Iowa Capitol Art: A Minnesota Mirror; MIA Art Tour Based on Rez Life

Minnesota is in the middle of a major capitol renovation, including a review of its historic art. Some of the pieces are controversial for how they portray Native Americans and early Minnesota history. This blog has undertaken a review of art in other state capitols to look for similarities and differences and to see what lessons Minnesota might learn. (These blogs are aggregated on our Capitol Art page.)

Continuing alphabetically, today we visit the Iowa State Capitol. Let’s start with the name “Iowa.” It is short for “Ioway,” a name used by settlers for a local Indian tribe. An account in the publication Patch explains that the Dakota called the tribe Ayuxba (AH-you-khbah), which means “sleepy ones.” The Illini and Meskwaki Indians called the tribe Ayuway. The French turned that into Ioway. The tribe calls itself Baxoje (BAH-kho-jay). (A Baxoje writer provides more background. According to some Dakota he had talked to, he wrote, the name “sleepy ones” “was a way to tease us about how we acted tired to get rid of them when we felt they had overstayed their welcome during long intertribal visits.”)

So while the state’s very name is rooted in the name of an Indian tribe, an online search of Iowa capitol art found almost no images of Native Americans, Baxoje or otherwise. One large piece of art (a sculpture) features a  Native American, who is described simply as “friendly.”

The Iowa capitol art  has a strong parallel to Minnesota’s in its themes of Manifest Destiny. The best example is a major painting called Westward (click for image) which hangs over the capitol’s grand staircase. (The artist, Edwin Blashfield, is the same artist that painted two major murals for the Minnesota State Capitol: one called “The Discoverers and Explorers Led to the Source of the Mississippi,” and the other “Minnesota Granary of the World.”)  The 40-foot long mural Westward shows the migration of early pioneers to Iowa. According to the Iowa capitol guide, Blashfield wrote of the painting:

The main idea of the picture is symbolical presentation of the Pioneers led by the spirits of Civilization and Enlightenment to the conquest by cultivation of the Great West. …

Similar to the Minnesota art, the message in the Iowa’s is that prior to the settlers arrival, the people and the land were  uncivilized and unenlightened and needed to be conquered and cultivated.

The Iowa capitol’s eight rotunda lunettes have images representing Hunting, Herding, Agriculture, the Forge, Commerce, Education, Science, and Art. “They were designed to depict the progress of civilization,” the guide said, very similar themes to the images in the Minnesota capitol rotunda.

Moving to the capitol grounds, there are nearly 50 monuments and memorials. They honor the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Holocaust, World War II, the Spanish American War, Iowa Workers, the Bicentennial, Martin Luther King Jr., and more.

Specific to our inquiry, there is a statue to Christopher Columbus, offensive to those who see Columbus as a symbol of Native American genocide. The online tour describes Columbus as “the Italian discoverer of America,” an outdated view. Another outdated narrative is found in what the guide calls The Pioneer Statuary Group and Buffalo Head Drinking Fountain. According to the guide, it dates to 1892. The directions for  the original design said the statue “‘was to show a group consisting of father and son guided by a friendly Indian in search of a home.’ The pioneer depicted was to be hardy, capable of overcoming the hardships of territorial days to make Iowa his home.” This is part of a comforting storyline for settlers that depicts friendly Indians happily guiding settlers to their new homes and says nothing of the Indians being dispossessed of their land. In the statue itself, the Indian “guide” is not guiding, but sitting at the feet of the pioneer who scans the horizon.

For more, here is a link to a virtual tour of the Iowa capitol.

Click here for more information about the work of Minnesota’s capitol art subcommittee.

MIA Book Tour: Rez Life

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts does monthly tours based on works of art related to popular books. The program is called Inspired by Books.  The book choice for the December tour is Rez Life by David Treuer.  The tours are Tuesdays at 11:30 a.m., Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., and the third Sunday of the month at 3 p.m. No reservations necessary. If it seems interesting, click here for a book excerpt from Indian Country Today.


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