Tribes Tell State to Remove Racist Capitol Art; Native Art Galleries to Offer Alternative Vision

Shelly Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, has come out with a strongly worded statement about what should happen with the racist art in the state Capitol. In a March 16 opinion piece in the Star Tribune, the headline says it all: Minnesotans, it’s time to move offensive art out of the people’s house.

The article was written with support from the Lower Sioux Indian Community, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Upper Sioux Community and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Buck’s letter came in response to the anemic initial recommendations put forward by the Art Subcommittee of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission.

The only big changes the Subcommittee proposed is to relocate two offensive paintings within the Capitol, and to add more historical interpretation to all of the art.

Buck writes that the state needs to remove the offensive art, a change that is “as overdue as South Carolina’s removal of the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds last summer.” She continues:

Many of these historical works up for debate were commissioned and portrayed through a European lens. At their limited best, they ignore the perspective of Native people. At worst, they represent a racist, profoundly distorted view of state history. …

Simply moving these paintings to another wall in the Capitol will not do. The tribes urge the subcommittee to recommend removal of all offensive paintings in question. In addition, any added context or explanation of the portrayed events should be provided by the Dakota tribes.

Please, read the entire piece. It is extremely well written.

As a quick recap, here are a few of the Art Subcommittee’s flaws:

The Subcommittee self censored its review. The key recommendations focus on the Governor’s Conference Room, and that is because the Governor invited feedback. It’s initial report said it would defer art decisions in the House and Senate Chambers to those bodies. (They both have very troubling art, and the Art Subcommittee chose to remain silent. It seems the Supreme Court will be given a similar pass on its art.)

The Public Engagement Process was very weak: The public never had the chance to speak directly to the Art Subcommittee. The Subcommittee set up facilitated listening sessions for the public. People showed up and spoke to moderators, who wrote reports and sent them to the Subcommittee. The one exception: Adjutant General Rick Nash was invited to speak to the committee. He favored the status quo, keeping the Civil War art in the Governor’s Conference Room.

The Initial Report includes facts that support its recommendations and omits or slants facts that it apparently doesn’t like. For instance, the initial report chose to highlight Nash’s comment’s as well as a letter from the Minnesota Catholic Conference supporting the Father Hennepin painting, not opposing points of view seeking change.

In addition, the report seems to twist the information gathered from private conversations with Native American tribes. The report summarizes those talks, and starts well, saying:

First and foremost, each tribe expressed concern with nature and character of the paintings currently in the Capitol that depict American Indians. Each
tribe recommended, with varying degrees of intensity, that all paintings depicting American Indians be removed from the Capitol to a place where they could be properly interpreted and provide an American Indian balance to the stories behind the scenes depicted in the paintings.
But then it continues in a way that waters down the main point made by tribal leaders. The report continues:
Nearly all [tribal leaders], however, also suggested that the likelihood of the complete removal of all “concerning” paintings may be difficult. They expressed a willingness to work with the Subcommittee and other appropriate individuals toward a mutually agreeable resolution to their concerns

That paragraph feels like the Subcommittee is putting words in the mouths of Native leaders to suit its own purposes.

It’s a subtle but profound use of language. The report is saying that the tribal leaders themselves suggested it would be difficult to remove all the art. I can’t imagine that is how the conversation played out. I’m guessing the tribes made a strong statement about removing offensive art and the Art Subcommittee tri-chairs pushed back, saying it would be politically difficult to do so. I can imagine the tribal leaders trying to craft some fall back position and expressing a willingness to keep working with the state even if it refused to do the right thing.

What I can’t imagine is nearly all the tribal leaders saying, “You know, we suggest that it would be difficult to move all the controversial art out of the Capitol. Let’s find a less controversial approach.” The  bottom line: I believe the language in the Subcommittee’s report makes it sound like tribal leaders are OK with a lesser solution.

Thank you Shelly Buck and the other tribes mentioned in her Opinion piece for setting the record straight.

Seeing Artists: Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story

And now for more upbeat news.

All My Relations Gallery and the neighboring Two Rivers Gallery in the Minneapolis American Indian Center are planning to host an art exhibit this summer in response to the art in the Minnesota State Capitol.

They are are seeking visual artist submissions for an exhibit to be called “Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story.” It will run from June 17-September 9.

As gallery shows go, this is a quick turnaround. Sample art submissions are due March 25. Apply here.

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