The coming years will see the replacement of Nebraska’s two existing statues in the United States Capitol with renowned author Willa Cather and Ponca Chief Standing Bear.
On April 23, 2018, Legislative Bill 807 was approved by the governor of Nebraska to call for the replacement of existing statues in the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol. This bill also allowed the creation of two separate committees to oversee the process for each sculpture and to secure funding from private donations, as none of the associated expenses will be state-funded.
In 1864 the United States Congress established the statuary collection in the Old Hall of the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. Each state was invited to contribute two statues representing important historical figures. Nebraska selected William Jennings Bryan and Julius Sterling Morton which were presented in 1937. In 2000, the United States Congress enacted legislation authorizing states to request that the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress approve suggestions for replacement statues.
Last year the Nebraska Legislature determined the inclusion of Willa Cather as a “significant historical and literary figure from Red Cloud” who “immortalized Nebraska” in works like My Ántonia and O Pioneers!, as well as receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours. Cather’s statue will replace Morton’s, and the bill provides for the determination of a location in Nebraska where the replaced statue will reside upon its return. The Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee was created and is comprised of members of the Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission.
“The inclusion of Willa Cather in Statuary Hall not only emphasizes the rich and diverse history of Nebraska but the constant evolution of historical interpretation,” said Rod Bates of the Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee said. “We feel that Cather, in many ways, is Nebraska in her portrayals of the pioneer spirit, resiliency, and determination.”
Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation at the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, emphasized that while Cather is widely recognized for her Great Plains literature, it’s her entire body of work that secured her status as one of America’s greatest writers.
“After publishing her early novels — many of which had their genesis in Cather’s own childhood experiences in Nebraska — she won national and international awards for later works Shadows on the Rock and Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Olson said. “Every year some 10,000 tourists and scholars from across the country visit Red Cloud because of Willa Cather, and we are honored that she has been selected to represent Nebraska in Statuary Hall.”
The committee has been charged with the following:
- The selection of a sculptor to include design review and approval;
- Determining methods for securing funding through private donations and separately managed funds;
- The design and creation of the pedestal;
- Transportation of the statue and pedestal to the United States Capitol;
- The removal and return transportation of the replaced statue back to Nebraska;
- The temporary placement of the new statue in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol for the unveiling ceremony;
- Organizing the unveiling ceremony and any other expenses that the committee determines necessary.
Since no state funds are allocated to the project, a cash fund was also created which will be administered by History Nebraska to include private donations.
The Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee will be updating the public throughout the year on this process, its final creation, and ceremonies. Organizations and private citizens will also be asked to consider possible locations in Nebraska for the return of J. Sterling Morton, whom Willa Cather will replace, as well as ways the public or corporations might engage and contribute to this exciting project.
The committee’s selection of a sculptor for this project, from a recent competition, will be announced in March.