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Planting seeds of change at the MFA

‘Appeal to the Great Spirit’ has sat alone on the front lawn of the MFA for more than a century, but some say it’s a ‘painful stereotype.’ Now, Indigenous artist Elizabeth James-Perry is reframing the conversation — and the sculpture itself.

Artist Elizabeth James-Perry walked last month through "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA," an installation designed to envelop the Cyrus Dallin statue on the museum's front lawn.
Artist Elizabeth James-Perry walked last month through "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA," an installation designed to envelop the Cyrus Dallin statue on the museum's front lawn.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Ragged stalks of corn poke up from raw earth in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, testament to a too-cool, too-wet summer. “Seven feet,” Elizabeth James-Perry, who planted it back in the late spring, said hopefully when I asked, not long after the crop went in, how tall it would be by September harvest — tall enough to swallow the granite base of “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” Cyrus Dallin’s sculpture of a Native American man on horseback that has stood alone and undisturbed on the museum’s front lawn for more than a century.

James-Perry, an enrolled member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal nation of Martha’s Vineyard, will share the coming harvest with her community. On the day we met in June, the stalks that surround the Dallin piece were just getting started, full of promise in the scorching sun of an early heatwave. This week, beset by an unrelentingly soggy two months, 7 feet seems a faraway goal: The stalks stand waist-high, with harvest in just a few weeks. Even so, James-Perry’s cornfield breaks new ground. Since 1912, Dallin’s work has sat in stony silence, bereft of even an informational panel for much of its history. Its stolid presence has given away little of the museum’s mounting discomfort with its prominent placement in recent years.

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In 2018, the MFA organized an exhibition called “Collecting Stories: Native American Art” to acknowledge its spotty record on Indigenous culture. The museum appeared to publicly allow that “Appeal to the Great Spirit” might not be the symbol a forward-looking institution wants at its front door. A small model of the piece sat at the exhibition’s entrance, paired with commentary by Jami Powell, the curator of Indigenous art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum and a citizen of the Osage Nation. Powell acknowledged Dallin’s obvious skill, but excoriated what she saw as a vividly-realized cliché: The piece represented “an inaccurate message,” she wrote, of the “vanishing race” narrative that had disempowered Native Americans for generations.

More than three years and many, many internal conversations later, James-Perry arrives as public emissary of the museum’s increasingly outward handwringing over its most visible artwork. Her cornfield, flecked with cranberry bean stalks and sprinkled with crushed quahog (clam) shells, resituates the museum itself on Native land specific to the coastal people who have lived here for millennia.

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“I was loathe, in my description, to even mention the Dallin,” James-Perry said recently, walking alongside the raw earth peeled back at the sculpture’s base to accommodate her crop. For her, the project “isn’t about that. It’s about a Northeastern reflection of who we are as a people — and our connection to the lands and oceans here.”

Artist Elizabeth James-Perry stood late last month on crushed quahog (clam) shells, part of her work "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA."
Artist Elizabeth James-Perry stood late last month on crushed quahog (clam) shells, part of her work "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The cornfield, which she calls “Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA, is a declaration of defiance, of reclamation, of saying out loud what needs to be said: that the Dallin is woefully disconnected from the people it purports to represent. Her work grounds it for the first time in deep and full context — of a place and a people conspicuously absent from the piece itself. Dallin’s figure is an amalgam of Native American tropes, a mash-up of Navajo and Dakota aesthetics, disconnected from Indigenous peoples here. “It’s a cartoon,” James-Perry said. “It’s out of place — not Native, not Northeastern, not in any way reflecting the sovereign nations from this place.”

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It’s worth noting that the MFA hired its first-ever staff curator of Native American Art, Marina Tyquiengco, just this week, at a time when “Appeal to the Great Spirit” has never been more glaringly out of step with the times. Monumental works like Dallin’s have been the subject of protest and defacement for more than a year now, alongside rising urgency around social justice tied to the country’s ugly history of enslavement and Native American genocide. On the front steps of New York’s Museum of Natural History, the removal of a grandiose statue of Theodore Roosevelt flanked by an Indigenous man and a Black man was unanimously approved by New York City officials last month. (The move was officially proposed by the museum in June 2020.)

Several people I spoke to thought the Roosevelt statue would break trail for the MFA to do the same with the Dallin. In April, when the museum announced James-Perry’s project along with a sunflower garden by Ekua Holmes, I stopped in to speak with MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum. He told me the Dallin piece couldn’t stand in isolation any longer, as it had for more than a century. But when I asked if James-Perry’s work was a prelude to it being moved somewhere less prominent, he said: “We’re not there.”

It’s been a long road to get even this far. “Collecting Stories” was capped with a public symposium on the sculpture in March 2019; Powell joined Heather Leavell, director of the Cyrus Dallin Art Museum in Arlington, and Emily Burns, an art history professor at Auburn University, to discuss issues of stereotype, appropriation, and intent around Dallin and likely his best-known work. From there, Layla Bermeo, a curator in the MFA’s Art of the Americas department, and curatorial research associate Tess Lukey (also a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag) started crafting language to address the previously unspeakable, at least in public and on part of the museum — in the curators’ own words, that the piece for some represented a “painful stereotype . . . by a white artist made for white audiences.”

