“Early Days”: Sculpture of Controversy

Early Days sculpture in San Francisco, California

Built in 19th century San Fransisco, the Early Days statue depicts a Native American man at the feet of a Spanish cowboy and Catholic missionary. In recent months it has become a center of controversy in San Fransisco, with some saying that the statue is degrading to Native Americans. In the wake of the Confederate statues being taking down in in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, the San Fransisco Arts Commission had voted to take it down and place the statue into storage.


Residents of San Francisco were calling the statue a representation of genocide. Commission spokeswoman Kate Patterson said about the statue, “as a city, we had an opportunity to correct a gross misrepresentation of history and to honor the wishes of the first people of this land who have advocated for the sculpture’s removal for decades.” Board of Appeals member Rick Swig did say that, “yes, its despicable. Yes, it’s horrible…but taking it away suppresses thought.” While Swig does agree that it is a depiction of a horrible time in California’s history, to take it down and place it in storage would be just suppressing the history of the state and of the people who were affected.

The Arts Commission Board decided to remove the statue after almost three decades of debating on it in favor of building a new main library for the city in March of 2018. With the total cost of the removal, storage, and placement of a plaque to be between $160,000 to $200,000. On April 18th , the San Francisco Board of Apples unanimously voted to overturn the decision made by the Arts Commission. This is in the wake of lawyer Steve Schmid’s appeal to the Arts Commission, arguing the the sculpture is a piece of art regardless of a persons opinion on it. Saying the the First Amendment mandates that it be protected as a freedom of speech.

While the decision may prove to be unpopular with those who fought for it to be taken down, it does serve to prove that while it was decisions on statues can be overturned if support behind it is present. But the same can be said of the opposite, if their was support to keep it, it can be overturned in favor of taking it down.

Growing up in a city surrounded my monuments and landmarks, I don’t see them as being related to genocide or as being tasteless. Most of the people I know feel the same way about them, not seeing them as a reminder of racial tensions and actions to a group of people, but see them as a reminder of the past and how far we have come from then.

4 Replies to ““Early Days”: Sculpture of Controversy”

  1. Hey John, nice post about the Early Days statue! I find the Early Days statue to be a fascinating example to counter the removal of controversial statues elsewhere, like that of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.

    For some time now, I have debated in my head about whether or not the removal of controversial statues is a good or bad thing. However, you have astutely pointed out that such controversial statues are “a reminder of racial tensions and actions to a group of people…and [that you] see them as a reminder of the past and how far we have come from then”.

    I think this last statement showcases your ideology and argument behind controversial statues quite well and has continued to make me think more critically about the issue. While I see negativity in these controversial statues, I will say that I, too, agree that their public displays are reminders for mistakes made in the past. With that, the last addition I would advocate for, in order to blatantly remind others of past atrocities, are new plaques that should instead rightfully state the wrongdoings that are recognized today.

  2. John, I think I agree with you on this. Sometimes decisions just aren’t popular, but most people don’t pay much attention to what the statues or paintings mean. I honestly believe that adding a plaque is a better way to go about these things.

    The alternative also exists that if you gather enough support and you disagree with the statue, you can attempt to put up a counter statue. The thing I’m sure of, is that we should not try to destroy history, it should be there for people to study or revisit in 100 years and further on.

  3. I agree with your point 100%. I believe that statues do not have to dictate what the public views as immoral or moral. The people who constructed the statue may or may not have had bad opinions about Native Americans, but we should not throw away someones interpretation of an event just because we do not like it. In the future, a group of people may find our statues from our own time as offensive and my have them taken down. That is a fate I do not want our memory to have when future generations come.

  4. Statues are at its most basic function a representation of something. Humans have created statues to represent countless of things for different reasons for a long time. Those statues may be an artful expression or even a political statement. Discourse and debate allow for opinions to be heard and narratives to be written.

    In response to the the current political discourse surrounding certain statues, I believe many see certain actions to be ad hominem attack on their beliefs and culture. To be more frank, people are making a this an issue without properly seeing the implications of a statue, its history, and effect on people.

    For example, the Charlotte Statue of Robert E. Lee that was removed from public land was created in 1924, almost half a century removed from the Civil War. It was also dedicated to a treasonous military general, who despite a prestigious service to the Union, fought against the United States of America in a conflict that saw more American lives than any other war the U.S.A has fought. Those are facts, my opinion is that the creation was an attempt of creating a symbol of a person who’s actions d stood against our values and against the freedom of an entire ethnicity. It is no mistake it was created during the Jim Crow era in the Southern United States. The statue should never have been created in the first place, at least not on United States Public land. Robert E. Lee won’t be forgotten in history, his treasonous actions against the Union will be taught just as we still are taught about Benedict Arnold.

    The Early Day’s statue, while not beholden to the same level of antagonistic history against the United States, it is a reminder of the genocide that devastated Native Americans. It is a hurtful reminder of the horrible events that transpired after the arrival of Europeans on the American continents. It should be taken from public land.

    That is variable I do not think many people truly understand. The issue being that these statues do have power, conveys a message, and are on public land. While I do not believe these statues should be destroyed or even put in storage, they have no place on land we all technical share as citizens of this nation. Perhaps a museum would be a better place where its history and political implications can be taught and explored.

    Statues are important. There is a reason why we create them. The issue isn’t their existence or artful expression. It is about the symbolic representation and the location it is placed upon.

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