Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Bimini Island, also known as Aborigines

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Bimini Island (also known as Aborigines) by Eduard Buk Ulreich
Federal Bankruptcy Court Building, formerly the original Post Office, Tallahassee, Florida
Used with the permission of the General Services Administration.

The Austrian-Hungarian artist Eduard Buk Ulreich was born in 1889, and spent his childhood in Kansas City. Ulreich painted at an early age, and as an adult he noted that art was “the one thing that interested me in school.” His earliest works involved subjects of Native Americans; an oil painting created by Ulreich in 1906 was titled Indian Attack. He spent two years observing varied artistic approaches during his studies at Kansas City Art Institute, and exhibited there. He won the William L. Elkins scholarship to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and later won two European traveling scholarships. He exhibited his work in Paris as well as Chicago. He served in the military during World War I. It is believed that rhythm and movement from a brief experience with dance impacted his approach to art. He relocated to New York after marrying, where he continued to paint and give art lessons. His works produced for the Works Progress Administration have survived the longest.

The mural Bimini Island (also known as Aborigine) is located in the Federal Bankruptcy Courthouse, formerly the original Post Office in Tallahassee, Florida. This singular mural is part of a larger 8-panel set of murals by Ulreich collectively titled “The History of Florida”; the separate titles are Saturiba receiving the French, Drake Attacking St. Augustine, Andrew Jackson, Bimini Island, Ponce de Leon, Five Flags, Osceola in Conference with Hernandez, and Modern Florida. The title may have alluded to conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, who headed toward Bimini Island, fifty miles east of Miami, where a fountain of eternal youth was said to be found. He instead bumped into what he named La Florida, where he continued the search. La Florida became the name for most of the Southeastern region of what is now the United States.

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Whelk shell pendant image, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian (15/853). Photo by Walter Larrimore.

The Native people who populated the Caribbean island regions around Florida called Arawak and also Taino were the, first Native people encountered by the Europeans when Columbus landed at the Lucayan Arawak island of Guanahani. The primary crop grown by the Taino was cassava, a naturally poisonous root that was carefully processed to make it safe to eat. Because it was a staple of their diet, the English term Arawak is thought to be derived from the Lucayan term aru-aru, or “starch of starch.” They also grew other crops such as corn, beans, and squash, and relied a great deal on fishing, using hollowed tree-trunk canoes with paddles for transportation on river or sea. The Arawak maintained a largely peaceful culture. The artist titled the mural group “The History of Florida,” choosing to create a confluence of Native lifeways that would serve to reflect the “flavor” of pre-Columbian Florida and the Southeast. Perhaps this is because so little is known about the original peoples of Florida, named by the Spanish and French, the Calusa, Timucua, Apalachee, Ais, and Tekesta. The first inhabitants of the region settled there some fourteen thousand years ago. By 2400 BC they were making fired-clay pottery and developing complex societies. They created beautiful art, some of which is preserved today. As many as 35,000 native people lived in the Florida region in 1492, but less than one-thousand remained by 1750 due to “disease, forced labor and military encounters.”

Compared to many other muralists choosing Indians as subjects, Ulreich did appreciable research, but still added his personal flourish of whimsy, abstraction and romance to Florida’s history. Bimimi Island (also known as Aborigine) is packed with the artist’s concept of the area’s anthropologic details. He correctly indicates at the left that traders in canoes and rafts from off-shore islands may have had a thriving commerce with peoples at lands wherever the currents would take them. A likely island merchant, bearing fish, approachs from the left toward a Mississippian-era warrior moving in from the right, who is “labeled” by the illustration of a round whelk-shell gorget. The actual object Ulreich used as a model is in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. It was created AD 1250-1350 by the then inhabitants of today’s Castalian Springs, Sumner County, Tennessee. It would have been worn as a necklace pendant, as shown in the mural, by Mississippian cultures in the Southeast, north of Florida. Between these two men, is the cacique (chief) whom the artist fancies as a seated Roman emperor, complete with cape, but holding an authentically-shaped warrior’s mace, as can be seen in the gorget illustration, and what appears to be an important bag, possibly filled with conch pearls. Columbus’s greed for gold and pearls became a driving force for his intrusion into the Arawakan-speaking islands, which was followed by slavery, disease and genocide, though the Taino legacy endures through inter-marriage with Africans and Europeans.

Summary by Kathryn Dantzlerward


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Indians at the Post Office