Kentucky State Capitol Commissions New Art; This Day in History: First Native American Vice President

The Healing Minnesota Stories Research Department has been asleep at the wheel. We had begun a review of art in other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as the our state proceeds with its own capitol renovation. (These blogs are aggregated on our Capitol Art page, but we haven’t done one for a while.)

Continuing alphabetically, today we pick up with the Kentucky State Capitol.

Kentucky’s capitol is particularly interesting since in 2010 the state added significant new murals to its rotunda.  The capitol design initially envisioned murals in the pendentives (the reverse triangular spaces directly beneath the dome) but until recently they were not completed.

The four murals are titled Nature, Industry, Culture, and Civitas (the Light of Progress). Click on this link for the images and official descriptions. Each features a painting with three or four major figures, and below the painting “a bas relief vignette of Kentucky’s Native American Heritage, which serves as a literal and figurative foundation for the depiction of the modern commonwealth,” according to the capitol’s website.

Take the mural of “Nature” as an example. It follows a capitol art tradition by using allegorical images of Greek goddesses. In this case, the central figure is Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, prosperity, and “the bounty of Kentucky’s agrarian foundations.” Ceres is flanked on the right by a farmer with a scythe and the left by a young female jockey with “a shimmering beloved thoroughbred.” The bas relief below the painting shows the “pre-western beginnings” of the Commonwealth: three Native American women preparing corn.

Here is an initial critique. First, it’s great that they included of Native Americans in traditional cultural roles. Yet at the same time the art stylistically emphasizes that Native Americans were part of Kentucky’s past and are not part of its future. The bas relief sculptures are below the colorful murals and distinct from them. According to the Census, about 10,000 Native Americans live in Kentucky. As the “foundation” of the Kentucky, the murals don’t show how they have a place for ongoing contribution.

Second, the only image of a black person depicted is in the Civitas mural. It has three figures: The goddess Athena, representing civilization, progress and strength; a bare-chested man with a lantern, representing coal mining; and an African American man in a suit holding a scroll of paper, representing “progress towards the future with enlightenment.” The background has historic symbols of progress, such as the electric street car and the suspension bridge. All in all an odd juxtaposition: a hopeful image for African American progress depicted against a romanticized backdrop of the past. It gives the sense that everything is OK now, with no indication of past or current struggles.

I’m not sure how you balance a hopeful picture of the future and telling the truth about the past. Other than the brief explanations of the symbols, the process Kentucky leaders used to choose these images is not explained. It would be interesting to know that process. A later task.

Lastly, the Kentucky Capitol also has two large historic lunettes featuring the state’s iconic pioneer, Daniel Boone. According to a tour guide, the east lunette depicts Boone’s first view of the future state of Kentucky. The west lunette features Boone and Richard Henderson at the 1775  Treaty of Watauga, which, the guide says, “allowed the Transylvania Company to purchase much of the land that is Kentucky from the Cherokee Indians.”

Here’s some background on the treaty that the painting and tour guide don’t capture. This purchase was controversial. This was pre-Revolutionary War, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited individuals from buying land from Indians (in those areas reserved for Indians), saying such purchases were the sole prerogative of the Crown.

The U.S. Forest Service has an extended description of this history. Without going into too much detail, it offers the following account of a dramatic speech given by Chief Dragging Canoe during the negotiations:

The chief began by describing the extent and affluence which the Cherokee Nation had once enjoyed. He spoke of the coming of the white man and of his encroachment on the land of the Indians compelling them to move from the home of their ancestors as a result of the never-ending greed of the white people for more land. He voiced the hope of the Indians that the whites would not expand beyond the mountains, but would be satisfied with the lands to the east. That hope had now vanished, he said; the whites had passed beyond the mountains and had occupied Cherokee land and now wished to have their trespasses legalized by the confirmation of a treaty.

Chief Dragging Canoe continued that, should the occupation be legalized by a treaty, the same spirit of encroachment would only lead the whites to occupy other lands of the Cherokees, new concessions would be demanded and, finally, all of the country which the Cherokees and their forefathers had owned and lived in so long would be demanded of them, and the small remnant remaining of this once great and formidable nation would be compelled to seek homes in some far distant wilderness.

The Kentucky capitol art also includes an exhibit recognizing influential Kentucky women, as well as porcelain doll miniatures of Kentucky’s first ladies.

This Day in History: First Native American Vice President

On this day in history, November 6, 1928, Charles Curtis became the first Native American vice president. He won on the ticket with Republican Herbert Hoover. He was a former U.S. House and Senate member from the state of Kansas, and served a stint as Senate Majority Leader.

Curtis was of Kansa, Osage, Potawatomi, and French descent, according to Wikipedia.  While in Congress, he authored the Curtis Act of 1898, an “Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory.” After several revisions, there was little of his original language left, and he was unhappy with the final version. Among other things, the Curtis Act called for the termination of tribal governments.

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