It was merely a coincidence, but it seemed an appropriate day to have a debate about how art at the state Capitol depicts American Indians.
A committee of the Capitol Preservation Commission, which is a group of legislators, executive branch officials and citizens overseeing the $300 million renovation of the Capitol, met on the day when some celebrate Christopher Columbus and others memorialize indigenous peoples to talk about the art that will grace the walls of the restored structure.
Some of the art, hanging on Capitol walls since 1905, is "problematic," said Gwen Westerman, a professor of humanities at Minnesota State Mankato with a specialty in Dakota language. She said the committee should "Imagine seeing yourself or your family depicted in these paintings." She gave a presentation about some of the inaccuracies of paintings that have been on the Capitol grounds more than 100 years.
The Cass Gilbert designed Capitol, which opened in 1905, was intended to be a memorial to Civil War veterans, though a few of the paintings portray events that happened before or during the Civil War but actually have more to do with relations between settlers and American Indians.
Westerman showed "Discoverers and Civilizers Let to the Source of the Mississippi"; "The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux"; "Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain)," among other paintings, and then asked the commission to relate what they saw.
The paintings sometimes depicted American Indians as a "faceless menace," Westerman said, and they were often inaccurate with respect to Dakota dress and other cultural characteristics.
"As a Dakota person coming to the state Capitol and viewing this art, I have a very different reaction than other people who have no connection to it. And, I find it problematic in terms of how American Indian people are depicted in the state Capitol," she said in an interview after the presentation.
The art has defenders, however. Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who has written five books that deal in part with the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, said he hoped the new Capitol would provide fuller descriptions of the paintings that would correct inaccuracies and provide better historical context. He said the new Capitol should also provide space for new art that tells different stories. The paintings, however, should stay, he said, in recognition of their own importance as historic artifacts.
Asked if it was interesting that her presentation came on the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus, Westerman said, "I think it's important for people to understand that there were people here who were thriving, who had civilizations, who had an impact on this land, long before Columbus."
Later, the commission will make recommendations about art in the new Capitol, but the Minnesota Historical Society has the final say.