Producer, Educator & Writer
A turquoise, black and red street mural covering a section of the JFK Promenade with the words “We Are on Native Land” was vandalized on Thursday night.
Passersby and employees of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department first noticed the changes early Friday morning. The lead muralist on the project, Rachel Znerold, found out via text message. The mural had been finished just a few days before, in time for Indigenous Peoples Day. Now, she learned, someone had poured black paint over the word “Native” and written “no such thing” in yellow spray paint above the blacked-out word.’We are not an imaginary people or people of the past. This is Native land.’Aiko Little, vice chair, WGAW’s Native American and Indigenous Writers Committee
In response, members of Bay Area Native American communities called the vandalism an attempt at cultural erasure.
“The recognition of our community has been met repeatedly with resistance and violent behavior,” said Mary Travis-Allen, advisory board president of San Francisco’s American Indian Cultural District. “Scraping paint off the ground does not erase us. We are here and present.”
Janine Laiwa — member of the Pomo Nation, mural painter, volunteer and community ambassador for AICD — said the mural was done in good faith and with time, love and thought.
“For someone to paint over the word ‘Native’ shows that racism against Native Americans is still a big issue in San Francisco,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed by Aiko Little, vice chair of the Native American and Indigenous Writers Committee of the Writers Guild of America West, or WGAW, and member of the Oglala subtribe of the Lakota people.
“This is not simply an act of vandalism, but an act of erasure that continues to linger behind the Native/Indigenous peoples since 1492. We are not an imaginary people or people of the past. This is Native land,” Little said. “I can only hope that the people who did this one day unlearn all the ignorance and prejudice instilled in their current actions.”
San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg said he was sickened by the hateful vandalism of the mural.
“This ugly act cannot erase the beautiful message behind this installation,” he said. “It was specifically placed at the entrance of JFK Promenade to welcome people from around the world and (to) honor our shared connection to the land.”
Jonathan Cordero, chair of the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples, the original inhabitants of the San Francisco peninsula, said he thought the act was more of an anomaly.
“The San Francisco Bay Area is actually one of the areas in the United States where Native peoples have higher visibility than they do in other places, especially in major cities,” said Cordero. “I really see this (vandalism) as an aberration.”
But, he added, “when things like this happen, it becomes an opportunity for us to talk about who we are and, unfortunately, continue to have to say that we’re still here … still living in our land, still trying to make our way in the world, despite the adverse consequences of colonization, which are still ongoing.”
Sharaya Souza (Taos Pueblo, Ute, Kiowa), co-founder and executive director of the American Indian Cultural District, organized the mural after being asked by the SFRPD, the arts organization Illuminate, and nonprofit Paint the Void to participate in their Golden Mile Project along the JFK Promenade. The mural is also part of the AICD’s Indigenize Project, celebrating the long history of Native American life in San Francisco through public art.
“We still need to have conversations about being on Native land in San Francisco and how that makes some people feel uncomfortable,” Souza said, adding that she would like to see the mural become a talking point and a permanent installation within Golden Gate Park.
Znerold, the muralist, spent Friday repairing the mural alongside other muralists and around a dozen volunteers. She said she plans to continue making murals honoring Native life in San Francisco.
“We stand strong with our Native communities, and this has been a project that so many have poured their hearts into,” she said, describing families and passersby who stopped to help with the painting while the mural was in progress. “We’re gonna fix it up and we’re gonna keep coming back and fixing it up.”
She added that, as a white woman working in collaboration with Native people, she can go home and choose to not engage with racists, but for people of color and Native people, “this is what they’re facing every day.”
The work is part of ongoing efforts to fight racism.
“If anti-racist work was done, then we wouldn’t need to be out here. But it is the kind of work you have to keep showing up for every single day. So it’s a reminder, a humbling reminder, that our work is continuous,” said Znerold.
“It’s not actually taking anything away from you by just acknowledging the history and acknowledging the contributions and the gifts of the first people of this land.”
By Friday evening, the mural had been fully restored.