Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

About the Virtual Exhibition


I was excited when the National Museum of the American Indian approached the National Postal Museum to co-sponsor a virtual exhibit on post office murals focused on the American Indian. We had taken a similar approach in 2001 in developing the successful virtual stamp exhibition, The American Indian in Stamps: Profiles in Leadership Accomplishments and Culture Celebration.

Painting of Indians and cowboys on a wall in a post office
The Arrival Celebration and The Round-Up by Andrew Standing Soldier, Oglala Lakota Nation
Blackfoot, Idaho Post Office
Image by Jimmy Emerson. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Post office murals were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Commonly known as "the Section," it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. Headed by Edward Bruce, a former lawyer, businessman, and artist, the Section's main function was to select art of high quality to decorate public buildings, including post offices, if funding was available, thus making the art accessible to everyone. The result was scenes reflecting America's history and way of life decorate all sizes of walls, mainly in post offices, throughout the United States.

Artists were provided guidelines and themes for executing their mural studies. They engaged in often lengthy negotiations between the Post Office Department, the town, and other interested parties before paintings could begin. Many local communities deemed the approved designs unacceptable due to theme, content, design elements and/or method of expression. Artists were constantly reminded the communities were their patrons, and they must go to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commissions.

Genre themes were the most popular subject matter for post office murals, one of which the American Indian. The tragic was to be avoided; the heroic was to be celebrated and embraced. Historical events, daring and courageous acts were also popular themes.

This virtual exhibit looks only at murals depicting the American Indians’ political, economic and cultural lives. Their ability to rise above the mainstream non-Native world is exceptionally shown. I recommend turning the page, looking at the art, putting yourself in the artist’s shoes and imagining how you would paint them.

Thomas Lera
Winton M. Blount Chair in Research - Emeritus
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Indians at the Post Office