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Esther Motanic Will Be City’s First Woman, Indian Public Art

The bronze statue of Esther Motanic will be the city’s first permanent public art portraying a woman and American Indian when it takes its place in Pendleton this spring.

The life-size statue will be erected at the south traffic island between Southeast Court and Dorian avenues and Southeast Eighth Street.

Motanic was the first Round-Up Indian queen in 1926 and the first American Indian to attend Pendleton High School. Her daughter Bette McLean, 74, said American Indian public art would never have been built in Motanic’s lifetime — she died in 1988 at age 87 — because it was culturally unacceptable.

“I think she’d just be overwhelmed,” said McLean of the statue. “It’s an amazing honor.” 

Motanic, whose heritage traces to the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes, boarded with Judge Elder Fee on Southeast Byers Avenue in order to attend high school in Pendleton. During that time she saw her family, who lived in Mission, twice a year. She moved to Arizona to work for the U.S. Indian Service, where she met her husband Glenn Lewis. They married in 1927 and had four children.

McLean said Motanic, a mezzo soprano and violinist, sang in the church choirs of every town they lived in growing up. They moved around to reservations in Montana, South Dakota and Newberg, Ore. Motanic returned to Mission in 1971 when Lewis died because she considered it home, McLean said.

Placing Motanic’s figure at a main city thoroughfare recognizes the city’s diversity, said Keith May, president of the Umatilla County Historical Society.

“I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of a series that is more inclusive of all facets of Pendleton history, and certainly Native Americans are a big part of that,” said May, an arts commission and city council member. “We have a lot of cultural diversity, but when you look at our art you don’t see it yet.”

The city also plans to commission bronzes of George Fletcher, which will be its first African American statue, as well as Kathleen McClintock.

Dr. Steven Neal is fashioning the head of the Montanic statue based on photographs and insight from McLean about her mother’s persona. To ensure its accuracy, Neal took measurements of McLean’s daughter Jennifer Lewis, 54, of Pendleton. Lewis bears a “remarkable resemblance” to her grandmother, standing at about the same height of five feet, six inches tall, McLean said.

Lewis modeled for Neal wearing the same doe hide dress her grandmother donned as the Round-Up Indian queen, studded with beadwork on the back cape and part of the front.

“It’s really important to have the family like it,” Neal said. “The challenge is to make it so it will tell something about the personality of the person.” 

Neal will send the clay mold of Motanic’s head to Provo, Utah, for artist Michael Hall to use to finish Motanic’s body. Hall will have it cast at the Baer Bronze foundry in Springville, Utah.

The arts commission also hired Greg Polutanovich of Saugus, Calif., to make a statue of Jackson Sundown, 1916 all-around Round-Up champion and soldier in the Nez Perce War of 1877. Sundown will stand at the west side of town at the pullout in front of the convention center. Both the Sundown and Motanic statues are scheduled to be finished by March.

The city is paying $65,000 for the statues from a fund generated by 1.75 percent of its room tax. Mayor Phillip Houk said he expects to offset most of the cost through donations — the city has collected $10,000 and expects to raise more with grants from local organizations.

Contact Chris Rizer at or 541-966-0836.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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