Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Indian Hunters and Rice Gatherers

Refer to caption
Indian Hunters and Rice Gatherers 1939, by Margaret Martin
St. James, Minnesota Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

From the early 1930s through the early 1940s there were a number of state and federally-sponsored programs such as the State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA), Federal Art Project (FAP) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art Project designed to support cultural enrichment through the arts. Federal programs were initiated in metro centers like Minneapolis across the country supporting the fine arts through a series of art education centers and mural projects resulting in the founding of the Walker Arts Center and a dozen other art galleries and programs there.

A wide-ranging section of the general population were experiencing fine arts for the first time through access to galleries, exhibits, and performances sparking Minnesota’s own cultural renaissance and a new identity on the American landscape. Margaret Martin was among a group of artists who worked on state-sponsored mural projects through SERA in the early 1930s before money was available for supporting programs like the Federal Writers Project (FWP) and Federal Music Project (FMP). Having worked on early state-funded mural projects in Minnesota, Martin became aware not only of the history of Minnesota, but about the Ojibwe people of the region, who, along with the Chippewa, are now referred to as the Anishinaabe. Like other but not all New Deal-era artists who chose to depict American Indians, her research gave her insight into the history, customs and struggles of the indigenous peoples of North America and apparently resolved her intent to care about how they were portrayed.

Margaret Martin chose to depict important elements of Anishinaabe life; gathering wild rice, spearing fishing, and hunting water fowl, reflecting the historical reliance of the Tribal Nation on the lakes and rivers of Minnesota. According to tribal lawyer Glenn C. Reynolds, “In Ojibwe cultural traditions, water has a spiritual component that gives it a key role in stories, ceremonies, religious practices, and daily life.” Artist Margaret Martin captures the image of the hunters and gatherers in a peaceful manner, performing their individual jobs, the men are hunting and fishing while the women are threshing the wild rice into the canoe. According to tribal traditions, using winnowing sticks, women gathered rice by bending the stalks over the canoe carefully knocking off the grains. They were deliberate in gathering only the mature rice through use of the sticks as the rice harvest occurred periodically through the growing season. Like all other tribal groups in the process of gathering food, every possible grain, bird, or fish would not be gathered. Some rice was allowed to spill back into the water ensuring that the seeds will grow for the next year’s harvest.  Martin captured both Native philosophies and ideologies regarding the natural world and reflected the importance of keeping a harmony and balance as well as keeping the same balance of work responsibilities within their tribal structure. One of Martin’s fellow New Deal-era artists commented that “a reminder . . . to anyone of us of the life in this country that preceded ours can do no harm, especially since that life, in its simplicity and harmony with nature, can be a lesson to us in many ways.”

As one can see in the mural, the harmony with nature experienced by the Anishinaabe is represented by the close proximity of the fish, waterfowl, and rice without disruption, forming the most important aspect to their survival. In the painting one can also see the realistic representation of the birch bark canoe sealed with pitch and the use of the winnowing sticks for threshing the wild rice into the canoe. Before firearms became common place among tribes, weapons were primarily made from natural materials consisting of bows, arrows, and spears, the painting reflects the era before their traditional way of life became influenced through trade with Europeans. During hunting seasons Native hunters harvested animals much the same and used those opportunities to not only impart knowledge, but life lessons of cultural resource management ensuring they have the ability feed themselves forever. Today, in light of the threats from climate change, this method of survival is interesting to all and termed as “sustainability.”

Scholars Nicholas Reo and Kyle Whyte use the term “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK) as a way to describe the traditional code of moral ethics based on interdependence and respect. Reo and Whyte state that, “…the practical component of TEK, refers to, ‘the application of accumulated, intergenerational knowledge, using best practices, economic relationships, expertise, skill, and formal or informal rules.’” Within Native communities, the traditional perceptions of successful hunting and gathering aren’t dependent on the amount of harvested but in what is learned through the practice of hunting. Hunters begin attaining their knowledge over many years through a series of steps teaching them about the value of observation, patience, respect and safety. These lessons begin at a young age. A boy’s first hunting experiences are with fathers, grandfathers, and uncles. When a young Anishinaabe boy makes his first kill it serves as a ritualistic rite of passage into adulthood resulting in the meat being giving away as an offering to pay respect for successful hunts in the future. The girls learn their specific duties in much the same way, learning through a series of practices orally passed down from female family members. According to tribal protocols, tobacco offerings and prayer are given in thanks and reverence to the animal who gave itself to the hunter in order to feed others, and within tribal kinship-based communities, game is shared with elders and those who can’t fend for themselves. Author Adrian Tanner states that, “Tribal hunters generally believe their success is contingent on the generosity of prey animals that willingly give themselves up to respectful hunters. To sustain their success, tribal hunters show respect to animals variously through their actions and, in this way, their beliefs directly influence their hunting practices.” Tribal religious and social structures are designated through clan affiliation or societies represented by an animal spirit, such as the bear or deer or other animal important to their subsistence, completing the connection between man and nature.

In the painting, the dynamic of the individuals indicate how important each person is to the success of the tribe as a whole. Through attempting to understand the Native philosophy, the artist was able to tell the story in a holistic manner encompassing all aspects of Anishinaabe culture. Success is not defined by the bounty of the harvest, but in the teachings and knowledge gained, befitting the survival of a community and culture into a changing future. Sustainability and self-subsistence continue to be important aspects of present day tribal life passed from generation to generation ensuring we as indigenous people always stay connected to the past by adapting traditional knowledge to current situations.

By Reuben Noah (Choctaw/Kickapoo/Iowa Nations)


Hendrickson, Kenneth E.
1993 The WPA Federal Art Projects in Minnesota 1935-1943, Minnesota History, Vol. 53, No. 5, Spring 1993, pp. 170-183, Accessed on September 7, 2014

Moyle, John, B.,
1944 Wild Rice In Minnesota, The Journal of Wildlife Management, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 1944, pp. 177-194, Accessed on September 7, 2014
2014 Indian Hunter and Rice Gatherers (A Study for St. James, Minnesota Post Office Mural, Electric Document

Park, Marlene, Markowitz, Gerald. Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal, Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1984, Accessed on September 8, 2014

Reo, Nicholas, J.
2011 The Importance of Belief Systems in Traditional Ecological Knowledge Initiatives, the International Indigenous Policy Journal, Vol. 2, Issue 8, Article 8, Accessed on September 8, 2014

Reo, Nicolas J., Whyte, Kyle P.
2011 Hunting And Morality As Elements of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 8, 2014

Tanner, A
1979 Bringing Home Animals: Indigenous Ideologies and mode of production of the Mistassini Cree, New York, St. Martin’s Press.

Truer, Anton & David
1999/1998 A Day In The Life Of Ojibwe, Minnesota History, Vol. 56, No. 4, Making Minnesota Territory, 1849-1858, Winter
1999/1998, pp. 172-174, Accessed on September 7, 2014

Indians at the Post Office