It's called "Indians at the Post Office" -- and no,
it's not about Skins waiting in line to buy stamps.
The National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institute,
has arranged an online exhibit in cooperation with the National
Museum of the American Indian that spotlights and explains murals
depicting Natives that were painted as part of the New Deal. Under
the Section of Fine Arts, part of the Works Progress Administration
(WPA), artists, sculptors, and writers all over the United States
were subsidized to create public works, and one of the most widespread
legacies of this program is the countless murals that adorn the
walls of U.S. Post Office buildings great and small. Indians at
the Post Office includes works by and about Native Americans, and
the depictions range from scenes of Native life to specific moments
That history is of varying quality, of course -- telling "the
Indian side of the story" in 1934 wasn't always a priority.
One of the murals, "Indians Cede the Land," by George
Melville Smith, shows Indians giving up their lands to an officer
of the U.S. Cavalry with a smile and a handshake. Another, "The
Scene Changes," by Ila McAfee Turner, seems to imply that forced
removal of Indians and decimation of the buffalo population was
a natural progression or even evolution. On the other hand, a number
of the murals are by Native artists -- as one would expect, these
paintings, informed by the artists' own experiences, give a more
faithful depiction of Native culture.
Each of the paintings in the virtual exhibit is accompanied
by a thorough, researched analysis that examines not only the composition
but also the historical accuracy, calling out revisionism when it's
present. While the paintings would be an incomplete or skewed history
lesson if taken at face value, the essays clarify that these are
not snapshots from U.S. history -- they are interpretations of it.
We've included a selection of the paintings and some brief extracts
of the essays -- for the full, fascinating experience, visit npm.si.edu/indiansatthepostoffice.
at the Post Office - Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals
"There is much to be discerned about these post office murals
from the 1930s and 1940s, and what they can tell us about the way
we see, and have seen, the world." Dr. Jose Barreiro,
Assistant Director, History and Culture, Smithsonian National Museum
of the American Indian