State Capitol paintings come under fire for historical view

Elizabeth Putnam

The nearly century-old paintings framed with gold-leaf carvings exemplify the grandeur of the governor’s reception room in the State Capitol.

The six paintings display key moments in the state’s early history, from the discovery of St. Anthony Falls by European settlers to their subsequent treaty signings with American Indians.

But some legislators and minority advocacy groups say the art is historically inaccurate and portrays American Indians negatively. They want either plaques explaining the art or want the art removed altogether.

“The paintings represent a tunnel vision of history,” said Maren Ovre, a University women’s studies senior and legislative intern. “They can hang as art but in the context of (the Capitol’s) space, they are problematic.”

With the help of Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, Ovre authored a bill, the Pride in Public Art Act of 2001, which would appoint a task force of experts, historians and minority groups to study the paintings and decide their fate.

The bill didn’t make it past its first appearance in committee last year, so Ovre decided to avoid the Legislature and directly pressure the Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk to take action.

Ovre said two paintings are particularly offensive. The first is of Father Louis Hennepin discovering St. Anthony Falls and blessing the falls with a crucifix in hand. Dakota Indians are sitting on the ground surrounding him and staring, while a topless Dakota woman carries a bundle on her back in the lower right of the canvas.

Ovre said the painting depicts the Dakota Indians as helpless and nonchalant about the arrival of Europeans. She also said Dakota women would have been fully clothed.

Directly across the room hangs the painting “Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” which shows the signing of a treaty that sold most of southern Minnesota to European settlers for 12 and a half cents per acre.

Kathryn “Jody” Beaulieu, director of the Archives and Library of Red Lake Nation and a member of the Indian Advisery Committee, said the painting is offensive because it displays the American Indians as submissive. She said the art implies treaty transactions between Europeans and Indians were peaceful, when in reality the settlers often manipulated American Indians and used violence.

“The U.S. broke the treaty years later and destroyed the lives and land of many natives,” Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu said new art should be commissioned for the Capitol.

“The image of a painting is stronger than words,” Beaulieu said. “People breeze by and wouldn’t take the time to read.”

Those who want the art to remain as it is – including the Minnesota Historical Society – say Capitol staff does its best to educate visitors about the paintings’ inaccuracies.

MHS legislative liaison David Kelliher said during Capitol tours MHS tries to provide context for the art, created in 1905.

During a tour Tuesday, a guide discussed why the paintings are controversial. While pointing to the “Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” painting, the guide said the American Indians didn’t have a choice except to sign the treaty and said it was a precursor to war.

Kelliher said the Minnesota Historical Center features a more in-depth statehood exhibit for people who want more information.

“The exhibit provides context for Minnesota history that a 45-minute Capitol tour can’t do,” Kelliher said.

Kelliher said the MHS wants to preserve all aspects of Capitol art and architecture because it reflects an important period of Minnesota history.

But Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, the chief author of the Senate companion bill, said by taking the paintings at face value the public is being misinformed.

“The truth is always important,” Lourey said. “It’s the truth of the past that should advise our future.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said although she does not oppose the creation of a task force, she does not want to see the paintings removed.

“I’m concerned about tampering with it,” Kahn said. “There is an awful lot of room to add artwork elsewhere.”

Although Ovre faces an uphill battle to change the Capitol art, one group recently proved it can be done.

After five years of pressure by the Filipino Study Group, the Legislature in 1999 approved $10,000 to correct an inaccurate and biased plaque commemorating the Spanish-American War.

Opponents of the plaque said it ignored the Filipino perspective of the war and inaccurately glorified American involvement.

Journalist Ken Meter, who helped push for a revised plaque, said he agreed the old plaque should remain displayed “to show what it was like when the plaque was put up Ö it represents the thought of the time.”

The revised plaque was unveiled at the beginning of last month.

“It’s always important to fix our mistakes, especially when a public display gives out the wrong historical information,” said Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk at the plaque’s unveiling. “And when it sheds false light on an entire people. This provides a great lesson: The State Capitol belongs to everyone, and it must respect everyone.”

Ovre said she hopes Schunk and MHS will apply the same logic about the Capitol’s artwork. She said she wants the changes completed by 2005, in time for the art’s 100th anniversary.

“There’s power in the arts … we can improve how history is represented,” Ovre said.

Kelliher said MHS encourages groups and organizations to speak out about inaccuracies.

“We will consider all changes,” Kelliher said. “We strive to be sensitive.”

Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]