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The cultural identity of the Fountain of The Four Seasons

Four women stand before the Memorial Union, resilient to the elements of the changing seasons, and keep watch over Iowa State University.

The Fountain of the Four Seasons has become an important icon of Iowa State tradition, but the women in the fountain are representative of a larger conversation.

The fountain, created by Christian Petersen in the 1930s, features four Native American women, carved from white limestone. For some individuals, these maidens are symbolic of Native culture and tradition.

“Native Americans are the minorities of the minorities,” said Haley Strass, a graduate student at Iowa State who identifies as a member of the Miami tribe.

She said that the fountain, because a non-Native created it, couldn’t be completely representative of Native American culture.

“It seems like the intention behind it was good, but in the long run, I’m not sure that students really understand the fountain’s intentions,” Strass said.

With conversations about race, gender and ethnicity running rampant on Iowa State’s campus, Strass said the fountain could fuel an important conversation about cultural appropriation, but students and faculty first need to be willing to discuss the topic with one another.

The Fountain of the Four Seasons sits directly before Iowa State's Memorial Union, but many passerby are unaware of its cultural representation. Photo courtesy of University Museums

The air is warm, and a light breeze ripples over the clear water that surrounds the four maidens. Dozens of people pour in and out of the Memorial Union, oblivious to the fountain and its underlying message and neglecting the opportunity to create a conversation about diversity on campus.

“The more we can engage students, the better,” said Nancy Gebhart, an educator of visual literacy and learning with University Museums.

One student, his back turned to the fountain, tosses a coin over his shoulder, which meets the surface of the water with a faint splash.

According to campus legend, students who step over the Zodiac, a pattern in the tile floor within the Memorial Union, are destined to fail their next exam. The only antidote for this curse is to throw a coin into the fountain.

Though these students are interacting with the fountain through their own traditions, they aren’t aware of the Native culture that is portrayed by the piece, Gebhart said.

In a time when students are engaging with a social world on their mobile devices, Gebhart said, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to draw their attention to the art on campus.

“It is about empathizing and understanding,” Gebhart said. “[The fountain] can be a great reminder to start conversations.”

For many, the maidens in the fountain embody Iowa’s rich agriculture and the love and patience required to nurture the land.

“We are born from agriculture, and that is what those maidens represent,” said Lynette Pohlman, the director of Iowa State’s University Museums. “Petersen wanted to symbolize what was here before Iowa State.”

Facing due north, the winter maiden holds an infant as it feeds from her breast.

This maiden is representative of the desolate winter season and the sustenance of the fall harvest, said Dave Faux, an interpretation specialist with University Museums.

The other maidens can be found sowing seeds, sheltering a budding corn plant and harvesting the crop. 

In order to understand the culture of the Meskwaki tribe, on whose traditions these stone maidens are based, Petersen spent a large amount of time with the tribe, Pohlman said.

“You can see a very personal connection with the subjects,” Faux said. “There was a lot of respect and care for these statues.”

Petersen valued his relationship with the Meskwaki and expressed his bond with the tribe through his art, Faux said.

The maidens are not sporting the traditional garbs, in which Natives are typically portrayed, a sign that Petersen wanted to accurately represent the tribe’s culture.

The four maidens are draped in the same clean frocks, with their hair gathered into two simple braids that fall at their chests.

“One of the challenges that we find in general in art, in representation, is that representations of Native people are always in the past,” said Jen Coppoc, a lecturer in Iowa State’s American Indian Studies Program.

“We have this idea about what Native American culture looks like from the way they are depicted on screen,” she said. “This disconnect with reality disables society from really understanding contemporary Native American culture.”

Native Americans are commonly depicted as strong men and women with smooth, dark skin and long hair, who wear turquoise jewelry and feathers in their hair, Coppoc said.

“It’s important to nod to the past and to acknowledge that this is the past here, but we don’t have representations of contemporary Natives on campus,” she said.

Women were traditionally the agriculturalists and horticulturists in Native American tribes, said Sebastian Braun, the director of Iowa State’s American Indian Studies Program. Specifically in Meskwaki tribes, women were treated equally and were expected to hunt small game and gather food like the men of the tribe.

