In 1928, Oliver La Mere (Ho Chunk) was appointed as a special tour guide for the Wisconsin State Capitol. According to a poster in the rotunda: “he created a small museum containing traditional Ho Chunk cloths, jewelry and ceremonial objects. He taught visiting school groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and other visitors about American Indian culture.”
Unfortunately, the idea died when La Mere died two years later. Like many great ideas, it was tied to the person, not so much the institution. After his death in 1930, state officials packed up his collection (three trunk loads) and sent it to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
This continues to be not only a great idea for Wisconsin, but Minnesota, too.
I learned about La Mere during a recent visit to Madison, Wisc., where I toured the Capitol. The state is celebrating the Capitol’s centennial, and there were several large posters in the rotunda marking key dates, events and people in the Capitol’s history, including La Mere.
Now that the debate over Minnesota State Capitol art is done (for now), I have been writing less about art in other state Capitols. But when I find myself in a state capitol town, it’s a fun to take a tour and see how state history in general, and Native Americans in particular, are reflected in the art.
So here is a quick tour of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
House of Representatives
The Wisconsin House of Representatives features a major mural by Edwin Blashfield titled simply “Wisconsin.” (Blashfield painted several murals in the Minnesota State Capitol, including the particularly offensive Senate mural: The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.) Like that work, his Wisconsin mural shows Native peoples as less that civilized (half naked) and as a thing of the past.
According to “Wisconsin State Capitol: Guide and History” (2014), Blashfield provided the following description. The central female figure sitting on the rock represents Wisconsin. She is surrounded by women with aquatic plants, representing Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, the waters that surround the state.
Opposite Wisconsin, a female figure “Today” points through the woods toward the Capitol. … Behind her is the “Present” typified by figures of lumbermen, miners, and farmers with their families. At the extreme right of the picture are two Indians who shade their eyes from the light, suggesting the order of things entirely passed away, and at the extreme left a figure representing the “Future” shelters her little “Lamp of Progress” …
The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chambers have four major paintings, representing the laws of Rome, England, the United States, and Wisconsin. Roman law is represented by a painting of Augustus Caesar, English law is represented by the signing of the Magna Carta, and U.S. law is represented by a painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
We will give a closer look to the fourth painting: “The Trial of Chief Oshkosh by Judge Doty.” According to the Guide Book, a Pawnee Indian had killed a Menominee Indian in a hunting accident, and Chief Oshkosh (also Menominee) killed the Pawnee in revenge. It continues:
It was shown that under Menominee custom, relatives of a slain member could kill his slayer. [Judge] Doty ruled that in this case territorial law did not apply, as Oshkosh proved that he had acted in accordance with Menominee custom.
The Wisconsin Capitol: Official Guide and History (1919), written shortly after the Capitol opened, adds this comment: “The case, however, established a precedent in favor of the spirit rather than of the law.”
Governor’s Conference Room
Our tour (on a Saturday) did not include the Governor’s Conference Room; it was closed. I will focus on one painting, titled: “The Closing Scene of the Winnebago War of 1827.” (I did not find an image online.)
What is interesting about this piece is how it is described in the 2014 Guide Book. It says the Winnebago War “was caused by an unfortunate misunderstanding…” That is no different than the explanation offered a century ago in the 1919 Guide Book, which said “The Winnebago War was caused by an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of the Indians.”
Calling the war a “misunderstanding” absolves the settlers for any responsibility for what happened. That does not seem an accurately assessment. As the current Guide Book describes the history:
Some of the tribe had been confined to jail at Fort Crawford for a trivial offense, but shortly afterward were transferred to a different fort. When [other] Winnebagos found that these prisoners were no longer at Fort Crawford, they assumed that the settlers had killed them. To retaliate, they attacked a cabin on the outskirts of the village of Prairie du Chien.
That sparked a short-lived battle that the Winnebago lost.
What is missing from the Guide is an explanation of why the Winnebago had a deep mistrust for settlers and inferred that their kin had been killed. That mistrust (the so called “misunderstanding”) had significant and understandable roots. First, as the Guide admits, the Winnebago were arrested for a “trivial” offense. Then (inexplicably) they are moved to a new fort. If the charges were trivial, why not release them? Because it was an effort to intimidate the Winnebago and show them who had power.
More importantly (and not explained in the guide) the Winnebago also were facing “a wave of lead miners trespassing on their lands,” according to Wikipedia. By characterizing this war as an “unfortunate misunderstanding” ignores the provocations that sparked it and the threat to Winnebago autonomy and homelands.
Wisconsin needs to update the Guide Book again, with more context.
One last thing that surprised me on the tour. Along the rotunda wall remained a piece of protest art from the large and vocal demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker. According to our guide, this kind of art will be left alone as long as it is not too offensive.
And that was saying a lot, because the comments on this particular piece of art where sharply political and critical. They referenced the financial connections between Gov. Walker and Charles and David Koch. There was a picture of Republican leaders, including Trump, above a sign that read “Make America White Again.”
It says a lot about Wisconsin’s respect for the First Amendment that this art was allowed to remain.
An earlier version of this blog commented on a second painting in the Supreme Court, titled: “Appeal of a Legionary to Caesar Augustus.”
The painting shows a Roman law basilica. Augustus, left, reclines on his royal litter. Roman judges sit on marble benches in white togas. At right, a man named Scutarius (Latin for “guard”) pleads his case.
According to the 1919 Guide, Scutarius had fought for Augustus in his youth. Now facing charges (perhaps slander or violence) he asks Augustus to defend him in court. Scutarius told Augustus: “I fought for you, and you must fight for me.” Augustus agrees. (As Augustus was Rome’s religious, civil and military leader, he had a powerful role both as judge and advocate.)
The current Capitol Guide does not refer to the trial’s outcome. The 1919 guide was vague in its response, saying that the Roman historian recounting the case did not report that Scutarius won his case. “It was not necessary,” it said. I inferred that meant that Scutarius won. In retrospect, I am not sure that was the case.
This is an obscure case, with conflicting accounts. The website Rome 101 indicates that it was Scutarius who brought the action of slander, and the website ourcivilization.com said it was Scutarius who was accused of slander, not the defendant. The Rome 101 site adds:
He [Augustus] never relieved any one from prosecution but in a single instance, in the case of a man who had given information of the conspiracy of Muræna; and that he did only by prevailing upon the accuser, in open court, to drop his prosecution.”
Perhaps the symbolism here is that Augustus would not bend the law, even for friends, but it is difficult to find a definitive source on the story.