Angels Unawares revisited: On immigrants, refugees, and America’s original sins

Unveiling of ‘Angels Unawares’ in front of the Basilica Sunday.

The Rev. Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a member of the Ogala Sioux Nation and an ordained ELCA pastor, doesn’t like to use the term “forced migration” when referring to how European settlers forced Indigenous peoples from their lands.

“For me that kind of tidies up the word ‘genocide,'” she said.

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Option Floated to Move Controversial Capitol Art; This Day in History: Andrew Johnson’s Indian Policy

The controversial art that hangs in the Governor’s Conference Room – the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls at St. Anthony –could both be moved without damaging the art, according to staff at the Minnesota Historical Society. That was a threshold question posed by Paul Anderson, one of the tri-chairs for the Art Subcommittee reviewing Capitol art, and it opens the door for proposals to relocate these pieces.

One out-of-the box proposal that emerged at Monday’s Art Subcommittee meeting came from Architect Ted Lenz. He suggested for the Capitol’s grand opening, the Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin paintings be removed from the Governor’s Reception Room. They would be moved to “a very public space” where there could be ongoing public discussion about whether they should remain in their historic space or not. There could be an ongoing, informal discussion about how to improve their interpretation, including the addition of a painting of similar scope responding to these issues from a 21st Century perspective. “It would be a great way to engage a larger audience,” he said.

After five years, the painting would either be returned to the Reception Room or put somewhere else with the correct interpretive response, Lenz said.

The Art Subcommittee members met for more than four hours Monday. They discussed the framework of their initial report, due in January. The Subcommittee will meet twice next month, Jan. 4 and Jan. 11, to make sure the report gets done. It is unclear whether it will be a progress report or whether it will contain initial recommendation. Subcommittee members also discussed the results of recent public input meetings and surveys.

Summary of Public Comments

Mariah Levinson of the Bureau of Mediation Services presented an analysis of the public reactions to the Capitol art, collected at public input meetings and through surveys. An estimated 156 people attended the first seven public input meetings, from a low of 11 at a Willmar event to a high of 30 each at events at Rochester, Mankato and North Minneapolis. Data from four more meetings will be collected. The Subcommittee has received roughly 1,300 survey responses, either in person at the public input meetings or on-line. (If you haven’t filled out a survey, click here.)

The public input meetings and the survey offer differing responses, Levinson said. Some of the strongest themes to emerge from the public input sessions include: “Art should represent more diverse peoples,” “Art should tell more diverse stories,” and “Art should reflect current values (inclusive, sensitive, inspiring.)” When asked what to do with art that was insensitive and inaccurate, far and away the most dominant response was to remove it.

Survey respondents – when asked “what stories might inspire, educate or interest you” in Capitol art – said:

  • Historical events that shaped and influenced Minnesota (69 percent)
  • Geography and landscapes (42 percent)
  • Contributions of our diverse peoples (26 percent)

When asked what should be done with the insensitive art, the three top survey responses were: Keep it (41 percent); Remove it (30 percent); Put it in a separate Capitol gallery (9 percent).

Levinson identified two themes that will need to be reconciled. On one hand, people want art to be inclusive and unifying. On the other hand, people want it to engage in difficult issues. This tension will be used to frame ongoing Subcommittee conversations.

Here are two representatives quote from the survey:

I worry about glossing over the dark parts of our history, because those attitudes and ideas even at their worst did shape how our state was formed. However I don’t think they should be displayed unchallenged. I’d suggest that any piece that contains such content have a new complementary piece commissioned reflecting our attitudes and understanding now that is displayed along side it.

I believe they should be installed in a new museum that is designed to tell the true history of the colonization of Minnesota and the intentional efforts to exterminate those indigenous to this place.

The full analysis of the public input sessions and the survey should be posted on the Art Subcommittee’s website soon.

