Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

News from the States

Refer to caption
News from the States by Elizabeth Lochrie
Dillon, Montana Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Montana post offices in Billings, Deer Lodge, Dillon, Glasgow and Hamilton were enhanced by New Deal murals, all of which are intact today.1 News from the States was painted by award winning, nationally recognized artist Elizabeth Lochrie in Dillon in 1938.2 Lochrie’s work stands out from much of the imagery of Native Americans created at the time because it is informed and un-romanticized. Lochrie accomplished this because she took the time in tribal communities to learn about the culture, history, and lifeways of the people, forming relationships and becoming conversationally capable in Blackfeet and several other Native languages. Her interest in Native people and culture started when she was a toddler and continued throughout her life. She had a special relationship with the Blackfeet Nation who adopted her in 1932, naming her Netchitaki, Woman Alone in Her Way. Well employed during the Depression, she frequently donated her lecture fees to the Blackfeet.3 Lochrie’s mural design was unanimously selected from 27 entries submitted for the mural competition held by the US Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture.4

Lochrie’s mural, News from the States, extends twelve feet across the width of the wall above the postmaster’s door.5 The painting includes eleven figures, set in the Territorial period, circa 1880. A mixed group of men are depicted in a landscape that calls to mind the topography of the area around Dillon, Montana. The grassy plains set against distant mountains, a wagon trail cutting through the foreground next to a mail box. A ranch house sits in the far right background of the composition. The group includes a Pony Express mail rider with his mail bags, two Native men, two rangers, sheep and a shepherd, a dog sniffing the mailbox post, cowboys, and a miner with a recalcitrant burro, all gathered around, reading a newly delivered newspaper spread out on the ground across the wagon tracks.6 The text, NEWS FROM ‘THE STATES’ is written across the center bottom of the mural. Many of these elements suggest the themes of westward expansion and white settlers’ migration to lands occupied by American Indians.

The two Native men differ in appearance and involvement. One man stands to the far left, standing relaxed with his horse, right hand loosely holding reins, wearing a blue and red blanket held closed with a beaded belt with a sheathed knife, dressed traditionally in moccasins and leggings, braids bound with red cloth. He watches the group from the fringes. Lochrie’s daughter mentions that one of the Native figures is a portrait memorializing the artist’s friend Chief Bird Rattler, also known as Double Scalper, who had died the previous year. From historical images, it would appear to be the figure on the left.7 The second Native man is represented as literally and figuratively more engaged with mainstream culture, as perhaps a guide, or hunter. He is dressed in beaded moccasins, beaded buckskin trousers, a fringed leather coat held closed with a beaded belt, with a leather wrapped rifle slung at his waist, two necklaces and his hair in bound with decorations. He stands at ease between two cowboys, clearly a part of the group.8

The Dillon area in southwestern Montana was traditionally used by a number of tribes, including the Salish, Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), Blackfeet, Shoshone, Bannocks and Crow; tribes with large, overlapping territories. The area was very rich in both wildlife and useful plants and was used seasonally by many Native peoples. The Nimiipuu and Salish are both Plateau tribes who frequented this area on the Eastern fringe of their traditional territory. The Blackfeet primarily lived farther north, however, came south for buffalo hunting. The Shoshone, Bannock and Crow lived in this region, as well as sharing in this common hunting ground. This made for an interesting convergence of cultures between Plateau, Plains, and mountain tribes, trading goods and sharing hunting grounds more or less amicably. Native people have lived in this area for at least thirteen thousand years, with the first encounters with White men in the late 1700s and early 1800s with fur traders and Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 1805. Although Dillon historical accounts and newspaper searches reveal little about the Native history of the area, Montana’s thirteen tribes are thriving on their seven reservations. Of the 34 tribal colleges in the United States, seven are in Montana.