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“It’s so problematic,” Lukey told me recently. “It represents ignorance, and it represents misunderstanding.” Absent an eventual relocation, which Lukey would like to see, the museum commissioned James-Perry’s work to help move a difficult conversation forward. “Even though it’s inaccurate, it’s a teaching moment,” she said. (”Garden” is a collaboration between Lukey’s department and the museum’s contemporary art division.)

At Arlington’s Cyrus Dallin Museum, a repurposed historical home, Leavell has been gently prodding her advisory board to embrace that kind of teaching. The organization has been working with the Massachusett people on museum programming, including a recent land acknowledgment. Leavell is well aware of problems not only with “Appeal to the Great Spirit” but a range of other Dallin works that have landed in public places, just as context free.

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“We have our own mini ‘Appeal’ situation right here in Arlington,” she said, in reference to Dallin’s “Menotomy Indian Hunter,” a sculpture of a loincloth-clad man that is perched by a garden fountain near town hall. For many years, Leavell said, the figure inspired the city’s high school sports mascot; it’s still emblazoned on the police and fire department crests, though it’s finally in the process of being replaced.

A Bobcat prepared soil in May outside the Museum of Fine Arts for Elizabeth James-Perry's "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA."
A Bobcat prepared soil in May outside the Museum of Fine Arts for Elizabeth James-Perry's "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA."Lane Turner/Globe Staff

That his work could have produced such casual insensitivities would surely have distressed Dallin himself. Though he lived in Arlington for nearly all his adult life, he was born in Utah in 1861. He grew up near a Ute community in the Wasatch Mountains and had frequent social contact with families there. By the 1870s, when Dallin was a teenager, the federal government’s agenda of forced removal of Indigenous people had increased in both pace and severity, and he watched as neighbors and friends were shunted to faraway reservations.

It instilled in him a righteous anger that would inform his life’s work. “For him, there’s a real issue of intention versus impact,” Leavall said recently while standing in the museum’s front parlor, crammed with models of Dallin’s Indigenous works. “At certain points during his life, he truly worried that Native people would literally be no more,” she said. “He saw himself as standing up and saying, ‘This is not right. We have to stop doing this.’”

Dallin earned a living teaching at the school now known as MassArt, and off high-profile commissions (the Paul Revere sculpture in Boston’s North End is among his best-known). His Native American works were done on his own time and at his own expense. He made four major equestrian sculptures of Indigenous men: “A Signal of Peace”(1890), which now stands in Lincoln Park in Chicago; “The Medicine Man” (1899), now in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park; “Protest of the Sioux” for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair; and finally “Appeal to the Great Spirit” (1908), which won a gold medal at the Paris Salon, before landing on the MFA’s front lawn.

Dallin put the figures on horseback, Leavell said, to give them equal footing with the grandiose equestrian statues of “great men” — typically, American military and governmental leaders — that were popping up all over the country. “He was really trying to elevate them,” she said. “It was his way of humanizing them, because most Americans had no idea who they were. But now, I can absolutely see how they’re dehumanizing — how they overshadow really important aspects of Indigenous people being able to represent themselves in a contemporary way.”

It hasn’t helped, of course, that the MFA has left its Dallin piece floating in space on the lawn, alone for more than a century. Through massive upheavals in the social fabric, through the civil rights era and the 1970s activism of the American Indian Movement, the museum displayed the work without so much as a label until earlier this year. “It serves as a flashpoint because there’s nothing else; it’s so isolated,” Leavall said. “There has to be some sort of an intervention — it can’t stand on its own.”

Cyrus Dallin's signature inscribed in the base of "Appeal to the Great Spirit" outside the Museum of Fine Arts.
Cyrus Dallin's signature inscribed in the base of "Appeal to the Great Spirit" outside the Museum of Fine Arts.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

For Joseph Zordan, a PhD candidate in Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture department who studies the impact of political violence in art, the Dallin embodies a much broader dilemma for museums like the MFA — trying to move forward while yoked to the past. Last summer, Zordan, an enrolled member of the Bad River Ojibwe tribal nation, wrote an essay for the MFA’s website, condemning Dallin for having “taken our grief as Indigenous peoples and cast and immobilized it in bronze, cursed to hang in the air forever.”

“What we’re dealing with here is something that’s so static — not just the piece, but really, the image of the Indian itself,” he said when we spoke recently. Zordan has a broader point: Museums aren’t going anywhere, and, for the foreseeable future, neither is “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” But there’s still room for change, little by little. “The idea of a garden — that’s soft, that’s ephemeral, that’s living — feels like a step towards something,” Zordan said.

Out on the MFA lawn, James-Perry watched as the farmer charged with caring for her crop tended to the stalks. Dallin’s piece will come off its pedestal, its feet licked by a wave of the living present. But it’s only a first step. “I was just saying to another museum, ‘Shouldn’t something like this go in a collection of Euro-American art or European art — white art, I guess — as something people used to do?’” she said, and laughed.

In the meantime, there will be moments to savor. “I’m looking forward to the sheer amount of life in a cornfield, the movement all of those leaves, the way the wind sounds going through them and the corn silks,” she said. “And sharing the harvest with the community in the fall, which is what this is really about.”

But fall gives way to winter, and in December, with food gathered and life gone, “Appeal to the Great Spirit” will still be there, alone once more in the darkening chill. Finally, though, after all these years, we’ll have a new question to ask: What next?


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