Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Incidents in California History

Refer to caption
Incidents in California History by Suzanne Schreuer
Berkeley, California Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

In 1937, the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts commissioned Suzanne Scheuer to paint Incidents in California History for the Berkeley, California post office. The arched mural is 12 feet high by 8 feet wide, framing the postmaster’s door.1 While artists were often delighted to have work as the country was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, they often had to meet the challenges of fitting their works of art within the architectural space, and the post office at Berkeley was no exception. The lobby clock is directly above the door, and Scheuer had to work around this inconvenient inclusion; she cleverly solved this problem by visually embedding it into a boulder. Furthermore, artists who received mural commissions rarely painted directly onto the wall, and Scheuer rented a hall in San Francisco that could accommodate the large canvas required to complete the job.2 Designed in 1914 by Oscar Wenderoth in Second Renaissance Revival style during the City Beautiful movement; the Berkeley post office was modeled as "a free adaptation of Brunelleschi's Foundling Hospital” in Florence, Italy.3 The post office was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.4

Prior to European contact in 1769, the Ohlone/Costanoan people occupied the Bay Area for more than 8,500 years. 5  In addition to this group, the Bay was also home to the Huichin, or Chochenyo-speaking people, who lived in twelve major villages in the East Bay, including what is now the city of Berkeley. 6 Characterized by dense population, large sedentary villages, and complex political and social structures, these indigenous groups thrived. The fertile landscape and marine coast provided an abundance of easily collected and highly diverse food resources, supporting a dense population year round without the need to resort to labor-intensive agriculture.7 This highly sophisticated cultural landscape experienced an abrupt shift with the arrival of the Spanish, who introduced ravaging epidemics, the Mission system, and boarding schools. The labor required to build and maintain the missions was acquired by force as California Indians were compelled to give up their lifestyle of thirteen millennia. They were enslaved, beaten and “saved” into submission by their Spanish colonizers.8

By 1820, these ravages took their toll and there were apparently no Huichin people left in Berkeley.9 In that same year, Luis Peralta was bestowed a 48,000-acre land grant with what is now Berkeley at the center. By 1876, the railroad laid track to downtown, and 1888 saw the community electrified, with telephones and a streetcar system.10 The population of Berkeley exploded during the opening decades of the 20th century, and by 1920, it was the fifth largest city in California.11 However, like all cities across the country, Berkeley was hit hard by the Great Depression, but it also benefitted by many New Deal Era projects including the Berkeley Post Office mural.12

Scheuer filled her canvas with ten individuals set within five vignettes, which includes the Indigenous people of the region as well as the Spanish colonizers that greatly affected their lives. A close reading of the painting, beginning in the lower left corner of the composition, reveals an imperial shield near the feet of the figure standing among dandelions with his horse. The shield suggests that he represents a Spanish conquistador, however no other weapon is in evidence, and his leather helmet, quilted jerkin, and riding boots are not typical military accoutrements. His companion, a Native man in a white cotton shift, tends to a pack mule- inspired perhaps by period engravings of Mission Indians. This depiction accurately portrays the social relationship of the period. Prior to Spanish conquest, men and women in Northern California primarily wore skirts and breechcloths, and decorative or ceremonial clothing and personal adornment.

The second grouping consists of a Spanish vaquero, lariat in hand, leaning on his horse adorned with a fancy tooled saddle, longhorns in the background. The vaquero stands near a dark skinned and black haired young woman and two children captivated by the horse. The woman, with her head covered and downcast gaze, portrays the piety of a devout peasant. The woman and children are perhaps Indian; during this era, cultural mixing between Spanish and Native people led to the Hispanic population, as we know them today in California. A California Live Oak frames the top of the mural, sheltering a two story red tiled adobe.

In the upper right corner of the composition, a hunter in fringed buckskins and moccasins, rifle loosely resting in his hands and powder horn slung from his belt stands on a boulder, sagebrush at his feet. Although his back is to us, and he has long black hair, his light skin implies that he represents a white trapper of the 1800s. His gaze falls in the distance, either at the doe standing in front of him, or at the distant ranch house. His companion is a black bear, canines showing ominously, ears laid back. The bear’s attention is not on the hunter; rather, his sight line is on the post office clock visually embedded in the boulder directly over the postmaster’s door.

