Capitol should remove racist depictions of Native Americans

Speaking in favor of a bill to remove all Confederate portraits from public display in the United States Capitol last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued that the idea of ​​works of art in the Capitol honoring “people who advocated cruelty and barbarism” is a “grotesque affront” to American ideals. The bill passed the House in June 2021, and while it has yet to make it to the Senate, some states have voluntarily removed statues, including that of Robert E. Lee, honoring those who once fought. for slavery from the Hall of National Statuary in the Capitol.

The bill, like many of our recent debates on the fate of American public monuments, focuses on slavery. But even if it becomes law, visitors to the Capitol will still encounter several 19th-century paintings and sculptures that advocate cruelty and barbarism against Native Americans.

One such sculpture, carved in 1826-1827 by Italian artist Enrico Causici, is a gruesome scene showing explorer Daniel Boone stabbing a Native American warrior. Another warrior lies dead beneath their feet, filling the entire bottom of the rectangular panel. Shortly after the installation of the work, then-Rep. Tristam Burges, sarcastically commented that it “very accurately represented our dealings with the Indians, as we hadn’t even left them a place to die”.

The Boone Panel is one of the first four carvings made for the Capitol after it was rebuilt after it was burned down by the British during the War of 1812. The other carvings show a Native American offering corn to pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, Pocahontas rescuing John Smith and William Penn shaking hands with a Native American to make a deal to exchange land for gifts. In 1842, then-Rep. Henry Wise claimed that Native Americans visiting the Capitol observed how these carvings showed the history of the relationship between them and the settlers: “We give you corn, you take our land away from us; we save your life, you take ours.

These sculptures were erected during the debates that led to President Andrew Jackson’s “Indian Removal Act” in 1830, which expelled Native Americans from their lands east of the Mississippi River. Members of Congress who authorized forced marches in which thousands died, including the infamous “Trail of Tears,” believed their actions were justified because they either believed Native Americans were so savage that ‘they could never peacefully co-exist with white Americans, or the “inferior Indian” race would quickly die out in the face of superior European settlers.

It’s no wonder members of Congress believed these stereotypes, seeing them in the sculptures decorating the Capitol. The Boone panel shows both: his warrior is wild-eyed, with a face twisted into a demonic grin of hate. But Boone’s face remains calm. Despite his opponent’s impressive muscles and the tomahawk raised above his head, Boone is confident his superior nature will win the fight.

While serving in the House in 2019, current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, called for a review of the Capitol’s artwork to document his “racist stereotypes about Native Americans”. The Capitol Architect, the agency responsible for the Capitol’s art, has set up a website listing some of the images of Native Americans in the building, but there is no indication so far that any of these artwork will be removed. The project would indeed be complex, since Native American figures appear so often in the decorations of the Capitol in the middle of the 19th century, ranging from the carved panels on the doors of the Rotunda, its paintings, including John Chapman’s “Baptism of Pocahontas” in 1840, the massive carvings on the entrance to the Senate Building and even the clock telling the time in the Chamber. In his book Art and Empire, the scholar Vivien Green Fryd points out that these Native Americans, “relegated to shadows and borders”, are almost always represented in positions of helplessness. They crouch, kneel, slump or sit in desperate contemplation of their children, symbolizing the impending extinction of their species.

The frieze shows the death in 1813 of Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who formed inter-tribal coalitions to fight the settlers. Tecumseh is pictured collapsed to the ground under Richard Mentor Johnson.

Capitol Architect

Lawyer Brett Chapman, a member of the Pawnee tribe and descendant of Chief Standing Bear, pointed me to a section of the painted frieze surrounding the rotunda. The frieze shows the death in 1813 of Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who formed inter-tribal coalitions to fight the settlers. Tecumseh is shown crumpled to the ground beneath his assassin, Richard Mentor Johnson (later to become Vice President under Martin Van Buren), who rides a horse that rears up triumphantly. Chapman asked me to imagine if the frieze instead showed “Martin Luther King with a bullet wound to the head, with the murderer standing directly above him”. For Chapman, celebrating the death of King or Tecumseh is “the same thing”: a glorification of the oppression of Americans of color.

