MN Capitol Art Update: Indian Concerns at Bottom of the Agenda

As noted several times in this blog, the Minnesota Capitol artwork has some disturbing portrayals of Native Americans and early Minnesota history. The subcommittee appointed to review the art and make recommendations has taken several positive steps forward. (Follow the subcommittee’s work here.)

I will note some positive actions later in the blog, but start by focusing on a significant shortcoming from recent meetings. The Subcommittee has twice intended to have an extended discussion on how Native Americans are depicted in capitol art. Twice that topic has been the last agenda item and twice time has run out before it could be discussed.

Importantly, Prof. Gwen Westerman of the University of Minnesota-Mankato, who also is Dakota, sits on the subcommittee. Twice she has come ready to present on this issue and twice she got bumped off to a future meeting. (Note: Both meetings ran four-and-a-half hours.) At the end of the Sept. 14 meeting, Westerman was reassured that this issue was “a big deal.” To me, that comment rang hollow given where the item has fallen on the agenda. To smooth things over, Westerman was asked to get the conversation started in the last few minutes of overtime; she declined, noting some people needed to leave. She closed:

I am not asking–I am telling you–this needs to be the first item on the agenda the next time.

Too often Native voices are ignored or discounted. The way the Subcommittee handled this particular issue only reinforces that message. I believe the people on the subcommittee want to do the right thing, and I know it plans to go out for public comments. In that spirit, here is my comment on the process: The subcommittee was careful to include two noted Native Americans among its membership, but in this case it has not taken care to make space for those voices to be a priority.

Another shortcoming was the art presentation by the Minnesota Historical Society on Sept. 14. Brian Pease, the Minnesota State Capitol Site Manager for the MHS, preceded what was to be Westerman’s talk. He focused on the art’s details, historical accuracy, and what seemed to me a generally traditional U.S. historical narrative. In my mind, he missed the more important issue of how the art does or does not reflect values that we as a state and nation aspire to. After all, is that not the main purpose of art in a public capitol, to inspire and reflect our values?

Scan from file transparency on Epson Expression 10000XL.
Battle of Ta-Ha Kouty

One example is the painting of The Battle of Ta-Ha Kouty (or the Battle of Killdeer Mountain) in Room 317.

Pease said: “This was one of the few military expeditions that the U.S. government tried to relocate all the Dakota who were part of the U.S. Dakota War.” Later, he added: “This was seen as a great victory for the U.S. government and military forces. It pretty much ended any incursions back into Minnesota of the Dakota,” such as Indian raiding parties.

This 1864 battle wasn’t just about relocating Dakota people or border raids. The battle took place nearly 300 miles from the Minnesota border. With more than 4,000 troops, this was the largest force the U.S. government ever mounted against Indians, Wikiepdia says. A North Dakota historical marker at the site says that forces under Gen. Alfred Sully were sent into Dakota Territory: “to punish those who had participated in Minnesota’s Dakota Conflict of 1862, as well as to develop routes to western gold fields.” [Emphasis mine.]

The bottom line is that this battle scene does not reflect the actions and values that should be honored in the capitol. This battle was about post-war punishment and access to gold. The battle was lopsided. Government troops had canons and modern weapons, the Indians had bows and arrows, and some rifles and shotguns. In all, Sully said five soldiers died compared to 100-150 Indians. Further, many of the Sioux attacked by the government had not fought in the U.S.-Dakota War and wanted peace; the battle only served to embitter them. Lastly, according to 0ne North Dakota historical website:

Lt. David Kingsbury of the 8th Minnesota Infantry would later recount that at least one infant was found alive in the abandoned village and subsequently shot.

The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi
The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi

Peace gave a brief discussion of the allegorical mural in the Senate Chambers titled: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.” He talked about the man with a compass who represents the explorers and the Indian man with his tomahawk defending his land. He did not mention the central images of Manifest Destiny. These include the angelic beings representing the Spirit of Civilization and the Spirit of Discovery, giving Divine guidance to the newcomers. Also, the mural depicts a priest holding out a cross at the Native man and woman, and behind the priest another man restrains two threatening, snarling dogs. This seems to be a powerful image of forced conversion and antithetical to Freedom of Religion. Again, these are not the actions or values that should be honored in the capitol.

