Historical Society Capitol Art Tour a Good Start, Concerns Remain

Joe Horse Capture led a discussion on Capitol Art in the Cass Gilbert Library, on the Capitol’s third floor.

I attended the second of two Capitol Art Tours launched by the Minnesota Historical Society Friday. It was led by Joe Horse Capture, the Society’s Director of Native American Initiatives. A couple of dozen people attended. I learned some new things. I appreciated the dialogue Horsecapture led. I also left with some concerns about the tour — including whether it would continue.

The hour-long discussion focused on two controversial paintings that once hung in the Governor’s Conference Room, one showing Father Hennepin “discovering” the Falls at St. Anthony, the other a painting of the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851.

I appreciated Horse Capture’s effort to engage people in a conversation around these paintings and whether the paintings should remain in the Capitol. These paintings are offensive to many, notably Dakota people who are inaccurately and offensively portrayed. When these paintings hung in the Governor’s Conference Room, those who found them offensive had no choice but to look at them if they were doing business in the room. Moving the paintings to a low-traffic area allows people to engage them — or not — as they choose.

Senate mural: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.”

One problem with the “tour” was that it left out the controversial art that remains in place in the Capitol. For instance, it did not include images or discussion of the Senate Chamber’s mural “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi”. This painting shows the forced conversion of a Native man and young Native woman, who are surrounded by a priest with a cross, snarling dogs, and the angels of civilization and discovery. This is an affront to our deeply held belief in Freedom of Religion.

Nor did the tour include the House Chambers, which includes the inscription: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.” For Native people, they had a lot more freedom before the pioneers arrived.

Here are a few other learnings and concerns.

Insult Embedded in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux Painting

At left, a “Dakota” man in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux painting. At right, a photo of Curly, a Cree scout for Gen. George Custer.

Horse Capture used to work as curator for Native American art for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and is very familiar with Plains Indians cultural items. He had seen some of the cultural items shown in the painting at the Smithsonian, items the artist, Francis Davis Millet, apparently used as references for the painting.

Horse Capture pointed out that several of the items in the painting were Lakota, not Dakota. Most powerfully, he pointed out the image of one of the supposedly “Dakota” men in the treaty painting. He recognized the profile. It was Curly, a Crow Indian who has served as one of Gen. George Custer’s scouts. He held up a photo to compare the two images.

Why did Millet put Curly in the painting? “The artist is messing with us,” Horse Capture said. His is saying, “They are all Indians. They are all the same. … This is propaganda.”

One person in the audience said “I feel duped. I wish there was a side panel to describe the inaccuracies.” Another person in the audience defended the artist, saying he did the best he could to get accurate resources.

How Was that Treaty Negotiated, Again?

Someone in the audience asked about treaty negotiations. Brian Pease, the Capitol’s Historic Site Manager for the Historical Society, gave what I felt was an inadequate answer. He called it “a typical treaty,” saying there was something like three weeks of down time to craft the document. It left the impression that there were actually negotiations.

During Q&A, I said it was my understanding that the Dakota had the treaty stuffed down their throat — and if they hadn’t signed, they knew the land would be forcibly taken. “Absolutely,” Pease said. He went on to explain that he just meant to say that they used a typical treaty template. In fact, once the Dakota signed it, Congress unilaterally made changes, he said.

So why start with a vague comment about “down time” and say what really happened? It was disappointing.

Waffling on the Traditional Dress of Dakota Women

Part of the Father Hennepin painting.

One of the common critiques of the Father Hennepin painting is the depiction of the half-naked woman (at right) carrying a heavy pack. From what I have heard, this would not have been the custom, that Dakota women dressed conservatively. I was surprised that Horse Capture said: “There is debate about whether Dakota women dressed that way.”

During Q&A, I pressed him on Dakota women’s traditional dress. Horse Capture said that based on his research, Dakota women did not dress half-naked like that, but “some non-Native researchers” think they did dress that way. The conversation ended there. This needs more clarity in future presentations. Who are the researchers making this claim, and what is their source of information?

Horse Capture also noted that the artist wanted to add a Native American man offering a beaver pelt to the falls in the painting. Capitol architect Cass Gilbert said no.

School Tours Typically Don’t See This Room

Sherry Kempf, coordinator for the St. Paul Public Schools Center for Equity and Culture, asked how these paintings were incorporated into school tours.

Peace said that this room was generally not included in the tours, noting it was a far way to walk. Further, teachers often want to take their classes to see the gold horses instead. “If school tours have time, they are welcome,” he said. “That’s something to talk to the teachers about,” he told Kempf.

Kempf responded by talking about the need for teacher training. Teachers don’t know these paintings are here, she said. “They don’t know the story.”

It is a great suggestion, and a powerful teaching opportunity.

What Next?

This was the second of two Capitol Art Tours. It is unclear whether they will be continued, and if so, in what form.

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