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MFA presents findings on a sculpture and its ‘complicated history’ for Indigenous People’s Day

MFA associate curator Layla Bermeo will give a virtual talk on responses collected by the museum to Cyrus Dallin’s “Appeal to the Great Spirit.”Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Museum of Fine Arts held its first-ever Indigenous People’s Day community celebration last year with Native American artists, educators, and creators presenting traditional dances, music, and storytelling throughout the museum. This year, given the pandemic, the event will inevitably be much quieter, with all programming relegated to the online world. The proceedings include a virtual talk by curatorial assistant Marina Tyquiengco, who is CHamoru, on Wendy Red Star’s “Apsáalooke Feminist #1,” part of the museum’s “Women Take the Floor” exhibition. In another talk, curatorial research associate Tess Lukey, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, will discuss an olla (or water jar) by 19th-century potter Arroh-ah-och, found in the museum’s Art of the Americas wing.

An Olla (water jar) by Arroh-a-och, created between 1870 and 1880.courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nonetheless, the museum picks up an important thread from last year. Associate curator Layla Bermeo will give a virtual talk on responses collected by the museum on “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” Cyrus Dallin’s sculpture of a Native American man on horseback, arms spread to the heavens, has been on the museum’s front lawn since 1909. The piece has been under heightened scrutiny for some years, because of what many believe is a stereotypical representation of Native American victimhood, but never so much as this year with calls for racial justice at a modern apex.

A reworking of the sculpture’s entry on the MFA website just last month might offer some clues. After acknowledging Dallin’s staunch advocacy for Native rights and culture, Bermeo and Lukey wrote: “Seen as a beautiful sculpture by some, [the piece] represents a painful erasure for others … Alone, apart from any community, and wearing an amalgamation of regalia, [the figure] does not represent actual Indigenous peoples living in the early 20th century. Any references to the Massachusett tribe, the original people from the land on which this sculpture stands, are notably absent. Instead, the figure embodies the myth of Native people as a ‘vanishing race,’ doomed to perish in the face of modernity.” The pair conclude that as stewards of the work, “we now reckon with this complicated history.”


Those complications extend well past the museum. This is a state where the official flag still bears a stereotypical image that’s not so different from Dallin’s. And while dozens of states, cities, and counties across the United States have adopted Indigenous People’s Day it’s still “Columbus Day” in liberal Boston, and in Massachusetts more broadly. Old habits die hard, surely. But this is one that deserves a much swifter end.


The MFA inches closer to that goal by calling the holiday Indigenous People’s Day, as we all should. And the museum comes close, but not quite, to disavowing “Appeal to the Great Spirit” itself. We have to start somewhere. Let’s see what happens next.


Presented by the Museum of Fine Arts. Oct. 12, 5-6 p.m. Streamed via mfa.org and on the museum’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.