Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Hiawatha Returning with Minnehaha

Refer to caption
Hiawatha Returning with Minnehaha by Frances Foy
Gibson City, Illinois Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Born in Chicago in 1890, Frances Foy was raised in nearby Oak Park, Illinois. Foy showed interest in art while in her teens, and would go on to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with Wellington J. Reynolds, as well as the New York urban realists George Bellows and Randall Davey, who were visiting instructors at SAIC in 1919-20. In the 1920s, Frances Foy exhibited her art regularly with the independent Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists, as well as being given solo shows at Chicago Woman’s Aid, the Romany Club, and the Art Institute of Chicago. During the New Deal era, she received five commissions from the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts to produce murals including the one installed at the Gibson City, Illinois post office; interestingly, it is her only post office mural depicting a Native American subject.

The Section encouraged artists to paint murals that were representative of the communities in which they were installed, and although Gibson City is often associated with soybean production, a subject that one would think Frances Foy would choose for its representation of American agricultural pride, she instead chose to note that the Ojibwa people had settlements in northern Illinois making Hiawatha Returning with Minnehaha, an intriguing and colorful subject for the mural. The Gibson City mural depicts a scene from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Composed in 1855, the epic poem recounts the legends and myths of the Indian Hiawatha and specifically the return to his village with his Dakota bride Minnehaha, as described in, “Hiawatha’s Wooing,” the tenth verse of the twenty-two part poem:

“Thus it was they journeyed homeward;
Thus it was that Hiawatha
To the lodge of old Nokomis
Brought the moonlight, starlight, firelight,
Brought the sunshine of his people,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Handsomest of all the women
In the land of the Dacotahs,
In the land of handsome women.”

Longfellow was by far the most widely-known and best-loved American poet of his time, achieving an unprecedented level of national and international prominence in American literary history. As a “North American Savage” in conversation with an English settler for his Junior exhibition, The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem that fully exhibits Longfellow’s interest in Native lore, and it is a perpetuation of the 19th-century trope representing the Indian as a “noble savage.”

Although the Hiawatha of actual Native oral tradition comes from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Longfellow’s poem is based on Ojibwa culture and traditions as represented by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and John Tanner, as well as John G. E. Heckwelder’s defense of Delaware culture, and the author’s personal acquaintance with an Ojibwa chief. The poem also drew on widespread literary and visual representations of the West. Hiawatha was an immediate success with an American population that increasingly looked at pre-contact Native American life through a nostalgic lens. It was also a financial success with eleven thousand copies sold within the first month of its publication. The poem received extensive reviews both positive and negative, and was translated into German in1856 initiating an on-going trend of great interest in the Native Nations of America by the German people. As well, it was set to sheet music and was featured in many dramatic performances. As Alan Trachtenberg has noted, “Hiawatha took his place among national folk heroes of song and legend, something like an Indian Paul Bunyan.” Longfellow introduced a love story in his account of Hiawatha's wooing of Minnehaha, their marriage, and her death, but for the most part he assembled legends he found in Schoolcraft's many books to exalt his Ojibwa hero as a leader of supernatural birth who directs his people in ways of peace, including intertribal peace made possible through his marriage to the Dakota maiden.

Like Longfellow's poem, Foy’s mural presents Hiawatha as the “noble savage” while Minnehaha is the embodiment of the Indian “princess.” Set in an idyllic landscape filled with lush vegetation framed against a sheer cliff in the background, seven Native men stand near the river as Hiawatha and Minnehaha arrive in their birchbark canoe. A white dove flying overhead could easily be interpreted as a symbol of peace that is brought through the marriage of the young Native couple. Standing hand in hand in the canoe, Hiawatha raises his right arm upward in a gesture indicating that he is presenting his village to Minnehaha. The young bride, her long braided hair draping over the shoulders of her buckskin dress, looks demure as she stands next to Hiawatha, her head tilted slightly downward. Perhaps she is avoiding the gaze of the male figures including the Indian guiding the bow of the canoe toward the shore. The remaining six male figures look toward the action as they await the arrival of Hiawatha and his bride.

Minnehaha’s dress notwithstanding, the Native men are in various dress (and undress) that cannot be identified as specific to any particular tribe. The hero of the story, although shirtless, does wear leggings with his breechcloth, but the other male figures in the scene are draped in “wearing” blankets, clothed only in loincloths, and one of the men appears to be nude. Nudity in the post office murals sometimes drew the ire of the communities in which the murals were installed not only at the time of installation, but in some instances years after the commissions were completed. Certainly this was the case in 1993 when a post office janitor in Oglesby, Illinois complained about the Indian nudity in their town’s post office mural. His protest led to the covering of the mural and prompted the Chicago Tribune to investigate nudity in other Illinois post office murals including Foy’s painting at Gibson City. In the Tribune article, postal clerk Jim Clemens verified the nudity in the Hiawatha mural, noting in rather sarcastic overtones, "Hiawatha's pants are cut in a somewhat risqué fashion, but it's the characters who are waiting to welcome Minnehaha who are flashing me," he said. Clemens made clear, however, that despite the nudity, "We've never had a single complaint." The Section certainly did not want the post office murals to be controversial, and went to great lengths to insure that they would be appreciated by the communities in which they were placed, but all public art has the potential for criticism not only at the time the work is completed, but it is open to critical response in the present and the future as well.

Ironically, at the time Longfellow wrote his idyllic poem recounting the romanticized tales of Hiawatha, Native Americans in the United States were being forced onto reservations, lured into questionable treaties, and their culture greatly affected by removal from their homelands and hunting grounds. Longfellow’s poem reminisces of not only the Ojibwa hero’s pre-contact way of life, but concludes with the happy assimilation of Hiawatha. Art and literature of the nineteenth century frequently used Native Americans as subject matter as a way to express a longing for an idyllic past even as Native culture was being diluted by displacement and assimilation. The Section’s approval of Foy’s subject matter, while on the surface may seem benign, in fact, reminds the twenty-first century viewer that the stereotypes and historical narratives of Native American culture that dominated nineteenth-century representations of the American Indian were still prevalent during the 20th century New Deal era.

By Denise Neil-Binion (Delaware/Cherokee Nation)


Alan Trachtenberg, “Singing Hiawatha: Longfellow’s Hybrid Myth of America.” [Online Resource], Accessed Oct 11, 2014., originally published in the Yale Review, Vol. 90. January, 2002.

Frances Foy Biography [online resource], Accessed October 9, 2014.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Biography [online resource], Accessed October 8, 2014.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth "The Song of Hiawatha”" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [online resource], Maine Historical Society, Accessed October 9, 2014.

Wes Smith, “The Mural Minority,” [online resource], Chicago Tribune. June 29, 1993, accessed October 11, 2014,

Indians at the Post Office