Battle rages over racist paintings in the Minnesota State Capitol


Critics say works like Father Hennepin Discovering St. Anthony Falls and others paint slanted historical picture.

Standing in the waters of the Mississippi river, a Native American man in an elaborate war bonnet wears only a loincloth. A Native American maiden lies beside him, half naked. She leans away from him, lured toward a large crucifix held out by a monkish figure backed by the growling "hounds of hell."

The Anishinaabe Great Spirit appears like God from a children's book. To the onlooking European settlers, the Great Spirit offers the river's resources, the fruits of the forest — even the Native American couple.

And as the Native couple is freely relinquishing the land, the water, and the woods around them, they undergo a Christian baptism. Above, two angels offer moral cover for the white discoverers and civilizers, who receive this bounty for the state of Minnesota.

Made to look like a mural, the painting Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi is actually adhered to the wall of the Minnesota Senate Chamber, where it looms over the heads of legislators. As such, it is slated for restoration along with the rest of the state Capitol building, as part of a massive $310 million, multiyear project.

But its very existence, along with other paintings of Native Americans in this building, has whipped up a maelstrom. Minnesota's violent, whitewashed past is at the center of it all.



Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi

Almost all of the Capitol's paintings were commissioned circa 1905 when the grand building was erected. From what hangs on the Capitol walls, it appears Minnesota's moral evolution came to a grinding halt that year.

The 120,000 visitors to the Capitol every year get a glimpse into an era when women couldn't vote (installing women's bathrooms is one of the few modifications to the structure), when Native Americans could apply for U.S. citizenship if they abandoned their tribes and adopted "the habits of civilized life," and when the population of Minnesota was 98 percent white.

St. Paul in 1905 was mostly red brick buildings and dirt roads, falling behind the rapid growth and expansion of its neighbor Minneapolis. Large mills and granaries were built around St. Anthony Falls, while industry waned in St. Paul. Cass Gilbert, a St. Paul native and the architect and designer of the Capitol, could see that government would be the foothold in his city. He wanted a monument that befit a capital city, and he wanted to fill it with high-quality art.

Gilbert hired mostly artists from the East Coast, who had never been to Minnesota, to tell the story of the state's progress. They were to depict the Star of the North as a bastion of culture and civilization, saved from the savages who once roamed here.

Edward Simmons painted Civilization of the Northwest, affixed to the wall between the arches of the most public and grandest space of the Capitol — the Rotunda. The series of paintings is rich with allegory declaring the settlers rightful owners of the land and resources of Minnesota. A robust young white man is the central character in all the paintings. He cracks a whip, menacing a strange group of beasts and one man: a cowering Native American.

Francis Davis Millet, an esteemed artist with a strong national reputation, was hired to paint The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, a retelling of one of the most important events in the formation of the state of Minnesota: the signing of a treaty between the U.S. government and the Dakota tribe.

Millet was charged with painting the state's first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, in the best light possible. Ramsey stands on a platform, shaking hands with a Native American chief under a large makeshift canopy. Teepees fill up the background and Native American families sit and watch peacefully as other tribal members sign the large scroll on a table.

Douglas Volk, a Minnesota painter, captured a scene from a book by the French priest Father Hennepin, recounting his six-month stay in Minnesota as a captive of the Dakota. Father Hennepin Discovering St. Anthony Falls depicts the first time a European saw the only waterfall on the Mississippi. The painting's holy namesake rises up above the group of Dakota and one European companion to hold out his crucifix and bless the waterfall, which would later power many mills and breweries at the heart of Minneapolis. Off to the right in this painting, the sole woman carries a portage, topless.

"Cass Gilbert executed the art in great classical style that reflects the mores of the times," Minnesota Historical Society Director, Stephen Elliott, told MPR in July 2015. "It is the story of white triumphalism."


What really happened at the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux is quite different from what Francis Davis Millet painted for Gilbert. For starters, Millet had the wrong Sioux: His were Lakota, who had nothing to do with the treaty.

