Appeal to the Great Spirit

Joseph Zordan

Statues and monuments across the world are being toppled, and in the process, so too are the myths that upheld them. A few years ago, when I was an intern in the MFA’s Art of the Americas department, I passed Cyrus Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit on the plaza in front of the Museum’s Huntington Avenue Entrance nearly every morning. We greeted each other and the sun. But the equestrian statue of this man made into a symbol, looking to the sky with his arms outstretched, bare chested and emaciated, never looked particularly extraordinary to me. It is nothing new or different from what I, as an Anishinaabe and art historian, have come to expect when encountering most, especially historical, representations of Indigenous people made by non-Indigenous artists. Though Dallin was a noted advocate for Indigenous peoples’ rights, he did not deviate far from stereotypical imagery of us in many of his statues. Appeal to the Great Spirit is a near-perfect encapsulation of the “vanishing race” trope—wherein Indigenous people are represented as a doomed race with no hope but to quietly vanish from the planet, to make way for the superior race. With Appeal to the Great Spirit, Dallin has taken our grief as Indigenous peoples and cast and immobilized it in bronze, cursed to hang in the air forever, with lips parted and eyes frozen wide open.

Of course, the vanishing race trope did not turn out to be true. Non-Indigenous people often fail to recognize or confront this fact, but the settler idea of Indigenous peoples’ graceful demise has never been true. It wasn’t true in 1909, when Dallin made Appeal to the Great Spirit. It wasn’t true after 1492, once Columbus had come and gone. Indigenous peoples’ disappearance has been—and will always be—a myth of genocidal desire, one that Dallin’s statue and other imagery can only reaffirm, regardless of the artist’s original intent.

Who then must contend with this imagery and the myths it represents? Dallin was not wrong in immobilizing the figure’s eyes open, as we, as Natives, have never had the luxury of looking away. Indigenous peoples’ mockery is so normalized within the United States that our defacement is the foundation of a multibillion-dollar franchise. Yet, we have challenged these violent depictions since their inception—we have spent so much effort explaining how images like Appeal to the Great Spirit are hurtful to us and harmful to our communities, time and time again.

Maybe, then, it is no longer Indigenous peoples’ responsibility to grapple with this imagery and, instead, it is time for those who invented this visual language to reckon with it. When asked in a 1993 interview if she still had to struggle with racism even with her success, Toni Morrison responded: “If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, you have a serious problem. And my feeling is, white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they are going to do about it. Take me out of it.”

Statue of a man on horseback in front of the Museum of Fine Arts's Huntington Avenue Entrance.
Cyrus E. Dallin, Appeal to the Great Spirit, 1909. Bronze, green patina. Gift of Peter C. Brooks and others.

Joseph Zordan is an enrolled member of the Bad River Ojibwe and a PhD student at Harvard University in the History of Art and Architecture. In 2017, he was the Henry Luce Curatorial Intern for Museum Diversity in the Art of Americas.