The cultural representation in the Fountain of the Four Seasons could serve as a foundation for initiating campus discussion about the history of Native Americans in this part of the country, Coppoc said.

Through her courses in the American Indian Studies Program, Coppoc is able to speak to a variety of students about the gruesome treatment of Native Americans throughout history.

When Europeans arrived in North America, it was not a desolate land, Coppoc said. American schoolchildren are taught in a vague way about the millions of Native people who were forced out of their homes and off of their land by these new settlers and later forced to live on reservations.

“I never really thought about Native American culture,” said Anna Zmich, a junior at Iowa State. “I’m quite ashamed to say that.”

Before enrolling in Coppoc’s introduction to Native studies course, Zmich said she was unaware of the brutal treatment that Native Americans received.  

“Students feel downright angry and they feel betrayed by our education system when they realize how much they don’t know,” Coppoc said. "History books tend to shy away from detailing the way the United States government treated these Native tribes."

From the start of America, Coppoc said, the government has made policies that have assumed that Native people weren’t going to be here for very long.

Because the Fountain of the Four Seasons was forged from delicate limestone that erodes easily, Coppoc said the fountain might be representative of the notion that these tribes would not persevere, but rather fade slowly.

The Fountain of the Four Seasons is difficult to maintain because limestone is susceptible to weathering, said Francis Miller, an art conservator for Iowa State’s University Museums.

“You have to be very patient and sensitive to the surfaces,” Miller said.

Because Ames’ water contains a high amount of calcium, massive deposits of calcium carbonate form on the fountain. These deposits are thick and require conservationists to gently chip away at the material that has developed on the figures.

Though the University Museums constantly clean and monitor the fountain’s condition, the treatments are not prolonging the life of the sculpture, but rather maintaining its aesthetic, Miller said.

The delicate white limestone was not meant to be symbolic, Gebhart said. Petersen worked with the material that was available for him to use, and that is why the fountain is created from that particular stone.

When it comes to interpretations of the fountain, Faux said each person would have a different understanding based on their background knowledge and previous experiences.

The problem, Faux said, is that students aren’t taking the time to explore the fountain and its meaning.

“The fact that it’s not intuitive shows that something is wrong,” Zmich said.

As a passerby, Zmich said she had never inspected the maidens and said she was surprised to learn of the fountain’s cultural representation.

“It’s possible that Christian Petersen was trying to create a bridge in cultures,” Zmich said. “But I don’t think he did it in necessarily the best way.”

Zmich feels that many students walk past the fountain, incognizant of its meaning and miss the opportunity to establish conversations about cultural diversity.

After the fountain was unveiled during Iowa State’s Veishea celebration in 1941, the maidens’ faces were painted red, which Coppoc said could be interpreted as an act of racism or as a way of adding humanity to these whitewashed sculptures.

“Art has this evocative quality,” said Lynn Paxson, a lecturer in Iowa State’s College of Design. “It will cause people to react in surprising ways.”

The painting of the maidens’ faces was an act of protest, Paxson said, but it shows that the fountain is capable of sending a message and evoking emotion in spectators.

It can be difficult to understand another group’s culture and values, said Paxson, who comes from a Native background, but does not identify as being a Native Indian.

“I don’t think that any Native person on campus thinks that the Christian Petersen fountain is the only Native image on campus,” she said. “But it is an image of Native people, and whether or not he got it right, he meant it as a positive reference.”

The conversation about whether the fountain is an accurate representation of Native Americans today is something in which Paxson said students should be engaging.

“A lot of people get very uncomfortable when you talk about race,” Zmich said. “You don’t know when you are going to cross the line.”

The University Museums host monthly tours of the Art on Campus collection to begin conversations about inclusion, race, gender and ethnicity. By asking students to share their own interpretation of a piece of art, Faux said students are able to have these conversations.

“Every single work of art on campus has a story behind it,” Faux said. “Take a closer look and see what that story is.”

August 31, 2016, marks the 75th Anniversary of the fountain's construction. The Brown Otter Drum Group and traditional dancers of the Meskwaki settlement will perform as part of a celebration of the fountain at 12:30 p.m.

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