The MN Historical Society Needs to Reflect on its Colonial History

The Minnesota Historical Society was formed 30 years after Fort Saint Anthony (Fort Snelling) opened. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Minnesota Historical Society was founded in 1849, the same year Minnesota became a Territory. That’s only 30 years after Fort Snelling opened (known at the time as Fort Saint Anthony) and still nine years before Minnesota became a state.

It seems odd to create a Historical Society before you have that much history to tell. That’s until you realize just how important it is to control the historical narrative and define who are the heroes and who are the villains.

One of the early Historical Society presidents was Henry Sibley, the state’s first governor. (I leaned this fact by reading the new biographical sketch the Historical Society added to Sibley’s State Capitol portrait. The new narrative notes: “Sibley was a prolific chronicler of the state history he helped make.”)

Throughout its own history, the Minnesota Historical Society has been deeply rooted in telling the white colonial story. Even in the 21st Century it has struggled to free itself from that frame.

The Historical Society’s nearsightedness — and that of the state’s political leaders — was on full display during the recent Capitol renovation. There were contentious debates about whether or not to remove controversial historic artwork with images of Manifest Destiny. The Historical Society seemed resistant to change.

At some point, I hope the Historical Society does some self reflection and creates an exhibit that examines its own history, its past leaders like Sibley, and the colonial myths that they have helped perpetuate.

For now, let’s turn to the new historical interpretive plaques the Historical Society has added to the Governors’ portraits that line the Capitol hallways. In Friday’s blog, I criticized the Historical Society for the short and sanitized biography it added to Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s Capitol portrait.

Next let’s read the new biography that accompanies Gov. Sibley’s portrait. I have fewer criticisms of this narrative than I do of Ramsey’s. It offers a more balanced story, however, there still are parts of the narrative that are troubling.

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The Historical Society’s Very Weak Attempt at Truth Telling in the Minnesota State Capitol

1929 plaque honoring Alexander Ramsey in the Minnesota State Capitol

An old African proverb says: “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

And so it is in the Minnesota State Capitol building and the stories it tells about the early settlers and the Dakota, the original people of this place. A historic plaque hangs in the hallway near the Governor’s office extolling Alexander Ramsey, the state’s first Territorial Governor and its second Governor after statehood.

It was placed there in 1929 by a group called “The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.” The plaque tells the colonial story, saying Ramsey was:

RESOLUTE AND VIGOROUS IN ACTION
FAR-VISIONED AND SAGACIOUS IN COUNSEL
HE GAVE THE STRENGTH AND
ENTHUSIASM OF HIS LIFE
THAT THE FOUNDATIONS OF THIS
COMMONWEALTH MIGHT BE
WELL ESTABLISHED.

Not surprising for the time, the plaque failed to acknowledge Ramsey’s mercenary side, such his role in forcing through unfair treaties, or his decision to put bounties on Dakota scalps after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

The Minnesota State Capitol just underwent a major $300-million-plus renovation. It included a vigorous debate over how to tell Minnesota history through art and interpretation. Historically, gubernatorial portraits have lined the Capitol corridors with only the governor’s names and dates of office. The renovation added short biographical narratives for each governor.

The narrative accompanying Ramsey’s portrait is an improvement over the plaque, but still falls well short of freeing itself of the colonial narrative. Instead of telling multiple sides of the story, the narrative is a sad amalgam of dry and irrelevant facts and narrative that lacks context. Its silence on Ramsey’s major flaws speaks volumes about the Historical Society’s inability to tell difficult truths about the state. Continue reading

How to Deal with Controversial Public Art: Lessons from Italy

There was some discussion about removing this inscription in front of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Instead, it got new gold leaf.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when Italy has a controversial political problem, it turns to its artists.

Hey Minnesota, check this out. Remember when we got all tied in knots over how to address our  controversial Capitol art? Oh that we had known about Bolzano, a city of 100,000 in northernmost Italy. An opinion piece in The Guardian tells the story of how Bolzano officials dealt with a controversial World War II-era public building featuring a massive bas-relief of facist leader Benito Mussolini on horseback. “The sculpture bore the slogan ‘Credere, Obbedire, Combattere’ (‘Believe, Obey, Combat”), the story said. (Yep, that’s, creepy.)

In the polarizing frame of “preserve or destroy” the mural, city leaders chose a third way. According to the story:

A public bid was launched, soliciting ideas over how to “defuse and contextualize” the politically charged frieze. Open to artists, architects, historians, and “anyone involved in the cultural sphere”, the bid explicitly stated that the intention was to “transform the bas-relief into a place of memory … so that it will no longer be visible directly, but accessible thoughtfully, within an appropriately explanatory context”.

