Samuel de Champlain Monument in Orillia


This beautiful bronze monument by British sculptor Vernon March is in Orillia, on the shores of Lake Couchiching in Ontario, Canada. It was erected in 1925 for the 300th anniversary of French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s visit to the area. Champlain was looking for a shorter passage to the West Indies. He explored and mapped the St. Lawrence waterway and parts of the Great Lakes, built the first settlement in New France, Quebec, and established fur trading with native peoples. He befriended the Hurons, pushed for their christianization and participated in their war against the Iroquois tribes. He became  governor of New France until his death in 1635.

I don’t know how many aboriginal people are depicted on monuments across North America, I’m guessing not many. I’m reading that the positioning of the native figures below Champlain and at the feet of the fur trader and the missionary is raising questions amongst the aboriginal community. I found the inscription  on the commemorative plaque quite offensive towards native people, showing the mentality of earlier times…

Champlain himself cannot be viewed from up close, being so high up, but the natives can be, and I did enjoy that tremendously. I don’t know what models the sculptor used, but he did a wonderful job.  The broad, muscular back of one of the natives is beautifully modelled, and so are the feet. Not even the pitiful graffiti can ruin the awe.
OrilliaChamplain
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Orillianative
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Orilliafeet

Being so taken by the figures and detail, I neglected taking a picture of the whole monument. Here is a picture from Canuck with a camera:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/canuckwithacamera/1074367734/

And I found this picture at the Orillia Public Library site,  taken outside the artist’s studio in England. It gives the viewer a good idea about the scale of the figures. Really impressive.

http://images.ourontario.ca/orillia/details.asp?ID=20404

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~ by erikatakacs on October 20, 2009.

17 Responses to “Samuel de Champlain Monument in Orillia”

  1. You’re right. The natives are so beautifully rendered. The musculature, faces, and the hair. Wow. I really hate to see the vandalism. Such a shame.

  2. I like the Indian portrait and the other details you show.
    I doubt whether there are any Huron Indians left to feel offended. Tocqueville says he saw the last of the Iroquois. (His chapter at the end of his Democracy in America on the American Indians is really worth reading, by the way.) I wonder whether that missionary with the cross in the monument is one of those heroic Jesuits Isaac Jogues, Brebeuf, et al. The way they were tortured and killed by the Indians impressed all of Europe at the time. Goya couldn’t keep from running off a couple of paintings on the subject when he read of it many years later (paintings sometimes seemed a kind of pictorial diary of his).

  3. I have to look up Tocqueville. He says he saw last of the Iroquois? The Iroquios Confederation was made up of six nations that originally lived in most part in New York State. Because they were bitter enemies of the Hurons, who associated themselves with the French, the Iroquois sided with the British during the American Revolution. As a result they were driven from their land. They were settled by the Canadians in Grand River, Ontario, and that’s where about half of them live today (more than 4,000), at the Six Nations Reserve. I was there myself a couple of times to see their colourful Pow Wow.

    I read that linguistically they were actually related to the Hurons… Both the Hurons and the Iroquis formed their own confederations before European settlers arrived. Not sure of the origins of their rivalry, but the involvement of Champlain in the conflict on the Huron side made things worse.

    The missionary depicted on the mounment is Father Le Caron, who was the first -or one of the first Jesuits- to arrive from France. He worked among the Hurons, the Algonkin and Montagnais, as priest and teacher. He even published dictionaries in the three languages. Initially the French were welcomed by the Hurons. They showed interest in the mission built by the Jesuits in Midland, they listened to their teachings, but they were slow to convert to Christianity. When they started to get sick with European illnesses and dying by the thousands, they finally turned to Christianity in the hopes that the missionaries will cure them of these deadly diseases. When it didn’t happen, it caused a backlash. The mission was constantly attacked by the Iroquis, until finally had to be abandoned. There is a reconstructed version of it in Midland, Ontario, it was called Sainte-Marie-Among-The-Hurons.
    Not sure why the Jesuits were killed, I suppose partly because of the above mentioned, I’ll have to look more into it. I’m sure by the time the news reached Europe, the facts were properly inflated and the “savages” demonized.

