When statues speak
Statues cannot speak audible words but they had much to tell us last week.
In New York City on July 4, Therese Okoumou, 44, was arrested for climbing the Statue of Liberty to protest the U.S. government’s arrest and separation of illegal immigrant families.
Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles,” surely wept as armed police hauled Ms. Okoumou, an American citizen, off to jail and charged her with trespassing, disorderly conduct and interfering with government-agency functions.
Meanwhile 2,400 kilometres west, a statue as globally anonymous as Liberty is famous broadcast a serene smile of grace and hope across the plains surrounding the Missouri River in South Dakota.
That statue is a 15-metre high stainless steel sculpture of a Sioux woman receiving her Star Blanket from the sky. She was placed on a bluff overlooking the Missouri two years ago to honour the culture of the Sioux peoples.
Star Blankets are quilts that have powerful meaning among the Indigenous people of the American Plains and Canadian Prairies. They are given as gifts to show respect, honour and admiration for a person’s accomplishments and generosity.
To me the sculpture honours not only the generosity and accomplishments of Indigenous people, but the strength and the promise of women around the world.
Our world is a dangerous mess. We face catastrophic weather changes, massive human displacements, severe environmental problems, swelling inequality, cultural declines and rampant intolerance just to name a few. And to help us through all that, western societies increasingly elect hostile and vacuous politicians.
Lady Liberty’s torch, once a beacon of hope for the world, has become a sputtering candle flame unable to illuminate the path to a better life.
The Sioux woman gazing out over the South Dakota plains tells us not to despair. She shows us that people with the strength of their convictions and their traditions can resist and persevere through the worst that the world has to offer. She knows because her people, and other people like hers, have suffered the worst the world can deliver.
Indigenous women were the backbone of their societies. They created new life and sustained it through building shelter, providing food and comfort and cultural teachings. They were, and still are, the quiet and unseen decision makers of their communities.
Examples of their strengths and perseverance are found in the lives of Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who made possible the Lewis and Clark exploration of the American West. And, Charlotte Small, the Métis wife of Canadian explorer and map-maker David Thompson. Two of many Indigenous women leaders who endured racial discrimination while trying to keep traditional Indigenous life from being destroyed.
That’s why it is so disgusting when the president of the United States sneeringly refers to Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas because of her claim of having some Indigenous blood.
Women are providing more and more out front leadership in our societies, and it is much needed.
Studies have shown that female leadership is compassionate and inclusive, while male leadership tends to be hierarchal and exclusive. Woman are better at negotiating compromises.
Most importantly, women bring something too often missing today, notably in politics. It is called dignity, the state of being worthy of honour or respect.
Dignity is what you see in the face of Sioux woman standing above Missouri. That likely is why the folks who designed and placed the statue named her simply: Dignity.
“My hope is that the sculpture might serve as a symbol of respect and promise for the future,” says Dale Lamphere, lead sculptor for Dignity.
No one defines Dignity better than Susan Claussen Bunger, an instructor of Native American social structures at South Dakota’s Augustana University. Here is what she said in a column in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader:
“She literally owns a spine of steel and reminds me of the injustice in the world, but also of strength, perseverance and survival. She signifies people who have prevailed through the centuries. She represents all who resist and strive forward. She portrays a rallying cry for those who wish to be heard and valued. She stands strong and proud . . .”
Spines of steel, rallying cries, strength and perseverance and dignity are what the world needs to save us from ourselves.