Steven Newcomb: Colonizers of Indian land now viewed as saints

The Pioneer Mother statue on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Akendall / Wikipedia

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute looks at the history of The Pioneer Mother statue in Oregon:
At the University of Oregon (U of O), just south of the administration building, amidst the beautiful green scenery of the campus, is a bronze statue, “The Pioneer Mother.” On the front panel of the statue’s pedestal is the Latin word “PAX” (“Peace”). As a student, I read the text enscribed on the back of the statue’s base. It is some text from a letter written by Burt Brown Barker in honor of his mother, Elvira Brown Barker who traveled with her family across the Oregon Trail in the 19th century when she was a young girl.

While recently visiting the U of O campus, I once again read Brown’s acknowledgement to “my mother Elvira Brown Barker, a pioneer of 1847…” The end of the text reads: “but to us there lives that spirit of conquering peace which I wish posterity to remember.” Why a “conquering peace?” Because, in the context of the expansion of the American empire, a “pioneer” is typically defined as “a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.” A pioneer is an agent part of what is called the “conquering” colonial expansion, of an empire helping itself to the lands and territories of original nations.

Brown’s phrase “conquering peace” was taken from a letter that he wrote while he was planning for such a commemorative statue. Brown eventually used that letter to convince the sculptor, A. Phimister Proctor, to create The Pioneer Mother statue. Elsewhere in his letter Brown expressed his ideal image of a pioneer mother, part of which states: “She was a woman born into life with all it has of labor and of pain; but she chose to multiply these as a helpmeet [sic] in blazing the westward trail that the course of empire might make its way, as the God of civilization has ordained.” In Brown’s view, the God of the Bible ordained that the destiny of “God’s empire” be manifested. Thus, the phrase “Manifest Destiny.”

The Oregon territory was established as part of the Westward expansion of the American empire that the founders of the United States had envisioned. Pioneers are the colonizers of a given geographical area which is new to them. That geographical area is new to the invading and colonizing society which expands its control by forcibly imposing its own foreign cultural pattern on the nations existing in there. This is commonly termed the process of “civilization.”

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Steven Newcomb: The Pioneer Mother Statue and the 'Conquering Peace' (Indian Country Today 6/6)

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