The Cherokee Street Statue Is Gone, And Its Sculptor Is Fine With That
The way Bill Christman remembers it, the Cherokee Street shopping district in south St. Louis was beginning to fade by 1984.
“Back then, before shopping malls had taken over completely, we still had neighborhood shopping,” the lifelong St. Louisan told St. Louis on the Air.
The decline in activity prompted business leaders to invite proposals to spruce up the streetfront. Some would-be creators sketched out plans for banners on light poles, which Christman recalls as a popular strategy at that time. But he decided to propose something entirely different.
“I was a sculptor, so I decided a giant sculpture of a Cherokee Indian [would] be unique, and I was looking to do something out of the ordinary,” he said.
That statue only recently became an issue, with neighborhood leaders voting last week to remove it. They said it “does not appropriately honor the Indigenous communities that have called this land home.”
In 1984, though, the proposal sailed through. About a year later, Christman’s 13-foot-tall depiction of a Native American man, carved out of foam and fiberglass, was installed at the northwest corner of Cherokee Street and Jefferson Avenue.
But in the months between the birth of Christman’s initial idea and the statue's installation in 1985, the artist heard from a local group of Cherokee people. They wanted to see the design.
Christman shared his plans with three group members, who offered feedback: He should avoid “any connection to looking like a cigar store Indian.” That, the Native Americans told Christman, would be an insult.
“They explained to me the tradition that that came from was very offensive to Indians,” Christman said. “They would often get an Indian who would become drunk and catatonic and then place him in front of the bar and put silly objects in his hand like a broom and a mop, and put a flowerpot on his head. It was really a way of humiliating the Indians.”
“I said, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea,’” he recalled.
Christman credits those community members with helping him avoid “a terrible mistake.” He made several adjustments to his design, including adjusting the figure’s garb and accessories. The finished figure holds the Cherokee syllabary in one hand and raises the other in a sign of peace.
“I really felt that they were really nice people, and I wanted to make them happy. Because I thought, ‘The last thing that I’m out to do is to try to do something that ends up with negative consequences to the people it’s intending to honor,’” he recalled.
Three and a half decades later, the statue is no more: After members of the Cherokee Street Community Improvement District voted Sept. 16 to have it removed, it was taken down early the next morning.
Its sculptor is unperturbed.
“I don’t feel any problem with it at all,” Christman said. “In my opinion, if art really reaches its potential, it’s a living thing. And it is going to change and grow. … I think after 35 years [the statue’s] vitality was questionable.”
He also admitted that he was “never really delighted with the way the statue turned out.”
“I had sprained my ankle, and it was 13 feet tall, and I was working on a ladder. So it was painful,” Christman explained. “But I had a deadline. And somehow the proportions of the statue got a little off.”
The 74-year-old feels good about the role the sculpture played in drawing attention to the business district. And he’s relieved that his work isn’t ending up in a landfill.
Last week, the sculpture was transported to the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois. Its president, Michael Allen, said the nonprofit seeks to provide a repository for artifacts “that may have artistic value but often face public conflict over their meaning and preservation.”
“When it comes to statuary with political meaning, that’s certainly not our primary focus,” Allen said. “But in this case, with that statue being made by a local artist who’s been very active in historic preservation and works across the city, we think it’s a pretty significant piece.”
Christman has been creating art since he was a young child. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who created murals when he was growing up — including a 12-foot-tall cowboy in his bedroom. His Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem remains a draw on the third floor of the City Museum.
The National Building Arts Center plans to host an outdoor statuary exhibit within the next year, and it’s likely to include the Cherokee Street statue. For now, visitors can come to a public tour day to “see the statue laying on a trailer waiting for its next phase of life,” Allen said.
The next public tour day is Oct. 2.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.