The middle right features a historically accurate image of an Ohlone man out for a hunt; hair tied up in a top knot and his ear adorned with what appears to be a claw or shell earring13, he carries a bow and quiver of arrows. He stands in front of a manzanita tree, a useful food plant for the Ohlone. Schreuer may have found inspiration for this image in photographs and stories about Ishi, a Yahi man born circa 1861 in Northern California, and from the ethnographic engravings of Ohlone people by artist and adventurer Louis Choris.14

The final vignette depicts a smiling Franciscan monk in robes and sandals. At his feet are a quill and scroll, a book – probably a bible, and a sextant. In his hands, he holds a brief history of Berkeley, reading:

 Berkeley- Pedro Fages and Fray Juan Crespi first white men to set foot on land now Berkeley. 1770-1772. Luis Maria Peralta, young soldier, Anza Expedition becomes first landholder “Rancho San Antonio” 1820 his son, José Domingo is first resident. American settlers, squatters, leaseholders, hunters arrive about -1860- Town selected for college site 1858. University dedicated 1860. Town named after Bishop G. Berkeley 1866. First Post Office established in Dr. Merrill’s drug store 1877. – Painted by Suzanne Scheuer Treasury Relief Art Project 1936’37.

This history contains no mention of the Native people of Berkeley. Scheuer’s work, although progressive for its day, in that she made a valiant effort to include and accurately portray Ohlone people in the Berkeley Post Office mural, does not hint at the terrible price that was paid by them for the conquest of California by the Spanish and subsequent settlers. California in 1936 was only three short decades past the repeal of state sponsored bounty hunting of Native people.15

Born in San Jose, California in 1898, Scheuer lived in Holland for six years as a child, moving to San Francisco in 1918.16 She earned her BFA at the California School of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley.17 After teaching for three years, she studied mural painting with Ray Boynton at the San Francisco Art Institute.18 She was recruited to the team muralists who undertook the large-scale Coit Tower murals in San Francisco in 1934.19 Her work on this project led to her commission to paint the mural for the Berkeley post office. Although painted in a much different style, her interest in Native American culture and history is evinced by her representation of Native Americans in her 1938 and 1939 murals: “Indian Buffalo Hunt” and “Indians Moving” painted for the Eastland, Texas and Caldwell, Texas post offices.

By Jennifer Woodcock-Medicine Horse, MA, PhD Candidate


1) The Living New Deal. Main Post Office Mural – Berkeley CA.

2) Oral history interview with Suzanne Scheuer, 1964 July 29, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed October 10, 2015.

3) United States Department of the Interior, Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. “United States Post Office, Berkeley Main Post Office.  July 1980. See also, California Preservation Foundation: Post Office Closures

4) Berkeley Post Office Defenders.

5) “Eric Simons. Unearthing California
Berkeley researchers are uncovering how the land looked when the Spaniards stumbled upon it.” HOME ( / CALIFORNIA MAGAZINE ( / September 16, 2015.

6) Wollenberg, Charles. Berkeley: A City in History. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 2008.

7) Lightfoot, Kent G. and Otis Parrish. California Indians and their Environment. University of California Press, Berkeley CA 2009. P. 5 & 9.

8) Milliken, Randall. A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769-1810. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 43 Series Editor: Thomas C. Blackburn. Ballena Press. Menlo Park, CA. 1995.

9) Wollenberg, Charles. Berkeley: A City in History. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 2008. Of additional interest is: Lobo, Susan, coordinating editor. Urban voices: The Bay Area American Indian Community, Community History Project, Intertribal Friendship House, Oakland California. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson AZ. 2002.

10) Wollenberg, Charles. Berkeley: A City in History. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 2008.

11) Smith, Harvey L. Images of America: Berkeley and the New Deal. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC. 2014. See also, Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. California in the 1930s. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 1939. and Sullivan, John. Berkeley: One and Only. Command Performance Press. Berkeley, CA. 2006.

12) Interestingly, a very similar depiction of an Ohlone man with top knot and earring may be observed in Scheuer’s colleague Arnautoff’s 1935 fresco at the Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco.

13) The lives of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe in Thousand Oaks
October 19, 2011. by Tracey Taylor. accessed September 17, 2015.

14) Native Americans in the Gold Rush: Laws against Native Americans Accessed September 17, 2015.

15) Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) · Sun, Sep 11, 1960 · Page 11 SC Artist At Home In Many Mediums. By Margaret Koch. Downloaded on Oct 17, 2015.

16) CCAC moved to Oakland in 1922, and was renamed the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1936.

17) Hughes, Edan Milton, "Artists in California, 1786-1940", Hughes Publishing Company. 1989.

18) Zakheim, Masha, “Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art”, Volcano Press. 2009. See also Veronico, Nicholas et al. Depression-Era Murals of the Bay Area. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC. 2014 and Marling, Karal Ann. Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN. 1982.

Indians at the Post Office