Two months ago, the Bear Hunt Statue (BHS) was a symbol of 19th century racism. There were multiple layers of racism within and surrounding the Bear Hunt Statue. Today, because of Superintendent Sean Virnig’s decision to leave the statue as is without remedy, the statue has now been transformed into a symbol of 21st century racism. Virnig’s treatment of race, racism, and the dialogue surrounding the statue has added another layer of racism to the multiple layers of oppression already inherent in the statue.
I did not support the removal of the BHS from the grounds of the California School for the Deaf (CSD). The BHS is unabashedly (as in without embarrassment, shame, or concern) racist. There is no question in my mind this statue is racist. While I agreed with DY-USA’s assessment of the BHS as racist and symptomatic of the need for increased anti-bias training and revitalized curriculum surrounding race, ethnicity, and diversity at CSD, I did not agree with the call for removal of the statue.
As a historian and as a history teacher, I often see students and educational administrators who do not understand or value the study of history. The dismissal of history as an important subject of study leads us down the path where we all too often repeat history or perpetuate the same cycles of oppression, if only in different forms. History does repeat itself. Ad nauseam. My fear was that the removal of the statue would lead us down this path of forgetting an era of oppression, of racism, of marginalization, of the wholesale destruction of Native American communities and cultures. Hide the statue away, now what? That was my question. So, don’t hide away the ugly past. But leaving the statue as is, after becoming conscious of the layers of racism and oppression within the statue, is also a racist act in itself. What to do, then?
My suggestion is to transform the BHS and its site. Leaving it as is allows the statue to become a memorial, a glorification, of an era in American history that witnessed the decimation of Native American cultures, languages, and communities; where Native Americans were stripped of their identities and families, shipped off to boarding schools en masse to be taught how to be “white”; the theft of two-thirds (2/3) of Native American lands by the Federal Government and white land grabbers; and the shepherding of millions of Native Americans into abject poverty and ghettoes onto reservations that were inadequate or incompatible to their way of life. At the time Tilden created the sculpture in 1892, the Dawes Act of 1887 had been passed where the premise regarding Native Americans was extinction or assimilation. Is this an era CSD wishes to memorialize and glorify? This is exactly what happens with the BHS being left on site, as is.
How do we transform the BHS so that it serves an educational purpose, to remember the tragedies of the past and to work toward a better, more inclusive society? My suggestion is twofold. First, the Statue itself must be explained. Second, the inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans must be remedied. The specifics of how this is done is limited only by imagination and creativity. As to explaining the Statue, the Statue may be explained with a plaque that explains the following: the provenance of the Statue; the cultural impetus of the era that shaped Tilden’s thinking (American Romanticism); a blurb explaining the historical context which shaped the aforementioned cultural impetus; and an appropriate note of regret in recognizing the tragedy that took place. This plaque serves four educational purposes, which befits an educational institution. The first part introduces the observer to deaf history and unveils audism. The second part illuminates the observer as to American literary and cultural history. The third part teaches us a little about Native American history and their part in the grander narrative of American history. The fourth part emphasizes that what happened was wrong and is something we do not want to repeat as a civilization. As to the second portion of my suggestion, which is to remedy the inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans, this is where CSD has creative license. Perhaps a bas-relief or an outdoor mini-museum site accompanied by appropriate captions, images, illustrations, and so on that illustrates the reality of Native American ways of life, introduces us to the richness and diversity among the various Native American tribes, and corrects the stereotypical image of Native Americans perpetuated by the BHS.
CSD, as an educational institution, has a responsibility to create a safe educational space. CSD has a responsibility to its students and faculty of color to create a safe, equitable space where they are not marginalized, especially when bullying has become a visible, prominent issue. CSD has a responsibility of shaping its pupils into model citizens, citizens who strive toward an egalitarian society where they treat all people with respect. CSD has a responsibility to seize educational opportunities and teachable moments wherever and whenever they arise. The BHS is such an opportunity. CSD cannot deny the racism within the Statue. After all, they withdrew the three original brand logos depicting the BHS after the community protested the images as racist. To leave the Statue as is, after acknowledging the implicit and explicit racism within this imagery, is to claim that racism is not problematic and to be addressed only when convenient.
As long the Statue remains as is, it is no longer a symbol of the racism of the 19th century but serves as a stark reminder that racism is alive and well in the 21st century.
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” ~W.E.B. DuBois