Not Surprisingly, Native Voices Held Little Sway in Capitol Art Debate

Native Americans get in a Catch-22 when they are asked to participate in controversial political debates with outside governments. If they don’t participate, they can be criticized for not taking advantage of the process available to them. If they do participate, the powers-that-be can check the box that says “Talked to the Indians.” That gives the final recommendations a little more credibility because the Native Americans were consulted (even though it didn’t have an impact).

For a case study, let’s look at the debate over Minnesota Capitol art.

On Friday, June 17, the Art Subcommittee met for the last time before presenting its final recommendations to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. Let’s recap the critical issues of how Native voices were engaged and whether they affected the outcomes.

Let’s start with the Subcommittee membership itself. Two of the 13 members are Native American, Gwen Westerman (Dakota) and Anton Treuer (Ojibwe). Both spoke about why the art in Capitol is offensive to Native Americans and why some should be removed.

Early in the Subcommittee process, Westerman got bumped off the agenda — twice — before getting to make her presentation about why some Capitol art is so offensive to Dakota people. Regardless of intent, it sent the wrong message; it said that her voice was less important than other issues. After the second brush off, Westerman put her foot down: “I am not asking–I am telling you–this needs to be the first item on the agenda the next time.”

The Art Subcommittee’s final report has not been issued yet. When it is available, the first thing I will look for will be minority reports from Westerman and Treuer. Without providing details, Westerman said in an interview that she plans to include a separate statement to the report. Treuer is still deciding whether to write one.

“I am bit discouraged and jaded about what we have come up with,” Treuer said in a phone interview. “Most of the heavy lifting I was hoping the [Subcommittee] would do has been kicked down the road” to the Capitol Preservation Commission — a body with no Native American representation.

Treuer said part of the problem was that the Art Subcommittee should have started its work a few years ago. They needed more time and more will to make tough decisions. He noted partial success in moving two controversial paintings out of the Governor’s Conference Room — but they will remain in the Capitol.

“It is resonant with what has been happening in our political environment. The willingness to compromise is gone. People dig in their heals: ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ It means that minority voices get the highway.”

Poorly Run Hearings

As someone who sat through a majority of the Art Subcommittee hearings, I would say in general they were poorly run. There was not a Roberts Rules of Order formality of a legislative process and almost no outside testimony allowed.

The Subcommittee had three chairs (all white): Rep. Paul Anderson, a retired Supreme Court Justice, Rep. Diane Loeffler, and Sen. David Senjem. It is my observation that Anderson in particular took up a lot of air time and dominated the conversation. As a chair, he in particular should have sat back and done more to engage the wisdom of other committee members, particularly those of color.

Meeting With Leaders of Native Nations

The Subcommittee’s tri-chairs and Commissioner of Administration Matt Massman met with the leaders of nine of the 11 Minnesota American Indian nations to get their comments on Capitol art. While there were some differences, the overall themes were consistent. According to the Subcommittee’s preliminary report (page 17):

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.

This is followed immediately by a caveat:

Nearly all, 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.

I doubt that the leaders of Native nations “suggested” on their own that removing all the offensive art would be a tough sell. I am guessing that this “difficult” part is something that the state representatives raised during the conversations. The report makes it sound like this concern came from Native leaders themselves. I stand to be corrected, but I am guessing the way this is phrased is inaccurate.

Some Native nations wrote the Subcommittee individually. Here are the Leech Lake Letter, the Shakopee letter, and the Upper Sioux Community letter, as well as the Leech Lake follow up letter. And here is an op/ed piece from Prairie Island leaders that ran in the Star Tribune: Minnesotans: It is time to move offensive art out of the people’s house.

Bottom line: In spite of all these comments from Native American leaders, all the old art is staying.

The Subcommittee didn’t work that much to reach consensus, Treuer said. After working to get private meetings to hear concerns from the leaders of Native nations, state leaders “promptly ignored all of it.”

“They gave tribal leaders about 5 percent of what they were asking for,” Treuer said. Effectively, the message was: “We heard you and now we are going to do what we were going to do.”

Bowing to Pressure

The counter argument could be that no one ever gets 100 percent of what they want. While true, it ignores the reality here. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Anderson admits the Art Subcommittee bowed to outside political pressure. The Subcommittee is not making any recommendations about the art in the House Chamber, Senate Chamber, or Supreme Court. As Anderson said, some politicians threatened to “terminate our mandate” if the Subcommittee pressed for significant changes in art.

Was there ever any room for the Art Subcommittee to make bold recommendations given the apparent outside political pressure? Why go through the facade of listening to Native American concerns if they had no chance of affecting the outcome? Was it simply to give the process some legitimacy?

No Money for Interpretation

Those supporting status quo art argued that we need to learn from our history, and any flaws in the art’s narrative could be fixed with better interpretation. Sen. Dick Cohen, a latecomer appointee to the Art Subcommittee and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, repeatedly told the Subcommittee that the budget situation was not great and there would be no new money for improvements.

It means that upon the 2017 Capitol Grand Reopening after the $300-million renovation, Native American peoples will continue to come to the Capitol and be confronted with the same old unwelcoming art — art that says they are savage, art that revels in their domination.

The Art Subcommittee recommendations will get presented to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission soon, either late June or July, the date has not been set.

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