To See and to be Seen: The American Indian Subject in Post Office Murals from the New Deal Era
By Dr. Jose Barreiro, Assistant Director, History and Culture Research Museum Scholarship Group, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
From the pre-Columbian Inka chaskis—runners who carried messages throughout the Andes—to the American Pony Express of the 19th Century, carriers of the knowledge have always been indispensable. Civilization is built on reliable communications.
Benjamin Franklin’s happy invention, the US postal system formalized the country’s information network. Of practical use and service to Americans far and wide, its global reach has signified at times the very essence of human connection and enterprise.
From 1934 to 1943, the US Treasury Department, through its Section of Painting and Sculpture, commissioned over 1,600 murals and sculptures to be installed in post offices throughout the United States. It was a major endeavor, intended to signify the breadth and range of the country to the American people. The post office murals project was in the grand design of public works launched during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The impulse of a visual education that would cohere the country was paramount. History, mythology, iconography and, a measure of stereotype, braided a thematic that could celebrate the manifested destiny of the nation as the new century matured. Naturally, in the story of American origins and progress, the subject of the American Indian will necessarily surface.
The “48 states” competition of the Treasury Relief Art Project drew sketches from over 3,000 artists in a wide range of styles that included abstract modernism, surrealism and the American regionalism exemplified by the works of Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. The competition resulted in the painting of 1600 murals in post offices, nation-wide. Four hundred of these post office murals depict American Indians as subject and symbol, and they are the focus of this virtual exhibition, a collaborative project of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, and the United States Postal Service.
The “Indian-themed” murals of United States post offices celebrate, in their own way, events of American history. A good number present their subject with clear historical eye and cultural appreciation. In this vein, a mural from the post office in Ames, Iowa, provides compelling scenes on the The Evolution of Corn, from the Maya inventors to the capped farmer in overalls characteristic of American agriculture. There is the lean, dignified Osceola, of Osceola in Conference with Hernandez. There is the clear bounty of agricultural contribution offered in trade by Native families, on the walls of the post office at Fort Lee, New Jersey, called, Indians Trading with the Half Moon. These pieces display substantial artist research into the topics.
Much more “imagined” than informed, others among the “Indian-themed” murals incorporate the salient, stereotypical images that have confronted and continue to challenge contemporary American Indian people. Some of these are quite harsh, tending toward a punitive and degrading perception of Indian people. Others are simply bizarre, given to cultural interpretations of an “other” so remote and exotic to the artist as to be almost non-human. The worst can be outright macabre, focused on brutal death and sexualized mayhem. The lesser insensibilities simply repeat the familiar expectation of idealized, erectly muscled, stoic human figures. Themes of primitive life and barbarism, stock conceptualizations of early anthropology, inevitably braid through both artistic vision and civic mission.
The visualized history of these 400 murals is quite stunning and reveals the power and awesome responsibility of a nation to define itself. Beyond the expression of utility and service of a postal system, the mission of civilization takes center stage, and frames the arch of major American Indian themes: encounter; the (assumed) primitive, natural way of life; European settlement and brutal conflict; early trade; treaty-making; evangelization, and, most questionably; the theme of Native extinction. Expectation and myth of the social sciences, Native extinction is persistently challenged by the cyclical resounding of the Native tribal community, whose voice -- in civic identity, in ritual practice, and in culturally-informed creativity – remains in active self-representation.
Expectedly, the subject and artistic reality of “the Indian,” early important to the national narrative, tends to be romanticized, idealized and/or denigrated. Often focused yet marginalized, the Indian public image can become restrictive, denuded of historical accuracy. These works of art display often a wonderful artistic capacity, illustrating for us an era eight decades ago, riddled with misconceptions, even precisely at the moment when the challenge by Native Nations to the expectation of their own extinction was starting to be understood at federal levels.
