Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Houston Ship Canal Paintings, The "Diana" Docking

Refer to caption
Houston Ship Canal Paintings, The "Diana" Docking by Alexandre Hogue and Jerry Bywaters
Bob Casey Federal Courthouse, Houston, Texas
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

In 1941, artists Jerry Bywaters and Alexandre Hogue completed murals for the post office in Houston, Texas. Bywaters and Hogue were friends and members of the Dallas Nine, a well-known group of painters who helped establish an identity for Texas art in the 1930s. Keeping with the aesthetics associated with the genre of Regionalism, and more specifically American Scene painting, the Dallas Nine celebrated cultural landscapes by capturing them in paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Bywaters and Hogue’s association with this type of visual representation made both artists likely candidates to receive commissions from the Section of Fine Arts who favored these types of paintings for their program. Although they had initially submitted sketches for the competition to paint murals for the post office in Dallas, they did not win that competition and were instead selected to paint the murals in Houston.

The paintings collectively titled The Houston Ship Canal Paintings explore the daily activities at the Houston Ship Canal. Of particular note is “The "Diana" Docking” which depicts laborers and spectators along the Buffalo Bayou, an area that stretches along miles of the Houston coastline dotted with trees, swamps, and marshlands. Though no Native American people are portrayed in this work, a cigar store Indian peers out onto the bayou.

Prior to white settlers coming to the area, the Karankawa and the Akokisa tribes occupied the temperate grassland of the Buffalo Bayou and engaged in fishing, hunting, and other activities that were essential to their survival. Artifacts of these two groups date back to 8,100 B.C. showing a rich culture that helps to narrate and define the tribes’ time in Houston. European explorers found, preserved, and documented these artifacts in an effort to preserve Native American history (Kelly 1).

One of the first documented encounters between Native Americans and European explorers in the Houston area took place in 1535 when the Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca came in contact with the Indigenous inhabitants, most likely the Karankawa or Akokisa tribes. De Vaca’s expedition documented the lives of these Indigenous people in detailed writings that included information on community life, canoe making, fishing, gathering plants, medical practices, and shelter building to accommodate Houston’s changing, and sometimes unpredictable, climate (Audet 1). The Karankawa migrated seasonally and relied on the food sources along the coast from Galveston to Corpus Christi. De Vaca was shocked by the Spanish treatment of Native Americans and returned to Spain to publish the accounts of his explorations in 1537. He also tried to urge the crown to reach out to the Natives and sign a more generous policy toward their well being (Houston Public Media 1).

Although there are no actual Indians depicted in “The "Diana" Docking” scene, it is interesting that the artist included the image of a cigar store Indian. . Hundreds of the murals painted as part of the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts program included representation of Indigenous cultures, but the Indian in this painting is not an Indian at all; instead, the Native American has been reduced to a form of advertising. The Indian statue is carved wearing a full feather headdress as he holds a handful of cigars in his right hand and he smokes a long-stemmed pipe. The association of Indians and tobacco appeared frequently in advertising throughout the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the image of the cigar store Indian became a common advertising fixture placed outside of tobacco shops across the United States in the nineteenth century.

The emergence of the cigar store Indian became especially popular in the United States as European immigrants flooded into America during the last decades of the nineteenth century, many of these newcomers could not read English and it made sense to adorn the exterior of shops with signs and carvings that relied on visual recognition for potential patrons. In addition to this practical application, the sturdy figure of the cigar store Indian was carved with great detail and brightly painted, making it a great tool for attracting attention to the tobacco shop. This carving skill was quite rare so cigar store Indian statues did not become widely available until the 1850s when the shipping industry switched from wooden ships to ironclad steam vessels, an industrial age shift that is certainly evident in “The "Diana" Docking” (Kelly 1).

Today, Native American communities consider the cigar store Indian as an offensive and stereotypical representation of Indigenous culture which replaces ceremonial use of tobacco with commercial consumption (Malisow 1). Other objections to these carvings include the depiction of the American Indian as a “noble savage,” which does not represent what Native Americans today would call a realistic representation of their culture, instead they are generic representations of “Indianness” that evolved over decades of Indigenous representation in American art. Furthermore, the practice of using Indigenous imagery in advertising reached new heights in the 19th century. In his essay “Reduced to Images: American Indians in 19th Century Advertising,” Jeffrey Steele explores the idea that consumers buy what completes or aides their identity within a cultural landscape. By depicting the ‘noble savage’ as commonplace in advertising, the cultural position of Native Americans was being marginalized to buttress the position of the white consumer (Scanlon 103).

The murals painted by Hogue and Bywaters were originally installed in the Houston Parcel Post Building on Washington Avenue in 1941. When the building was torn down in 1962, the murals were removed and placed in storage, virtually forgotten for more than a decade when they were re-discovered under old electrical equipment in the General Services Administration warehouse in Houston in 1976. Houston officials decided to restore the works. According to Tom Fowler of the Houston Chronicle, John O'Neill, a member of Rice University's art history faculty, made arrangements for the paintings displayed at the school until they were moved to the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse on Rusk Avenue where they remain today (Fowler 1).

Bywaters and Hogue were prolific Texas painters who brought to light the everyday lives and experiences of Texans, including these murals that reflect the history of the Houston Ship Canal. While their intent to include the cigar store Indian in their image was most likely not meant as a social commentary on the fate of Indians in Texas, in the twenty-first century, it is easy to use the painting of “The "Diana" Docking” as a reminder of the representation and misrepresentation of Native American cultures in American art and the all too frequent use of the trope of the vanishing Indian.

By Adam Brandner

Current location: Bob Casey Federal Courthouse on Rusk Avenue


Audet, Marye. ‘Houston’s Native American Heritage Runs Deep.’ Houston Family. 2013. Accessed on October 24, 2015. Web.

Carmichael, Matt and Jeffrey L. Littlejohn. “Bob Casey Federal Courthouse and its New Deal Murals.”, accessed June 28, 2016

Carraro, Francine. Jerry Bywaters: A Life in Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Print.

Fowler, Tom. “‘Lifeblood of Houston’ Paintings Will Soon Be Restored.” Houston Chronicle. Tuesday April 6, 2010. Periodical.

Houston Public Media. ‘New Perspectives on the West: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca.’ PBS. 2001. Accessed on October 27, 2015. Web.

Kelly, Kate. The Story of Cigar Store Indians. America Comes Alive. 2014. Accessed on October 25, 2015. Web.

Malisow, Craig. “Some Judges Want Paintings Of “Shirtless Black Men Hauling Bales Of Cotton” Removed from Courthouse.” Houston Press. 9 February 2012. Online Periodical.

Todd, William. ‘Cigar Store Indian Started in England.’ The Milwaukee Journal. March 18, 1968. Accessed on October 25, 2015. Online Periodical.

Scanlon, Jennifer. The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader. New York University Press. 2000. Print.

Indians at the Post Office