Maybe Some Art is Better Suited For a Museum

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as it reassesses its own controversial capitol art.

Today we visit Arizona. Both Minnesota and Arizona have capitol art with iconic images of Manifest Destiny. Both also have images of the Catholic missionaries who came to convert the native peoples.

One question around controversial historic artwork in public buildings is whether it is better suited for a museum rather than the halls of power. Here’s the problem: Putting symbols of Manifest Destiny and/or forced conversions in the Governor’s Office or legislative chamber sends subtle but significant messages about who has power and belongs here (white settlers) and who does not (Native Americans and other people of color).

Arizona is an intriguing example with an unusual capitol set up. State government outgrew the original Territorial Government building. It chose to build additions and adjacent buildings for the day-to-day operations of government, but maintains the historic building as the Arizona Capitol Museum.

We will focus on a series of murals painted by Lon Megargee, particularly those with Native images and themes. They were painted for the Capitol (now the Capitol Museum). Megargee did 18 murals in all; we will look at half of them. The first six listed are from 1913-14, the last three are from 1934. (Click on the links to see the pictures.)

  • Spirit of Arizona has many of the classic signs of Manifest Destiny. The Indian is leaving the scene, replaced by white settlers and signs of divine intervention–angelic spirits carrying agricultural bounty. Megargee describes the painting as “showing the passing away of the cowboy and Indian, and the arrival of goddesses with their arms laden down with orange trees and grains.” The website continues, “the young family journeying symbolize the people of Arizona, walking past oranges and alfalfa.” The symbolism in this painting is similar to the painting in the Minnesota Senate: “Minnesota, Granary to the World” (shown here in a news article) which also has images of divine beings with agricultural bounty.
  • Hopi Boomerang Throwers shows two Hopi Indians hunting rabbits, and seems respectful enough to its subjects. (Consider it early Hollywood. After painting stories and landscapes, Megargee wrote the Governor that he wanted to show “some good action stuff.”)
  • Canyon de Chelly shows a barely perceptible Navajo Indians riding against an immense mountain landscape. (President Hoover would later designate the Canyon de Chelly as a National Monument and it is now entirely on Navajo Trust Fund lands.)
  • Two of the 15 murals highlight ruins of past Indian civilizations: Casa Grande Prehistoric Ruins and Cliff House.
  • San Xavier Mission shows “the state’s most important artifact of the Spanish colonial era. The original Jesuit mission … was built mainly with Native American labor.” Raiding Apaches destroyed the original mission; the painting shows the replacement mission built in 1797. It still serves the Native community today.
  • The Indian: “This is the brightest of the three (1934) paintings, showing a single, heroic Native against a border of cacti, foliage, and a tall mesa,” the website said.
  • Father Kino: Kino “was an Italian Jesuit missionary, famous for exploring southwestern Arizona and for Christianizing the indigenous Native population.” The Mission San Xavier del Bac, in the background of this mural, was built primarily with Native American labor as shown by the laboring Native and horse.”
  • The Farmer: The last painting in this 1934 trilogy focuses on the theme of “progress.” “This mural depicts a large farmer resting his hands on a shovel in front of all of Arizona’s progress: modern machinery, agriculture, and huge structures nestled in a valley,” the website said.

Connecting Incongruous Dots: Capitol Art and Minnesota’s American Indian Achievement Gap

Some of the capitol art we have reviewed shows Manifest Destiey and the conquest of Native communities. In practical terms, the trauma Native peoples suffered is seen today through many measures of well being, such as disparities in health, income, and education.

One recent example comes from the article: Tackling Achievement Gap for American Indian Students. It notes that in 2014 only half of American Indian students graduate on time, more than 30 percentage points below the statewide average. The article sums up current Minnesota legislative proposals to improve American Indian education–particularly using more culturally supportive approaches.

Here’s the incongruous part. As state leaders deliberate on the value of culturally supportive approaches to Native American education, they are looking at a few major pieces of art showing American Indians in a negative light, being submissive and put in their place.

Changing the art at the Capitol won’t suddenly improve American Indian student achievement. Changing the art (or providing better interpretation) would be a step in the right direction to ending stereotypes and getting capitol leaders to see Native peoples in a better light.

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