Friday, January 29, 2016

A Memorial to Forgetting

Recently, I saw this statue in the courtyard of the Van Nuys Civic Center. The native man depicted is named Fernando, and he reminded me of Ogden Nash.

Ogden who?

Ogden Nash had one of the best jobs in the world. He was famous for writing silly poems (although he also co-wrote a couple of Broadway musicals). He was born in 1902 and died in 1971. The Nash poem most likely for you to have heard before is this:

I think I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, 
I'll never see a tree at all.

However, the Nash poem that I thought of when I saw Fernando was a much-less famous poem, "The Unselfish Husband." In it, the husband tries to prove his love to his wife by climbing the highest mountain in the world and naming it after her. The lines that came to mind were these:

But she didn't give him a look of love, she gave him a
Ogden Nash
look of laughter,
And not only a look of laughter but a look of menace,
Because he named it after his wife by naming it Mt.
Mrs. Orlando Tregennis.

He supposedly intends to honor his wife, but instead he erases her, in a sense. Her name, her individuality, disappears and she is memorialized only by her relationship to him.

Something similar happened to Fernando. Although the plaque at his feet says "Fernando is a symbol of the first inhabitants of the San Fernando Valley," the statue is an honor that erases more than it illuminates (a little history of it is here). You see, not only does the plaque fail to name the original inhabitants of the Valley -- the native people in this region never disappeared; they still call themselves the Tataviam, the Chumash, and the Tongva -- it also fails to call its lone figure by a native name. That is, an actual original inhabitant of the Valley would not have had a Spanish name. He would have had a name in his own language.

Fernando would have been assigned this name by a priest from the nearby Catholic mission of San Fernando after the Spanish invaded California. Just as Mr. Orlando Tregennis erases his wife's name by overwriting hers with his, the Americans memorialize an original inhabitant of the Valley by erasing signs of his language and naming him only in relationship to the Catholic Church and the Spanish government who dispossessed him.

Such are the dynamics of what we call settler colonialism.

Most people may be familiar with colonialism. That is the process by which one country takes over another and transforms it into an extension of the dominant country. The conquered population may even become citizens of a kind in the dominant country -- though probably never citizens of status equal to residents of the dominant country.

However, most people are less familiar with settler colonialism, which functions differently. In it, the dominant country seeks to replace the citizens of the conquered country. That is where the "settler" part comes in. When we think of settlers, we think of families building farms and communities in a landscape that has no other people in it; we think of settlers being the first people in a location. And that is the way members of a settler colonial society like to imagine themselves or their ancestors. They prefer to forget that the land had inhabitants before them, and they prefer to forget the violence that was required to get those people out of their way. The United States is a settler colonial nation.

Henry Van Wolf
This willful forgetting tends to be ubiquitous in a settler colonial society. It happens in ways members of that society do not realize -- it wouldn't be successful forgetting if it was obvious to them. So the irony of giving a symbol of the Valley's "first inhabitants" a name from the people who violently dispossessed them was probably lost on sculptor Henry Van Wolf and the people who commissioned the statue. After all, many elementary school students in California still learn about the Spanish mission as if they were playgrounds for happy Indians and Spaniards -- and not the instruments of genocide; I can only imagine how that subject was taught in 1968 when the statue was erected.

P.S. -- The statue at the Van Nuys Civic Center is a bigger version of the Fernando Awards, an honor given to a San Fernando Valley resident for his/her volunteerism and philanthropy. Their work for others is a fine thing, and my thoughts here are not meant to suggest they or the people who select the winners are not wonderful people.