The Red Man Takes The Mochila, a sub-scene of the larger mural, The Pony Express, assists the shift in perspective for me. Painted by Frank A. Mechau, a non-Native artist with a particularly violent perception of Indian people, still it leads us to an interpretation of Native agency. A Pony Express rider is successfully ambushed by horse-riding Indian warriors, who capture his “mochila,” or pouch. The painting means to focus the heroic journey and fate of the express rider, featuring the Indian as the dangerous impediment to progress. Nevertheless, the rider’s imagined tragedy (these “Indian” raids on the Pony Express are highly exaggerated) may also be seen as that moment’s Indian victory -- the capture of enemy communications crossing their territory. Would Indian men have looked into the pouch? No doubt. Would one or more have been literate enough to interpret the communication? This is not inconceivable by the 1860s.
At the NMAI, we celebrate and endeavor to dignify the living braid of Native history and culture – in its documentary record, its ongoing orality and in its own growing scholarship that can still inform American life. The presentation of Native perspectives and the understanding of actual Native participation in the large pattern of American history are central to our mandate.
Of the four hundred murals depicting American Indian themes, a handful were actually painted by American Indian artists. That the messaging in these is markedly different from the rest focuses our attention. A brief review of four Native artists to win commissions under the program helps to remind us that cultural competency and sense-of-self matters in the selection and interpretation of reality.
Andrew Standing Soldier, Oglala-Lakota, provides a wonderfully subdued and friendly scene of Indian families greeting each other, in The Arrival Celebration, The Round Up, a mural at the Blackfoot, Idaho post office. Standing Soldier eschews notions of idealized Indian bodies and civilizational themes of the non –Native artists for scenes familiar -- not to the general public -- but certainly to rural Indians and neighbors throughout the Western Plains. Similarly, Solomon McCombs, Creek, paints Chickasaw Family Making Pah Sho Fah,for the post office in Marietta, OK, likewise emphasizing community collaborative values and traditional foods important to tribal nutrition and cultural identity. Labeled as “mundane” by some critics, these are scenes that tend to liberate the mind from themes of idealization, violence and pathos that normally dominate the subject.
Steven Mopope, Kiowa, selects the theme of spiritual connection as expressed in the eagle dance, and in his, Two Eagle Dancers, gives us a sublime and elegant interpretation. Somewhat in the flat, culture-bound style preferred by the artistic method encouraged by the non-Native art educator, Dorothy Dunn, still it bespeaks appreciation for the dancers’ concentration and flight. Mopope’s delicate work contrasts well with the bizarre idealization of The Indian Bear Dance, painted by Lithuanian artist, Boris Deutsch for the post office at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and intended to depict a disappearing people.
Most tellingly, W. Richard (Dick) West, Southern Cheyenne, in his Grand Council of 1842, for the post office at Okemah, Oklahoma, captures the foremost Indian message of that historical moment: the tradition and practice of Indian tribal self-government. The New Deal era was crucial to American Indian tribal survival, ushering new policies that recognized and reorganized tribal government. West’s rich and prescient mural provides a view of Indian leadership determinedly conducting political affairs for their own nations. Centrally depicted on the wall: The Seal of the Great Muscogee Nation. Most compellingly, in West’s selection of the subject of tribal self-government, he lands on a “grand council” not with the US government, but between and among tribal nations, settling hunting and land issues. This important painting –assigned the educational mission of public art – signaled an important moment for American Indians, when the expectation of survival as sovereign nations replaced the expectation of extinction. West’s matter-of-fact interpretation of the momentous new Indian policy theme is keen messaging to his present and future generations. (His son, Richard W. West, became founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian).
There is much to be discerned about these post office murals from the 1930s and 1940s, and what they can tell us about the way we see and have seen the world. For American Indians, always envisioned through multiple social and cultural lenses, all interpretation is worth examination, and all distortion deserves challenge, and, when needed, correction. Quality, of course, from whatever hand, is always worthy of praise.
Marling, Karal Ann. Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Philp, K. R. (1977). John Collier's crusade for Indian reform, 1920-1954 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press)
McNesse, Tim (2009). The Pony Express: Bringing Mail to the American West. Infobase Publishing.