Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Whether the recent rise in opposition to the statue of William McKinley on the Plaza is another periodic surge limited to activists or holds wide appeal throughout town is not yet clear.
But advocacy for the bronze man’s removal is being voiced in multiple venues, from the recent Town Hall meeting to the City Council and Historic Landmarks Committee (HLC) meetings and of course, online.
Activists would like the city to remove both the statue and the boulder-mounted plaque across from the Jacoby Building, which notes the venerable structure’s historic designation.
If the city doesn’t act to de-McKinley the Plaza, a fallback plan is to pursue the initiative process and qualify a ballot measure for next year. Meanwhile, getting the Jacoby plaque either revised or removed appears much easier to do, and even likely.
Historic Landmarks Committee
Last week, the HLC assembled for its monthly meeting, and got an earful from those who’d like to see the longtime Plaza fixtures uninstalled. The committee is considering an application to have the Plaza designated a historic district with the state Historic Preservation Office. A key concern of the McKinley opponents is that doing so could complicate the statue’s removal by locking in the town square’s historical features.
According to Senior Planner Alyson Hunter of the Community Development Department, who serves as staff liaison to HLC, such a designation wouldn’t necessarily lock McKinley in for all time.
“It does not prohibit change in the future,” Hunter said. However, “more scrutiny” would be applied to any fundamental changes, presumably at the state level.
Several individuals at the meeting detailed their objections to the statue and plaque in unerringly respectful but frank and urgent fashion.
For his actions during the Spanish-American War, McKinley is seen as a symbol of conquest, imperialism and genocide of the type which led to the decimation of indigenous people during Arcata’s settlement by European-Americans. The statue’s presence is unsettling to both Native Americans and those who see it as enshrining extremely negative values.
Tia Oros Peters, executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, had previously said that McKinley is a “manifestation of colonial oppression [which] elevates white supremacy.” She called the statue’s removal “non-negotiable,” and a “positive step.”
She was heartened by the city’s designation last year of the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but feels that that doesn’t go far enough.
Peters’ first preference is for the city to “do the right thing” and take out the statue via a City Council decision. “The City of Arcata is fully empowered and has the opportunity to be on the right side of history for a change,” she said.
As for putting statue removal to a vote, “that’s a waste of our time and energy,” Peters said. “Why would we waste the time and money on that when it’s a symbol of oppression?”
Her initial preference for a post-McKinley Plaza is to have no replacement, an idea others have embraced. “It would be great to have open space there,” she said. She suggested that the statue be melted down, its metal constituents re-used.
As the McKinley debate rages on, particularly in online fora where fans and foes alike have questioned each other’s intelligence, consensus about the plaque on Eighth Street across from the Jacoby Building is far easier to come by. It’s got to be changed, removed or both.
The 1963-vintage wording designating the building as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 783 includes the statement: “From 1858 through 1864 it served periodically as a refuge in time of Indian troubles.”
Use of the term “Indian troubles” to encapsulate the indigenous peoples’ resistance to having their civilization decimated hasn’t found many, if any defenders.
HLC Chair Don Tuttle acknowledged that while a plaque to inform people about the building’s historic designation is reasonable, the sign itself is “terribly worded.”
Peters said the sign causes her pain, especially since the Plaza was once a place where Indian body parts – scalps, arms and legs, among other pieces of anatomy – were trafficked as trophies of conquest, and for bounty.
“It’s troubling,” Peters said. “It’s hurtful. It creates an atmosphere of lack of safety.”
Peters another woman suggested changing out the noun “Indian” to black” in the objectionable term. “Black troubles,” she said, makes clear the inherent racism.
A young woman of color at the HLC meeting who said she was a Humboldt State graduate and Farmers’ Market worker said the plaque makes her feel unwelcome on the Plaza, especially since during the settlement era, she might have been one of the people whose body parts were traded.
“I can never feel fully comfortable there,” she said.
“Ultimately, the language in the designation is going to have to change,” said Community Development Director David Loya. He said the city is working with the building’s owners on revised language.
On Sept. 14, William Burg, state historian II with the Office of Historic Preservation told the city in an email that changing the language is doable.
Said Burg, “Is there a local party (such as the city of Arcata, or the building owner) willing to pay for a new plaque and mount it? If so, we can revise and approve new plaque text at the staff level, because this California Historical Landmark is later than #770 (plaques prior to #770 are more problematic sometimes.)”
Burg would like a plaque with revised wording to remain.
“I think it would be preferable to address the language issue on the plaque and replace it in place, where it is more visible, than remove the plaque to a less visible location and leave it as-is,” he said. “Language changes must be approved by staff, including sending our office a copy of the draft PDF of the plaque prior to casting for verification of revised plaque language.”
George Zehndner’s 1906 gift to Arcata, the McKinley statue by Armenian-American sculptor Haig Patigian, used to play a substantial role in Arcata’s civic life. McKinley was adorned as Santa Claus and biblical figures during Christmas, with innumerable Plaza events taking place in his shadow all year ’round.
Unhappiness with his presence rose in popularity during the 1990s and early 2000s, when Food Not Bombs, then being prosecuted by the city for lack of Health Code compliance, called him the “dead white male” and joked that the scroll he brandishes was a restraining order.
In 2005, during one of the periodic upwellings of protest about the statue, the city roughly estimated removal costs at $70,000.
It’s not clear what environmental documents, if any, would have to be generated over the statue’s removal – both a Negative Declaration of Environmental Impact or even an Environmental Impact Report have been mentioned.
It’s also been suggested that the descendants of Zehndner and Patigian be tracked down and asked about their wishes for the 111-year-old sculpture.
In late 2015, a group called “Transform the Heart of the Community” held a purposeful meeting at the Hotel Arcata. A petition drive to remove the statue was to ensue following the holidays that year, but it never materialized.
One key venue at which the current wave of anti-McKinley/plaque advocates haven’t made an appearance is the Parks and Rec Committee.
The Plaza is a public park, and two years ago, local Armenian students twice gained that committee’s approval in concept for an interpretive plaque to be mounted at McKinley’s base.
The plaque would have reframed the statue in the context of historical imperialism and genocide.
The students’ proposal made it as far as the City Council, where it was ultimately defeated on a 3–2 vote.
The Parks and Rec Committee has no meeting scheduled for October, and next meets Nov. 8.
Indigenous Peoples Day
The Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples is hosting Stand for Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Rights, Honor & Justice Thursday, Oct. 12 at noon on the Arcata Plaza.
Attendees are asked to wear red, and traditional clothes and other items. “Last year we declared and established Indigenous Peoples’ Day in this region, and successfully developed an Indigenous Peoples’ Day Resolution signed by the City of Arcata,” notes the event’s Facebook page. “Let us stand together in celebration and solidarity of Indigenous Peoples’ Resilience and Power by recognizing this Day, and every day we continue to decolonize, revitalize, and thrive – here in Wiyot Traditional Territories – and everywhere in the world.”
Note: This story has been updated to correct a misattributed quote. – Ed.