Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Fertile Land Remembers

Refer to caption
The Fertile Land Remembers by Louise Emerson Ronnebeck
Casper, Wyoming Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, the artist of The Fertile Land Remembers, was born in 1901. She was born in Philadelphia, lived in New York, then later moved to Colorado. She received her university education from Barnard College, and spent three years studying at the Art Students League of New York. The Art Students League was created by art students as an alternative institute to the National Academy of Design when the latter establishment experienced financial trouble. The institution was egalitarian and provided tuition for both men and women. Here Ronnebeck met other influential artists, such as George Bridgeman, Paul-Albert Baudouin, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. It is believed that Miller’s appreciation for tempera and his style had a special influence on Ronnebeck. She studied fresco painting at Fontainebleau, France. The Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture funded her with two commissions for post office murals, despite some controversy that she was an artist from Colorado commissioned to paint one of the murals in Wyoming. Her first commissioned mural was painted with oil on canvas, and titled The Fertile Land Remembers; the second mural used the same types of materials and was titled The Harvest. In the aftermath of World War II and after the death of her husband, she did not produce as much art and mostly taught at Denver University. She died in 1980.

The Fertile Land Remembers was originally located in the Worland Wyoming post office and is now located in the Casper Post Office. The Clovis Indians are thought to have been among the earliest occupants of Wyoming, as evidence dated to be 12,000 years old has been found in the region. Clovis Indians hunted the now extinct mammoths as well as bison, and the groups that succeeded them developed a similiar hunting economy. These nomadic Indian Nations included the Inuna-ina (Arapaho), Sahnish (Arikara), Panátǐ (Bannock), Só'taeo'o and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne), Apsáalooke (Crow), A’ani (Gros Ventre), Ka’igwu (Kiowa), Niimíipu (Nez Perce), and Naadowesiwag (Sioux). The Cheyenne and Sioux Nations were the last groups to accept life on reservations. The Cheyenne Nation endured persistent harassment and intermittent warfare from the United States from approximately 1820 to 1880; in 1825, the United States asserted that the nations had to appreciate the “general controlling power of the United States” in order for peace to be maintained. Later, the United States wanted the Cheyenne to sign the Treaty of Fort Wise, which established that the Cheyenne would move to a region of land and cede their current location to United States ownership. The treaty was not generally accepted by the Cheyenne, and they were soon subjected to a series of raids. The Colorado War began when 650 volunteering soldiers attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment and killed 150 Indians, mostly women and children. More Indian soldiers, women, and children were killed in a fight led by George Custer, at Washita River. Custer was later killed during the Battle of Little Bighorn. In the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, the Cheyenne were eventually forced onto a Montana Reservation.

The Sioux also experienced a great deal of conflict with the United States; in 1862, the United States ceased federal payments to the impoverished Santee Sioux Nation, which triggered a series of Sioux attacks on white settlements. This led to the Dakota War of 1862. A Sioux chief named Red Cloud fought against the United States military in Wyoming, and through 1876 to 1877, the Cheyenne fought several battles against the United States. These battles are collectively known as the Great Sioux War. The last major conflict between the Sioux and the United States military is now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The mural’s subjects, a white American couple and their child, are painted in rich, varied colors and are facing forward. This allows the audience to observe their clearly rendered faces. On the other hand, the Indians portrayed in the mural are painted in a monochromatic, translucent grey and are facing away from the audience, which further obscures their appearance. They are elevated in the mural and their placement in the sky gives them a wispy, cloud-like appearance.  Although Ronnebeck was a citizen of Colorado, she painted The Fertile Land Remembers for Wyoming. Indians of the Great Plains populated Wyoming, and lived a nomadic lifestyle in order to pursue buffalo herds. The Cheyenne and Sioux of the Great Plains also populated Wyoming, and were the last Nations in Wyoming to be subdued and placed in reservations. The upper portion of Ronnebeck’s mural depicts Indians riding horses and pursuing buffalo. It is reasonable to conclude that the Indians in her mural are Cheyenne or Sioux people of the Great Plains. The forward-facing, brightly rendered couple is an expression of the white American ideal of the future; the shadowy American Indians are Ronnebeck’s expression of what America used to and will no longer be. The structures on the ground depict emerging elements of the white American future; the elements of American Indian culture, such as bison-hunting, are raised up in the mural’s sky and are faintly detailed. Ronnebeck herself said that her mural was meant to “show the past and the present merging into one dramatic unit.” Louise Ronnebeck’s mural offers her idea of a period of American cultural transition-her artwork portrays American Indians as moving toward the societal periphery, giving room for white Americans to occupy the center of the changing culture.

By Kathryn E. Dantzlerward

Sources:, accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013.

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Indians at the Post Office