Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Evolution of Corn

Refer to caption
The Evolution of Corn by Lowell Houser
Ames, Iowa Post Office
Image courtesy of the Ames Historical Society. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Unlike many murals that were painted by artists who had no connection to the towns they were in, The Evolution of Corn in the Ames, Iowa post office was painted by a local artist. Lowell Houser was born in Chicago in 1902 and his family moved to Ames in 1909, when he was seven years old. He graduated from Ames High School in 1921 and studied at Iowa State University for a brief time. He then studied for three years at the Chicago Art Institute before leaving to spend 3 years studying in Mexico with painter Jean Charlot. Charlot was a part of the same Mexican school that included renowned muralist Diego Rivera. While in Mexico City, he spent time in museums studying Aztec sculptures. Later on, he followed Charlot to the Yucatan to work on a Carnegie Institute project at Chichen-Itza, where they copied the Maya murals they found in the ruins.  Later, Houser spent time in New York before returning to Ames, where he taught at Iowa State University and worked on several public art projects, including this mural in the Ames post office. He also taught life drawing at the Arts Students Workshop in Des Moines and continued to work in oil, watercolors, and block printing, producing many book and magazine covers. In 1936, Houser was elected to serve as an officer of an Iowa group working for economic and creative opportunity for artists called Cooperative Artists.  He was hired by the art department at San Diego State College in 1938. After serving in World War II, Houser returned to San Diego and taught there until his retirement in 1958, upon which he moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Houser’s artwork was exhibited at venues including the Chicago Art Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Corcoran Gallery, and galleries in San Diego, San Francisco, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. He died in Fredericksburg in 1971.

The founding of the town of Ames was closely connected to the establishment of Iowa State University of Science and Technology (ISU) in 1858.

ISU was first known as the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm, before being renamed in 1898. It was known as Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts until 1959. The University’s emphasis on agricultural programs highlights the area’s strong relationship with farming, and the corn featured in this mural. This continues to the present day: in 2012, Iowa produced approximately 1.88 billion bushels of corn, more than any other state in the country. In fact, according to Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa produces 3 times as much corn as Mexico, the country that originally developed corn cultivation.  Despite the establishment of the school in 1858, the city of Ames itself was founded in 1864 as a stop on the Cedar Rapids and Missouri Railroad, which ran from Cedar Rapids to Council Bluff.

What is missing from the mural is any reference to the original Indian inhabitants of Iowa. While many different tribes and nations have lived in the Iowa region since prehistory, one of the largest and most notable is the Meskwaki, also known as the Fox (commonly referred to in conjunction with the Sac or Sauk). The Meskwaki originally inhabited the lower peninsula of Michigan, and later moved into Wisconsin. In the early decades of the 18th Century, the Meskwaki were engaged in continual conflict with French fur traders in the area. These conflicts included the First Fox War of 1712-1714 and the Second Fox War of 1728, both of which dramatically reduced the numbers of Meskwaki people. Some of the Meskwaki eventually moved into Illinois and Iowa territory and were involved with the Sac in the Black Hawk Wars over lands in Illinois. In 1841, the United States government attempted to negotiate a treaty with the Meskwaki to cede their lands in Iowa, but the treaty was rejected. The Meskwaki felt that the territory they were being offered instead was much poorer in resources and would not sustain them. It was also in dangerously close proximity to the territory of the Dakota Sioux, with whom they had a history of conflict.