Almost 500 proposals were submitted and evaluated by a jury composed of local civil society figures, including a history professor, a museum curator, an architect, an artist and a journalist.

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Latest Art Controversy: Notre Dame’s Columbus Murals

One of the murals in Notre Dame’s Old Main. (Courtesy of Mike Freeman.)

The National Catholic Reporter provides us with the latest controversy about historic art and how it depicts Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery. The article is headlined: Offensive murals must go, say Native American Notre Dame students and others — But administration says paintings of Columbus will stay.

The murals in question occupy are in Notre Dame’s Main Building (the building with the golden dome.) As the story notes: “All tours of the campus include a stop there, and its steps are where the marching band gathers before football games.”

But lining the walls of the second floor’s main hallway are 11-foot murals that send the wrong message about Notre Dame, say more than 450 students, faculty, staff and alumni who have signed an open letter to the university president urging their removal.

The 12 Renaissance-style murals, painted from 1882 to 1884 by Vatican portrait artist Luigi Gregori, depict and celebrate Christopher Columbus, who at that time was seen as something of “American saint,” according to a pamphlet produced by University Communications.

The arguments on both sides will be familiar to anyone who followed the debate about the art in the Minnesota State Capitol.

The university says murals “are of historic and artistic value,” and they will stay in place.

The letter writers call the murals the university’s “own version of a Confederate monument.” “The letter says they are contrary to Notre Dame’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, not to mention the church’s teaching on universal human dignity.”

Click on the link above for the full story.

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. Continue reading

Native Youth Interrupt Governor’s Water Quality Town Hall; Dayton Promises Private Meeting, But Still Neutral on Line 3

Youth interrupted the Governor’s Town Hall Meeting on Water Quality to speak out against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline, saying it was a threat to water quality. In the photo, Dayton responds. (The young girls in the front table were not part of the protest.)

Ten or so youth interrupted Governor Mark Dayton’s Water Quality Town Hall meeting in Minneapolis for about 10 minutes Wednesday night to bring attention to indigenous opposition to the proposed tar sands crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota. The pipeline — Enbridge Line 3 — threatens the state’s clean waters and wild rice areas and violates treaty rights that allow Anishinaabe to hunt, fish and gather on lands the pipeline would cross.

The youth who took the stage included some of the Native youth who are part of the Youth Climate Intervenors working to stop Line 3. The group was recognized by the Public Utilities Commission as an official intervenor because of the members’ youth — they would be living with the consequences of this pipeline for most of their lives. They will be allowed to provide testimony as the process moves into a more legal format. Continue reading

New Capitol Art Tour Focuses on Controversial Art; History Center to Feature Native Artists

A painting of Father Hennepin “Discovering” the Falls of St. Anthony now hangs in a 3rd floor space in the Capitol.

The long and contentious debate over art in the Minnesota State Capitol resulted in some victories. Offensive paintings have been relocated within the Capitol or removed altogether. In addition, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) has started a new tour that focuses on interpreting Capitol art in a new way, including the controversial pieces that remain.

The tour is called Making Meaning of State Capitol Art, and will be held Tuesday, Sept. 12 and Friday, Sept. 29 at the Minnesota State Capitol. Both tours run noon to 1 p.m. According to the announcement, you can: “Explore the varied meanings behind some of the art at the Minnesota State Capitol in a small group dialogue with Joe Horse Capture, director of American Indian Initiatives at MNHS. This is an opportunity to listen to different opinions and share your own story.”

As a reminder, two controversial paintings that hung in the Governor’s Reception Room — one showing Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony and the other of the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, have been moved to a third floor space known as the Cass Gilbert Library. Two other paintings have been removed altogether: The Attack on New Ulm and the Battle of Ta Ha Kouty.

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

The painting of the Battle of New Ulm will be on display at the James J. Hill House, part of the free exhibit, Attack on New Ulm: One Painting, Many Perspectives. Come and share your thoughts about its role in Minnesota history. The exhibit will be on view Sept. 16 – Jan. 14.

A particularly offensive mural remains in the Minnesota Senate Chambers. Called “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” it is a tour de force of Manifest Destiny and flies in the face of our deeply held beliefs in freedom of religion. It remains a complete mystery why our state leaders allowed this painting to remain after the recent renovation. The message it sends is as troubling as the Confederate memorials now being removed in southern states.

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