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  • Appealing to the Great SpiritFoundational Fictions and Settler Histories in Middletown America
  • James Joseph Buss (bio)

In 1929 Bertha C. Ball and her children placed a life-size copy of Cyrus Dallin’s statue, Appeal to the Great Spirit, in a small park at the intersection of Walnut Street and Granville Avenue in Muncie, Indiana. The figure—a generalized Great Plains warrior on horseback with outstretched arms and head tilted toward the heavens—may be one of the most recognizable images associated with the trope of the nineteenth century vanishing Indian.1 Dallin himself arrived in May of that year to install the work. It was the second full-size casting made of the piece, and the only such copy made during his lifetime (a posthumous version was commissioned for the city of Tulsa in the 1980s). Dallin was hired by the Ball family to erect the work in honor of Edmund Burke Ball, who had died in 1925. The Ball family, owners of the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, moved their factory from Buffalo, New York, to Muncie, Indiana, in the 1880s in order to take advantage of natural gas fields discovered there.2 By the 1920s the Ball Brothers had become incredibly wealthy as their fruit canning jars became staples of the average American household. When Edmund died in 1925, he and Frank—the two brothers who originally started the company—occupied palatial homes on the northern bank of the White River (they had named the family compound Minnetrista). Bertha Ball placed the copy of Appeal to the Great Spirit on the eastern edge of the sprawling family estate, where passersby might notice it as they crossed the White River.3 While the statue’s initial placement in Muncie has its own interesting story, it is not the focus of this essay. For more than three decades the statue existed as a minor [End Page 143] part of the city’s commemorative landscape. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that members of the larger community began to embrace it as emblematic of their town and its citizens. In the years leading up to the city’s centennial celebration in 1965, civic leaders, local college professors, along with a Miami individual, helped elevate the statue to prominence. Over the course of those two decades, the Muncie city government incorporated Dallin’s statue on the city’s seal, mayoral letterhead, and even the municipal flag. How did a general symbol of westward expansion come to embody the identity of a small midwestern industrial town?

The process by which Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit became part of Muncie’s local story illustrates the complexities of settler memory. At its heart, settler colonialism relies on the power of its own narratives, which are fundamentally anxious and absurd. One might be tempted simply to highlight the ironies and inconsistencies of settler stories, but such cursory examinations rarely yield significant insights into the intersection of history and memory. Moreover, local histories are too often ignored as abstracted and isolated events in the larger storytelling of national ones. So much of what we know about settler colonialism, and colonialism’s culture, derives from larger notions about how colonization, in the words of Patrick Wolfe, “destroys to replace.” As such, the process of historymaking often gets flattened as merely the stories that victors tell about the vanquished.4 Across the Midwest, towns and counties incorporated Native imagery into popular accounts of the past and the commemoration of local identities. These vernacular histories were not new, nor were they limited to the Midwest. In fact, historian Jean O’Brien discovered a similar process at play in nineteenth century New England. “These local stories,” she argues, “were leashed together to a larger national narrative of the ‘vanishing Indian’ as a generalized trope and disseminated not just in the form of the written word but also in a rich ceremonial cycle of pageants, commemorations, monument building, and lecture hall performances.”5 An examination of Muncie’s complicated history, as related to Dallin’s statue and its uses in the twentieth century, sheds light onto the complexities of settler memory, particularly in a midwestern context...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2372-5672
Print ISSN
2372-5664
Pages
pp. 143-167
Launched on MUSE
2016-06-24
Open Access
No
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