As Wisconsin celebrates its state Capitol centennial this year, one of the people being honored is Oliver La Mere, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who served as a Capitol tour guide from 1928 to 1930.
A display in the rotunda recalls how he “created a small museum containing traditional Ho-Chunk clothes, jewelry and ceremonial objects,” and taught visiting school groups and Boy and Girl Scout troops about American Indian culture.
Unfortunately, the tours died with La Mere. The state packed his artifacts into three large trunks and sent them to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
But if La Mere’s experiment is worthy of recognition today, why not revive it? Bringing back Native American tour guides would be a fitting way to add substance to the Capitol’s centennial celebration. It also would be a vast improvement on how the state Capitol now portrays native people —as defeated and uncivilized.
State capitol art and stories have long been a subject of interest to me. Minnesota, my home state, had a heated debate about the derogatory images of Native Americans and slanted depiction of history inside its capitol during a recent renovation. Not long ago, on a tour of the Wisconsin Capitol, I saw grounds for similar concern.
The tour included the Assembly chamber and the mural “Wisconsin,” which highlights the state’s past, present and future, through a 1917 lens. The image representing the present includes the arrival of Europeans: lumbermen, farmers and miners and their families. To the left, representing the future, is a young white woman sheltering the “Lamp of Progress.” To the right, representing the past, are “two Indians who shade their eyes from the light, suggesting the order of things entirely passed away,” according to the official state Capitol guide. The natives are half naked, symbolizing a lack of civilization.
Lawmakers face this image as they debate bills that affect Wisconsin’s native peoples: the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Oneida, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Mohicans, Lac Courte Oreilles and others.
Meanwhile, a governor’s conference room painting “The Closing Scene of the Winnebago War of 1827“ depicts Chief Red Bird’s surrender to Major William Whistler. The guide book trivializes the war’s cause, calling it “an unfortunate misunderstanding.” It was provoked by the U.S. government’s failure to keep treaty agreements.
Problematic Capitol art is not unique to Wisconsin. The Minnesota Senate’s allegorical mural “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi“ shows a priest converting a half-naked native man and woman while the angels of “Discovery” and “Civilization” fly overhead. The Alabama State Capitol painting “Wealth and Leisure Produce the Golden Period of Antebellum Life in Alabama, 1840-1860,” shows a well-dressed white couple riding their horses while a black “mammy” tends to young child on the mansion porch.
During the state Capitol’s centennial, Wisconsin has a wonderful opportunity to bring new and diverse voices to the tours, including restarting native-led tours that focus on Native American culture.