‘Father Hennepin’ draws controversy as committee evaluates Capitol art

| November 17, 2015 | 7 Comments
“Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony” by Douglas Volk, c. 1905. Courtesy the State of Minnesota

“Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony” by Douglas Volk, c. 1905. Courtesy the State of Minnesota

In 1680, the explorer and Franciscan priest Father Louis Hennepin was traveling the Mississippi River as a captive of the Dakota people when the group came across what he later described as a 50-foot waterfall. He named it for his patron, St. Anthony of Padua.

A painting in the Minnesota State Capitol depicting this moment is at the center of controversy as a subcommittee of the Capitol Preservation Commission evaluates the merits of the Capitol’s existing collection and potential additions to new public spaces opening as part of its comprehensive restoration.

In a small group discussion during a Nov. 12 public input meeting in Minneapolis, one citizen said the artwork and those like it represent a “naïve, skewed vision,” while another suggested they could be moved to the basement of the Minnesota History Center in boxes marked “past misunderstandings.”

The 7-by-10 foot “Father Louis Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” by Douglas Volk shows Father Hennepin standing among five members of the Dakota tribe and a fellow explorer on the east bank of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. The Franciscan friar faces the water, holding a crucifix with his left hand and raising his right in a gesture of blessing.

The fellow explorer, Michael Accault, sits on the ground with four Dakota men, presumably resting after portaging canoes around the falls. To the right, a Dakota woman is entering the scene, carrying a large pack on her back. She is bare chested.

The Hennepin painting is one of several paintings in the Capitol criticized for inaccurate depictions of Native Americans dress and culture. It is also the only painting in the Capitol focusing on the Catholic contribution to Minnesota’s founding.

It was one of six paintings commissioned by Capitol architect Cass Gilbert around 1905 for the Governor’s Reception Room, an ornate room where the governor receives guests and often signs bills. Others in the room, including “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” by painter Francis Millet and Civil War battle scenes, are also under fire for historical inaccuracies.

The Preservation Committee’s art subcommittee plans to submit recommendations in January to the Minnesota Historical Society for what to do with the Capitol’s art. The Historical Society will make the final decision.

St. Anthony Falls’ significance

 A native of present-day Belgium, Father Hennepin published books detailing his travels in “New France” along the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes. He describes how a Dakota tribe captured him and two French companions near Lake Pepin in April 1680 and took them to a village near Lake Mille Lacs. Another French explorer, Daniel Greysolon — aka Sier du Lhut, from whom Duluth takes its name —negotiated their release later that summer.

The focus of “Father Hennepin” was to tell part of the state’s early history, said Brian Pease, Minnesota State Capitol historic site manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.

“There’s a value of bringing forward that story of that early French exploration and people who were looking for the source of the Mississippi,” he said.

Volk’s painting of Father Hennepin highlights not only a moment in the state’s history, but also the importance of the Mississippi River and St. Anthony Falls for Minneapolis’ flour milling industry and the state’s economy, he added.

History and human dignity

By the time Father Hennepin encountered them, the falls were already sacred to Native American tribes. Although the falls have since receded from their location when Father Hennepin saw them, they once split over Spirit Island, also a sacred place.

Because the priest did not “discover” the falls, the painting’s original title, “Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony,” has drawn the ire of its critics.

“The way Natives are portrayed in the Capitol is incredibly inaccurate and offensive, and indeed some of the work is even traumatizing and adversely affects Native Americans,” said Jim Bear Jacobs, who works with Healing Minnesota Stories, a St. Paul Interfaith Network initiative to encourage understanding between Native Americans and non-Native people.

Jacobs was among 40 people at the public input meeting, one of the first of a series of meetings planned around the state through Dec. 9.

“If the overall theme of the building is manifest destiny and civilization being brought to the great wilds of this area, it really does benefit that message if you can depict people who run around half-naked, who can’t properly dress themselves,” added Jacobs, a member of the Mohican tribe who lives in Coon Rapids. “I think it’s a targeted effort by the artist to portray the people here as very primitive and savage, and frankly, in great need of civilization.”