Other Meeting Takeaways

Tension over Engaging Tribal Communities: Subcommittee member Anton Treuer of Bemidji State University, participating by phone, said not enough had been done to engage tribal voices in this conversation. It was one of the issues that could lead him to write a dissenting opinion to the Subcommittee’s report, he said. There was conflicting information presented as to whether the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council had already taken a position on Capitol art. (The Council includes the leaders of Minnesota’s Dakota and Ojibwe tribes.) Healing Minnesota Stories today called Jim Jones, the Council’s Cultural Resources Director, for clarification. He said that tribal leaders from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, the Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux communities had met earlier this month with Council staff and expressed their clear support for removing the paintings. Jones said the Council itself had not taken action yet, but he would bring the issue back to the Council. Subcommittee member Gwen Westerman, who also participated by phone, said the Minnesota Historical Society’s Indian Advisory Council also supported removing the two paintings.

The Restoration of the Capitol’s Fine Art has Started. Art restorers are starting with the Zodiac murals, the dome murals and the Supreme Court. Brian Szott, curator for art at the Minnesota Historical Society, said in an interview after that meeting that the restoration of the Senate mural “The Discoverers and Explorers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” has not yet been scheduled and work probably would not start until after the legislative session. This is one of the major pieces of art that Healing Minnesota Stories’ petition has requested for removal and relocation. (Spending money to restore it now could make it more difficult to have a debate about relocating it.)

Lack of Unanimity About What is “Insensitive” Art Becomes a Status Quo Argument: Subcommittee member Rep. Urdahl said he would leave the Governor’s Conference Room paintings where they are as an educational tool. He questioned using the term “insensitive art” as any sort of criteria for deciding what art should stay or go. “How do we determine what is insensitive?” he asked. “Do we remove [the portrait of] Jesse Ventura if it makes people uncomfortable?” Later, he said: “There probably never has been artwork that wasn’t insensitive to someone.”

Historical Society Wants an Official Invitation to do More Interpretation: D. Stephen Elliott, Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, said if the current art stays in the Governor’s Conference Room, he would want an “invitation and commitment” that it will be in place and used.

Ongoing Debate on the Role of Capitol Art: There is a fascinating debate about whether the Capitol is an art museum or not. Tri-chair Diane Loeffler said “the Capitol is not primarily a museum.” She said the Subcommittee needed to wrestle with what the public really wants out of the building. Rep. Urdahl said the Capitol was both a living building and a museum. Someone categorized Capitol visitors as art “surfers,” “snorkelers,” or “divers.” Some wanted just a little information and others want the details. Treuer said some visitors were not surfers or divers, but simply political leaders and participants, including the Native leaders that came to the Capitol. Rep. Loeffler said that the Subcommittee needed to acknowledge that this art debate is not just an intellectual issue for some of our citizens. For many Native Americans, it is a deeply felt, emotionally charged issue.

This Day in History: President Johnson Outlines Indian Policy in State of the Union Address

On this day in history, December 8, 1829, President Andrew Johnson gave his State of the Union Address, both praising the progress made by some Indians towards the “arts of civilization” and at the same time denying them the opportunity to exist as independent peoples within the existing United States. Johnson told Congress:

It has long been the policy of Government to introduce among [Indians] the arts of civilization, in the hope of gradually reclaiming them from a wandering life. This policy has, however, been coupled with another wholly incompatible with its success. Professing a desire to civilize and settle them, we have at the same time lost no opportunity to purchase their lands and thrust them farther into the wilderness. By this means they have not only been kept in a wandering state, but been led to look upon us as unjust and indifferent to their fate. Thus, though lavish in its expenditures upon the subject, Government has constantly defeated its own policy, and the Indians in general, receding farther and farther to the west, have retained their savage habits.

Johnson said some Southern tribes had mingled with the whites and made progress towards civilization, and had recently tried to create an independent government within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. Yet despite this “progress,” Jackson refused to let them set up their own government there. He advised the Indians “to emigrate beyond the Mississippi or submit to the laws of those States.”