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Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America

Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America
Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America, 1940-44, by Boris Deutsch
Los Angeles, California Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America 1940-44, by Boris Deutsch
Los Angeles, California Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The mural series entitled “The Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America” in the Los Angeles Terminal Annex Post Office was painted in the early 1940s by Boris Deutsch. While the murals depict a number of indigenous North and South Americans, Mr. Deutsch himself was originally from Lithuania. Born in the town of Krasnagorka on June 4, 1892, Mr. Deutsch began painting as a small child. His mother encouraged his artistic ambitions and he enrolled at art school in the Russian city of Rega, on the Baltic Sea, at the age of ten. At 17, he moved to Berlin where he studied painting and took a job doing ornamental work. Upon his return to Rega, he was drafted into the Russian Army and sent to Kiev during the early stages of World War I. Upon learning that his battalion was to be deployed to the Caucasus mountains, Mr. Deutsch took a day pass to go into the town and deserted the Army. He left Russia and, by way of China and Japan, eventually landed in Seattle, Washington. After 4 years in Seattle, during which he painted and worked for a commercial arts and engraving company, Mr. Deutsch relocated to Los Angeles. His family had since followed him to the United States from Europe, and physicians recommended they move to Southern California for his mother’s health. In 1939, he received a commission from the United States Treasury Department to paint murals in the Los Angeles Terminal Annex Post Office. The space included 11 panels, or “lunettes”, and Mr. Deutsch was required to choose his subject matter and sketch all 11 designs, as well as close-ups. He chose the subject of “Culture of the Americas”, and represented indigenous peoples from South America, Mexico and California, as well as scenes from science and industry. Mr. Deutsch also completed other post office murals through the same program, including the “Indian Bear Dance” mural in the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Portraits are described as a quintessential subject of Mr. Deutsch’s work. He employed modernist concepts such as loose, expressionist strokes and flattened, almost cubist, qualities. Mr. Deutsch’s work is displayed in collections throughout California and the United States, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He died in Los Angeles in 1978.

Though the first Hokan-speaking peoples may have been in Los Angeles as early as 3,000 B.C.E., the first Europeans, Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew, did not visit the area until 1542. Spanish explorers again anchored near the the present-day city in 1602. Spaniards from the Franciscan order founded the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in September 1771. It was subsequently relocated five miles closer to the mountains after a flash flood devastated the mission complex in 1776. In 1777, the newly-appointed Spanish Governor of Alta California, Felipe de Neve, toured the area and decided to build pueblos as a support system for the military encampments, or presidios, and the pueblo that would become Los Angeles was founded from the San Gabriel mission. The official date for the founding of the city was September 4, 1781, and its original full name was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels). The first Los Angeles townspeople, or Pobladores, were 44 colonists recruited from Mexico, a mix of Spanish and Indian descendants. In the 1780s, a group of Tongva Indians launched an attack on the San Gabriel mission, but the soldiers were able to defend it. In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain, and the residents of Alta California became Mexican citizens. By this time, Los Angeles had grown into the largest self-sustaining farming community in Southern California. The Los Angeles floodplain was heavily wooded with willows and oaks. Wildlife was plentiful, including deer, antelope, and bear, and there were abundant wetlands and swamps. Steelhead trout and salmon swam the rivers, and the Los Angeles River flowed all year. The area was also recognized for producing fine wine grapes. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, the Los Angeles area became the site of the Battles of Dominguez Rancho and San Pascual, in which the Mexicans were victorious. However, at the end of the year, American Commodore Robert Stockton and his troops entered Los Angeles. The Treaty of Cahuenga, which formally ended the California phase of the Mexican-American War, was signed on January 13, 1847. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on 2 February 1848, ended the war and ceded California to the U.S.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first peoples inhabited the Los Angeles area as long ago as 6,000 B.C.E., but the first historically recorded inhabitants of the area were the Tongva, whose language was a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family, and who likely had origins in the Sonora Desert. Upon the founding of Mission San Gabriel and other missions in Alta California, many of the Tongva and their neighbors, including the Chumash, the Serrano, and the Acjachemem, were forcibly recruited to the missions and became known as the Gabrieliños, in reference to the mission San Gabriel and the San Gabriel Mountains. After the founding of the pueblo in 1781, cheap Indian labor became high in demand, though Indian people were regularly exploited, starved, and beaten. In the 19th Century, the main Tongva village of Yaanga was repeatedly relocated, and Indian people faced increasing competition for work from Mexican migrants. Although the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo required the U.S. to grant citizenship to the Indians of former Mexican territories, the U.S. did not do so for another 80 years. The Constitution of California deprived Indians of any protection under the law, considering them as non-persons, and making it impossible to bring a white person to trial for killing an Indian or forcing them off their property. Despite cruel treatment that brought them to the brink of disappearance, descendants of the Tongva still live in the Los Angeles area. They are represented by The Gabrieliño-Tongva Tribe, the Gabrieliño/Tongva Tribe of the Los Angeles Basin, the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, and the Gabrieleño/Tongva Tribal Council of San Gabriel. Though the State of California formally recognizes all 4 of these groups, none are recognized by the Federal Government.

Despite the continued presence in the Los Angeles area of the Gabrieliño-Tongva people, the mural lunettes may not include them at all. In the lunette depicting Indians in “Alta California”, which is now the state of California, the artist chose to paint Father Junipero Serra, who spent very little time in the Los Angeles area, and was more influential in the San Diego and Monterey Bay areas after arriving from Baja California. San Diego was the home of the Kumeyaay people, and Monterey was the territory of the Rumsen Ohlone. In an interview with the artist recorded by the Archives of American Art in June 1964, he refers to Father Serra as “the father who first came into this country”. While he was responsible for planning the development of the missions, he did not visit the San Gabriel site until 1772, a year after it was established. The mission in the mural does not resemble the Mission San Gabriel. While the mural depicts an important chapter in the history of the missions of California, it depicts Indian people other than the Gabrieliño-Tongva, thereby omitting the indigenous inhabitants of the Los Angeles area from the mural altogether. Mr. Deutsch is quoted as saying that the two lunettes including South American pottery and a Quetzal bird headdress could be from “any part of that section of the country”, indicating a general reference to South America, rather than a specific Indian culture. In the other lunettes, he specifically references indigenous Peruvians and Mexicans.  The lack of cultural specificity across all the Indian-related lunettes creates a general, rather than locally-specific, interpretation of the history of indigenous Americans which in turn permits the fading of their existence into the mist of ages past. The author does state in the Archives interview that he did some cultural and architectural research, noting the significance of llamas, masks, and the Quetzal bird headdress. In one of the sections representing Mexico, Mr. Deutsch included Mayan and Aztecan symbolism. He researched “ancient codices” and used those symbolic figures to spell out “1943”, the year he painted the mural section. Perhaps the most significant point of analysis in the mural series is the division between the Indian past, and the European-American present and future. Of the 11 lunettes in the series, the 6 depicting native cultures of South America, Mexico and California are clearly temporally situated in the past, while the following 5 paintings, depicting European Americans engaged in scientific, industrial pursuits, appear much more modern and futuristic. These include representations of Western pioneers, high-powered telescopes, telephone communications, a physics class, and the modern military. The project clearly draws a line between native cultures of the Americas as a thing of the past, while the academic, innovative and prosperous future is the sole domain of white Americans.

By Meghan A. Navarro, Smithsonian National Postal Museum 2013 Scholarship Winner


Sources:

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