Chapman said he noticed so many images of dying Native Americans in public art that they no longer saddened him. He finds the mundane banality of these images far more horrifying than their content. But looked at another way, there aren’t really any Native Americans in the Capitol’s historic artwork. That’s because the artists have assembled a hodgepodge of generic “Indian” accessories, mixing tomahawks, feathers and furs, disregarding the usual appearance of any particular tribe.

Even though the Capitol artists did not care about Native American culture, they were often very interested in Native American bodies. While researching for my book on American monuments, I found letters written by several of these artists about how to obtain Native American skulls. They believed that the skulls of different races had a different shape – and that they needed to correct for these differences if they wanted their artwork to show why a seemingly powerful Native American warrior would crumble to the ground in front of a white opponent.

Read more:What should replace Confederate monuments that have fallen?

This is what Horatio Greenough showed in his massive 1850 sculpture “Rescue”, installed outside the eastern entrance of the Capitol building. Greenough used plaster casts of skulls lent to him by artist John Chapman, who had obtained them for his painting Rotunda of the Baptism of Pocahontas. Greenough’s sculpture, which shows a colonist triumphing over a dying Native American warrior, won critical acclaim for, as one put it in 1851, showing “the fierce and destructive instinct of the savage, and his easy submission under the superior virility of the new settler. Another complimented how the settler’s “strength of rebuke is a shadow saddened and softened by the melancholy thought of the necessary extinction of the poor savage, whose nature is irreconcilable with society.

But you won’t see “Rescue” on a Capitol tour today. In 1939, a joint congressional resolution called for the sculpture to be “grinded to dust” and “scattered to the four winds” so that it would not be a “constant reminder to our Native American citizens” of the cruel process of Western expansion. . . In 1941, a similar joint resolution called “Rescue” “an atrocious distortion of the facts of American history and a wanton insult” to Native Americans. Although neither these resolutions nor protests by indigenous groups had any official result, “Rescue” was put into storage in 1958, supposedly to protect it during construction work on the building. But it was never returned to the Capitol – and in 1976 a crane dropped “Rescue” as it moved it to a new storage area. Its fragments are lying around in a government warehouse.

“Rescue” was perhaps one of the most bloodthirsty, and was certainly the greatest example, of a 19th century work of capitol art based on the idea that Native Americans were fundamentally inferior to Americans. whites. But his disappearance is not enough. Professor Fryd, who has written a book about how derogatory messages about Native Americans in historic Capitol artwork helped support harmful federal policy, says she thinks they should stay put, ” to convey our nation’s history rather than erasing it”. Chapman disagrees, arguing that these images belong in a museum where they can be properly explained.

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In recent years, some states have taken their own steps to honor Native Americans at the United States Capitol. In 2019, Nebraska placed a standing bear chief portrait statue in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe successfully argued in an 1879 court case that Native Americans were “persons” under American law and therefore deserved basic human rights. Meanwhile, Washington state is set to swap one of its existing National Statuary Hall statues with the portrait of fellow native rights activist Billy Frank Jr., a member of the tribe. Nisqually. These additions are important, but when I asked Mike Forcia, president of the American Indian Movement’s chapter in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, if he thought adding new imagery to the Capitol to honor Native Americans was enough. to compensate for derogatory images, He said no. “They should be removed from their place of honor,” he said. “Time to clean up.”

When a Quinnipiac University poll asked Americans if they could support removing Confederate monuments in 2017, only 39% agreed. When a June 2020 poll asked the same question, 52% answered yes. Over the past few years, many of us have changed our minds about which parts of our history our public art should honor. But we must look beyond the civil war. It may be time to pass a new “Indian Removal Act” – a law that will remove stereotypes from the Capitol in order to make room for equality.

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Nohemi M. Moore