Student Art in the Minnesota Capitol? Idea Moving Forward, Thanks to Saint Paul Public Schools and MNHS

Thanks to Saint Paul Public School’s (SPPS), initial conversations are happening with the Minnesota Historical Society to get student art in the Capitol, according to Sherry Kempf, who works in the district’s Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). The MRC staff has been a wonderful partner in promoting the Healing Minnesota Stories Capitol Art project, which teaches students about the historic art in the Minnesota Capitol and challenges them to create their own contemporary Capitol art.

Several SPPS schools have participated in the project. The MRC now displays some 70+ pieces of student art, and more classrooms are in process. (Check out the MRC’s gallery, located in the Washington Technology Magnet School.)

Here is a short video the district created about the project, with footage from an art opening.

Continue reading

Wisconsin Once Had Ho Chunk Capitol Tour Guide Focused on Native Cultures, What Happened?

Poster of Oliver La Mere in Wisconsin Capitol rotunda.

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. Continue reading

Reenacting an Indian Hanging and the Need for Dialogue; Another Pipeline Action Follows Standing Rock’s Model

It is not surprising that a historical reenactment of a Native man’s public hanging would spark outrage, what is surprising is that those organizing the event wouldn’t see it coming and ask for a dialogue with Native peoples before moving ahead.

This incident comes from Pennsylvania, but it raises larger questions of who gets to say what is offensive and what is not.

In this case, where white people might see a benign history lesson, Native people can see and experience trauma. The reenactment sent a message that Native people are “less than” and gave permission to yell racial slurs.

This incident echoes the debate we have had here in Minnesota about whether or not to remove offensive art in the Capitol. In both cases, the challenge is the same: How do those people in the majority put down their defenses, open their hearts, and listen to and honor the pain suffered by those with little power or voice?

Continue reading

Minnesota Capitol Restoration: The Awe and the Awful

Minnesota State Capitol reopens after renovation, but final touches still being applied.
Minnesota State Capitol reopens after renovation, but final touches are still being applied.

The Minnesota State Capitol reopened for business on Tuesday after being closed for a $300 million renovation. The restoration is ongoing, but the legislature convened and the show must go on.

The Minnesota Historical Society promotion says: “Come visit your shiny new Minnesota State Capitol—refurbished, renovated and restored from top to bottom. Ooh and aah over its gleaming marble, magnificent murals, vibrant paintings and more, all restored to their original 1905 perfection.” Minnesota Public Radio ran a story on the new look Capitol with the headline: The awe is back.

It’s not that simple. There is both new beauty as well as retained historical ugliness. The MPR story included this telling line: “… planners didn’t want to tinker too much with history.”

That’s a shame. There is some history that we should not continue to glorify, such as the denigration and the genocide of Native Americans. Just because the renovation is over, the criticism isn’t. We should not delight in being frozen in 1905. Significantly, some artwork fails to reflect our values, an unacceptable situation in our the state’s most important public building.

Let’s look at the awe and the awful. Continue reading

St. Paul Public Schools Leading the Way in Indian Education for All

Alyse Burnside and Sherry Kempf of St. Paul Schools Multicultural Resource Center.
Alyse Burnside and Sherry Kempf of St. Paul Schools Multicultural Resource Center (in front of display of student-produced alternative Capitol art).

The state of Montana has a remarkable provision in its Constitution called “Indian Education for All”. It is in Article X, passed in 1999, and it reads in part:

Recognition of American Indian cultural heritage — legislative intent. (1) It is the constitutionally declared policy of this state to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and to be committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage.

It would be great if Minnesota had such a Constitutional provision, but in the meantime a round of applause to the St. Paul Public Schools and its Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) for its efforts to teach all children about our state’s native peoples, particularly the Dakota.

Today we highlight two MRC initiatives. First, it is working towards taking all fifth grade students on a day-long field trip of six sacred Dakota sites in the Twin Cities area. Second, the MRC is replicating a Healing Minnesota Stories art project where students learn about the stereotyped art in the Minnesota State Capitol and how it depicts Native Americans. Then, students create their own alternative Capitol art, reflecting stories from their communities and their hopes for Minnesota’s future. Continue reading

Massachusetts Statehouse Art Shows “Peaceful” and “Praying” Indians, Ignores the Harm

The first official seal of the Colony of Massachusetts, shown in a stained glass window in the Massachusetts State House.
The first official seal of the Colony of Massachusetts: 1628.

Shown at right is the first official seal of the Massachusetts Colony. It has a Native American dressed in a grass skirt with the words coming from his mouth: “Come Over and Help Us.”

Right.

First, the Wampanoag native to the area did not wear grass skirts. Second, does anyone believe that any of them ever said: “Come Over and Help Us”? In fact, the colonists soon cheated the Wampanoag out of their land and banned their language.

massachusetts-seal-close-up
A close up of the stained glass window.

And so we continue with our tour of art in the various state capitols and statehouses to see how they depict Native Americans and early U.S. history. (Information on capitol art in Minnesota and other states is collected on 0ur Capitol Art page.)

Today’s tour is the Statehouse of the Massachusetts Commonwealth. This stained glass version of the first Colonial Seal appears prominently atop a large window over a main Statehouse staircase. The window includes all the iterations of the Massachusetts seal.

It might seem historically quaint to some, but this original seal reflects a narrative of the helpless Indian. The words are not legible to passersby even if they stopped and squinted. Still, is this an image that you would show with pride in your most important state building, especially with no counter narrative or sign of regret?

Continue reading

Yale Football Program Cover Illustrates How Many are Still Blind to Racist Images

Image of historic Dartmouth-Yale Football program reprinted for this year's game.
Image of historic Dartmouth-Yale Football program reprinted for this year’s game.

This is a story about racist images of Native Americans in historic art — and how in many cases the dominant culture sees them as quaintly historic but fails to see that they are still painfully racist.

This current story comes out of Yale University. It points out how even our institutions of higher learning can be blind to the racist messages embedded in artwork.

This past Saturday, the Yale-Dartmouth football game marked the 100th anniversary of the rivalry. To commemorate the event, the Yale Athletic Department printed a special program. I can imagine a group of designers thinking it would be fun to run a collage of historic program covers on the front.

Since Dartmouth’s unofficial mascot used to be the Indian, many of the covers featured images of Indians. (Dartmouth was founded to educate Native American youth, according to an article in the Yale News headlined: Football programs criticized for racist imagery, While that mission was abandoned, Dartmouth kept its Indian mascot until 1974.)

Yale’s commemorative program featured eight historic program covers, of which half were “racially insensitive,” according to the Yale News account. (Click on the link above to see the cover.) The cover included “a bulldog chasing the Native American figure up a tree, while another featured a Yale football player lighting the [Indian] figure’s clothing on fire.” Continue reading