Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
History and the EPA's Big Picture
By Fern Shen
Nov. 24, 2000
WASHINGTON -- Check out the big mural on the fifth floor, a friend told Myrna Mooney one day last August, shortly after Mooney and fellow employees of the Environmental Protection Agency moved into new headquarters in the Federal Triangle complex.
Mooney, a Native American from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, was "flabbergasted" by what she saw:
Splashed across a 13-foot-wide canvas in the Ariel Rios Building was a graphic scene of Indians attacking and scalping White people. Called Dangers of the Mail, the 1930s-era painting included half a dozen naked White women being assaulted by Indians and an Indian stabbing a White man in the back.
"It portrays Indians as cowardly. It's an insult," Mooney said. "When you come from the reservation, these kinds of images make you physically ill."
Mooney and a dozen other Native Americans soon complained. Earlier this month, after hours of meetings, allegations of censorship and racism, and talk of a lawsuit, EPA officials quietly circulated a memo saying that the mural, and a similar one elsewhere in the building, would be covered with temporary displays. The memo added that the EPA would push for "removing (the murals) from public view" and would formally ask its landlord, the General Services Administration, to do so.
But GSA officials said last week that the murals are an integral part of the historic building that should remain on public display -- with a better explanation of their historical context.
That puts Dangers of the Mail at the center of a thorny debate that has dogged public art in the United States for decades: Which version of American history should our public buildings tell?
The heroic view of the government opening up the West and forging the new nation is precisely what led to the genocide of American Indians, the EPA's Native American workers say.
The GSA's position is that it can remove the murals' sting with signs and brochures explaining how the nation saw itself at the time the art was made for a building that was originally U.S. Post Office headquarters.
"Delivering the mail was symbolic of democracy and the growth of the young nation and bringing communities together," said Tony Costa, GSA's head of public buildings for the National Capital Region. "So anything that would impede that was a grave threat."
The controversy also highlights Indian leaders' frustration that they are still battling over cultural stereotypes that other minorities have long ago pushed beyond the fringes of acceptability.
"If you had scenes of African-American men killing White women, you'd have a hostile workplace issue," said Judith Lee, a Washington attorney and member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, who is representing the EPA workers. "Everyone would see that."
The murals in question (PDF):
Dangers of the Mail
According to Dana Ott, an EPA lawyer, the mural displays "inconvenient" historical facts. Yes, if "inconvenient" means "blatantly distorted and one-sided." They ignore the entire context for the Indians' acts of bloodshed.
Just as important, the so-called facts are barely factual. As James W. Loewen noted in Lies My Teacher Told Me, European warfare was much more vicious than the Native variety. Where Americans slaughtered whole villages of innocent women and children, Indians often warred by counting coup—touching single opponents with a coup stick instead of killing them.
Does that mean we should censor the mural because it's not "politically correct"—or correct, period? Not necessarily. Accuracy is what Native people want, not sanitization. As one Native woman commented, "If they leave this up, they need to display the American soldiers/settlers doing what they did to Native people. Raping, carving up, burning."
Let's repeat what Choctaw attorney Judith Lee noted. "If you had scenes of African-American men killing White women, you'd have a hostile workplace issue." In other words, the EPA would find a way to move or cover the mural. As with Chief Wahoo and other sports mascots, Indian stereotypes are the last "acceptable" ethnic stereotypes in America.
Finally, some action?
Four and a half years later, the government begins to move on the problem. From Indianz.com:
Indian murals at EPA building to undergo review
Thursday, March 17, 2005
A handful of government murals that depict Indian people in an unfavorable light will undergo a review to determine whether they are appropriate to display, a federal agency announced on Wednesday.
After years of complaints by Indian employees and their advocates, the General Services Administration initiated the review of six murals at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. The GSA plans to take input from the public under the National Historic Preservation Act because the artwork is more than 70 years old.
"By utilizing this historic preservation review process, we will provide all interested parties an opportunity to inform GSA how they view this issue," Donald C. Williams, the GSA administrator for the Washington area.
Indian employees at EPA have already made their views known about the public display of the murals at the Ariol Rios Building. They say that depiction of Indian men scalping nude white women and murdering white men are offensive. The paintings also show nude Indian men and women in submissive positions.
"The subliminal message of these is discouraging," Bob Smith, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin who works at the building, said in an interview. "What they reinforce is stereotypes and I think that's wrong in a government building. It creates a hostile work environment for American Indians."
Elizabeth Kronk, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa from Michigan, is a Washington attorney who has been advocating for the removal of the murals. She said they are an affront to Indian employees and to tribal leaders who visit the EPA building to meet with federal officials.
"These murals perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans as murderers, rapists and in positions of inferiority," she said. "To have to be faced with these depictions every day," she added, "is horrible."
The murals, located on two different floors, were installed in the 1930s when the building was the headquarters for the U.S. Postal Service. One in particular, "Dangers of the Mail," by Frank A. Mechau, has been controversial from the start because it displays nude women being attacked by Indians.
The issue attracted the attention of former EPA administrator Carol Browner, who served during the Clinton administration. In 2000, she ordered the murals to be covered, saying they were offensive to American Indians and women.
But the covering was removed at the start of the Bush administration and some of the murals were sent out for restoration by the GSA. "By restoring the paintings, it made the brighter and more vivid to portray their negative stereotypes," asserted Smith.
Bush officials later put up an Indian-related display in front of two of the murals, including the "Dangers of the Mail" one. However, it is still possible to view the murals by walking behind the display.
To help gain more attention, Kronk submitted a resolution to the National Congress of American Indians to call for action on the murals. The resolution was passed at the NCAI annual session last October.
Kronk acknowledged there is some difficulty in resolving the matter because two of the murals are attached to the wall. The other four, however, are canvas paintings that have been easily removed in the past. "We would encourage [GSA] to do that again," said Kronk.
Physical removal of the two attached murals is an option, Kronk said, but covering them up completely could also be considered. "In essence they need to be removed from public display," she said. "Whether that's physical removal, we leave that to the agencies."
Whatever the solution, Smith wants it resolved quickly. "This has been really dragging on," he said yesterday. "Nobody's really taking a firm stand."
Smith pointed out that former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft covered up a semi-nude statue at the Department of Justice headquarters. The government spent $8,000 on curtains to hide the statue from public display.
"He was high level," Smith said of Ashcroft. "If the little man complained, they would have been ignored."
Smith has worked at the EPA for 15 years and has to pass the murals every day. He said it affects more than just himself and the 30 to 40 Indian employees at the headquarters.
"I wouldn't even bring my daughter here for Bring Your Daughter to Work Day," he said. "How would I explain to my own kids the depiction of their own people as savages and sexual predators and murderers?"
The EPA did not return a request for comment yesterday. Nationwide, the agency has about 700 Indian employees.
Best Indian monuments to topple
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