The town of Dillon, located in southwest Montana, and named after Sidney Dillon, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad, was created in response to the urgent need for a railway station as the transcontinental railway approached Montana. Supplying the nearby gold and silver mining boom towns of Alder Gulch, Bannack and Virginia City by horse and wagon was much less efficient than by rail. On September 14, 1880, a group of investors purchased a 480 acre ranch for the town site, and just in time, as the Utah and Northern Railroad reached the new town on October 15, 1880, where it would remain the terminus for a year.9 The town incorporated in 1884 with a population of three hundred people. According to local historian, Frank Eliel,

The Indians, wearing their blankets like a toga, with the dignity of an old Roman senator, often strode slowly and noiselessly along the street. Tendoy, chief of the Bannacks, sometimes came, with his retinue. He was a dignified man, fully conscious of his station. Indians of other tribes often appeared Crow, Blackfeet, Shoshone and it was interesting to see members of different tribes communicating by means of the universal sign language. Sometimes the Indians came over as a feature of our Fourth of July celebrations, having a place in the procession, riding in the races, and giving a war dance in the evening dusk.10

Although Eliel’s racist language is quite offensive, his account of the cross-cultural interactions in early Dillon is interesting. It must have been quite strange for the Nez Perce, Salish, Bannock, Crow, Blackfeet and Shoshone who had frequented for hundreds or thousands of years the landscape upon which Dillon was founded, to find it suddenly built up and populated by people who, ironically, regarded them as outsiders.

Montana painter Elizabeth Lochrie was born July 1, 1890 in Red Lodge, Montana11 and raised in Deer Lodge, Montana. After graduating high school, she completed her art degree at Pratt Institute in New York City in 1911. She studied with Winold Reiss at Glacier National Park and was employed as an artist for the Great Northern Railroad from 1937 to 1939. She is famous for her Native American portraiture, landscapes and cityscapes, many of which are held in the permanent collections of the Holter Museum of Art, and the Montana Historical Society Museum, both in Helena, Montana. Her patrons included the Ford Motor Company, First National Bank of Seattle, the State of Montana and the U.S. Treasury Department. Prior to the Dillon Post Office mural, Lochrie was commissioned to paint a series of 18 children’s murals for the tuberculosis sanatorium at the Montana State Hospital in Galen, Montana as well as murals for the Burley, Idaho and St. Anthony, Idaho post offices.12

By Jennifer Woodcock-Medicine Horse, MA, PhD Candidate

Tribal websites:


1) “Montana Post Offices” Jenna Cederberg. 25 April 2014. Montana Magazine. Accessed October 28 2015.

2) “Enduring Art from the New Deal” Marilyn Jones. February 26 2014. Montana Magazine. Accessed 28 October 2015.

3) “Elizabeth Lochrie” Ellen Baumler. March 17, 2014. Montana Moments: A blog of funny, bizarre, and interesting episodes from Montana history. 28 October 2015.
Note: An image exists of Elizabeth Lochrie standing on a scaffold in front of her Dillon mural. (Montana Historical Society - Photograph Archives, PAc 80-61) The image may be viewed here:

4) “Butte Woman gets Commission” Montana Butte Standard. September 26, 1937 page 36.

5) “Butte Woman gets Commission” Montana Butte Standard. September 26, 1937 page 36.

6) Although the painting depicts a Pony Express rider, his inclusion is not historically accurate as the painting depicts a time period of circa 1880, yet the Pony Express only operated from 1860-1861., accessed August 4, 2016.

7) Chief Bird Rattler. Accessed November 1, 2015.

8) “A Half Century of Paintings by Elizabeth Lochrie” Betty Lochrie Hoag McGlynn. 1992. Accessed 28 October 2015.

9) “History of Dillon shared by Frank Eliel...” Dillon, Montana History...,%20Montana%20history.htm Accessed October 31, 2015. See also, Local News: Brief News” The Independent Record. Helena, MT November 9, 1880. Page 3

10) “History of Dillon shared by Frank Eliel...” Dillon, Montana History...,%20Montana%20history.htm Accessed October 31, 2015

11) “Her Paintings Exhibited” Montana Butte Standard. September 8, 1940 page 6.

12) “Elizabeth Lochrie” Richard I. Gibson. May 27, 2013. Accessed November 1, 2015.

Indians at the Post Office