However, in 1842, the Meskwaki were convinced to sign a treaty ceding their lands in Iowa, with the promise that they would be removed to a reservation in Kansas with better forest lands, as opposed to the sparse and conflicted land deals they were previously offered. The removal to Kansas was lengthy and emotional. While some members of the Meskwaki went relatively willingly, in 1845 a company of Dragoons was sent to escort the remaining Meskwaki to Kansas. For many, this ended in a forced march to their new homes. These removals, under the supervision of the Dragoons, continued into 1846. However, many Meskwaki continued to return to their homelands in Iowa and, in July 1856, the General Assembly of the State of Iowa passed an Act that allowed the Meskwaki to remain in the state of Iowa: “Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Iowa. That the consent of the State is hereby given that the Indians now residing in Tama County known as a portion of the Sacs and Foxes, be permitted to remain and reside in said State.”  Meskwaki oral history states that the Governor at the time told them that he could not force any Iowa citizen to sell them land, but that if any wanted to do so willingly, that purchase would be regarded as a legal transaction. In the spring of 1857, the Meskwaki made an agreement with the Butler family to purchase their first 80 acres of land in Tama County, Iowa. Today, the Meskwaki Nation/Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa resides on the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County on land owned by the tribe. The tribe differentiates their settlement from a reservation “because the land is owned by the tribe on the settlement whereas a reservation is land set aside by the Government to allow tribes to reside.” The Meskwaki Nation now owns over 8,000 acres of land in Tama and Palo Alto counties in Iowa, and the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa has nearly 1,400 enrolled members. The Settlement maintains a casino, tribal schools, tribal courts, and tribal police, and a public works department, and located approximately an hour away from Ames.

In an oral history interview with the artist dated July 31, 1964, he discusses the conception and execution of the mural. Houser states that he came up with the concept that the cultivation of corn was historically Maya “or at least, ancient American Indian.” He therefore decided to juxtapose a representation of the ancient cultivation of corn and the modern corn farming industry. On the one side he painted the Rain God, the Sun God, and other elements needed to make the corn grow in the Maya era, and on the other he repeated the same elements but from a Western scientific perspective. On the left, a mask of a Chac, a Rain God, and a lightning lizard are next to a dark cloud and a patch of rainfall; on the right, arrows representing water molecules (each inscribed with an “H2O” shoot skyward, while an arrow labeled “HHO” falls amidst a grey sheet of rain. On the Maya side, the Sun God head is an elaborate mask, while on the industrial side, a sun complete with sunspots and an absorption spectrum is surrounded by concentric rings bearing inscriptions of the chemical elements required for photosynthesis and the surface temperature of the sun, 6000 degrees Celsius. Houser indicated in his interview that he frequently sought out the advice of agricultural experts at Iowa State University in order to accurately represent different types of corn as they would have been cultivated throughout history, by the Maya and later by farmers in Iowa. This mural bears some minor similarities to one in Los Angeles, where the muralist Boris Deutsch also utilized Maya motifs and designs. In that mural, titled Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America, Deutsch represented American Indians from both continents, and incorporated them into the fabric of the history of the Americas. Houser’s mural connects a primary industry and way of life of the local community to its roots in American Indian history, giving credit to the influences of indigenous American culture and inventions in modern-day economic activities. However, as with the Los Angeles mural, it could also be problematic in the false dichotomy it creates between American Indians and white Americans, equating one with past history and superstition, and the other with modern industry, science and reason. This tends to negate the reality that American Indian communities developed a Native science and have also adopted scientific understandings and methods for agriculture.

By Meghan A. Navarro


Access Genealogy
2013 Iowa Indian Tribes., accessed October 28, 2013.

Ames Historical Society
2009 Public Murals in Downtown Ames. Electronic document,, accessed October 27, 2013.

Archives of American Art.
1964 Oral history interview with Lowell Houser, 1964 July 31., accessed October 27, 2013.

Des Moines Register
1994 What it Means to be a Meskwaki: An Interview with Ray Young Bear., accessed October 28, 2013.

Edmunds, R. David
1993 Mesquakie (Fox). Electronic document,, acccessed October 28, 2013.

Iowa Corn Growers Association
2013 Frequently Asked Questions., accessed October 27, 2013.

Iowa State University
2007 History of Iowa State., accessed October 28, 2013.

Kurtz, Royce
1991 Timber and Treaties: The Sauk and Mesquakie Decision to Sell Iowa Territory. Forest & Conservation History 35(2): 56-64.

Meskwaki Nation: Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.
2013 History., accessed October 27, 2013.

Indians at the Post Office