Draft wording still under development; project gets Parks & Rec Committee go-ahead
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Armenian-American students at Humboldt State University are creating a new bronze plaque to be displayed in front of the statue of William McKinley on the Plaza. The plaque recognizes its creator, will offer historical context about the 25th president’s foreign policy and relates those events to local history.
Two students from HSU’s Armenian Students Association (ASA) brought their proposal to the citizen-led Parks & Rec Committee last week, gaining approval in principle to pursue the plaque project. Final go-ahead for any new Plaza plaque would be granted by the City Council, factoring in the committee’s recommendations.
The idea was first proposed in 2012, and resurrected in hopes of having the plaque in place by the April 24 centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Up to 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered during that event, as the Ottoman Empire attempted to ethnically cleanse the region which is now the Republic of Turkey using a combination of mass murder and death marches.
The plaque’s purpose, explained student Araik Sinanyan, is threefold: to honor Armenian sculptor Haig Patigian, who created the statue; to document McKinley’s genocidal foreign adventures; and to relate that to the local destruction of Native American civilization.
“We thought it was really important to tie in the genocides that occurred locally,” Sinanyan said. “We tried to involve as many groups as we can.”
The ASA is still developing the plaque’s wording, in consultation with HSU Ethnic Studies Professor Maral Attallah, who, according to her HSU website, specializes in genocide studies, race and ethnic relations, and identity politics. Also consulting is Native American Studies Professor Dr. Joe Giovanetti, who also serves on the Tribal Council for the Smith River Tolowa.
Sinanyan and fellow pre-med major and ASA member Abigail Petersen shared a preliminary draft of the proposed verbiage with the committee. It reads:
This plaque is dedicated to the victims of genocide worldwide. It was presented to the city of Arcata by the Armenian Students’ Association of Humboldt State University on April 24th, 2015, the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
William McKinley (1843-1901), the 25th president of the United States, led the colonization and exploitation of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines. McKinley was later assassinated in a supposed effort to stop the violent expansion of U.S. imperialism. To this day, the United States of America maintains Puerto Rico and Guam as colonial possessions.
The sculptor of this statue, Haig Patigian (1876-1950), was born in the city of Van, Armenia. Patigian’s family escaped the Ottoman Empire to find freedom in the United States. Shortly after their relocation, the Armenian Genocide took place between the years of 1915-1923. To this day, the Turkish government denies its extermination of 1.5 million Armenians.
A systematic genocide also happened in the Humboldt Bay area. From 1852 to 1873, indigenous peoples of the Wiyot, Nongatl, and Tolowa tribes were systematically murdered and oppressed. To this day, our federal government has yet to issue a formal apology to native groups regarding their treatment during this time.
The bronze plaque with upraised lettering will measure 18 by 24 inches, and would be located at “reading level height” of any Plazagoers, directly in front of the statue and within the fenced, landscaped inner circle in which it stands. Project advocates view it as an enhancement to the town square’s longtime fixture.
“We don’t want it to take away from the statue,” Petersen said.
Parks and Rec committeemembers had some questions about, and suggestions for wording, as did City Manager Karen Diemer. She wanted to know whether the students had uncovered any additional information about the enigmatic Patigian. Sinanyan said that information is elusive, as the sculptor and his family resided in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Committeemember Zane Brotherton (who was attired in a jersey emblazoned with the saying, “High as Fuck” in large, script letters) wanted to better understand how the Armenian genocide related to the McKinley administration. In response, Sinanyan likened the Ottoman Empire’s repression to the behavior of the deceased president’s administration.
Committeemember Calder Johnson suggested a “stronger connecting thread” to link the various incidents described in the draft wording, and more emphasis on the statue’s sculptor. He suggested that a photo of Patigian be incorporated into the plaque.
Committeemember Sheldon Heath said the verbiage was “almost three separate plaques.” He appreciated the discussion of genocide, but said that the last paragraph didn’t have a lot to do with the McKinley administration.
Committee Chair Nancy Starck disagreed, stating that the information about Indian genocide was “putting it in geographic context,” helping citizens to “pause and reflect.”
Sinanyan said that the plaque and its message could cause citizens to be more respectful of Arcata’s Plaza, which has been vandalized and requires extra protection on Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
“If cops have to be out there all the time, it’s a problem,” Sinanyan said. “This plaque would address that problem.”
He said the draft verbiage features “three distinct, interconnected messages,” and that “genocide permeates all lands.”
Starck read an excerpt from a 2012 email conversation between the ASA and then-City Councilmember Shane Brinton in which he urged the students to use the plaque as an opportunity to offer historical context regarding the McKinley administration.
Brinton’s suggested verbiage:
This statue has great historic and artistic value, but let us never forget the contradictions inherent in its presence here. Like the Armenians who were murdered in a genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915, Filipino civilians were systematically killed by the U.S. government starting in 1899 while William McKinley was President. In addition to celebrating the contributions of Patigian and Armenian-Americans, we encourage Arcata residents and visitors to reflect on the importance of defending the human rights of all people.
Starck said the gentler language offered a “more inspiring” approach.”
Sinanyan said the new version was intended to be motivational. “We want residents and visitors walking away feeling like they can do something about it,” he said. “We’re definitely passionate about the idea and subject matter.”
He said many people have offered suggestions for the wording, but that there is only so much room on the plaque.
(Sinanyan later asked that the suggested verbiage not be reproduced in this story, as it is a “rough draft.”)
After some discussion, the committee offered its support for the project pending further work. “You have our support in concept,” Starck said.
Diemer noted that the City Council would have to grant final approval, and would want to have a recommendation from the committee.
Cost of the plaque is estimated at $2,000. The students are raising the needed funds and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s something we want to do for the local community,” Sinanyan said.