Watching the current demise of Confederate monuments and Columbus statues, it’s time again to look at art in state Capitols and other public buildings and ask about the stories they tell.
During a recent visit to the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre, I found the Senate Chamber’s Louisiana Purchase mural particularly jarring. The central figure is a half naked Indigenous woman. The narrative its creates is that she is both hypersexualized and uncivilized.
An angel stands behind her, wrapping her in the civilizing influence of the U.S. flag, a symbol of assimilation.
In murals of this era, angels also symbolize divine intervention to protect the advancement of white settlers and Western civilization. Other mural elements include a knight or soldier emblazoned with a cross, echoing the Crusades. To the right are two goddesses-like figures representing “Truth” and “Progress.” “Truth” is fully clothed, holding a Bible. “Progress” is half-naked, holding a torch.
This is the image that South Dakota senators see every day they meet in chambers. It’s what they see any time they vote on issues affecting Native American communities, from Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and voting rights, to funding decisions.
South Dakota is home to more than 78,000 Native Americans, many of whom live on one of nine Indian reservations. They make up 9 percent of the state’s population. There is little in the Capitol art that reflects their contemporary existence or reflects the truth about the past. They deserve better.
One exception is a beautiful Pow Wow photo hung near the Capitol’s security checkpoint.
Clusters of flags are hung in four corners of the Rotunda, one of them honoring Lakota and Dakota peoples. The cluster has a Warrior Eagle Staff and the United Sioux Tribes flag. Each cluster also has a flag representing a Native American directional color: White is north (where the snow comes), red is east (where the sun rises), yellow is south (where the sun shines), and black is west (where storms come from), the guide book says.
A series of lunettes line the Capitol corridors depicting late-1800s and early-1900s South Dakota life, including scenes of Indigenous life, such as buffalo hunts.
Capitol guide books often pad their narrative with minutia while omitting important if controversial issues around art.
The South Dakota Capitol Self Guided Tour book is no different. It tells Capitol visitors about how the “Rotunda floor is comprised of 6,384 glass prisms embedded in 40 concrete floor panels” and about foundation repairs. These seem irrelevant compared to the bigger issues that could be discussed.
One example is the guidebook’s description of “The Advent of Commerce” mural above the Capitol’s Grand Staircase, depicting early fur trading. The mural’s title is problematic, implying that “commerce” didn’t start until white explorers arrived. The guide’s brief narrative tries to preempt such criticism.
Although Native Americans were trading goods and furs with other Native Americans long before the white man arrived on the Great Plains, this painting is representative of the first trading of Native Americans with white explorers.
The guide fails to acknowledge important mural elements. First, it ignores the presence of the angels overhead, again, powerful symbols of Manifest Destiny. Second, the white trader is positioned above the kneeling Native man, an artistic devise to show who has power and who is subservient.
Last, and most important, this image subtly conveys a comforting myth for white settlers and their descendants: That relationships between the Great Sioux Nation and white explorers and settlers were mutually beneficial and fair. They were not. The theft of the Black Hills following the discovery of gold, the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the conflict at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline are three of many examples.
The South Dakota House Chambers has a single mural titled “The Peace that Passes All Understanding.”
The current guide gives a one-sentence description, naming the artist and the painting’s title.
The mural combines historical fact with symbolism, according to online resources that reviewed earlier Capitol guides. The mural recalls a battle early in South Dakota’s history where the Ree (or Arikara) “ambushed” 23 men led by General Ashley.
Overcome, the remaining soldiers didn’t attempt further fighting. Gen. Ashley wanted to get word to Major Andrew Henry on the Yellowstone River. He asked for volunteers and Jedediah Smith responded.
As the online resources describe it, on the mural’s left, dead soldiers were being loaded on a small boat to be sent down the Missouri River.
… Smith is shown praying to God for the dead and dying. Native Americans are shown among the willows on the shore, among them a chief demanding peace. In the foreground, [an] Indian maiden looking to the sky feels the wonder of life, and sees it, as do the others of her tribe.
As Jedidiah Smith calls down the blessing of heaven upon the dying, his spiritual force produces a power over the Indians. They see the spirit of the heavens above as they saw the spirits of their dead. The fight is over and to all comes the unifying “peace that passes understanding.”
First, this is an odd choice for art. The Ree actually won and are demanding peace. The army lost, portrayed as the victim of an “ambush.” Yet, Jedidiah Smith’s prayers and “spiritual force” produced “a power over the Indians” and created a “unifying peace.”
Like the mural above the Grand Stairway, this mural subtly conveys a comforting myth for white settlers and their descendants: That after initial conflicts, even ambushes, white settlers came to live in a “peace that passes all understanding” with the Great Sioux Nation.
They did not and do not.
One particularly troubling painting in the Governor’s Reception Room — “Spirit of the West” — was eventually covered, but not before protracted controversy.
A 1910 description explains that the beautiful woman clutching a Bible to her chest in the painting represents South Dakota and the “Spirit of the West.” Above her floats the guiding angel, representing hope. The guide continues:
Trappers and settlers are beating back and overcoming the Indians who are clinging to her [South Dakota’s] garments, attempting to impede her progress. …
The Army and the homesteaders are pushing the Indians down to the ground, thinking they have them conquered.
Outlawry, or the evil spirit, represented by a dark and hooded figure seeing civilization coming into the country, covers his face with his hands and scuttles away into the darkness. …
Over decades, this painting was covered, then uncovered, then renamed “Only By Remembering Our Mistakes, Can We Learn.” Because it was not easily moved, it was eventually covered by a false wall in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
For its 1989 Centennial, South Dakota added four new Greco-Roman-style statues in the Rotunda. They represented Wisdom, Vision, Courage, and Integrity. The plaques don’t interpret the images, just who paid for them. For instance, the “Vision” statue was a gift from Norwest Bank. It seems odd to allow what amounts to corporate advertising in such an important public building.
This blog began by discussing the Senate mural “The Louisiana Purchase” and will close with it. Here’s the current Capitol guidebook’s description:
If you look closely, you’ll see the top 18 inches of this painting is done directly on the plaster wall which has caused it to age differently. The most apparent color variation can be seen on the angel’s wing. The canvas on which it was painted was not the proper size to fit in the alcove it was intended for, so the artist finished it after it was installed.
This description verges on the comical. It tells visitors to look for color variations in the angel’s wing rather than asking them to think about what the angel represents. It focuses on the fact that the artist used the wrong sized canvas, rather than focusing on what the semi-nude Native woman, the American flag, and the soldier with the cross represent.
Those are tough issues to wrestle with, and they have been avoided for too long in capitols around the country.