This is a story about racist images of Native Americans in historic art — and how in many cases the dominant culture sees them as quaintly historic but fails to see that they are still painfully racist.
This current story comes out of Yale University. It points out how even our institutions of higher learning can be blind to the racist messages embedded in artwork.
This past Saturday, the Yale-Dartmouth football game marked the 100th anniversary of the rivalry. To commemorate the event, the Yale Athletic Department printed a special program. I can imagine a group of designers thinking it would be fun to run a collage of historic program covers on the front.
Since Dartmouth’s unofficial mascot used to be the Indian, many of the covers featured images of Indians. (Dartmouth was founded to educate Native American youth, according to an article in the Yale News headlined: Football programs criticized for racist imagery, While that mission was abandoned, Dartmouth kept its Indian mascot until 1974.)
Yale’s commemorative program featured eight historic program covers, of which half were “racially insensitive,” according to the Yale News account. (Click on the link above to see the cover.) The cover included “a bulldog chasing the Native American figure up a tree, while another featured a Yale football player lighting the [Indian] figure’s clothing on fire.”
Once someone pointed out how offensive the images were, the Yale Athletic Department quickly issued an apology, the story said.
Compare Yale’s response to the ongoing debate about art in the Minnesota State Capitol. Our state’s most important building also has images that are historically inaccurate of Native Americans and offensive to Native American communities. The state’s political leaders had a chance to do something about it this year as part of the Capitol renovation, but unfortunately the Art Subcommittee charged with review chose to minimize the issue rather than address it head on.
For example, here is one of the large murals in the Minnesota Senate Chambers, an image of a forced religious conversion of a Native American man and woman, with stereotyped images of them.
Like the Yale football program covers, the Native Americans in the mural above are shown (inaccurately) as half naked, the artist’s convention to show that they are uncivilized.
The Minnesota Art Subcommittee charged with reviewing the Capitol art failed to address the difficult questions about racism in the art. The final report had this to say about the Senate mural:
While some Minnesotans have raised concerns regarding the fine art work within the House and Senate Chambers, the Subcommittee defers to those bodies to determine art content within legislative Chambers.
Bottom line: The Subcommittee reports on public “concerns” about the art but doesn’t have the courage to take a stand of its own — stating whether it believes the art is offensive and racist or not. It was a fundamental question that sparked the art review to begin with and the Subcommittee failed to speak up. The report offers no recommendation about the art. It simply defers to the Senate.
In this case, “defer” is a polite way of saying leaders ducked the issue.