It is worth noting that D. Stephen Elliott, director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, sits on the Art Subcommittee and pushed the conversation in a positive direction. He said the critical issue with the paintings is not whether they are historically accurate or represent important events, but whether they represent events that deserve to be celebrated and occupy an important space in the capitol. I hope that future conversations take on that sharp focus.

To end where we started, the process should have allowed Prof. Westerman time to address these issues while this material was fresh in committee members’ minds. These paintings were about her ancestors and she should have been given that respect.

Minnesota House Chambers
Minnesota House Chambers

The Trail of the Pioneers

Tri-Chair Rep. Diane Loeffeler raised questions about the major art in front of the Minnesota House Chambers. It includes a tableau with a woman representing the Spirit of Minnesota, flanked by  Native people on one side and pioneers on the other. On the pedestal are the words: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.” Loeffeler has asked state historians for the origin of that phrase and they have no record of where it came from. It’s a sentiment that most Native Americans probably don’t share, and Loeffeler said it takes away from the idea of people working together to build Minnesota. (Click here for a clearer image.)

Loeffeler recently learned that the restoration work is about to “reguild” that statement with gold leaf. She would like to delay that work to consider removing the language altogether. On a voice vote, the subcommittee passed a motion recommending the State Preservation Commission delay that work. There was no audible dissent.

Vision Statement

The subcommittee approved a vision statement which reads:

Works of art in the Capitol should engage people in

  • reflecting on our state’s history
  • understanding our government
  • recognizing the contributions of our diverse peoples
  • inspiring citizen engagement, and
  • appreciating the varied landscapes of our state

Public Engagement

The Subcommittee is planning to hold a half dozen public hearings around the state to get comments from the public about the art in the capitol. They should start as early as late October and run through November. Likely sites are Rochester (home of subcommittee tri-chair Sen. David Senjem); Mankato (home of Prof. Westerman); Bemidji (home of subcommittee member Prof. David Treur) and Duluth, as well as a couple of metro area hearings. The committee has no budget for these events, so it is looking to free venues such as university space.


3 thoughts on “MN Capitol Art Update: Indian Concerns at Bottom of the Agenda

  1. The article above gives one point of view while I am pleased to speak with a different point of view. My opinion is that the painting of the battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty should remain in its current location or a similar place of honor.

    The battle was the seminal point of the 1864 Northwestern Indian Expedition led by General Alfred Sully. The reason for the expedition was indeed to subdue the Dakota warriors who continued to raid white settlements in small attacks. There was also rumored to be a huge gathering of Dakota who were planning to shut down all trade through the area including gold-seekers. With the nation embroiled in a Civil War, the Union needed the resources of the western area to continue the deadly struggle. Gold-seekers were one small group of this supply line the Union sought to protect.

    The painting itself is a fair representation of the battle and the bravery of the warriors on both sides. The white soldiers fully expected that they would suffer great casualties in the battle and gave their personal effects to men in the rear echelon areas to send back home if they died. The battle turned into a complete rout of the Indians due to the Union artillery for which the Dakota had no answer. The men on both sides were very brave and deserve the honor of this epic painting.

    Each one of the historical facts presented in the article above can be looked at with different points of view and also the facts presented above can be countered with different facts. For instance the Kingsbury account of a Dakota child being found in the abandoned camp and then shot can be disputed or told differently. Lt. Ben Brunson relayed the story of how the soldiers found two Dakota children in the abandoned village, and were caring for them when some of the Native American scouts from another nation who hated the Dakota came over and killed the two children. This account is backed up by two small skeletons that were found years later carefully placed in a burial location.

    Overall I would like to suggest that this is an important painting and supports the values of bravery exhibited by the men of both sides. It does tell an important part of Minnesota history and how the state was formed. Some of the history is not always pleasant to tell but is important none-the-less.
    If anyone wants to contact me to discuss further I am happy to do so in a respectful way.


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