At the entrance to Somsen Hall, a mural by John Martin Socha depicts one version of the history of Winona. “This is a monument to colonization,” Winona State University President Scott Olson said. “It hides all the horrors of it,” sophomore Colton Rohde stated.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Compared to the artwork they discuss, they are small. Two plaques unveiled last week now stand like footnotes next to a wall-spanning mural inside the entrance of Winona State University’s (WSU) Somsen Hall. The mural depicts one version of Winona’s history. The plaques are titled “A Dakota Perspective.”
University leaders also announced plans last week for another piece of artwork on campus, “The End of the Trail” statue, which has been the focus of a longstanding controversy. Some faculty members and students say the statue and the mural depict Native Americans in an offensive, problematic, and inaccurate light. WSU officials said they will work with Native American groups on and off campus to construct an Indigenous Learning Garden, filled with native plants and information on their traditional uses in Native American culture, around the statue.
“It’s significant that we’re finally doing something to acknowledge that this is Dakota land and they were colonized and kicked off,” WSU Professor Cindy Killion, who has been pushing for the university to address “The End of the Trail” since 2010, said in an interview. “Acknowledging that history is a big deal,” Killion added.
Wrapping around the walls of the foyer, the Somsen Hall mural shows white loggers and missionaries interacting with Dakotas on one side, and on the other, white men farming, building railroads, piloting steamboats, and milling lumber and some white women working, mostly cooking. There are no Dakotas in the more modern panel. In a third panel that links the two sides, a white frontiersman and a Dakota man sit down, side by side, against the backdrop of a white hand and a brown hand preparing to shake.
A Minnesotan and pupil of Diego Rivera, John Martin Socha painted the Somsen Hall mural in 1938, according to Minneapolis Institute of Art Assistant Curator of Native American Art Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who wrote the text of the first plaque. It was a Works of Progress Administration (WPA) project, a New Deal program during the Great Depression that used government spending to put some of the vast numbers of unemployed Americans to work. Socha “portrayed Indigenous people through the lens of mainstream ideology at the time,” Yohe wrote.
Yohe’s writing draws attention to the fact that white loggers appear in the mural’s earliest frame. “The insertion of white settlers at the beginning of the mural creates an incorrect narrative of history and stakes rights and claims to a territory already thriving with activity and settled by Indigenous people for millennia,” the doctor of anthropology stated. Yohe also mentions something the mural does not: “In 1851, Dakota people signed the treaty of Traverse de Sioux, by which the United States government seized more than half of what is now Minnesota, a treaty that was filled with inaccuracies and illegalities with devastating consequences for the Dakota.”
Asked what was wrong with the mural, Killion pointed to, among other things, the image of a missionary holding up a crucifix to a group of Native American men. The U.S. government did not pass a law, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, granting Native Americans the right to practice their own religions until 1978.
Aaron Camacho is the president of the Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance and a leader of the Turtle Island Student Organization (TISO) at WSU, which helped agitate for the plaques and the Indigenous Learning Garden. In an interview, Camacho said of the mural, “It just depicts genocide in the most beautiful way.”
At the unveiling ceremony, WSU President Scott Olson opened by stating that WSU is on Dakota land. “This is a monument to colonization,” he said of the mural. “And so, it is a necessary step, although I think I would argue not a totally sufficient step, to at least provide, after 79 years, to provide some context for this mural and try to help those that might look at it understand a little bit why things are depicted the way they are here,” Olson added.
Colton Rohde has walked past this mural many times in his two years at WSU. “I’d always known that something was kind of up with it,” he said, as he and another young man read the newly unveiled plaques. “I don’t know if you saw it as offensive, but it was odd,” he stated, adding, “I’m glad someone’s said something about it.” The mural does glorify colonization, Rohde said. “It hides all the horrors of it,” he stated.
If the Somsen mural glazes over the harm done to Native Americans, “The End of the Trail” is all about it. An Indigenous man cast in bronze slumps forward, doubled over atop a worn-out horse with protruding ribs. Its sculptor, James Earle Fraser, was born in Winona and became famous. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art offers this interpretation of the 1918 sculpture: “The weary Indian, slumped dejectedly upon his windblown pony, is a stirring interpretation of the damaging effects of advancing white settlement on the Native American population. Based on Fraser's firsthand experiences growing up on a ranch in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, his sculpture, rich in narrative detail, was intended as a symbolic comment on the confinement of Native Americans on government reservations.”
“That was created during the time when white people thought Native Americans were going to disappear. So that’s what it represents,” Killion said. But Native Americans haven’t disappeared. Referring to colonization, Killion said, “It happened in the past, but we’re still living.”
This spring, TISO posted an open letter to Olson on its Facebook page urging him to make good on promises for the Indigenous Learning Garden. TISO included a photograph of the statue with this text superimposed on the photo: “Others have told our story since 1492. That history persists. It’s time we share our own history. Let’s start by telling the truth. Shed some light. Share with others who the People are and that we are still here. We still have a voice.”
In academic terms, the aim of both plaques and the Indigenous Learning Garden is to “contextualize” the two artworks, meaning that the plaques and the garden will put the original artwork in a bigger context. “It’s kind of exciting because we get to share an image that’s more holistic along with this image,” Camacho said. Killion would be happy to see the artworks removed entirely.
“I’d rather paint over it,” Killion said of the mural. “But I also understand that we have to acknowledge the era that this was done.” Killion said she would support removing “The End of the Trail” altogether, and Olson said that WSU has not decided whether the statue will stay or go. “This is still a conversation. There’s still a lot of opinions on this statue,” he stated.
Camacho, who started out as an art education major, said WSU should keep the original artwork. “I think art is important, and it would be a shame to paint over it because that art gives us a snapshot in history,” Camacho stated. “To cover that up is bad,” the student continued. “That’s erasure of culture and that’s exactly what I’m trying to fight against.”
WSU Interim Director of Planning & Construction Lisa Pearson said that the university aims to start work on the Indigenous Learning Garden this spring and continue through 2018.
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Camacho as Dakota and Killion as Navajo. Camacho is Potawatomi of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and of Ho-Chunk, Yaqui, and European descent. Killion is Tsa-La-Gi or Cherokee.