Thursday, March 17, 2016

Yet Another Rebuke for Native People

I've written before about the upcoming decision on what to do with our State Capitol's paintings. The building is being renovated, so the art had to be moved out, and the question is: What gets put back?

Well, it sounds like the commission charged with making recommendations has tried to weasel as close to doing nothing different as they could: Keep all the artwork in the building, put some of the worst pieces in less prominent locations, and put up some interpretive text.

Today, five of Minnesota's Dakota and Ojibwe bands published a commentary explaining why that is not good enough. The writer explains why one of the paintings that would be relocated, "Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony," is all wrong for the Capitol, no matter what room it's in:

“Father Hennepin” not only profoundly distorts Hennepin’s involvement with the Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota, it also gratuitously depicts a bare-chested Native woman in the foreground — an extremely unlikely scenario. The painting, commissioned more than two centuries after the encounter, also portrays Hennepin as “discovering” the falls, perpetuating a myth for even more generations of schoolchildren to absorb on field trips to the Capitol.

The truth, of course, is that Native Americans spent thousands of years in what is now Minnesota before Hennepin or any other outsider appeared on the scene. During the late 1600s, when Father Hennepin was in the area, the Mdewakanton occupied the west bank of the Mississippi River from northern Iowa to St. Anthony Falls and already had villages on both the Mississippi and the Minnesota rivers.
Yes. Having a painting that shows this biased and wrong version of what happened is offensive to history and our ability to get a clear idea of what happened in our past.

This reminds me of something I read just yesterday by fantasy writer N.K. Jemison, who recently saw the musical Hamilton. As an aside in her review, she wrote:
In its modern incarnation, America is a country made of myths. Those of us who grew up here have absorbed all the same canon: the American Dream, Columbus discovering what he thought was India, Manifest Destiny, John Smith and Pocohontas’ epic romance, Paul Revere’s ride, etc. But you wanna talk revisionism and bastardization? Chile please; most of the stuff we learned as kids in school is riddled with absolute, high and ripe bullshit, if it isn’t bullshit all the way down. (The American Dream was really only ever possible for certain sets of people, Columbus didn’t “discover” a damn thing, Manifest Destiny justified greed and war crimes on an epic scale, Pocohontas married a completely different John and then died of disease at the ripe old age of 22, and no, Paul Revere didn’t shout “The British are coming!”) This nation’s history is as fanciful as unicorns — though not as wholesome, since a good bit of the bullshit was designed to serve a propagandic purpose: the aggrandizement of certain demographics, certain classes, and certain events or systems that were actually of very questionable morality. We’ve started reexamining this propaganda in the past few decades, which is good… but a lot of people are still true believers of the bullshit, which gives it power. Magical power, even.
The magic power of Father Hennepin "discovering" the Falls, and all the other renditions of what passes for history at our Capitol need to be retired.

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