During the early 1800s, European settlers began moving west of the St. Croix River and saw the value of the land and its resources. Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley, key players in the founding of the state of Minnesota, convinced the U.S. government to negotiate the purchase of land from the Dakota people living here. In 1851, Dakota chieftains came to a locale called Traverse des Sioux to hear about the proposed treaty, listening intently to Sibley, a fur trader who had married a Dakota woman and translated the document for them.

When Dakota chiefs went to the table to sign the treaty, they were told to sign a third piece of paper. A third copy of the treaty, they assumed. But, in fact, they were handing over most of their share of treaty money to local fur traders to "settle their affairs." Henry Sibley walked away with $66,000. Although the treaty gave 24 million acres of Dakota land to the soon-to-be state of Minnesota (basically everything south of I-94) in return for three cents an acre, Sibley got more of that money than the Dakota did.

With little land or money, the Dakota struggled in the coming years to feed their families. In the summer of 1862 the government had delayed giving the Dakota the food and annuity payments promised by the treaty. They were starving. The brutal three-month War of 1862 that followed left many people dead, mostly settlers, and led to the ultimate capture of hundreds of Dakota warriors. Ramsey and Sibley wrote to President Abraham Lincoln requesting that the federal government allow them to hang 303 Dakota men. Lincoln agreed to 38.


Ted Lentz is the Cass Gilbert Society president. He believes he has a compromise.

On December 26, 1862, 4,000 people came from miles around to watch the largest mass execution in U.S. history in downtown Mankato. Millet's painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux makes the treaty look like a respectable act of diplomacy. In truth, it was deceitful, and ushered in the war that led to the ultimate expulsion of the Dakota from Minnesota.

In her book North Country: The Making of Minnesota, historian Mary Lethert Wingerd writes that such ugly victories over Native tribes cleared the way for Minnesota's 20th-century success. "With prospects ahead unlimited," Wingerd writes, "Minnesotans resolutely put their shoulders to the wheel of progress. If they looked back at all, it was only to fashion a selective memory that shone with benevolence on their brave new world."

Whites were already predominant when Cass Gilbert was handed the artistic reins at the Capitol. The laws enacted inside his new building made sure tribal lands continued to dwindle. In 1906, the Legislature passed the Snyder Act, helping lumber barons in northern Minnesota encroach upon the forests of the White Earth Reservation, while giving the tribe little in return.


In an otherwise boring Capitol Preservation Commission meeting in late 2013, Gov. Mark Dayton asked, perhaps innocently, whether there needed to be so many paintings of the Civil War in the Governor's Reception Room.

That one question spawned many more. Soon every image in the Capitol, even the whole purpose of the building, was up for debate.

Should paintings that reflect Minnesota's sins against Native Americans and others be preserved as part of the historic record? Or should the vestiges of a shameful time be scrubbed from a forward-facing Legislature?


The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

Art decisions at the Capitol have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Historical Society since 1972. During that time, the state institution removed no paintings, and added few, except to update with new portraits of modern governors.

After Dayton's Reception Room reflection, the Preservation Commission formed an art subcommittee, bringing together experts from the state's art, historical, legislative, and cultural bodies. The art subcommittee would pass recommendations on to the Preservation Commission and then work with the Minnesota Historical Society to reach a final decision. The experts were charged with reviewing all 148 artworks in the Capitol, including the seemingly endless governors' portraits and much Civil War memorabilia. None of the artwork has garnered more thorny, emotionally charged debate than the paintings of Native Americans.

Gwen Westerman's Dakota ancestors were expelled from their Minnesota homeland after the War of 1862. Not until she was hired as an English professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, did Westerman, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota tribe, learn the full extent of her ancestral roots to her new home. Her great-great-great-grandmother Ta Sina Sapa Win was the sister of Ta Oyate Duta, or Little Crow, one of the key Dakota chiefs who participated in the treaty that ceded huge tracts of land to white settlers.

