A Dakota scholar questioned whether the newly renovated State Capitol should have century-old art on the walls that she said inaccurately portrays American Indian life and historical events.
Some of the art, hanging in the Capitol since it opened 1905, is "problematic," said Gwen Westerman, a professor of humanities at Minnesota State University, Mankato, with a specialty in Dakota language. She asked a committee deciding what art to recommend to "Imagine seeing yourself or your family depicted in these paintings."
The art subcommittee of the commission, which is a group of legislators, executive branch officials and citizens overseeing the $300 million renovation of the building, met Monday — when some celebrated Christopher Columbus and others honored indigenous peoples — to talk about the art that will grace the walls of the restored structure.
The Cass Gilbert-designed Capitol 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 "The Discoverers and Civilizers Led 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 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 at least 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 Minnesota origin stories. The paintings should stay, he said, in recognition of their own importance as historic artifacts.
Asked whether 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 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.