When the painting “Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony” (1905), along with another painting depicting the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, was removed from its central position in the Governor’s Reception Room of the State Capitol to an out-of-the-way meeting space on the third floor, it was an attempt to recast Minnesota history as one born in white supremacy (with the coming of Christianity supposedly a part of that legacy) to tell instead a new story about the diverse state we are today.
The removal of the Father Hennepin painting was, on one level, a barometer of how far anti-Christian propaganda and historical ignorance have seeped into our culture.
Even so, the episode still provides important lessons about how to approach a complicated history and the issue of monuments more generally. In short, we need to do a better job as a Church of telling our story — those of yesterday and of today — as well as reach out to those persons and communities who still struggle with the legacy of the sins and injustices of the past, whether Catholics committed them or not.
Public art tells the story of a people; it honors heroes, identifies core values and helps shape the narrative of public life. It answers the question: Who are we?
The commission in charge of reviewing Capitol art justified its recommendation to remove Father Hennepin on the grounds that the painting depicted a bare-breasted native woman, which, it claimed, was historically inaccurate and insensitive (though Father Hennepin himself described such scenes in his journals and there are bare breasts depicted in many places in the Capitol).
And though Father Hennepin is shown blessing the falls with a crucifix, some apparently thought the painting depicted domination of native populations, especially when paired with the other painting, which shows an unjust appropriation of land in southwest Minnesota from two bands of Dakota Indians. People looked at those paintings and said, “No, that’s not us.”
But what seems to have given the most offense to some was that, in displaying the painting so prominently, the state’s origins were identified with the land being named and claimed for the dominion of Jesus Christ, and that this was being communicated to the many visitors who came to the Governor’s Reception Room.
Removing the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux painting is justifiable; removing Father Hennepin blessing the falls along with it is less so and seems rather like an unfortunate bow to political correctness.
Ignorance surely plays a part in this drama. Far from being an agent of white supremacy, the Catholic Church is the most racially and ethnically diverse religious society in Minnesota, the United States and around the world.
Historically speaking, it is true that the Anglo-Protestant colonization in the U.S. treated native populations like racially inferior Canaanites who could be driven from the land to make way for the new chosen people who had a “manifest destiny” to live in this new land of milk and honey.
French and Spanish imperialism, though not without their own abuses, were markedly different. The French actively intermarried with the native populations, evangelized them, traded with them and sought to diplomatically incorporate their tribes into the French expansion of Christendom.
The Spanish meanwhile, especially after the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1535, built a tremendous mestizo (mixed race) empire in New Spain inspired by the Virgin, patroness of the Americas. There were great libraries and universities in South America before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
Other missionaries played important roles in preserving indigenous cultures and recording languages; like the example of Bishop Frederic Baraga, who created the Ojibwe dictionary and translated the Bible into that tongue. As a result of such efforts, large percentages of Native Americans became Christian.
These men were not perfect, and neither are we. For all his daring and missionary endeavors, Father Hennepin made, by today’s standards, some cringe-inducing statements about natives. There was a process in which Europeans had to learn to love native peoples and their ways before effectively sharing the Gospel with them.
There is also history of abuses in Minnesota’s origin story that require a just response through atonement and repentance. One way we can do so is working with Native Americans, African Americans and others to identify concrete ways in which the shameful legacies of genocide and slavery can be remediated today. Hearing the stories and perspectives of others in the “contextualization” of these paintings in their new location is another way that we can understand how others were and are affected by the stories told in them.
Still, we can also be confident in the missionary mandate, and proud of the Church’s role in bringing Christ to this land and forming new cultural syntheses — a story that should remain central to Minnesota’s identity and her monuments because, like the Church, a community built on Christian principles is one that has the most capacity to be inclusive and promote justice.
We can build on our history without trying to completely rewrite it.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.