Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Mohawk Valley: Early St. Johnsville Pioneers

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Mohawk Valley: Early St. Johnsville Pioneers by Jirayr H. Zorthian
St. Johnsville, New York Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Mohawk Valley: Early St. Johnsville Pioneers was created by Jirayr H. Zorthian, born April 14th 1911, the son of Armenian immigrants who fled their homeland of Kutahya, Western Anatolia (present day Turkey) during the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the height of World War I.  Jirayr’s family, after first escaping to Italy for a year, settled in Connecticut where his formal education began.  The time spent in Italy during his youth, where his father spent time taking him to museums through Europe, would be influential on his professional career and serve as his foundation for appreciation of art and architecture.

In 1936, Zorthian graduated from Yale University with a degree in fine arts followed by studies in Italy.  Art historian Francis V. O’Connor says, “During this period an artist found few opportunities to decorate walls unless he had the background of a Prix de Rome scholarship.”  Upon his return to the United States, Zorthian, who had established himself as a classic fresco muralist, was commissioned for a series of paintings in the Tennessee State Capitol for which he would earn the honorary title of “Colonel.” 

As the American art scene was developing, artists were still following European painting traditions.  They had yet to break away from accepting formal styles like many first generation American realists were doing who were not classically trained in Europe.  Zorthian’s crowning achievement would come during World War II when he was employed by the U.S. Intelligence Agency as an interpreter and would paint his mural, The Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training.  Of Zorthian’s early works, Gene Maddaus of the Pasadena Star-News writes that they, “reflected the pain of the massacres,” which Zorthian encountered during the time his family fled Anatolia. The viewing public would empathized with the horrors and losses attributed to war.

The mural Mohawk Valley is painted in the classic Italian fresco style includes three separate frontier scenes telling the overall story of the pioneer influence within the valley.  The St. Johnsville Enterprise and News describes Zorthian “…as a master craftsman.  But more than that he has caught the spirit and atmosphere of the Mohawk Valley.”  The non-Native culture is portrayed as prosperous, while the Native culture is shown undergoing a social and cultural demise as a result of trade and European influence. Other critiques of the Mohawk Valley mural, as well as the underlying themes represented through the painting, also fail to regard the view of the Native people.  Including the Native voice would have made for a truer comparison and contrast of the actual historical events embodied within the region.  Although Zorthian, a perfectionist, spent much time in St. Johnsville preparing to create this mural by looking at photos and reading about the Anglo-American history of the Mohawk Valley, he seemingly did not spend the same attention to the people after whom the valley was named and to whom the original title to the land belonged.

The Mohawk Indians are a branch of the powerful Iroquois Indian Confederation whose land base extended from Vermont, through New York and into the Great Lakes and Canada.  The Mohawks of the Mohawk Valley call themselves the Kanien'kehá:ka or the “People of the Flint” named for their use of natural flint in making arrowheads and other weapons.  The Mohawk were also known as “Keepers of the Eastern Door” because they were the most eastern tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy and the main line of defense from intrusion into the Mohawk Valley which centered on the natural passageways of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers and the Adirondack and Catskills Mountains.  The Mohawk had early contact with the Dutch having traded for rifles at Ft. Orange in 1624 becoming loose allies in their mutual interest in fighting the French.  They also made alliances with the Palantines, immigrants who came from the Palantine region of Germany along the Rhine River, who had settled into upstate New York during the late 1600s and early 1700s to escape religious persecution.  They lived in cooperation with the Mohawk along the Hudson River and in the Mohawk Valley area, sometimes aiding them in fighting other tribal groups which provided some semblance of stability.  During the 1690s tribal groups underwent a period of Christianization by Protestant, Jesuit, and Catholic missionaries.  Many were baptized with English surnames while others were given both first and surnames in English.

As American, British, and French interests expanded westward, the Mohawks became allied with the British, who, like they, wanted to stop the westward advancement.  During the 1700s the Mohawk would be embroiled in frontier battles of the French and Indian War and American Revolutionary War.  As a result of being allied with the British, the Mohawk lost title to their lands in the Mohawk Valley and moved into northern parts of the state and Canada where they remain today.  Although the experiment wasn’t a success, the Palantine people were allowed to stay in the Mohawk Valley area and purchase land from the Mohawk establishing their settlement and founding the Palantine Evangelical Lutheran Church close to St. Johnsville, NY.

