Capitol Art Subcommittee: One Step Forward, Two Back; This Day in History: Major Setback for Treaty Rights

More voices are being heard supporting removal of Minnesota’s controversial Capitol art to a museum or other educational location, yet questions are growing about whether the political will exists make significant changes.

The Art Subcommittee of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission met Monday to begin mapping out its preliminary report, due at the end of the month. During the conversation, committee member Rep. Dean Urdahl said if there were efforts to move art out of the Capitol, there would be “a political wildfire,” an ominous comment.

In addition, efforts to remove the troubling Senate mural “The Discoverers and Explorers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” could be shot down simply because of timing. Paul Anderson, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice and one of the tri-chairs, said in an interview that the Subcommittee could decide that the restoration planning and work is too far along to change course. Members could decide to restore the mural, identify it as “controversial,” but leave changes for a later time. It could be that “the horse has left the barn,” he said.

That would be a shame. It would also reflect very poor planning on the part of the state — that leaders failed to create a schedule that would allow for timely decisions.

Invitation Needed?

Anderson said the Subcommittee would have more influence over art in the Governor’s Reception Room than in the Senate. The Governor had extended an invitation to make recommendations on Reception Room art. (Tip of the hat to the Governor.) The Subcommittee has not received such an invitation from the House or the Senate.

Even if the Subcommittee and/or the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission  recommend removing House or Senate art, it could be overridden legislatively — the “political wildfire” to which Urdahl referred.

Subcommittee member Anton Treuer said they won’t be able to please everyone. If they just rearrange existing art, tribal chairs will wonder if the Subcommittee listened at all. “There will be push back no matter what we do,” said Treuer, who is Ojibwe and a professor at Bemidji State University. “We need to listen to the voices of the people.”

Public Comments

On Monday, Healing Minnesota Stories submitted its petition to the Subcommittee. We had 550 sign supporting the removal of the controversial art and relocating it to a museum.

The Subcommittee also heard a summary of results from the 11 public listening sessions it held around the state. The most common themes to emerge from those sessions were:

  • Move art that some people feel is insensitive or inaccurate (63 comments)
  • Art should include multiple and diverse perspectives and tell the full story of events including the controversy (to be accomplished both through interpretation and use of new art) 48 comments.
  • Utilize robust interpretation, 29 comments
  • Use new art to balance current art, 15 comments.
  • There is value in the current art, 12 comments
  • Only seven speakers indicated that no change should be made.

The Subcommittee also is increasing its personal outreach to the state’s 11 recognized tribes. It has received two letters, one from Leech Lake, the other from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community. The Subcommittee did not release the letters, but Leech Lake provided us a copy. Tribal Chair Carri Jones wrote:

On behalf of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe with its nearly 10,000 Band members, I urge the Arts Subcommittee and the Preservation Committee to remove the offensive art, and add inspiring art.

More than 3,000 people filled out on-line state surveys about the Capitol art. Those results are not yet tabulated. Results will be presented at the Subcommittee’s January 11 meeting.

Accentuate the Positive?

One troubling part of the Subcommittee’s meeting was a request to use a more positive frame to discuss the Subcommittee’s work. Commissioner of Administration Matt Massman suggested moving away from using terms like “controversial” or “offensive” art that push people into a corner, and talk about positive values like “educational” or “respectful” art.

It’s an issue that has come up before, and Subcommittee members have not been able to come up with better words. Tri-chair Rep. Diane Loeffler said: “You can’t just use positive words,” and she is right.

At the core of this art debate is the issue of race. These painting have images of racial superiority (the victorious Christian explorers and settlers) and images of racial inferiority (the defeated savage, uncivilized Natives). Using the term “racist art” would be even more emotionally charged that “controversial art” or “offensive art.” Yet if we can’t speak these truths we will not be dealing with the real issues and healing that needs to take place.

In fact, the term “racism” rarely come up in the Subcommittee’s discussions. One exception was a comment by Treuer at Monday’s meeting. By removing some of the art, he said, we wouldn’t be making people “swallow small doses of racism” every time they want to engage with their government.

Too Controversial for Fox 9 News!

Fox 9 News covered Monday’s Subcommittee meeting. Watch the story here. You will notice that around the 1:15 mark, they show the portrait Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls at St. Anthony that hangs in the Governor’s Reception Room.

Screen Shot of Fox 9 News segment.
Screen Shot of Fox 9 News segment.

One of the controversial parts of this painting is the half-naked Dakota woman carrying a heavy pack. (To be clear, historically, this woman would have been fully clothed. She was painted as half naked as a way to show Native Americans were uncivilized.) In the Fox News segment, they chose to blur out her bare breasts.

This is said tongue in cheek, but if this half-naked woman is too controversial to show on Fox News, is it too controversial for the Capitol?

This Day in History: Supreme Court Undermines Native Treaty Rights

On this day in history, January 5, 1903, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock that significantly undercut Native treaty rights. According to Wikipedia’s summary, Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf sued the U.S. government, charging that Congressional action had defrauded Indians of land, violating the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Lone Wolf lost. Reversing prior precedent, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court said Congress had complete authority to unilaterally repeal treaty obligations with Native American tribes.

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