    I thought the Hurons were completely wiped out by disease and war, but turns out some of them ended up in Kansas and that’s where their descendants live today.

    Swallows, I know you’re not much into movies, but I saw a good Canadian film called “Black Robe” that tells the story of the Jesuits at the mission in an objective light, showing both sides and not jumping to conclusions on either side. I would highly recommend it if you can find it.

  4. I could have sworn Tocqueville said he saw the last Iroquois but now when I went to check, lo, the text says Choctaws—he saw a destitute family of Choctaws crossing the icy Mississippi. Sorry. The chapter is called “The actual state and probable future of the Indian tribes that inhabit the territory held by the Union”. Tocqueville here as everywhere is full of facts for which there is often no source given, but he always sounds trustworthy and clairvoyant. I suppose his chapters on the Indians and the slaves are no longer read, not because they are “wrong” but because they are so pessimistic.

    I see you are really interested in the Indians and know a lot (unlike me). You must have read that very strange book by George Catlin, and seen his paintings of the Indians. At the end of the nineteenth century, convinced that the great Indian tribes would soon be gone, he went around visiting them and painting portraits of their chiefs and warriors, as well as recording their traditions. Unlike Tocqueville he didn’t sound very trustworthy, yet I was fascinated by the book when I saw it years ago at the American Cultural Center library here.

    I’m not sure I can get that movie here but I will ask about it.
    Thanks for the history of the Hurons and Iroquois. Were those Hurons “we” deported from Ohio in 1830(?) I think they were sent to North Dakota.

  5. I wouldn’t say I know a lot, but yes, I’m interested in the history and culture of native peoples. The history, the facts are so complicated and confusing. Unfortunately I don’t have enough time to gain in-depth knowledge. I’ll have to look up Tocqueville and Catlin sometime when not too busy.

  6. Some of the comments here are quite distressing. There are most certainly native people left …. Forget reading the works of invaders as they describe native people in colonial terms, read things writen by native people. Perhaps Recovering the Sacred by W. LaDuke might be a good starting point.

    We are alive, we are here, and although alot has been done to try to change that, native people aren’t going anywhere.

    In fact, this statue is very very close to a reservation and I know without a doubt that many people from that nation find this work to be highly offensive.

  7. Flicker Boi, thanks for your recommendation, I’ll look for the book. I was born an ethnic minority, and I try to approach the issues First Nations face with sensitivity. I know what it means being treated like a second class citizen in your own land where the majority arrived much much later…

  8. Everyone has had their land invaded so get over it. I am English, yes, I have a white face and therefore automatically branded a racist and a bigot. My country has been invaded for thousands of years from the Vikings, Romans, Normans, and the present day invasion of Asians and Muslims.

    I no longer live in England, but in Orillia, Ontario, and I get tired of people pointing at the statue and labeling it racist. It is the Champlain monument so naturally has Champlain on top. If you want to fund a monument to Chief Yellowhead you can put Chief Yellowhead on top and I am sure we can find a suitable public place to display the fine statue. Maybe then I can point to it and label it racist, and see how you like it.

    Controversy aside, artistically is is a beautiful work, pictures are nice but do not do it justice. Figures are larger than life sized and the power of the artist is best experienced when viewed in person. Someone stole the sword (since found and welded back on) but there are some small parts of the statues missing, and vandalism is a constant problem. I suspect one day someone will steal the whole thing for the value of the bronze metal, enriching the thieves, but making us all poorer for its loss.

  9. This is not a monument to Champlain. According to its bronze plaque (and all its promotional literature between 1913 and 1925), it is a monument to “THE ADVENT INTO ONTARIO OF THE WHITE RACE”. Hence Sam wears horseriding-spurs and carries a massive broadsword, misrepresenting him as an independently mobile military leader “MAKING HIS HEADQUARTERS” at a Wendat (Huron) village. Hence the submissive, unarmed, virtually naked Wendat men sit eyes-averted at the feet of the dominant missionary and the dominant fur-trader, who graciously bestow upon them the great white gifts of Christianity and Commerce.
    The more I learn about it, the more I see it as a national embarassment — a graphic illustration of a benighted national mindset that condoned for 150 years the cruelty, inhumanity and futility of the federal government’s “aggressive assimilation” policy (initiated by the Imperial Government throughout the British Empire in 1840; climaxing in Canada in 1931 with 80 children’s internment camps masquerading as “residential schools”.