The overall theme of the mural represents the impact of European traders and immigrants on the Mohawk Valley up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  The Hudson River is one of the most important waterways inland from the Atlantic Ocean and vehicle for the establishment of immigrants and the spreading of trade in the Mohawk Valley region.  Trade for Native Americans became the precursor to cultural change affecting traditional social structures, but also became necessary for survival.  The Palantine were sympathetic to the plight of the Mohawk as they has been persecuted in the same way when they were driven out of Germany for economic gain by the French who wanted the fertile lands for farming.  Upon establishing themselves in New York the Palantine fostered the relationship between the area tribes as they had a mutual dislike for the French and would help each other in times of need.

The left panel of the mural serves to perpetuate the long-time attribution of alcoholism and American Indians. A foundational situation is found with their first contact with the Dutch and Palantine through trade on the Hudson River. The St. Johnsville Enterprise and News described this as follows. “There are a few trade goods but the principal commodity is that sure and effective liquid which was the base of all barter-the rum keg.”  It was common practice to offer alcohol when negotiating trade or land sales.   Just as it helped one group of people establish themselves, it was the beginning of the end for the other culture.  Alcohol has been seen as a trade good or used to make negotiations easier. As the Indians thirst grew, so did its widespread use among traders within Indian communities.  The mural scene takes a regretful look at the Mohawk culture, presenting a once-flourishing race of people who had become the victim of progress through the symbolic use of traded furs and consumption of alcohol.

The center of the painting shows the friendly merging of two cultures representing the era in which the Palantine moved into their new territory.  “Our settlers bought their land and lived at peace with the Indians. They came as settlers, not conquerors.”  One of the main objectives of establishing friendships with the Indians was the protection of their families, represented by the mother and child in the mural who are caught in the middle. As traders, the Palantine and Dutch immigrants did not view trading as a vehicle to change an entire culture, but as a way to bring new goods into the market, bring converts into the church, and strengthen relationships with the Mohawk.  In the background you can see a church, mill, and stone fort.  The church and mill represent the Palantine culture, which first established the church as their foundation and a mill for grain production as the population grew.  The Mohawk in the center is the likeness of King Hendrick, a Mohawk chief and friend of the Palantine who was given a European surname and title after being baptized.  The stone castle is representative of the structure known as the “Indian Castle” where King Hendrick lived and kept the peace between the Indians and settlers.

To the far right, a scene familiar to settlement on the frontier, a young couple standing in front of what remained of their burned-out house.  The Mohawk Valley was a contentious area not only to the Mohawk people, but to those who lived in its proximity as the Mohawk fought with French and British forces competing for the strategically located land-base with Indians and non-Indian, both sides suffering the loss of their homes.  In the lower right corner a grave yard is situated with two head stones with the names Henry Klock and Christian Nells.   Henry Klock was one of the early Palantines to immigrate to the Mohawk Valley, purchasing Indian land on which he built the first church in the area.  Christian Nells was the son of German emigrants who would marry the daughter of Henry Klock and help establish the Palantine culture in the valley.  The Mohawk lost an integral part of their cultural heritage in not only land mass, but in their forced removal following the American Revolution and War of 1812 leaving behind the graves of their ancestors and remnants of the Mohawk culture.       

The immigrants and Indians in the Mohawk Valley were sympathetic to each other’s dilemma and could relate to each other.  The most positive outcome the Mohawk could hope was co-existence, but in reality, they and other tribes couldn’t fight back the westward advancement of European superpowers and would succumb to dependence on trade goods, alcohol, and religious influence to further destroy the traditional social and political structures of the Native people.
Today, the Mohawk are still a thriving community with the majority of its members living in New York, Ontario, and Quebec.  As their ancestors did, the present-day Mohawk are still struggling to balance their traditional social and governing structures with the demand of current day economic pressures.

By Reuben Noah, Choctaw/Kickapoo/Iowa Nations


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Indians at the Post Office