U Officials Miss Real Target on Statue Decision

By By John Morley

By John Morley

Last month, the University of Utah turned down a rare opportunity.

The Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee offered to pay for the transportation and temporary display of a large sculpture by Native American artist Alan Houser.

The statue, called “Sacred Rain Arrow,” was slated for a spot in the athletes’ village near Officers Circle. Had university administrators accepted the offer, the piece would have resided there until the end of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

It then would have moved back to its permanent home at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C..

Instead, the sculpture won’t arrive in Utah until Jan. 9?the day SLOC takes over student housing.

The university gave two reasons for rejecting the sculpture: first, fear of vandalism; and second, fear of offending Native Americans.

The interesting thing about this decision is that it reveals how little most people understand about the real needs of modern Native Americans. It shows how the war of words on both sides of the political spectrum misses the point?that Native Americans have important economic and political needs that no one is meeting.

The Olympics will cast a harsh and ugly light on this lack of understanding. Organizers are planning to showcase Utah’s indigenous peoples through performances and displays of Native American art. As Utah natives take center stage, however, depictions of “traditional culture” will contrast sharply with Native American reality.

University administration’s decision was right, because accepting the statue would obscure the issues of real importance to Native Americans. It was wrong because none of those issues played a factor in the decision.

Don’t get me wrong?the statue is definitely beautiful. It depicts an ageless warrior firing an arrow into the heavens. The piece evokes a sense of grandeur and religious solemnity. Natives and non natives alike can appreciate the magnitude of Houser’s achievement.

But the fact that the statue is beautiful doesn’t mean its portrayal of natives is accurate.

Certainly, Houser’s sculpture does not fall into the same grossly misinformational artistic category as American classics like “Stagecoach,” “Fort Apache” and “The Lone Ranger.” We moved beyond the worst of the shoot-’em-up cowboy and American Indian flicks long ago.

But in many ways, Houser’s newer, more politically correct rendering of American Indian culture is just as problematic.

So-called “sympathetic portrayals” stereotype and misuse indigenous peoples for the gratification of those in power. Native Americans may be cute and fun for Olympic television cameras, but Houser’s sculpture obscures the fact that American Indian voices are completely left out of meaningful political discourse.

When was the last time a Native American held a fat and sassy SLOC position? What about a seat in the state legislature? Or the U’s Administration?

If the SLOC or the U had any real concern for Native Americans on Utah’s reservations, it would find and display art that tells the truth about the struggles of present-day American Indians. It would tell the world that Utah’s natives are among the poorest 10 percent of the state’s residents.

It would focus on expropriation of native lands, the FBI’s repression of American Indian activities and lack of adequate health care.

A completely honest depiction of natives would tell how ancestors of SLOC officials took the indigenous peoples’ land and systematically committed political genocide.

Instead, “Sacred Rain Arrow” and the 30-odd other works by Houser slated for display around the city will perpetuate the myth that, because our art about American Indians is “nice,” our treatment of them is humane.

For these reasons, the university’s decision to reject the sculpture was right. But the logic behind it was all wrong.

Although Fred Esplin, vice president for university relations, cited two reasons for rejecting the sculpture?vandalism and fear of offending natives?only the fear of being politically incorrect played an important factor.

Vandalism definitely wasn’t the main motivation for the decision. There are boatloads of other potential targets around campus.

What about the wacky sculptures next to the architecture building? Or the fountain east of the Marriott Library? A couple bars of soap or a can of spray paint would do the trick nicely on either of those beauties.

Also, SLOC offered to insure Houser’s sculpture against damage. There was no financial risk involved.

The real issue, then, is the university’s wishy-washy worries about political correctness. Ostensibly, the administration deeply cares about the sensitivities of American Indians. In reality, though, the decision had more to do with paranoia about bad publicity than genuine concern for Native Americans.

Officials’ fear that the sculpture might offend Native Americans betrays a strikingly vain obsession with high minded, but morally bankrupt, attitudes. In its desire not to upset American Indians, the university became just another brick in the wall of ignorance.

The university didn’t even consult the Ute tribe. When the tribe independently issued a statement saying it did not oppose the statue, university leaders ignored it.

Wilma Tyner, Native American Advisor at the U, is troubled by the university’s lack of concern for the opinions of Native Americans on the issue. She points to the large sculpture of a “Ute” Indian by Avard Fairbanks on the west side of the Union. “What about that?” she asks. “Why did they just assume another statue would offend someone?”

Ward Churchill, a well-known American Indian author and activist, describes white America’s trumped-up concern for non-offensive portrayals of Natives as “semantic masturbation.”

The analogy is appropriate since it describes how pointless such concern is. Bickering about whether to use the term “Native American” or “American Indian,” or whether to display potentially “offensive” works of art masks an utter lack of concern for any thing of real significance.

How could a bronze statue be any more offensive than 300 years of genocide and oppression?

Administrators’ decision not to offend their deeply beloved Native American brothers was a move that gratified only themselves and the establishment elite that seeks to use Native Americans for glorification of the Olympics.

SLOC and their counterparts at the university have shown a surprising amount of concern about the political impact of piece of bronze.

Perhaps they should stop obsessing over statues and start thinking about real people.

John welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].