Dear Minnesota Historical Society: Wake Up!

Minnesota state leaders have ignored the fact that this Minnesota Senate mural “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi River” is racist.

I recently came across a Minnesota Historical Society webpage titled: Reconciling History, focused on art in the Minnesota State Capitol.

The site gives the impression that the Historical Society is wrestling with the problematic issues of historical Capitol art and its embedded racism (my word, not theirs). Yet, the website uses language that seems to keep the Historical Society above the fray, as if it were possible to be neutral about whether or not the art is offensive. As I read its website, the Historical Society’s solution to interpreting Capitol art seems to be simply adding more voices, not taking a position on whether or not the art is racist.

Here’s how the website starts out:

Throughout the United States today, people are having conversations about our relationship with the past. From Confederate statues to artwork in museums and public spaces, communities are struggling to reconcile a historical narrative that leaves so many stories untold.

The Historical Society’s website fails to define what it means by “Reconciling History.” The phrase itself is nonsensical.

Merriam Webster offers several definitions of reconciling. The first is “to restore to friendship or harmony.” Using this definition, “reconciling history” is meaningless. The real challenge is to reconcile people, in our case descendants of white settlers with indigenous peoples.. Even then, the term “reconcile” is inadequate, because it assumes there was a trusting relationship to be restored when that was never the case. Anyway, the Historical Society’s website doesn’t appear to attempt this type of reconciling.

The second definition of reconciling is “to make consistent or congruous, reconcile an ideal with reality.” Using this definition, “reconciling history” is rather meaningless, too. It’s impossible to have a “consistent” and “congruous” history for all people. The Historical Society’s website makes no attempt to reconcile “an ideal with reality.”

The third definition of reconciling is “to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant.”  Based on this definition, the Historical Society’s website is an abject failure. It avoids discussing unpleasant history.

The Historical Society’s website leaves me wondering whether it used the term “reconciling history” because it sounds good without thinking through what it means.

The Historical Society’s website states that it took “A critical look at the capitol’s artwork.” It did not. Examining the process the Historical Society and state leaders used to review Capitol art will lay bear why the term “reconciling history” is empty.

The State’s Review of Capitol Art Completely Ignored Racist Senate Mural

As part of the recent major Capitol renovation, the powers-that-be created an Art Subcommittee to review the historical art. The Historical Society helped staff the subcommittee. Their work ignored a deeply troubling mural in the Minnesota Senate Chambers, shown at the top of this blog. The mural’s title alone — “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” — drips with Manifest Destiny.

The painting shows angelic beings guiding the divine process of “Civilization” of native peoples. It depicts Ojibwe people in historically inaccurate and offensive ways (the woman is half naked and sexualized.) The priest holds out a cross, and behind him a man restrains two attack dogs. The message is clear: Convert or die.

The Art Subcommittee’s 67-page report makes scant mention of this giant mural. Page 25 offers the lone reference to the painting:

Concerns were also expressed about other paintings depicting American Indians. Among them were “The Battle of New Ulm,” “Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain)” and the “Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” mural. In every case, while the removal of the paintings from the Capitol was the recommended option, interpretation to reflect American Indian perspective was viewed as highly important if these paintings are to remain in the Capitol.

Comments:

  • The report provides no critique of the painting or analysis of its symbolism, no mention of the forced conversion and the denial of freedom of religion. A number of people (including Healing Minnesota Stories) brought this critique to the subcommittee’s attention multiple times, both through written comments and verbal testimony. All the report says is that the paintings caused “concerns.” My hypothesis: They ignored any critique because to acknowledge the symbolism would have required the mural’s removal.
  • The Historical Society’s website on “Reconciling History,” a page devoted to critiquing Capitol art, ignores this mural, too. The Historical Society also seems to be ducking an issue for which it has no good response.

The Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty

The Historical Society missed an opportunity to talk about history when it removed this painting, The Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty, with no ceremony or explanation.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s “Reconciling History” website says that two paintings were removed from the Capitol: the Attack on New Ulm and The 8th Minnesota Infantry in the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty.

Comments: The website doesn’t mention why these painting are problematic, just that they are gone.

How do you “reconcile history” if you can’t tell the truth? Click on the Historical Society link for the painting (above); it takes you to a page with information on the painting’s dimensions, the fact that it’s oil on canvas, and a few other irrelevant facts.

Dig a little more and you might find the Historical Society’s “Education Resource Portal” for the painting, with a few more details:

The Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (or Battle of Killdeer Mountain) took place July 28-29, 1864 between Brigadier General Alfred Sully’s forces, including Minnesota soldiers, and American Indians from the Sioux nation, including Lakota, Yanktonai, and Santee. Sully’s expedition into Dakota Territory was part of a larger U.S. effort to continue pushing the Sioux farther west and to make land available to gold miners. After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the U.S. government sent military forces to the Dakotas to punish the Sioux nation for the war, including many who were not involved in the war at all. U.S. forces overpowered the Sioux, killed more than 100 people, and destroyed the camp. Five U.S. soldiers died.

It’s a soft narrative and fails to clearly state the depravity of what happened. U.S. forces traveled more than 300 miles outside Minnesota, killing many innocent people who had nothing to do with the Dakota-U.S. War. It was more massacre than battle; U.S. forces had vastly superior weapons. One driving force behind the attack was simply money: Government leaders wanted to open up land for white settler’s gold mining. According to 0ne North Dakota historical website:”Lt. David Kingsbury of the 8th Minnesota Infantry would later recount that at least one infant was found alive in the abandoned village and subsequently shot.”

This battle received a place of honor in the Capitol for more than a century. While the Historical Society recently removed this painting, it did so with no explanation or ceremony. By removing the painting, the Historical Society tacitly acknowledged there was a problem. So why so silent? Was the Historical Society afraid of offending funders or legislators by drawing too much attention to this decision? Was it overcome with shame? Who knows.

In doing the right thing, however, the Historical Society missed a great opportunity to reflect on, well, history.

Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the Father Hennepin

According to the Historical Society’s “Reconciling History” website:

During the restoration of the Minnesota State Capitol, Minnesotans took a more critical look at the artwork that was commissioned to adorn the building for its opening in 1905. Much of that attention focused on two paintings that had been commissioned by capitol architect Cass Gilbert to hang in the Governor’s Reception Room: The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of Saint Anthony.

The singular achievement of the Capitol art review was removing these two paintings to the little visited third floor hallway.

Native American leaders wanted these paintings moved out of the Capitol, and certainly out of a place of honor in the Governor’s Reception Room. But an untold part of the story is that Gov. Mark Dayton deserves credit for this change, too. Dayton was open minded enough to ask for recommendations and be willing to follow them. By contrast, Minnesota House and Senate leaders sent clear behind-the-scenes messages that they would not entertain recommendations about changing art in their chambers. The Senate leaders quietly killed any possibility of removing the mural The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.

“Its Original Splendor”?

The Historical Society’s “Reconciling History” asks the following question:

“How can Minnesotans reconcile the multi-year effort to restore the building to its original splendor and return the restored paintings that so many find offensive to their place of prominence in the Governor’s Reception Room?”

Comment: The problem is that the Capitol’s “original splendor” really wasn’t all that splendid. It’s not possible to somehow magically balance the building’s “original splendor” with some ugly truths. Reconciling isn’t about trying to make everyone happy. It’s about telling some hard truths and dealing with them honestly.

In spite of using the term reconciliation, the Minnesota Historical Society and state leaders don’t seem up to the task.

Just look in the Senate Chambers.

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