Westerman, one of two Native Americans on the Capitol art subcommittee, says her comments were often discounted at their first meetings. When the group discussed the Civil War art, one presenter noted the the incredible attention to accurate detail of the Civil War experience. The man, a descendant of a Union soldier, asked subcommittee members to consider the pride people take in seeing their ancestors depicted in paintings inside the Capitol.

At the next meeting, it was Westerman's turn to lead a close study of paintings representing the Dakota people. "I asked [them] to imagine they were Dakota, and saw their ancestors portrayed in these paintings. Not with loving and accurate detail, but distorted to look like how others perceived them to be." She felt a shift in the conversation.

Westerman says Native viewpoints like hers are often disregarded "from the get-go, before we even speak." Depictions of Dakota history published by white writers are often considered to be "the truth, the whole truth, and the only truth," shutting out Dakota accounts.

"A full account of Minnesota's history will include multiple perspectives of events, not just the master narrative," believes Westerman.


Anton Treuer

When Andrea Carlson, a local artist of Native descent, walks into the Capitol, "I just start laughing. I see European fantasy paintings in this faux-classical style that is selling something really hard, like super propaganda."

In a letter to the art subcommittee, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe singled out the purported discovery of St. Anthony Falls, an area Native tribes had occupied for some 12,000 years — the Ojibwe knew it as Kakabika, or "severed rock" — as especially insulting. "Importantly, some pieces of art misrepresent our history and puts Native Americans in an offensive and inaccurate light, such as the Governor's Reception Room painting of Father Hennepin 'discovering' St. Anthony Falls."

Carlson sees that painting as proof that "the collusion of church and state is okay if it means that lands can be procured for the white man." When she looks at the Capitol's collection as a whole, she sees "romantic fantasies of the genocide of a people," Carlson says.

But, she reasons, maybe keeping them where they are "means they can be teaching tools, to remind the state about how wrong they have been."


Paul Anderson assumes the role of elder statesman on the Capitol art subcommittee. In a December meeting of the group, the retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice cried out, "These paintings are too much a part of our history."

Preservationists like Anderson and Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, want the Capitol to remain a historic monument and keep the art as it has been for a hundred years. They think removing and relocating controversial pieces would destroy Gilbert's vision and diminish the value of the artwork. A piece of Minnesota history would be lost.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, in its letter to the subcommittee, calls for the removal "of offensive, traumatizing paintings," and to give them a new home. "Preferably a museum," reads the letter. The two Native American people serving on the subcommittee, Westerman and Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe language at Bemidji State, both favor removing from the Capitol the most controversial art.

"This is our Confederate flag battle," Treuer says. "We want these one-sided historical paintings, these paintings that glorify the white settlers and disparage the Native people, to be removed and relocated. Even with the context of time, it is not fair to say that what was racist then is no longer racist now."

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a subcommittee member and noted Minnesota history buff, talks about "the Capitol telling a story that needs to be told." He agrees that it might not be the only story that can be told. "Most of the artwork that is offensive to some is too valuable to be moved," he says, citing the Discoverers and Civilizers Senate chambers painting as one example. Anderson chimed in at a recent meeting, "These paintings they want moved are worth millions."

Brian Szott, the Minnesota Historical Society's art curator and head of collection, reports that no one has ever put a price tag on the Capitol artwork. Pieces that are thought to be permanent are usually not given a monetary value. Not that it couldn't be done: A value estimate could be arrived at by looking at the artists' other sales, and the condition, size, content, and historical importance of the pieces.

In the case of the Capitol, much of the art was created by some of the biggest names in America at that time. "There is no concrete answer and it is a good question to think about," Szott told the subcommittee, "whether or not the value will be enhanced or diminished by relocation."

Last fall, the subcommittee held public input meetings around the state, a dozen in all. They created an online survey, including frank questions asking if paintings depicting Native Americans should stay or go.

"Having public meetings is all well and good," says Christina Woods, who attended a meeting in Duluth, "but there were only four Native people at this meeting." As a member of the Bois Forte band of Chippewa and cultural competency trainer, she serves as a bridge between the city of Duluth and its homeless Native community. She is concerned that those who are misrepresented within the Capitol are not being granted equal opportunity to give feedback. "Most reservations struggle to get both cell coverage and effective broadband, so digital access is sketchy," says Woods.

