Idaho Capitol Art: The Capitol of Light Leaves Native Peoples in the Shadows

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess our controversial capitol art. (Information on capitol art in Minnesota and other states is collected on 0ur Capitol Art page.)

Continuing alphabetically, today we visit the Idaho State Capitol: “The Capitol of Light.” The Idaho Public Television self-guided capitol tour notes that architect John E. Tourtellotte:

was inspired to create a building that emphasized natural light and used it as a decorative element. He used light shafts, skylights, and reflective marble surfaces to capture natural sunlight and direct it to the interior space. For Tourtellotte, light was a metaphor for an enlightened and moral state government.

The Idaho Capitol went through a major renovation in the late 2000s. That experience provides an interesting case study for Minnesota. During the renovation, the Idaho legislature met temporarily in the Ada County Courthouse near the capitol. The meeting space featured a large Works Progress Administration mural depicting a lynching of a Native American man. The question was: Do you cover or remove the mural, or do you provide better historical interpretation?

(State of Idaho)
(State of Idaho)

We wrote about this issue in our June 28 blog, but it is worth repeating here. Idaho state leaders consulted with Native American leaders and opted at the time to add interpretative plaques. More recently, the University of Idaho-Boise Law School has moved into the courthouse space, now the Idaho Law and Justice Center. University leaders revisited the question of the murals and recently decided to cover them. Lee Dillon, the Associate Dean of the College of Law, explained why 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.

The parallel for Minnesota is our Senate Chambers mural “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.” The painting shows its own kind of mob rule: A Native man and young woman being forcibly converted–a priest holds a cross out at them while a man behind the priest restrains two threatening, snarling dogs.

Is this the kind of painting that we want in our legislative chamber? Does it represent our core values and aspirations? What does it say about freedom of religion?

Let’s return to the Idaho State Capitol. Inside or outside, the capitol art doesn’t acknowledge the history or presence of Native peoples of the state.

Inside, the Idaho capitol has portraits of governors and legislators, and statues of George Washington and a replica of The Winged Victory of Samothrace (a gift from France following World War II). The capitol rotunda’s floor is decorated with the State Seal of Idaho (the only State Seal designed by a woman, Emma Edwards Green.) The motto Esto perpetua is Latin for “May it endure forever.” The seal features a miner (representing the state’s major industry at the time) and a woman holding the scales of justice.

Outside, there are six monuments on the capitol grounds, mostly national in character such as a replica Liberty Bell. One local memorial is the “Pioneer Monument” honoring the Oregon Trail.

Until recently, the statehouse featured large textile murals titled “Legend of Dreams.” The series of three murals depicted northern Idaho, southwestern Idaho, and southeastern Idaho. Created in 1989, the mural included symbolic references to Idaho’s Native peoples. According to a description by the University of Idaho, the top band of the murals was a timeline “that tells a symbolic narrative of Idaho’s history from the first people to the present. …”

The mural was removed during the renovation. Restored skylights would have exposed the mural to direct sun. Preservation required a new space. It was given to the University of Idaho-Moscow in 2010.

The capitol has additional space dedicated to temporary art exhibits for state artists, approved by the Capitol Commission. The application guidelines indicate that proposed exhibits cannot be: “partisan, controversial, offensive, political, or blatantly commercial.” One current exhibit is Idaho: City of Trees, featuring landscapes from across the state.

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