Idaho lynching murals in old county courthouse spark debate

AP News
Posted: Nov 04, 2015 6:31 PM
Idaho lynching murals in old county courthouse spark debate

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two murals depicting the lynching of an American Indian in a former Idaho county courthouse are once again at the center of a disagreement over whether they should be displayed or covered up as offensive.

Historic preservationists and members of Idaho's tribes oppose covering the 75-year-old murals that were commissioned as part of a Depression-era program to help put artists to work, arguing that the public can learn from history's mistakes. However, the University of Idaho — currently leasing the building as a satellite campus of its law school — contends the murals create a negative learning space.

State officials held a public hearing Wednesday to gather public input as they consider weighing in on the issue. The murals have been covered ever since the college opened up the law school earlier this year.

"It may not be tasteful and it may not be art, but it displays some of the past history that happened in our state," said Blaine Edmo, a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribe. "These murals need to be openly displayed. The reasons behind these murals need to be discussed."

The murals show an Indian in buckskin breeches, on his knees with his hands bound behind his back. He is flanked by one white man holding a rifle and another holding the end of a noose dangling from a tree.

Twenty-six murals were painted in southern California and mounted in the former Ada County courthouse in 1940. Because the murals are installed as part of the historic building's staircase wall, the state is banned from tampering or destroying the paintings.

"The history of art is the history of humanity in all of its complexity," said Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts. "The murals should be displayed with the proper contextualized plaques."

Much the same arguments about the murals were repeated nearly nine years ago when lawmakers began preparing to move into the courthouse while the Capitol underwent renovations. Lawmakers, historians and tribal members came to a solution by spending months — described as painful on Wednesday — working on appropriate explanatory language to post on plaques under the murals to offer historical context to the images.

However, now that the law school is occupying the building, the debate has resurfaced.

"Covering the murals is not erasing history," said Mark Adams, dean of the university law school. "The display of the murals says, particularly to our Native American and African American students, that people like you are not welcome here."

Ty Simpson, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, echoed support for covering the murals. "I don't see a vibrant history in the mural. I see pain. I see genocide that has long-reaching impacts on our people today," Simpson said.