Controversial Idaho mural to stay put 4-23-07

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A legislative task force has decided to leave two controversial mural panels on display in a historic county courthouse that now houses state offices and is scheduled to host the 2008 Legislature.

The hands-off approach comes despite recommendations that the paintings - depicting the lynching of an American Indian at the hands of white frontiersman - be removed, covered or explained with a plaque.

Last week, state workers moved into offices in the old Ada County Courthouse, which will serve as temporary housing while the state Capitol undergoes a $120 million expansion and renovation.

So far, not a single question or complaint has been lodged about the presence of the lynching mural, said Mike Nugent, manager of research and legislation for the Legislative Services Office.

“We haven't had a whole lot of foot traffic yet,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Idaho Indian Affairs Council, consisting of lawmakers and tribal leaders, toured the courthouse and viewed the murals. Afterward, tribal officials said they supported preserving the murals, but moving them to a less prominent location in the courthouse. They also recommended interpretive plaques be written with help from tribes to explain the context of the images.

The panels are two in a collection of 26 murals that were painted in 1940 as part of the Works Progress Administration Artists Project that put unemployed artists back to work. The two paintings in question show a buckskin-clad Indian as he's apprehended by two white men before two other armed whites place a noose around his neck.

Because the 26 murals were never accompanied by interpretative signs, the origins of their themes have been at least partially obscured. Painted on canvas, they were meant to depict events deemed significant in the founding of Ada County.

“It was very clear what the tribes wanted,” said Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, chairman of the Indian Affairs Council. “They absolutely wanted the paintings preserved and taken down.”

But Jorgenson said the task force determined the paintings could be damaged if taken down. A separate committee overseeing the move from the Capitol rejected a plan to cover the murals with protective layers and conceal them behind a false wall.

The decisions could be revisited before the Legislature convenes in January.

“I'm disappointed ... yet I'm not too surprised,” said Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d'Alene. “The Legislature has not been the most sensitive toward Native American issues here anyway.”

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said there was not a strong enough push to do anything with the murals.

“If the tribes wanted them covered, we would've covered them and in the absence of that, I think we just left them the way they were, knowing that we could come back to that decision,” Bedke said.