St. Louis University has moved a controversial sculpture from outside a residence hall to inside a museum in response to criticism from faculty and students who say the work reinforces the idea of white supremacy.
The sculpture, by an unknown artist, is named “Where the Rivers Meet.” It depicts Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet on an elevated platform above two Native Americans, in what could be construed as an attempt to convert them to Christianity.
That was indeed part of De Smet’s mission. However, many historical accounts depict him as sympathetic to Native Americans and as working to dispel their reputation as savages.
SLU student Jonathan Pulphus said opposition to the statue has been building. At a March town hall meeting, then-senior Amelia Romo told SLU President Fred Pestello that the sculpture celebrates white supremacy and colonialism and should be taken down.
Last month, SLU’s student-run newspaper published an op-ed written by the since-graduated senior Ryan McKinley stating that the statue seems to say to American Indians: “You do not belong here if you do not submit to our culture and our religion.”
“This is clearly not the message we want to send,” McKinley wrote.
SLU spokesman Clayton Berry said the university took seriously the concerns raised by faculty and students and decided to relocate the statue to the St. Louis University Museum of Art, where it will be added to the “Collection of the Western Jesuit Missions.”
Created in the 1800s, the sculpture was originally installed in the 1950s outside a building owned by the Jesuit province at the time. The building reopened in the 1990s as a student residence hall.
The university’s willingness to move the sculpture is emblematic of the stark differences in leadership styles between Pestello and his predecessor of 26 years, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, who had a reputation as being unresponsive to students and faculty.
Pestello also got high marks from a number of faculty and students last year during the Occupy SLU protest when students and nonstudents alike set up a campsite near the university’s clock tower demonstrating against social inequality.
The protest ended six days later with the signing of the Clock Tower Accords, a 13-point agreement detailing steps the university would take to address poverty and racial inequality in the region.
Artwork also took a central role in that debate as members of the SLU community were split over Pestello agreeing to commission a piece of art that would “capture the spirit of the demonstration.”
A number of students and faculty said his willingness to negotiate struck a tone befitting a Jesuit institution. They showed their appreciation through a social media campaign dubbed “Stand With Pestello.”
Others, including some alumni, were angered over Occupy SLU and viewed the Clock Tower Accords as overly politically correct.
The relocation of “Where the Rivers Meet” has been decidedly less noisy, even as some within the SLU community have called the move unnecessary.
Faculty Senate President Jane Turner said she sees the issue from both sides.
“It’s from a different time,” she said. “One way to look at it is as a reminder of how far we’ve come along.”
Kathryn Kuhn, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology, was less diplomatic.
“It really is shameful,” she said. “It’s been controversial for as long as I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for 25 years.”