U of Idaho to Cover Mural of Indian Lynching

As Minnesota leaders try to decide what to do about controversial art in the state capitol, leaders at the University of Idaho have decided to cloak offensive murals, one depicting the lynching of an Indian, the other showing a clash between Indians and settlers. (Thanks to Bob Klanderud for sharing the June 26 article, published in Indianz.com.)

(State of Idaho)
(State of Idaho)

The artwork is part of a Works Progress Administration project that was originally in a courthouse. The space has since been used as temporary space for the state legislature and now is part of the University campus. It is in a room that will open soon as part of the Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center.

The controversial murals have received a wide range of media attention, including articles in The Spokesman-Review (Spokane),  Reuters, the New York Daily News, and the New York Times.

Idaho’s process is relevant to Minnesota’s current debate. One major question facing Minnesota leaders is whether it is better to remove offensive art from the capitol, or whether we need to acknowledge our painful history, leave the old art in place, and provide better historical interpretation.

Idaho has tried both. According to the Spokesman-Review article:

The murals have long been controversial; their display when the former courthouse was temporarily used as the site for two Idaho legislative sessions in 2008 and 2009 prompted year-long negotiations between the state and Idaho Indian tribes on appropriate explanations on interpretive plaques.

Representatives of five Idaho tribes negotiated for 18 months with the state about the proper wording for the interpretive plaques. A December 2008 article in the Spokesman-Review headlined “Tribes, state agree on how murals should be explained,” gives some background:

The new interpretive plaques tell the story behind such depictions – a shocking and brutal story of how the tribes that once occupied the Boise Valley were driven out, and in many cases, massacred. …

The two new interpretive plaques are headed “The Murals and Native Peoples” and “A Clash of Cultures.”

The first begins, “The two murals on this wall depicting the hanging of an Indian man have been the subject of controversy for years.  …  Whether the murals depict an actual event is not known. But the scenes are consistent with the clash of cultures experienced in the Boise Valley, and the artwork tells us much about the times when artists created the images.”

The Shoshone, Bannock and Paiute peoples lived in the Boise Valley for thousands of years, the plaque recounts. “They thrived in this region of rich fisheries, abundant game, and good grass.” While tribal members continue to visit sacred sites in and around Boise, little visible trace of their culture remains in the valley, according to the plaque. “Their removal in the 1860s came after years of Indian people defending their valley against white incursion. Seen from this perspective, these murals symbolize how an ascendant culture forcefully removed the original  inhabitants.”

The second plaque tells of violent confrontations between white settlers, U.S. troops and Indians, including one of the bloodiest slaughters of Indians in a single encounter in the American West in southeastern Idaho in the 1850s. “Today, the proud heritage of the Shoshone, Bannock and Paiute people still thrives at the Fort Hall and Duck Valley Indian Reservations,” the plaque says. “Their story is an important part of the mosaic of Idaho’s past, present – and future.”

That said, the University of Idaho now has made the decision that its best to cover the murals, period. Lee Dillon, the Associate Dean of the College of Law, explained the reasoning to the Spokesman-Review:

The building historically has been a courthouse first, a legislative annex secondly, and now a center for law and justice. … All three institutions stand for the rule of law, due process, and for justice for all. And extra-judicial lynching posters are contrary to that – it’s mob rule, it’s absence of process, and certainly not justice for all. So I don’t feel that passive posters, even with the interpretive language, are appropriate to our educational and outreach mission.

This Day in History: The Curtis Act Breaks a Treaty and Paves Way to Create the State of Oklahoma

On June 28, 1898, Congress passed the Curtis Act, which took treaty rights from members of the “Five Civilized Tribes”, the  Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Cherokee, and Seminole. Their treaties had exempted them from the Dawes Allotment Act. According to Wikipedia, the Curtis Act called for an end of tribal governments by 1906 and imposed the concept of individual land holdings:

Prior to the Curtis Act, each of these tribes had sole authority to determine the requirements for tribal membership. The act transferred this authority to the Dawes Commission. Thus, members could be enrolled without tribal consent. By effectively abolishing tribal courts and tribal governments in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, the act enabled Oklahoma to attain statehood, which followed in 1907. …

The Act was named for U.S. Rep. Charles Curtis. Curtis was of Kansa, Osage, Potawatomi, and French descent and raised on the Kansas Reservation. (He went on to become Vice President under Herbert Hoover.) However, while he was the bill’s original author, it was amended into a form he did not approve. Again, from Wikipedia:

In his own hand-written autobiography, Curtis noted that he was unhappy with the final version of the Curtis Act. He believed that the Five Civilized Tribes needed to make changes. He thought that the way ahead for Native Americans was through education and use of both their and the majority cultures, but he also had hoped to give more support to Native American transitions.

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