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Capitol art debate turns to Native American images

2_State Historical Society_Father Hennepin
Lawmakers and historians are scrutinizing Minnesota State Capitol art, including the painting Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony, by Douglas Volk. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

A group made up of state lawmakers, historians and others is trying to decide how art portraying Native Americans should be used inside the renovated Minnesota Capitol building when it reopens in 2017.

The art subcommittee of the Capitol Preservation Committee is scheduled to meet Monday to take up the topic. Gwen Westerman, a Dakota educator and subcommittee member, will lead the discussion.

State Rep. Dianne Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, said many people have raised concerns about the historical accuracy of some of the current Capitol paintings.

“Some are romanticized visions of Native Americans that portray them in ways that we don’t believe the historical record supports them, in terms of dress and those sorts of things,” Loeffler said. “So, as a place people go to learn history, that's a concern.”

The controversy primarily involves four paintings.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, has resisted efforts to change the existing Capitol art. But he said the painting titled Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony is problematic, because it shows a partially dressed Native American woman.

“This was not the way Indian women dressed in Minnesota,” Urdahl said.

Urdahl, an author and former history teacher, is not concerned with the other three paintings. He said he believes that Attack on New Ulm, Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty and Treaty of Traverse des Sioux are accurate portrayals of historic events.

“Are they pleasant? No. But there are good and bad things in history,” he said. “One of the roles I think of our state Capitol is to tell the story of Minnesota’s history.”

The subcommittee is also trying to decide how much Civil War art is appropriate and whether to continue the tradition of displaying portraits of former governors. Its recommendations are expected in January.