City in Michigan Removes Fountain Offensive to Native Americans

The "Fountain of the Pioneers" previously stood in Bronson Park in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan

The "Fountain of the Pioneers" previously stood in Bronson Park in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan Michael Grass / Route Fifty

 

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Kalamazoo officials have not yet decided what to do with a 1940 monument or how to repurpose the park space.

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — While cities across the American South and elsewhere debated and, in some cases, removed statues honoring Confederate heroes from public squares, this city in southwest Michigan quietly removed its own public art relic of another era.

There were no public protests—though officials held a few long city commission meetings—preventing the recent removal of a 1940 art deco-style fountain with a statue depicting a white man towering over a Native American.

It sat in 170-year-old Bronson Park, overlooked on all sides by city hall, the county courthouse, churches and multi-story office buildings in downtown Kalamazoo, population 76,000.

The commission voted 6-1 to remove it in early March and work began in April, to fill the reflecting ponds with dirt and cover them with sod. The hope is to ready the space for picnickers and the first artist stands of the city's festivals, which begin around Memorial Day. A permanent use of the space has not been determined.

In the late 1930s, the city used local and federal funds—$37,500, according to the Kalamazoo Public Library—to commission construction of the "Fountain of the Pioneers" by Italian artist Alfonso Iannelli.

Iannelli described the concept of the statue as, in part, "culminating in the tower-symbol of the pioneer while the Indian is shown in a posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances."

Critics said it was racist, and called for it to be removed—to be replaced by art that was more representative of the city's desire to be inclusive, or simply repurpose the land as more traditional park space.

Led by the city's arts and historic preservation communities, proponents of keeping the statue ranged from those who argued the racist interpretation was incorrect to others who said the city should preserve the art, in a public place, as a reminder of the racism that led to the actions that inspired the theme in the first place.

Eleven-year Mayor Bobby Hopewell ultimately voted for its removal.

A decade ago, when a long-term plan was being developed for upgrading and updating Bronson Park, a group of officials representing the city, arts and history preservation community, and some Native American tribes, decided to keep the fountain. At the time, Hopewell agreed with that decision. .

A combination of government funds, philanthropic gifts, and a lot of planning effort went into that master plan for the park. It now has to be redesigned. Some self-proclaimed benefactors warned at a March 5 commission meeting, which stretched into the following morning, that donors may want their money back.

But the majority of speakers at the meeting wanted the fountain gone, including some wearing traditional Native American clothing, and many described the pain of seeing a statue in their main city park depicting the genocide of their ancestors.

That, in part, was enough to turn Hopewell.

"[The statue] was still about removing native people from this land—a depiction that was not accurate, even the headdress [on the statue] was not accurate," Hopewell said. "It was not informed by a Native voice, just a white man's voice, so then how can it be important to history especially with the inaccuracies?"

While opponents of the statue made themselves clear during the master plan meetings in 2006, the movement over the past year in other parts of the country to remove monuments to Confederate leaders gave them renewed momentum.

"I think there are parallels, yeah," said Hopewell. "Absolutely."

The options were to remove the statue and replace the space, repair it for an estimated $1.25 million according to the master plan, or let time continue to wreck the stone and crumbling subterranean water network that fed into that and an adjacent fountain in the park.

The city manager's office also recommended it be removed, saying it was necessary for the city to participate in healing racist wounds, and ensuring a public park was felt as welcoming to all. Local news outlet MLive.com reported the removal and temporary grass infill cost the city $225,000.

The statue is now in storage at the city's public services department, though there has been talk about finding an appropriate place to display it for purposes of educating visitors about how Native Americans that lived in the area were treated.

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, both within eyeshot of the park, have said they don't have room for it.

Ben Lando is a journalist based in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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