He’s known as the Father of the Country and as the man who couldn’t and wouldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree. But if Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman have their way, George Washington will also be remembered as “the town destroyer.” That’s the title of a new documentary that they have written, directed and produced about the controversial murals in San Francisco at George Washington High School. Once slated to be painted over, they are still on the walls and still controversial.
History first: in 1779, three years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and in the thick of a violent revolution, Washington ordered the “total destruction and devastation” of Iroquois villages allied with King George. American soldiers burned forty villages to the ground, and displaced thousands of Indians. Hundreds of Iroquois died of exposure to winter weather. A Seneca leader named Tanacharison called Washington “Hanödaga꞉nyas” – “Town Destroyer.”
In recent times, probably no San Francisco news story has traveled as far or as wide as the story about Victor Arnautoff’s murals which subvert the myths and depict the life of George Washington as a foe of the Iroquois and an owner of Black slaves.
Perhaps only in a city that loves its murals, some by Diego Rivera, and hates its murals, could murals painted in the 1930s under a New Deal art program, divide citizens from one another and stir up deeply seated passions. If you thought you could now talk calmly about Victor Arnautoff and his art, Americans Indians and George Washington, think again. “Town Destroyer”—an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist film— is likely to stir up all over again fundamental issues about censorship, trauma, genocide and ethnicity.
The issues reached a tipping point not long ago when the members of the San Francisco Board of Education listened to impassioned testimony and voted to cover up the murals. The board rescinded its decision, perhaps because it was embarrassed by the national publicity that depicted its decision as a form of censorship.
Snitow and Kaufman try to walk a fine line and to offer a balanced perspective in their 58-minute documentary which includes on camera interviews with well known historians such as UCLA Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, plus famed San Francisco muralist Dewey Crumpler, along with community activists, local political figures, members of Indians tribes close to home and from far away.
The documentary also provides a platform for experts about the representations and misrepresentations of Indians in American culture, including commercial advertisements and the names of military helicopters like Apache and Comanche to Barbie Dolls with feathers and beads. First came genocide, than came cultural plunder or maybe it was the other way around.
The founder of the San Francisco Jewish Festival and its director for 13 years, Kaufman teamed up with Alan Snitow, the former news director at KPFA, to make “Blacks and Jews” in 1997, “Secrets of Silicon Valley” in 2001, and this year “Town Destroyer” which premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Paul Chaa, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., calls romanticism a “form of racism” and observes that Americans have a “secret obsession with Native Americans.” One hundred years ago, D. H. Lawrence noted that white people aimed to extirpate Indians and then glorified them.
In “Town Destroyer,” the filmmakers focus on the image of a dead Indian lying face down on the ground while settlers with guns stand close-by. One commentary points out that by excluding the face of the Indian, the artist has respected the identity and the spirit of the dead person. California Indian Artist Judith Lowry describes the Gold Rush as “ground zero” for Native Americans and a time when they experienced “searing losses.” She adds that Arnautoff aimed to “subvert” the dominant narrative about Indians, pioneers and settlers.
Black muralist Dewey Crumpler came of age in the era of Black Power. He suggests that Arnautoff’s work ought to be preserved, not destroyed and used as a vehicle to teach students about both the past and the present. Commissioned in the late 1960s to create a mural at George Washington High School titled “Multi-Ethnic Heritage,” Crumpler honors Blacks and Indians.
In Snitow’s and Kaufman’s documentary some George Washington students and their parents argue that the images on the walls are a relic of the past and not history, that they instill a sense of trauma and shame and ought to be eradicated. Pete Galindo, the director of the Great Wall Project, talks about the half-mile long “Great Wall of LA” which depicts the history of the city, including lynching. Art can make viewers uncomfortable.
Near the end of the documentary, Jessica Young, a Native American at the New College of Florida, says she’s unsure which side she‘s on. UCLA Professor Kelley adds that it’s not about choosing sides and that “no one person or group can tell the story.”
Lowry offers the somber notion that “we’ll have to have this debate for another couple of decades before the issue is resolved.” Maybe so. After all, the issues go back to 1779 when George Washington ordered the destruction of the Iroquois villages. “Town Destroyer” will shed new light on our first president. It might also illuminate Arnautoff’s murals that roiled The City and the nation.
“Town Destroyer.” Roxie Theater 3117 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103.
Sat. Nov. 5th Benefit for Precita Eyes Muralists – Q & A with filmmakers + Precita Eyes founder Susan Cervantes.
Sun. Nov. 6th Benefit for The Association of Ramaytush Ohlone – Q & A with filmmakers + Jonathan Cordero, chair of Ramaytush Ohlone peoples.
Wed. Nov. 9th Benefit for California Institute for Community, Arts & Nature – Q & A with filmmakers + speakers TBA.
Thurs. Nov. 10th Benefit for The Living New Deal – Q & A with filmmakers + speakers.