History or Bunk?: 20 New Deal Murals Depicting American Indians

History or Bunk?: 20 New Deal Murals Depicting American Indians


It's called "Indians at the Post Office" -- and no, it's not about Skins waiting in line to buy stamps.

The National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institute, has arranged an online exhibit in cooperation with the National Museum of the American Indian that spotlights and explains murals depicting Natives that were painted as part of the New Deal. Under the Section of Fine Arts, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), artists, sculptors, and writers all over the United States were subsidized to create public works, and one of the most widespread legacies of this program is the countless murals that adorn the walls of U.S. Post Office buildings great and small. Indians at the Post Office includes works by and about Native Americans, and the depictions range from scenes of Native life to specific moments in history.

That history is of varying quality, of course -- telling "the Indian side of the story" in 1934 wasn't always a priority. One of the murals, "Indians Cede the Land," by George Melville Smith, shows Indians giving up their lands to an officer of the U.S. Cavalry with a smile and a handshake. Another, "The Scene Changes," by Ila McAfee Turner, seems to imply that forced removal of Indians and decimation of the buffalo population was a natural progression or even evolution. On the other hand, a number of the murals are by Native artists -- as one would expect, these paintings, informed by the artists' own experiences, give a more faithful depiction of Native culture.

Each of the paintings in the virtual exhibit is accompanied by a thorough, researched analysis that examines not only the composition but also the historical accuracy, calling out revisionism when it's present. While the paintings would be an incomplete or skewed history lesson if taken at face value, the essays clarify that these are not snapshots from U.S. history -- they are interpretations of it.

We've included a selection of the paintings and some brief extracts of the essays -- for the full, fascinating experience, visit npm.si.edu/indiansatthepostoffice.

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ojibwe31's picture
conspicuously absent is the infamous "Dangers of the Mail" mural in the old Postal Administration Building in Washington, DC, also known as the Ariel Rios Building. The headquarters of the EPA moved into it after renovations several years ago and an uproar occurred from women and native EPA employees. Many EPA Directors and a couple presidents have come and gone. The national native community and federal minority affinity groups, including the Society of American Indian Government Employees participated in a 106 process with the GSA, the owners of the building. In the end after years of debate, the GSA decided to leave the murals in place, despite the fact that even the family of the artist thought that it should not be there any longer. NMAI researcher Sandra Starr wrote about this and others in their magazine in the fall of 2010. Google for the outrageous images of naked women and marauding warriors.


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