  10. I am originally English too, however I grew up in Rhodesia and then went throughout the decolonization process after the liberation struggle and independence. The comments of the Brit in response to the controversy over the racist and colonial depiction of the statue was an embarrassment. However I believe that “freedom” today is defined by how decolonized we are in our minds and hearts which means being able to look objectively at a work of nationalist art and recognize not only its beauty but its ugliness. Despite forgiving the artist for the ignorance of their times, we cannot ignore the post colonial perspective of how racist that depiction is and will continue to be as long as the monument exists. In Zimbabwe such monuments have been torn down but the first nations people have no such recourse here, as they continue to exist as a colonized peoples. The monument has an immediate impact on our vision of how settlers and first nations people’s are depicted. I first saw the monument last weekend and recognized Champlain immediately, wondered “what is he doing here in Orillia?” In fact the monument inspired a new direction in my masters thesis, to investigate the depiction of Canadian historic icons and study them from a post colonial perspective. I plan to create costumes and characters and perform them a the Coldwater Steampunk festival in August 2013.

  11. Catherine, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Quite frankly, my only intent was to show this wonderful monument to others as an example of a well-accomplished work of figurative art. As a sculptor myself, I was astonished by the high level of artistry achieved on the individual pieces and the composition of the whole from an aesthetical point of view. At the same time I was appalled by the plaque’s tone and the graffiti covering the figures, but did not expect such emotionally charged responses about the subject matter, the concept of the statue. The plaque and perhaps the hierarchy of the positioning of the elements (the figures) reflects the tone and mentality of the early 20th century, which clearly strikes us as wrong today. But can we hold responsible a piece of art for the past’s mistakes? A work of art should be independent of zeisgeist. It should never become a victim of historical/political concerns. There is nothing ugly about the sculpture. The ideas attached to it are. Yes, they are ugly and racist in the context of our more democratic society. So worry about them, do not wrong the commissioned artist or the art. I think it would be informative and educational to install a board next to the statue that would point out the issues through giving voice to the first nations’ point of view.

  12. Is anyone interested in creating a performance dialogue (dressing up as the characters in costume and presenting a post colonial narrative) in response to the colonial history of the statue, possibly during a festival and based on some of the work I have included below. Please contact me at goddessence.now@gmail.com

    Vacuum Cleaner, The
    How to Prank, Play and Subvert the system in Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World
    http://trapese.clearerchannel.org/chapters/HandbookForChangingOurWorld_chap12.pdf

  13. I am not criticizing the artist’s colonial mentality, which is part of the era he lived in, but rather responding to the dialogue that this work has generated, which has motivated me to create a project around the monument. The discussion on your page is insightful and passionate, a powerful response that I appreciate. I keep going back to this discussion and focusing on it as a central theme for my proposal, its is fascinating. I apologies for posting the previous article without requesting your permission, please remove it if is inappropriate for your site. I found the article on How to Prank so relevant to the controversy over this monument.

  14. Point taken, Catherine. I understand the symbolism behind the sculpture might trigger strong sentiment. It is a reminder of past injustice and mentality that is wrong and outdated in today’s society. But hopefully people are able to look at it first and foremost as a fine example of ART that embodies the aesthetic sensibilitiy of the artist. The controversy of its subject should not affect how we perceive its beauty. Thank you for your insightful comments, it made me think about the role and responsability of art and artist.

  15. I recommend looking at the work of Jeff Thomas. http://www.scoutingfor indians.com
    He works on photographing monuments from the contemporary aboriginal perspective, as an artist, I am sure you will find his work fascinating. I love the photo of the “Indian” in a cereal box canoe on the Orillia Monument in Ottawa. He did take photos of the Orillia Monument.

  16. The monument is on the shores of Lake Couchiching, not Lake Simcoe. I grew up in Orillia and took swimming lessons in the lake by the monument.

  17. Thank you, Lisa. Will make the correction.

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