The more I learned about what really happened near St. Peter at the Minnesota River ford known as Traverse des Sioux, the harder it became at news conferences in the Governor’s Reception Room to look up at the painting behind the podium.
The painting, “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” is artist Francis David Millet’s rendering of the moment in 1851 at which desperate Dakota people were coerced into yielding control of 24 million acres — most of today’s southwestern Minnesota — at the pittance of 7.5 cents per acre. Millet portrays Minnesota Territory’s leading politicians, Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, presiding over a placid scene of native and white people transacting a business deal.
During that same ceremony, Dakota leaders were tricked into signing a separate “traders’ paper” that cheated them out of a goodly portion of the annual federal annuity payment the treaty promised. A delayed payment of that depleted annuity in 1862 sparked the bloody uprising known as the U.S.-Dakota War. The painting puts a glorified gloss on the moment when that war’s seed was planted.
I’d argue that what Sibley and Ramsey did to the Dakota that day and in the years that followed is not fitting company for the good governors who’ve stood beneath that painting from 1905, when the Capitol opened, until 2014, when Gov. Mark Dayton decamped for the Veterans’ Services Building so that major renovations could proceed.
Will that painting remain in a conspicuous spot when the Capitol reopens in 2017?
What about the other outrage in the same room? That would be the portrayal of Father Louis Hennepin “christening” the Falls of St. Anthony as the Dakota men who brought him there lounge about and a bare-breasted Dakota woman carries the visiting priest’s pack.
Are Minnesotans capable of the same re-examination of their Capitol’s art that South Carolinians have directed lately at the Confederate flag that hangs outside theirs?
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Anderson rephrased those questions: “In accurately and respectfully representing all of Minnesota’s people, can we do a lot better? The answer is yes.”
He’s in a position to know. Along with state Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, Anderson is a co-chair of the Capitol Preservation Commission’s art advisory subcommittee. They’re a diverse band of brave souls assigned to make recommendations about the art to be displayed in the next chapter of the 110-year-old Capitol’s life. Those recommendations will go first to the full commission and ultimately to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Permit me to underscore the word “brave.” Minnesotans love their Capitol and hold to ideas — varied, heartfelt, conflicting ideas — about what it should contain. The subcommittee intends to expose itself to a barrage of those competing notions in coming months, then shape them into guidance that is bound to displease somebody. Anderson aptly called it “an awesome responsibility.”
Anderson, whose 19 years on the Supreme Court ended in 2013, and the other co-chairs have been at this work for a few months. Anderson’s dedication to his new duty was on display soon after 8 a.m. on Easter Monday — a raw April day when little else was stirring near the Capitol — when the alleged retiree was spotted engaging a Capitol complex parking meter.
The rest of the subcommittee will get down to business Monday. Soon it will decide what, when and how it will ask Minnesotans about their task. The co-chairs spoke last week about a State Fair booth, an interactive website, briefings at state historical sites and a few public hearings this fall. Details will be announced in a few weeks.
Among the possibilities the three co-chairs have mentioned: A gallery for rotating exhibits. A gubernatorial portrait gallery (freeing wall space in Capitol corridors, where governors used to hang). More interpretive information for visitors. Attention to the design and history of state government itself.
What to do about “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” will be among the subcommittee’s most-watched decisions. Anderson called it “a flashpoint.”
“It’s a painting that basically shows how we took land from the Indians,” he said. “It’s insensitive — but it is historic. It’s based on a sketch by someone who was there. Our first two governors are portrayed. That treaty made Minnesota what it became. It’s what led to my family coming to Minnesota” in the 1850s.
Its artist is notable, too. Millet was the artistic director of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, which much influenced Cass Gilbert’s Minnesota State Capitol design. “He was last seen loading women and children into lifeboats in the north Atlantic on April 15, 1912,” Anderson said. Millet went down with the Titanic.
I’ll grant that Millet’s painting has historical value. So does the Confederate flag that still flies on the South Carolina Capitol grounds. But that does not mean either of them should occupy places of honor in statehouses that belong to all of the people.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.