Congress Might Finally Get Rid of the Capitol's Racist Native Imagery

It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the great colonizing forces of modern history would glorify its role in the subjugation of a continent of Native nations. And yet, some of the art found around the Capitol still manages to be jarring in its ahistorical nature.

Take the above image of Christopher Columbus landing at Hispaniola, for instance. The Taíno people are shown naked and inherently subservient, while Columbus gets the full Jesus treatment. Never mind that he and his men immediately raped and mutilated and murdered their way through the island’s inhabitants—that would get in the way of An American Moment™. And such depictions aren’t restricted to the U.S. Capitol—for decades, Native people have protested racist depictions displayed prominently on state capital grounds throughout the country, including in Minnesota and California.

But after centuries of bigoted art lining the halls and facades of the United States Capitol, a movement led by one Congress’ two Native women members is finally underway to rid the building of its monuments to Indigenous erasure. The House Committee on Appropriations passed the 2020 budget last week with a 51-page bill report requesting a full facelift as it relates to Native depictions on the Hill, HuffPost reported on Wednesday. The committee’s specific proposal to the Architect of the Capitol can be found on the 19th page of the report:

Depictions of Native Americans: There are depictions of Native Americans throughout the Capitol complex that do not portray Native Americans as equals or Indian nations as independent sovereigns. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the way these works are described during Capitol tours is not always respectful. The Committee is aware that the Architect is reformatting tours to address the issues with the artwork and reframing the timeline exhibit in the Capitol, and urges the AOC to work with Native American historians and professionals at the National Museum of the American Indian to ensure that the Capitol complex more accurately and respectfully represents the history of Native Americans.

A quick review of the Capitol’s Native-focused art collection makes clear why such a drastic change is needed—nearly every image twists the interactions between the colonizers and this land’s Indigenous population to reflect one of white-washed mutual cohabitation, or of a superior race spreading religion to the heathen masses.

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According to the site, Rep. Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was the driving force behind the request. In a statement to Splinter, a spokesperson for Haaland, co-chair of the Native American Caucus, said:

All our communities should feel comfortable when visiting our Nation’s capital, but the depictions of Native Americans throughout the Capitol complex and the U.S. Capitol Rotunda reinforce inaccurate and often times racist stereotypes about Native Americans. So, I asked for a review of all the Native American artwork throughout to fully understand the extent that these images exist. After getting this report, I’ll work on ways to acknowledge how damaging imagery like this has been for Native communities in our country, and ways to make sure our community feels welcome in these buildings.

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In addition to changing these works, the committee also requested the Architect of the Capitol consider including the flags of Native nations and Pueblos along with its display of the individual states and U.S. territories. Until the art has been updated or replaced, the committee asked it consider including some type of written corrections and clarifications to denote the racist nature of the artwork.

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