Even taking Woods' concerns into account, the majority of online survey respondents want some sort of change to the controversial art. Only 22 percent of nearly 1,300 people surveyed said that the art should be kept in place with no changes. Some 36 percent wanted the offensive works removed from the Capitol, with another 10 percent wanting them relocated within the Capitol. And 32 percent suggested changes like new interpretive material, or balancing the old paintings with new pieces.

Matt Massman, the commissioner of administration, who serves on the art subcommittee, proclaimed at its December meeting, "We can see this as an opportunity," and then wondered out loud, "How much 

change can we stomach in the room?" The question seemed directed at the more conservative members. Dean Urdahl has what looks like a firm position, that none of the paintings should be removed. Once the decision-making process leaves the subcommittee and enters the political arena, a few key legislators will have considerable sway on what happens. Urdahl is one of them.

Other states have had to deal with controversial art, but never in this amount. The Colorado State Capitol chose in 1999 to keep a controversial painting in a prominent location, but renamed it and gave it a new purpose. The Battle of Sand Creek became The Massacre of Sand Creek, and an artwork that once honored a great battle became a commemorative piece to help mourn 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho who were slaughtered that day.

Ted Lentz, Cass Gilbert Society president and a member of the art subcommittee, brought forward to the panel a compromise solution: to move the controversial paintings from the main governmental spaces, such as the Governor's Reception Room, to designated space in the Capitol for a five-year trial period. Lentz says this will "remove the controversy and provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard in a way that is nonconfrontational, removing the 'black or white' arguments around the work."

Lentz was once one of the staunchest supporters of preservation. But he was persuaded by the testimonies of many Native and non-Native people alike. He found Martin Luther King's words suitable justification for his change of heart: "Injustice to anyone threatens justice to everyone."

"Government credibility is at stake here," says Andrea Carlson. "If the government sits by and does nothing, it looks like they support this arcane thinking." Minnesota ranks as one of the worst states for racial disparity in education and standard of living. "Keeping this artwork in a place of authority gives credibility to the idea of white racial supremacy," says Carlson.

Paintings of Native Americans in the civic spaces of the Minnesota Capitol are dangerous, argues Christina Woods, because they affect the actions of legislators and civically engaged people. She says, "We need to talk about today. These images no longer operate in the past."


After a year of meetings, the art subcommittee has come to a consensus on exactly two paintings: The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin Discovering St. Anthony Falls in the Governor's Reception Room. When the Preservation Commission reconvened on February 23, the subcommittee recommended that these two paintings be removed from the reception room, but not the Capitol.

Where will they go? The Capitol renovation will double public space by lowering the basement level, creating an extra floor. An interpretive center for the art could also be created within the Capitol.

Despite all this work, research, and argument, the end result could mean almost all the art will stay exactly where it has been for over 100 years.

The subcommittee's omission of the offensive mural-like paintings Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi or Civilization of the Northwest means their removal and relocation is unlikely. If these images of Native Americans being "civilized" through coerced baptism, whitewashing, and whipping remain in key civic spaces of the Capitol, the question becomes how and who will provide interpretations.

The decision-making process is still a little murky. "Nothing is as clear as one might hope," says Paul Mandell, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. "Art subcommittee recommendations are just that, a recommendation: one which the Preservation Commission may or may not act on."

The Minnesota Historical Society will have the final say in what happens to the artworks. "We don't want to take a side," says Jessica Kohen, public relations manager for MNHS. "We just want to listen right now, and it seems like there is still more listening to be done."

In the meantime, the art subcommittee has passed its recommendations up to the Preservation Commission, where its 22 members, all of them white, will wrestle with how, or if, Minnesota should finally reckon with its past.

State Rep. Diane Loeffler, tri-chair of the art subcommittee, says, "If 2 percent of the population is offended by how they are represented in the art, then that is 2 percent too many." Especially if that 2 percent are the people in the paintings.

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