What is art’s place in the wake of a genocide?
Let me be more specific: What is the place for a 13-panel mural completed by a renowned Russian-American Communist artist that depicts the genocide inflicted by European and American colonizers against hundreds of Native nations when that mural prominently features dead Native bodies and is located in a public high school?
It’s a complicated question, one that was tackled by New York Times opinion staffer Bari Weiss for the paper’s Sunday edition. In her column, Weiss argued against a recent decision by the San Francisco school board to cover the “Life of Washington” mural completed in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff and displayed in the city’s George Washington High School. Citing interviews she conducted with local art scene leaders and school officials, Weiss exuded supreme confidence when she wrote the following:
And yet many of the school’s actual students seemed to disagree. Of 49 freshmen asked to write about the murals, according to The Times, only four supported their removal.
Which makes one wonder who these bureaucrats actually seek to protect. Is it the students? Or could it also be their reputations, given that those in favor of preserving the murals are being smeared as racists?
Or could it be that a full-time columnist for the nation’s paper of record failed to consider the persistent voices of Native resistance that oppose being solely portrayed by artists and historians as a lifeless body to be stepped over?
Last week, I found myself reading two books: Landscape Traveled by Coyote and Crane, a history of the Schitsu’umsh, (now known by outsiders as the Couer D’Alene Tribe, located in Northern Idaho) and Rediscovering Christanna, a history of my people, the Saponi (now the Sappony, Haliwa-Saponi, and Occaneechi Band, all based in North Carolina.) Both books recount the unique traditional ways of the two tribes and the histories they clung to the prior to the colonizers’ arrival.
Despite the physical distance between them and the near 100 years between first Christian contact faced by the Saponi and Schitsu’umsh, as I flipped between the two books, I picked up on patterns, specifically related to the cultural assimilation of these two tribal nations, that were devastatingly similar.
Fort Christanna, operated by Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood and run by Protestants, would snatch Saponi children from their parents at seven or eight years old; in the ensuing months and years, they would have their religion and language stripped from them. To this day, the Saponi language is struggling to survive as a result of the years we spent in the fort.
The Cataldo Mission, now the oldest standing building in Idaho, did the same, only instilling Jesuit religious practices instead. The priests, known among the Schitsu’umsh as Black Robes, forced the people away from their traditional culture and lifestyle, assisted the federal government in whittling down their land, and even enlisted a group of soldiers to ensure no Schitsu’umsh were breaking their rules. These actions were sold to both tribes as mercy.
I have yet to fully reckon with the sadness I felt as the weight of generations of colonizers perfecting assimilative and genocidal actions press against my chest. All I can tell you is that it feels like absolute shit and has the potential to leave your mental and emotional states in smoldering ruin.
The debate surrounding the Washington mural is one of intent versus impact. That is, does it matter that Arnautoff’s idea was to skewer American society for romanticizing an ahistorical figment of their heroes and history if the impact, eight decades later, means that a Native student will look upon the mural and feel that same crushing weight?
If we’re following Weiss’ argument, the mural should not be solely interpreted as piece of well-painted art, but as an opportunity to be reminded and educated of the true darkness of Manifest Destiny.
Allow me to state a crucial fact: after searching extensively through her archive, I could not locate a single piece that Bari Weiss had written about Indigenous people since starting at the New York Times. Nor could I find any pieces of hers providing a platform to any Indigenous voices at any of her prior stops. The closest she seems to have come is a 20-minute segment on Joe Rogan’s podcast in which the pair discussed the Covington Catholic-Nathan Phillips incident, mainly with the goal of indicting the American media’s “outrage culture” and defending the children.
Weiss couldn’t give a shit about how Native people feel about “Life of Washington,” or anything else for that matter, because their voices don’t fit the opinion she has been hired to write. Remember the line she wrote in her column, about how only four students in that writing assignment expressed a desire to have the mural removed? What Weiss conveniently excludes from her take is the full context of what it means for only four of 49 students at George Washington High School to call for its removal.
As she cited, the Times previously covered the debate swirling around the mural earlier, in April; that report actually featured Native voices, but it also included this helpful statistic:
Of the 2,004 students at Washington High, most are Asian-American; 89 are African-American and four are Native American.
In that same piece, a mother of one of the Native students told the Times that her son, “keeps his head down when he passes the murals.”
A Los Angeles Times piece on the mural debate also contained a quote from an Indigenous San Franscisco resident. The words, from Arianna Antone-Ramirez, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe and a 2016 graduate of the nearby Galileo Academy of Science and Technology High School, were clear: The mural does not have a place at Washington.
“Our students deserve better. We don’t need to see ourselves portrayed as dead Indians every single time we see ourselves portrayed in any type of art or in any books. We don’t need that. We know our history already — our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.”
Perhaps, in an alternative universe where Native invisibility in the media is not an issue, Weiss would have contacted Antone-Ramirez, or one of the Native groups or individuals interviewed by the Times reporter in April. (Splinter has reached out to Antone-Ramirez for comment and will update if she responds.) But it feels clear from her lede that one, four, or a hundred Native students would not matter to Weiss, not enough for her to step outside her colonizer box. And so, instead, not a single Native voice or viewpoint was presented in her column.
Weiss’s apathy is also made clear by the fact that her lack of research on the realities of California public school education undermines her thesis. The problem of Native invisibility does not hinge on a single mural that has existed now for a full lifetime. We know this because the tribal affairs desk at High Country News underscored it in April, when they released a damning report laying bare the abject failure of the California school system to incorporate true Indigenous history into its curriculum. And yet the revelation of that systemic failure does not warrant a single mention in her column.
But, again, none of this context mattered to Weiss, because it did not fit the column she has been hired to write. It didn’t matter to the editors, because their education (even at the likely private institutions they attended) and their professional experience in Native erasure prepared them specifically for this column. And it will likely not matter to readers of the Times, because who doesn’t love a good story of the Libs Going Too Far?
Unlike the “Early Days” statue—erected to celebrate the genocidal California missions—that was recently torn down in San Francisco, Arnautoff’s murals absolutely deserve to exist; that, to me, is not the question.
The question is where, and how best to interpret these works. I’d argue, at the very least, these are not murals that deserve a space in a public high school. One thing the school board could do is fund the removal and relocation of the murals to a museum and replace them with a set painted by a local Indigenous artist, though I imagine similar finance-related pearl clutching would ensure.
I admit that the solutions that appease both my resistance to the destruction of art and the respect of Indigenous people are limited, but, then again, I am not paid to worry about the logistics of how to relocate precious and fragile art pieces. What I am paid to do is to point out when a powerful institution such as the Times allows a writer to completely ignore the voices of Indigenous people so as to score points with moderates and conservatives.
If, after all, the perceived intent of “Life of Washington” is to educate each viewer as well as stimulate, then the emotional response I garner from reviewing it feels awfully close to my weekday reading, and I do not envy for a second the Native student that has to walk past a mural every day and see that bloody history splattered on the walls.