Appeal to the Great Spirit

Statement regarding the complex legacy of Appeal to the Great Spirit (1909) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Arlington, Mass. (July 10, 2024) — We, the leadership of the Cyrus Dallin Art Museum in Arlington, Massachusetts, express our support for the forthcoming entrance installation by Mohawk artist Alan Michelson at the MFA, Boston. Michelson’s work will share important insights on the enduring Indigenous presence on these lands and the truth of history. The installation will also provide opportunities for the public and Indigenous artists to contemplate the ways in which Cyrus Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit has shaped perceptions of Indigenous people.

Indigenous responses to Dallin’s Native equestrians have evolved over time. At the 1904 dedication of Medicine Man in Philadelphia, Omaha Nation ethnologist Francis LaFlesche recognized Dallin’s imagery as bringing “vividly to my mind the scenes of my early youth.” “The reopening of the past,” he continued, “would never have been possible had not your artist risen above the distorting influence of prejudice…and been gifted with the imagination to discern the truth.” Today, some Indigenous people continue to view Appeal as a humanizing and elevating image. Others – as demonstrated by Elizabeth James Perry in Raven Reshapes Boston – feel that the statue perpetuates stereotypes and erases contemporary Indigenous experience. We honor and respect both viewpoints.

Perceptions of Appeal are deeply impacted by the statue’s placement in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, an institution that has had a history of excluding Indigenous, Black, and other communities in its exhibits and collecting practices. Viewer responses are further informed by the underrepresentation of contemporary Indigenous art in Boston’s public spaces. In the absence of counterbalancing perspectives, Appeal has become a catalyst for long-overdue conversations about race and representation, Indigenous erasure, and colonialism.

Dallin never intended for Appeal to serve as a stand-in for all Indigenous peoples of this land. Nor was the statue meant to represent a specific individual, though Dallin did sculpt many portraits. (His Massasoit Ousamequin in Plymouth, Mass. is a gathering site for annual National Day of Mourning observances.) For Dallin, Appeal was a tribute to the peoples of the Plains and Great Basin that he knew best.

It is important to note that at the time of its installation, Appeal likely did not appear out of place to local Indigenous viewers. In the early 20th century, many Indigenous Nations, including those of the Northeast Woodlands, adopted Plains regalia and customs to assert their Indigenous identities, while simultaneously conducting important cultural reclamation work of their own.

Many contemporary interpretations of Appeal overlook critical context that is central to understanding Dallin’s intent. At the Dallin Museum, we share with our visitors a nuanced interpretation of the statue that is grounded in Dallin’s biography and in the history of American art. This approach reveals the story of an extraordinary individual whose example has great value in discussions about history and healing.

Appeal is often critiqued as embodying the myth of the “vanishing Indian,” a commonly held belief that Native peoples were a “vanishing race,” destined to sacrifice their lives as part of the natural process of white progress. (The archetypal representation of this concept is Jame’s Earl Fraser’s End of the Trail.) In fact, Appeal was intended as a repudiation of the vanishing myth. To Dallin, nothing about the genocide of Indigenous peoples was natural or progressive. Dallin grew up in Utah Territory in relationship with the Ute people and maintained these relationships throughout his life. He also bore witness to the horrors inflicted on the Ute, Paiute, Goshute, and others by the United States Army. He channeled his outrage into his art and advocacy.

During a 1931 address to Boston University students, Cyrus Dallin unapologetically asserted, “Our race has been one of the most brutal of any in establishing itself, and the great story of the United States will always rest on the blackest page of history.” This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that Dallin would stun his audiences with “startling arraignments of white complacency and self-righteousness.”

Dallin’s Indigenous subjects were intended as personal reflections on fellow humans that he admired, and public commemorations of their resilience in the face of ongoing subjugation. He chose the equestrian – a form recognizable by white audiences as a tool for elevating Anglo-European military figures – to commemorate the Indigenous response to the actions of colonizers. Dallin’s subjects model resistance and resilience – they negotiate peace, issue warnings, express defiance, and as Appeal demonstrates, seek guidance from a higher power.

Dallin was a passionate advocate for the rights of Indigenous people and was viewed by Indigenous leaders of his time as a trusted ally. (For much more on this topic, view “Sculpture for Justice.”) In the 1920s, he held the great honor of serving on the board of the Indigenous-led Algonquin Indian Council of New England. His colleague on the Council, LeRoy Perry (Wampanoag) shared this touching sentiment:

“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!”

Guided by Dallin’s example, we strive to model what allyship can look like for a small, community museum. Our new Indigenous Peoples Gallery, developed in collaboration with Tribal leaders in Massachusetts and Utah, provides rich historical context for Dallin’s Indigenous subjects, centers past and present Indigenous perspectives, and promotes continued learning and dialogue. We supported the establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day in Arlington, participated in discussions around the harms of Native mascots, and partnered with the Massachusett Tribe on signage to decolonize the Museum’s space. Our programs with Massachusett, Ute, Pokanoket, and Eastern Shoshone leadership elevate the histories, cultures, and resilience of Indigenous people.

It is up to MFA membership and Indigenous stakeholders to decide the future of the MFA’s Appeal to the Great Spirit. Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to share Dallin’s legacy through meaningful experiences that promote cultural sensitivity, mutual respect, and a more inclusive understanding of our history.

Visit us! In the Cyrus Dallin Art Museum’s intimate historic house setting, visitors experience over ninety works of art spanning Dallin’s sixty-year career. Exhibits feature Euro-American figures (including his iconic Paul Revere equestrian), Indigenous figures, classical subjects, prototypes of monuments and memorials, and portraits of family and friends. The Museum is currently closed for gallery improvements and is tentatively scheduled to reopen on July 27. Check here for updates. We are typically open year round on weekends from 12-4. We are happy to accommodate tours by appointment outside of regular operating hours. Admission is a small, suggested donation. For more information, contact us at 781-641-0747 or hleavell@dallin.org.