Originally displayed at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition. It depicts indigenous leader Multnomah and a young brave watching the arrival of white men up the Columbia River into the Willamette Valley.
the White Man was originally displayed as part of the Lewis and Clark
Exposition, a 1905 fair marking the centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition's journey from Missouri to the Pacific. Herman MacNeil’s statue features two native men facing
eastward toward wagon trains arriving along the Oregon Trail. Like other
leading artists of his generation, MacNeil thought of indigenous North
Americans as noble savages. But he was one of the first American sculptors to
reject depictions of Native Americans as childlike. MacNeil nonetheless viewed
indigenous peoples as innocents who would necessarily yield way to white
of the White Man, Multnomah, chief of the local Multnomah Indian tribe,
stands with his arms crossed, staring haughtily as the Lewis and Clark
expedition’s canoes approach down the Columbia River. Beside him, a young
Indian scout points excitedly toward those arriving from the East.
At the Lewis and Clark exposition, Coming of the White Man had been
juxtaposed against Frederic Remington’s Hitting
the Trail, an ensemble of four exuberant cowboys on horseback, with pistols
raised. These spirited cowboys stood in
for the white-dominated American nation that had indeed come—and dispossessed—the
indigenous peoples of the American West, beginning with the explorations of the
Lewis and Clark expedition.
While some have interpreted Coming of the White Man as depicting
empathy toward native people over the loss of their land and way of life, it nonetheless
declared the inevitable destruction of indigenous populations. Indeed, Portland Mayor George H. Williams professed
both interpretations in the same breath at its 1904 presentation ceremony:
historic significance of this group is the white man’s invasion of the
wilderness home of the Indians. This monument will probably stand here when the
race of people whom it represents has become extinct, and will then describe to
those who come to see it better than any book the form, features, and chief
characteristics of the original inhabitants of this country.”
Williams went on to explain that his late
predecessor, David P. Thompson, had “erected…a splendid representation of our
wild animals” in the form of a massive bronze elk in nearby downtown Portland, which
his family “supplemented…[with] a more splendid representation of the wild men
of this country.”1 Portlanders
were confident that both wild Native men would eventually disappear due to the arrival
of white civilization—a process made possible by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
After the fair, the statue was moved to Washington Park. It now stands near the Sacajawea statue (which was also displayed at the 1905 fair) and the 1908 Lewis and Clark Memorial Column.