Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Scene Changes

Refer to caption
The Scene Changes by Ila McAfee Turner
Cordell, Oklahoma Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The artist of The Scene Changes, Ila McAfee Turner, was born in 1897 and raised on a ranch near Gunnison, Colorado. She attended two primary schools called Logan County High School and Gunnison High School. After graduating, she pursued her university studies in Los Angeles at the West Lake School of Art, then enrolled in a two year school called Western State College. After graduation, she went to Chicago to study under James McBurney, an artist who began his career working as an illustrator and teacher. He painted several murals and won two silver awards for some of his work. She gained a considerable knowledge of sculpture, and often made her own hand-carved pieces.  She also studied at the National Academy of Design and joined the Art Students League. Turner was a prolific artist and worked as an illustrator, produced over a thousand easel paintings, painted murals for Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado, and designed several household products including fabric, paper, dishes, and wooden carvings. She was also decorated with awards at the New Mexico State Fair. She moved to Taos, New Mexico permanently in 1928. She lived in Taos for almost 65 years, and then moved back to Colorado where she died in 1995.

This mural was funded by the Section of Fine Arts under the Treasury Department, restored by Parma Conservation in Chicago, and is now kept in a post office located in Cordell, Western Oklahoma. Western Oklahoma is part of the American Great Plains, which were occupied with nearly sixty million bison before and during the Age of Exploration. The bison were critical to the hunting-and-gathering economy of the American Indians of the Great Plains, and their skins were used to create tipi housing. European arrival at the east coast began to change this environment, as they began to plow and farm in western territory. By 1802, bison no longer populated Ohio, and vast numbers were subjected to mass destruction by the mid-1800s. During the 1840s bison vanished from west of the Rocky Mountains. Between 1865 and 1883, Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan identified the bison as a vital resource.  The Great Plains Nations, and played a role in annihilating the herds. The destruction of the American bison is important because of the impact it had on the Indian Nations of the Great Plains; in the words of Robert Wooster, "Sheridan and Sherman recognized that eliminating the buffalo might be the best way to force Indians to change their nomadic habits." A soldier named General Schofield encapsulated in his memoir the sentiment much of the American military had towards the American Indians: "With my cavalry and carbined artillery encamped in front, I wanted no other occupation in life than to ward off the savage and kill off his food until there should no longer be an Indian frontier in our beautiful country." The words spoken by an officer during the 1870s show the ambition to push out American Indian presence from the Plains: “Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent on us for his every need, will we be able to handle him. He's too independent with the buffalo.” In the early 1870s Comanche Indians banded together to attempt a rescue of the vanishing buffalo from white American hunters, but this did not help prevent the dramatic decline of herd numbers.

Two types of houses are painted in the middle of Turner’s mural: a large wooden house and a tipi. They represent two different lifestyles; the wooden home is painted to appear built by white American hands, and the tipi is a distinct feature of the Plains Indian lifestyle. The wooden house is conspicuous in the center of the painting, somewhat obscuring the tipi behind it. A rancher and a herd of cattle are painted on the left side of the mural, and both are moving in as if to eventually occupy the center of the painting. The rancher is riding a horse, which is travelling on ploughed soil. Turner’s childhood was spent on a ranch, and it may have influenced these images in the mural. Turner’s idea of an American Indian atop a horse is painted on the right side of the mural, and he is facing the periphery of the painting. He is following a herd of bison, which also seem to approach the edge of the mural. The tipi and the herd of bison suggest that the Indian subject is likely from a Great Plains Nation. Turner is expressing in the mural that white American culture is progressively taking the place of American Indian culture. The rancher represents a current, “advanced” method of life; the American Indian represents Turner’s idea of the American past. It is also important to note that this transition is portrayed as something that is natural and unforced-the mural does not reflect the devastation the white settlers inflicted on Plains Indians.

Another significant aspect of the mural is the appearance of the tipi and the Indian. The tipi is rendered with decorative paint, but Indians were not inclined to paint their tipis for ornamental purposes. Rather, they decorated them to describe spiritual experiences or dreams. Turner was also deliberate in making the man on the right appear as “Indian” as possible; he is not dressed except for skin coverings on his legs, and there is no sign that he has adopted any Euro-American influences. This rendering of Indian culture implies that Turner may not have substantially researched her subjects, or that she simply depicted her subjects to conform to recognizable stereotypes. Turner’s mural is suggestive of the fact that American Indian ways simply passed out of time to make way for white advancement--it does not reflect the conflict between the two groups of people.

By Kathryn Dantzlerward

Sources:, accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013.,+I+wanted+no+other+occupation+in+life+than+to+ward+off+the+savage+and+kill+off+his+food+until+there+should+no+longer+be+an+Indian+frontier+in+our+beautiful+country.%22&source=bl&ots=uYX2HUqnJs&sig=YCWuAoRGZ1kEHnIyWSDJNBPhsJY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=cURIUtDWOvfG4APs54CYCw&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22With%20my%20cavalry%20and%20carbined%20artillery%20encamped%20in%20front%2C%20I%20wanted%20no%20other%20occupation%20in%20life%20than%20to%20ward%20off%20the%20savage%20and%20kill%20off%20his%20food%20until%20there%20should%20no%20longer%20be%20an%20Indian%20frontier%20in%20our%20beautiful%20country.%22&f=false, accessed November 15, 2013.,+will+we+be+able+to+handle+him.+He's+too+independent+with+the+buffalo.&source=bl&ots=ee_kXx3txR&sig=FTKj2J_yxAWFNTdfXVsBHn8dxXw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=1kRIUpbPBoHl4AOn9IDwCw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9COnly%20when%20the%20Indian%20becomes%20absolutely%20dependent%20on%20us%20for%20his%20every%20need%2C%20will%20we%20be%20able%20to%20handle%20him.%20He's%20too%20independent%20with%20the%20buffalo.&f=false, accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013., accessed November 15, 2013.

Indians at the Post Office