Kalamazoo College's Student Newspaper
By Jennifer Wendel, Opinions Editor
The Fountain of the Pioneers that sits in Bronson Park has become subject to controversy: is it a historic piece of art or racist reminder of Kalamazoo’s past? Last week the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts held an ARTbreak lunch meeting with Dr. David Brose to discuss how we can interpret the fountain, and why it needs to be restored.
In 1936 the Kalamazoo Women’s Business and Professional club commissioned a new fountain for Bronson Park, and opened a competition for the best design. The club chose Marcelline Gougler as the winner, but Gougler’s design was impossible to create, so she called on her former professor, Alfonso Iannelli, to create an entirely new design for the fountain.
When he took on the Bronson Park fountain, Iannelli was already an established Art Deco artist in Chicago: he had studied with Gutzon Borglum known for Mount Rushmore, and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on statues for the Midway Park Garden in Chicago. Iannelli found inspiration for the Fountain of the Pioneers in the form of a plaque on the train station wall in Kalamazoo that explained the history of Native Americans in Western Michigan.
Western Michigan was once the home of the Potawatomi Indians, but almost all were driven out of the area by the 1820’s as a result of the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Chicago that divided up land around the great lakes. Tribes were not given formal recognition and rights by the state until the 1990s.One of the few remnants of this history is the raised mounds that can be found in the area, one in Bronson Park, and one near the Battle-creek airport.
Iannelli hoped that his fountain would be a testament to this clash. In 1941 he wrote in the American City magazine, “I wanted to see suggested the progression of the growth of Kalamazoo, the efforts of the pioneers, the romantic sadness of the vanquished Indians, the onward strides of the industrial accomplishments, the prolific richness of the country they were blessed with… the tower symbolizing the pioneers advance and the Indian’s stalwart and fateful resistance.”
Today though, some see the fountain only as a racist symbol of white settler dominance; it depicts a white pioneer and Native American facing each other, surrounded by agricultural carvings. The pioneer is standing inches above the Native American. Iannelli imagined the pioneer holding a beacon of light that would shine towards the West to represent the expanding frontier, but instead the pioneer holds a large concrete staff that looks more menacing than guiding. The Native American dons an elaborate feathered headdress that plays more on stereotypes than reality.
Many of these details of the fountain are hard to see because of the wear time and Michigan winters have taken on the fountain. The city of Kalamazoo is currently raising money for a 1.5 million dollar restoration project, a number that seems reasonable when compared to the 45,000 dollars the city spends each year on general maintenance of the fountain. Dr.Brose hoped that the ARTbreak and other public outreach initiatives about the fountain would help the community see its important historical significance, and understand the need to preserve it.
Dr. Brose pointed out that the restorations of the fountain have the support of current tribe members.But most importantly he noted that the fountain represents a real conflict in Kalamazoo’s history, one that was in fact racist and brutal on the part of the white settlers. In his words, “The sculpture isn’t the problem, the history is the problem.”