apsáalooke and other communities across the Great Plains wore to prepare themselves for life-or-death battles against the U.S. Army to resist removal. First looted by plundering armies and put on display in art museums across the country for White audiences, this stolen traditional dress then became an inaccurate symbol that flattened and conflated diverse Native American nations, from the expert fisherman of the Pacific Northwest to the Pueblo dwellers of the Southwest.

Mestrovic was a celebrated sculptor whose work was a bright artistic celebration of Art Deco and Art Nouveau forms and Croatian heritage. But by all accounts, he had never met a Native American when the Art Institute of Chicago asked him to create the Bowman and the Spearman. And while Croatian Americans in Chicago may see the Bowman and the Spearman as part of their cultural patrimony, it comes at the cost of perpetuating harms against Indigenous Americans.

Art like Mestrovic’s that cast Indigenous people as belonging only to the distant past helps erase the brutal history of conquest and violence that continues to reverberate in those communities today. Pressing political concerns around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, environmental sovereignty and land protection become that much easier to dismiss.

Statues are about representation and representation is about power. As the great Indigenous intellectual Vine Deloria once wrote, “Before the white man can learn to relate to others he must forgo the pleasure of defining them.” These are the stakes of the Chicago commission’s work. Visibly racist and inaccurate representations of Indigenous people in public spaces send a message to Indigenous people everywhere that they are not in control of their own destiny, that they are not permitted to define themselves. The process of conquest continues.