Cyrus Dallin (1861-1944) was a celebrated Utah-born sculptor, educator, and Indigenous rights activist who lived and worked in Arlington, Massachusetts for over 40 years. Dallin’s public sculptures honoring Indigenous peoples, Anglo-American figures, and historical events bring beauty and a unique historical perspective to shared spaces across the nation, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Kansas City.
Cyrus Dallin was born in 1861 in Springville, Utah Territory, a small Mormon settlement in the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains. Dallin’s talent for sculpting was recognized at an early age. In 1880, at the age of nineteen, he moved to Boston to study with sculptor Truman H. Bartlett. As a hub of art and culture, Boston offered many opportunities for an aspiring sculptor, and it was natural that Dallin would put down roots there.
Just a few years into his studies, the youthful twenty-two year old shocked the Boston art scene when he entered and won a city-sponsored competition for a monument to Paul Revere. Despite this early success, it would take Dallin fifty-seven years and seven different models before the monument would be erected in Boston’s North End.
In the late 1880s and 1890s, Dallin spent two extended periods of study in Paris, a necessary right of passage for any young sculptor seeking to establish his or her reputation in the field. News of Dallin’s accolades at the Paris Salon for Signal of Peace (Chicago, IL), Marquis de Lafayette, and Medicine Man (Philadelphia, PA) spread quickly overseas, establishing his career in the United States.
In 1891, Dallin married author and educator, Vittoria Colonna Murray. Around this time, Dallin began working on a number of commissions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including a monument to Brigham Young and the Angel Moroni, an iconic symbol of The Church that adorns temples across the globe.
In 1900, Cyrus and Vittoria purchased a home in Arlington, Massachusetts where they raised three sons. The couple played key roles in the development of many Arlington institutions including Robbins Library and Arlington Friends of the Drama. Dallin’s masterful public art, Menotomy Hunter and Robbins Memorial Flagstaff, are beloved Town treasurers.
In 1900, Dallin became a member of the faculty at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art and Design) in Boston. There he earned the respect and admiration of the faculty and of his students, who called him “Cyrus the Great.” Dallin mentored a generation of Boston sculptors over his forty-year tenure at the school (many of those years as head of the sculpture department).
Dallin’s art encompassed a wide variety of subjects, but he is mainly remembered for his heroic-scale public tributes in honor of America’s Indigenous peoples. His most recognized work in this genre is Appeal to the Great Spirit (1909), located in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Mass. As a child, Dallin became close with the Ute families who lived near the Springville settlement, and he maintained relationships with them throughout his life. He had a deep respect for Native people, and he was profoundly disturbed by the crimes he witnessed being perpetrated against them by the U.S. government. His sculptures of Indigenous people were intended as personal reflections on humans that he admired, and public commemorations of Indigenous resilience in the face of ongoing subjugation.
Dallin spent the last 20 years of his career fiercely criticizing American Imperialism and passionately advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples. He sought out many opportunities to educate white audiences on the truth of history and their own “complacency and self-righteousness.” “We have dishonored ourselves, distorted facts, and turned the Indian from a friend to a foe,” said Dallin in a 1921 speech in Lowell, Mass. “Then we have fought him, with immeasurably superior numbers and arms…Never in the history of nations, in all probability, has there been so strong a race prejudice as subsists in the Anglo Saxons.”
Dallin served as president of the Massachusetts branch of the Eastern Association of Indian Affairs, a national organization that partnered with Native and non-Native groups on efforts to protect land rights and sovereignty, improve healthcare and education, and revitalize Native arts among Indigenous nations. This work led to the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Dallin was viewed as a trusted ally and collaborator by Indigenous leaders. As such, he was asked by the leadership of the Algonquin Indian Council of New England to serve on their board as an advisor.
Dallin died at his home in Arlington on November 14, 1944, a week shy of his 83rd birthday. He will be remembered as a person who valued truth and justice and for pioneering the role of the artist as an agent of social change.
“Dr. Cyrus E. Dallin, a sculptor who has done more to perpetuate the red man in his characteristic poses as hunter, warrior, medicine man and at workmanship than any other living man – a true friend and one whom we honor and respect. Great is Dallin!”Chief LeRoy Perry, Aquinnah Wampanoag, 1925