A column July 6 — Local View: “How innocuous really are Duluth’s historic white-guy statues?” — was good at giving the basics for this type of sculpture in Duluth. I would say that, given that none of the people depicted were racists and none were about "colonization," their memorials actually are innocuous.
Norse explorer Leif Erikson touched the Atlantic shore and left. He located a continent that Euros were clueless about; but when he and compatriots came across it, it was occupied by people who were determined to continue occupying it, so they left. Sensible people. Yes, Vikings captured slaves, but not in North America. Norse slaves were all other white Euro people captured in raids, not Native people or Black people. Almost all cultures at the time, including African and Arab cultures, used slavery of one kind or another.
Incidentally, my grandpa raised money for Duluth’s Leif Erikson sculpture — and then was terrifically embarrassed by how bad a sculpture it turned out to be. The whole family would take turns mocking the guy's anatomy, which is peculiar. But it's not offensive. My dad always said that it was showing Leif Erikson in the throes of a migraine.
No one thinks Leif Erikson "discovered America." He stumbled across it. But the immigrants here from Norway were very proud of their venturesome ancestors and also were punching up against prejudices against them from the English- and American-ancestry inhabitants of Duluth; and the sculpture comes out of that time, when most of the servants in eastern Duluth were Scandinavian.
Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut was not a founder of Duluth, but he was an early visitor — around 1660. The Anishinaabe people allied with the French to get good guns to drive out the Dakota from lands they wanted. This alliance was very successful. The Dakota have good reason to be angry at the French, perhaps, but Anishinaabe people not so much. The French were not about taking land; they were about trading with the current occupants. Many Anishinaabe and Metis people currently have French names, as there was a great deal of intermarriage between the French and the tribes. Louis Riel, the Metis leader, half French and half Native, led a revolution against the hated English.
I've always thought that the sculpture of du Lhut at the University of Minnesota Duluth was a wonderfully witty takeoff on the whole genre by a noted French sculptor who seemed to take up the commission to "heroicize" a not particularly heroic person with great wit and gusto. Doesn't that piece make you chuckle? Of course, du Lhut sculptor Jacques Lipschitz didn't cop to this (if you're doing a commission you don't have "total freedom"), but any sculptor will tell you it's an excellent piece aesthetically — in part because it does parodize the "hero" in an affectionate way. It's a rich and goodhumored portrayal of both the explorer figure and our movie-style idealization of that figure. Not everything needs to be photorealistic to be "good art," OK?
Another statue mentioned in the column does not commemorate a slave holder or slave trader, just a businessman who was very similar to businesspeople today: The Jay Cooke piece is a favorite of mine. There's a humility in how the sculptor chose to depict the man: seated, with his hat off, and with his beloved dog. And he was a staunch supporter of the Union and an ethical man.
I agreed with the column's take on Civil War veteran Albert Woolson. He was a kid who played music for Union troops and just happened to live to be very old. The Woolson piece is, I think, well done. My dad used to see Woolson every year in the Memorial Day parade in Duluth, walking as long as he could and then sitting on a float. By all accounts, he was a decent guy. Not a hero, but a symbol of the Union. And the sculpture is beautifully executed.
Look, a lot of us aren't perfect. But save the ire for genuinely ill-intentioned, racist people. There are plenty of them.
Ann Klefstad is a sculptor and writer in Duluth (annklefstad.com).