Wrestling With Dark History, This Time in Minnesota's Capitol

Even in a state that helped defeat the Confederacy, legacies of the Civil War era are raising tough questions in the state capitol today.
by | July 27, 2015
"Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony" by Douglas Volk (Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

The Minnesota Capitol is a victory monument for Union forces in the Civil War. Quotes from Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman adorn its walls. In fact, there are so many paintings of Civil War scenes inside that Gov. Mark Dayton recently wondered whether they might be overdoing it a bit. There’s almost no chance, in other words, that St. Paul will be hit with the controversy over Confederate flags and monuments that's plaguing places like South Carolina and Georgia.

But that doesn’t mean Minnesota is immune from the kind of historical self-examination that Southern states are now engaged in. For Minnesota officials, the most troubling symbols are two paintings: one showing how white settlers forced Dakota Indians off their land and another depicting a U.S. Army attack on a camp of Native Americans. The paintings hang in the governor’s reception room, and, as a result, frequently appear on TV and in newspaper photos of gubernatorial press conferences.

While the Capitol undergoes a major, four-year renovation, a commission is scrutinizing all of its artwork. The group will consider tough questions like whether to continue displaying portraits of every governor in the state’s history, but the artwork depicting Native Americans is the most difficult task on the group’s agenda.

A painting (featured below) mounted over a fireplace depicts the Dakota leaders signing an 1851 treaty that gave white settlers much of southern and western Minnesota for seven and a half cents an acre. The treaty did little to help its Dakota signatories, because much of the money promised to the tribe never arrived or was diverted to pay fur traders who claimed the tribe owed them money.

"The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux" by Francis Davis Millet (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Another painting (the second featured below) shows the 1864 Battle of Killdeer Mountain, in which thousands of U.S. soldiers attacked a Native American encampment in what is now North Dakota, killing warriors and unarmed people. The Army attacked in retribution for a six-week war in Minnesota two years prior, even though many of the Native Americans at the camp, including Sitting Bull, were not involved in the earlier war.

The piece shows how difficult it is to disentangle Minnesota’s Civil War glory with its history of persecution toward Native Americans. The Killdeer Mountain battle happened the same year that Minnesota troops breached Confederate lines in the Battle of Nashville and just a year after a Minnesota regiment rebuffed a Confederate charge at Gettysburg.

Other artwork in the Minnesota Capitol shows Native Americans as subservient and, in several cases, half-naked, while whites are portrayed as “discoverers and civilizers.” European pioneers are shown discovering geographic features, such as waterfalls or the source of the Mississippi River, that were known to Native Americans for thousands of years.

"Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain)" by Carl Ludwig Boeckmann (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Now that the Capitol is filled to the dome with scaffolding, some people see a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink how people and history are displayed there.

“The art should add to the majesty of the place," said Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, "and, to the degree possible, provide an opening for shared understanding, shared culture [and] shared political structure instead of something that would alienate anybody."

Treuer, who is also a member of the renovation subcommittee studying the artwork, hopes many of the paintings of Native Americans now in the statehouse will be put in a state museum and replaced with artwork that's more reflective of Minnesota’s geography and culture, such as the state's 10,000 lakes or recent immigrants. The group will make recommendations to the full commission, but the final decision rests with the Minnesota Historical Society.

The state Capitol is undergoing a major, four-year renovation. (AP/Jim Mone)

One of the reasons Treuer wants a different mix of artwork is because the current collection is virtually frozen in time and in the distant past.

“A lot of people view Native Americans as something that happened in the past, as opposed to us being 10,000 years of human history still in the making. The art in the Capitol doesn’t do anything to interrupt those prevailing assumptions,” Treuer said. “[It] can be part of the misconception that leads to our marginalization.”

Others on the commission also want to revisit how Native Americans are portrayed in Capitol artwork.

“Our Capitol should be a place where all Minnesotans can come in and identify with what happens there,” said state Rep. Diane Loeffler, who is one of the group's three co-chairs. That also means incorporating more artwork of women, as well as people of other races and ethnicities, she said.

Paul Anderson, a retired justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and another co-chair, said the committee will try to address the concerns but still honor the historic nature of the building. That could mean removing the disputed artwork or adding signs that explain the significance of the events and how they're interpreted in the art.

“We are not starting with a blank canvas,” he said. “What’s there is marvelous. Some of it has to be modified, but we want to preserve and enhance what is there, build on it and make it more contemporary and relevant.”

The group is trying to gather input from the state’s residents, through public meetings and online tools, and is also interested in how other states have dealt with similar issues in their capitols.

Treuer said reaching out to the state’s residents and incorporating their feedback is crucial for the group’s work to succeed.

“A process like this, if it’s not thoughtfully and intentionally pursued, could be one that alienates people like the Confederate flag,” he said. “But if it is thoughtfully and intentionally engaged, the potential is there to really be a much more unifying and representative space for a working government.”