Governor's office resides a mural that has generated accolades.
It's also a
mural that has generated controversy, protest, draperies, a painting in
rebuttal, multiple legislation, an attorney general's opinion, and
finally, an order of the Governor to obfuscate the painting from view
until such a time is can be removed without causing it permanent damage
- a time which might not exist in our lifetimes.
That mural is
the famous (or if you prefer, infamous) Edwin H. Blashfield mural
originally entitled Spirit of the West.
is Edwin Blashfield? At one time called the Dean of American Mural
Painters, his paintings and murals
can be found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and in the South Dakota
State Capitols. Pictured at the right is a mural painted by Mr.
Blashfield that adorns the Governor's Suite in the Minnesota State
You can also
find his murals in libraries in Detroit, Kansas City, the New York City
College (now C.C.N.Y.), M.I.T., Grove Academy of Athens (Georgia),
Baltimore and Cleveland court houses, and private homes and businesses.
resume also boasts the obverse of the 1896 Two Dollar Bill...
as well as the
dome in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress entitled "The
Evolution of Civilization"
But in South
Dakota, this artist is best known for his work "Spirit of the West"
describing it, Doane Robinson related in the South Dakota Historical
Collections 1910 that "South Dakota is represented by a beautiful woman,
in the spotlight, with the figure of hope floating over her head and
pointing forward. The woman, holding the bible, is the Spirit of the
West - the title of the picture.
settlers are beating back and overcoming the Indians who are clinging to
her garments, attempting to impede her progress.
The man with
the brown hat and beard, holding the gun, represents the US Army.
The man with the pistol represents the Homesteader.
The Army and
the homesteaders are pushing the Indians down to the ground, thinking
they have them conquered.
the evil spirit, represented by a dark and hooded figure seeing
civilization coming into the country, covers his face with his hands and
scuttles away into the darkness.
At the top of
the picture is the guiding angel, pointing the people to come to this
western country and settle.
Just below are
the covered wagons, moving through the badlands into the Black Hills,
and on into Wyoming and Montana.
traveled from his studio in New York to Pierre to assure himself that
his masterpiece was properly mounted and that the decorations of the
room were in harmony with it. He regards it as one of his great
works and said of it that he never has excelled its technique."
of an entirely original theme earned him the gold medal of the
Architectural League - one of the highest honors ever accorded an
American painter. This nine feet square painting also earned him
accolades from the April 1911 issue of the Western Architect magazine
who called it "one of his best pictures."
But in the
times since, it's history and interpretation have invited controversy,
and as you might guess from the Robinson description, it has invited a
degree of criticism from South Dakota's Native American population for
it's depiction of manifest destiny displacing native populations.
At the end of
the 1960's and early 1970's, as Native Americans in South Dakota were
asserting themselves politically and culturally, the Blashfield painting
became a focusing point. Newly elected Governor Rchard F. Kneip found
the mural objectionable and had it veiled in 1971, so only a drapery
would be visible by visitors to the Governor's Reception area.
At the same
time, he commissioned a mural by Paul War Cloud Grant titled "Unity
through the Great Spirit." This painting served as a contrast to the
mural and either could be viewed by visitors to the Governor's office
in about 1976, a major restoration of the State Capitol commenced with a
goal of returning the majestic building to it's original state. Part of
the restoration included the Governor's office, returning the Blashfield
painting to full public view without draperies or other art acting as
Dakota news media noticed the fact that the mural was returned to view,
and a series of stories ran noting that Governor Kneip "found the mural
personally distasteful, and that it did not represent the true attitudes
of most South Dakota residents who prefer to work in cooperation with
the Indian people."
mural was part of the original building, and efforts to restore the
capitol should include all portions of the facility."
About the time
this story ran, in November of 1977, a Aberdeen college student, Tim
Peterson, wrote the Governor and expressed his feelings on the matter.
I read the
article in the Aberdeen American News today about the mural in a
conference room. I agree with the statement that most South Dakota
residents do not feel the animosity towards Indians that the mural would
seem to suggest, but I trust you will agree there were such feelings,
most notably in the "frontier" days of our state, and in fact, these few
ignorant people are responsible for the situation that exists between
Indian and white communities today. No matter how distasteful these
attitudes may be, they remain an integral part of our state's history,
and only by remembering our mistakes can we learn.
A staff member
brought Tim's suggestion to the Governor, who put his stamp of approval
on placing a plaque next to the mural unofficially changing the name of
the painting from "Spirit of the West" to "Only By Remembering Our
Mistakes, Can We Learn."
1980's after the Capitol Restoration had been completed under Governors
Bill Janklow and George S. Mickelson, it was noted that the
unofficial title had lapsed over the intervening years in favor of the
original "Spirit of the West."
Senator at the time, Thomas Shortbull, began attempts in the mid 1980's
to have the portrait removed from public view in the Capitol. At this
time, Governor Mickelson announced a year of reconciliation between the
people of South Dakota, and as part of it, he went to the Legislature
and made an official name change of the painting to "Only By Remembering
Our Mistakes, Can We Learn." formalizing what Governor Kneip had done
unofficially several years before.
But even the
renaming of the painting didn't erase the controversy, as detractors
persisted in their demands that the painting be covered by draping,
despite the requirements of the Capitol restoration mandating that it
remain in it's restored state.
thereafter, South Dakota's media as well as others including the South
Dakota Peace and Justice Center took up the cause with various protests
being organized. Some used inflammatory language beyond what can be
documented at any time to artistic description. Whether the affronts
were real or imagined, during the 1990's the painting often served as a
focal point for race relations in South Dakota.
Senate Bill 252 was passed, which was designed to have the painting
removed. However, this new law conflicted with the pre-existing law
which authorized the Capitol Complex Restoration and Beautification
Commission to restore the Capitol.
Attorney General's Opinion 94-14 was issued in response to the plea
to determine the controversy between the two law's conflicts.
Ultimately, because the mural could not be removed with present
technology without causing irreparable damage, as well as then Governor
Miller's concerns over removal or covering the art as being seen as an
act of censorship, the Legislature's Executive board dropped the matter.
In 1997 as
Bill Janklow returned to head the Executive Branch of Government, the
mandates of 1994's SD 252 were brought up again as various groups began
protesting the mural again.
a Lakota woman who didn't own a car, hitched a ride to Pierre to view
the mural for herself. As she later related to Governor Janklow in a
telephone call: "The mural is beautifully done. And yet, to us it is a
bad picture, I (don't) want the young people to see this. The painting
may show what once was in South Dakota. It doesn't show what is and it
shouldn't show what can be."
Governor Janklow made the decision to cover the mural with conservation
approved methods behind a wood cradle, with a note behind the sheetrock
placed over it noting what the painting is, and why it is covered.
the painting remains controversial to this day, and will likely remain
covered until some point in the future when restoration efforts are
considered once again at the State Capitol.
At one point
during the battles over the mural, Victorene Blashfield, a relative of
Edwin Blashfield who was also of Native American descent, offered the
following quote in its defense. It's symbolic of why South Dakotans have
such conflicted feelings over the painting and the eternal debate over
whether it's better to display it and remember, or to cover it and
strike from our minds of a shameful example of our past:
you paint history the material is imposed upon you; You have to
put upon your wall what was really present when the event to be
portrayed actually took place."
Edwin H. Blashfield, A Word for Municipal Art.
The Statuary Art of