Jacobs is also troubled that the painting is in a room where the governor meets heads of state and dignitaries, including the state’s tribe representatives, some of whom have expressed discomfort in the presence of the painting.

Father Mike Tegeder, pastor of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities’ Catholic Native American community, agrees that the artwork is problematic.

Father Hennepin himself seemed interested in engaging in the Dakota culture, he said, but two centuries later when the Capitol painting was commissioned, his story was revised to portray him as “an agent of enlightenment.”

As Native Americans fight discrimination and revitalize pride in their culture, “part of that is trying to get back to the history of things,” he added. “We have to educate ourselves, because we all have blinders on.” 

This isn’t the first time the Father Hennepin painting has drawn controversy, Pease said, which is why the MNHS has a booklet for visitors interpreting the painting and others like it. The room’s formal design and use complicate the installation of interpretive rails or plaques, he said.

Unlike some others involved, Pease doesn’t outright dismiss Volk’s research on Native American dress, although he acknowledges that it’s likely inaccurate. Father Hennepin’s writings did talk about half-dressed Dakota people, and a letter from Volk to Gilbert shows an interest in other historical accuracies related to the Native Americans’ depiction.

Whatever Volk’s intentions, many Native American groups object to the depiction of the native woman, said state Rep. Diane Loeffler (D-Minneapolis), one of the subcommittee’s chairpeople.

“People primarily, I think, view this piece as a story of Minnesota, not as a piece of fine art or to understand a certain school of painting,” she said. “That’s one of the themes we’ve picked up: What should be the stories of Minnesota that visitors to the Capitol learn about and how do we use art to tell those stories? And, if we know there are errors, how do we deal with that?”

Catholic presence

Although Volk’s painting of Father Hennepin is the most overt, Catholics do appear in other Capitol paintings. In the Senate Chamber, the allegorical — and also controversial — “Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” includes a tonsured priest holding a cross among the “civilizers.” In the Supreme Court Chamber, painter John La Farge depicted a French count mediating between churchmen and secular rulers.

A young John Ireland, St. Paul’s first archbishop, even appears amid a battle scene as a chaplain in “The Fifth Minnesota at Corinth,” a Civil War painting in the Governor’s Reception Room.

Darryl Sannes, a member of the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force, opposes the removal of the Capitol’s original artwork, which he considers as integral to the building as its columns, dome and iconic golden horses.

“When I look at those pictures . . . I don’t see the bare-chested maiden. I see the bigger picture,” he told The Catholic Spirit following the Nov. 12 public input meeting. “The center of Minnesota was the falls.”

Based on conversations he’s had around the state, Sannes believes he is fighting a losing battle, and is concerned about where the interest in replacing art will stop.

“Somebody is always going to find something offensive, so you’re just going to have a revolving door,” he said.

The subcommittees’ task of making recommendations on the art’s fate is challenging, said member Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City). A retired high school history teacher, he is inclined to leave paintings as is. He said that for some paintings, even the nature of the inaccuracies is in dispute.

Not all Native American groups agree how the paintings should be handled, he added; some say they want them to stay put.

“Certainly, interpretations and sensitivities have changed over the years, and we have to take that into account in terms of how these paintings are displayed,” he said. “We can do a better job of interpreting and explaining the art that is in the Capitol.”

The painting of Father Hennepin, however, concerns him the most because of its treatment of the Dakota woman. He said he has already developed opinions about some of the art, but wants to hear from the public before making up his mind.

Pease called the committee’s work “the most substantial look at the art within the Capitol” and noted that all the work — not just those that have drawn controversy — are being evaluated. Among them are the governors’ portraits, which some think take up room that should be allotted for other art. The MNHS has never removed original art from the Capitol, he said.

The commission is also asking for public input on what kinds of new art should go in the Capitol. Many citizens, including Jacobs, hope the new pieces show a more diverse and respectful representation of Minnesotans.

As for the fate of “Father Hennepin,” he asked if the painting conveyed how Catholics wanted to be reflected in the Capitol.

“Take a good, hard look at the painting,” he said. “Are you happy with how you as a Catholic are represented in this?”

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