UMN Crookston weighs options on Kiehle murals after Community Listening Session

Jess Bengtson
Crookston Times

    The University of Minnesota Crookston held a Community Listening Circle discussion Thursday regarding the Kiehle Auditorium murals by artist John Martin Socha and heard a variety of opinions from the crowd of approximately 50 people who attended either in person or via Zoom. Some believe the murals need to be removed as they contain “problematic” images about the portrayals of indigenous people in a public space where events, concerts and youth activities are held. Others voiced that “art is in the eye of the beholder” and that the historical significance of the images could be used as an education tool for its viewers.

    A decision on what will happen with the murals will be announced in early 2022. Both Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause and Vice Chancellor John Hoffman have said that the murals will not be permanently destroyed and the goal of the listening session was to inform future decisions about the place and role of the murals within the university’s broader educational work.

    Over the last several years two committees have convened to discuss the murals with the most recent committee, formed by Vice Chancellor Hoffman in early 2021 and made up of UMN Crookston faculty, staff, students, alumni and representatives from Tribal Nations, put in place to vet options and propose recommendations to address the concerns about the artwork. Hoffman shared Thursday two of the options recommended by the 2021 committee which included (1) acknowledging that “buildings and art have a life span” and to “pull down and destroy the murals”, though that option was not being considered by administration, and, (2) consider use of some form of the panels and add retractable panels so they could “pull them back for educational purposes” while also covering the space, especially during times where they “don’t have the opportunity to share the educational aspects with the audience.”

    Hoffman personally told the group early on that he almost didn’t accept his position at the university because of the murals and felt “the content of the murals is problematic, is inconsistent with our values and causes harm to our students.”

    After the start of the talking circle, which was facilitated by Sandra McNichol, who Chancellor Holz-Clause introduced as having experience in psychology, was a former cross-cultural services coordinator, and helped design and implement the justice program in the region, people took turns around the room introducing themselves and offering an initial opinion or interpretation of the murals.

    Two of the 2021 murals committee members, Charles “Chuck” Lariviere and George French, longtime faculty members of the university, shared their thoughts and suggestions for the murals with Lariviere first mentioning that he was most likely the only person in the room that served on both mural committees. He explained that the first committee was formed by a previous chancellor and they were tasked with looking at the murals and try to determine if they were offensive.

    “One of the items on the list (from the first committee) was that the murals would not be moved, covered or destroyed, but to come up with ideas on how to utilize the murals and do different things with it; at that time there wasn’t much of a question,” Lariviere stated. “We met for three years about once a month or more some times looking at different options or different opportunities on how to best utilize them and understand their meaning, and not everyone had the same feelings of them.”

    “What was the artist’s idea? We couldn’t bring the artist in to ask the question, but our option was to bring someone in who knew and could look and interpret,” he added. “That person wrote a report of the interpretation of the murals so we could use that for the website and the brochure we were putting together. We needed to come up with a way to present this to people that were coming into the auditorium and explain that when not everyone looks at the murals the same way. We also had a person that came out for an art perspective only and there’s a report from that person.”

    “At the end we were going in circles and administration had changed, and we were running out of steam,” Lariviere continued. “As educators one of the other things we recognized was that one of the things portrayed is our students don’t know much about the history specifically the Crossing Treaty.”

    Lariviere mentioned some of the murals’ history is now included in the student’s “first year experience” program.

    In the second, most recent, committee, Lariviere said “something started coming up” and he wasn’t sure if it was tied to new administration but the new committee was a “bigger deal.”

    “As an educator what I feel is extremely important is that message needs to go out to people about what happened at that event,” he continued. “If you take that mural away it’s one of the few tools we have to explain that. If we reduce it to a digital image it’s more of a textbook and not hands-on. If it’s removed that piece of history will go away; we would forget it very quickly.”

    French, who said he’s probably spent more time in Kiehle Auditorium than any other person in the room as he has directed many musical productions, mentioned he was around in the 1990s when there was a project to renovate Kiehle Auditorium and part of that was to restore the murals which had become faded. He also talked about being at the 2013 event at Old Crossing Treaty Park in Huot, Minnesota that commemorated 150 years since 1863’s “Treaty of Old Crossing” and how the murals crossed his mind during the ceremony and it “brought a tear to to his eye.”

    Later, French said if administration was considering covering the murals he would like them to be careful with the auditorium and he’d like an “acoustic engineer” to come “make sure it doesn’t mess up the acoustics.”

    Other community members in attendance shared their opinions including:

    • Lester Wilkens who said his family has been involved with the property that the university sits on since the late 1950s. “I called up one brother to tell him (about the mural discussion) and he said ‘you have to be kidding me’. Did you start a committee for something to do? We keep erasing history. I’ve looked at them, it’s a piece of art, it’s a piece of our history.” Later, Wilkens reminded the group, especially to the people that were newer to the community, that the site used to be a high school and wasn’t always a four-year university. “This was a place where farm kids would come in and put in tremendous long days so they could get back to the farm so their families could eat. You can’t continually blame the U of M for doing it, it’s here. If you cover it up you appease one, but you don’t appease them all. Sooner or later it’s going to come to an end.”

    • Dale Knotek told the group he worked at the university for 30 years and has been involved with regional arts committees. “What we have in Kiehle Auditorium is public art, it’s part of a building inside or outside and it’s probably one of the first examples of public art in this community. It’s probably not our place to judge what he (Socha) presented. One problem with public art being attached inside or outside the building is when the building is destroyed so may be that artwork unless it’s preserved. Kiehle is one of the first buildings on this campus and we need to think how is this going to be preserved; I’m concerned about that.” Later, Knotek added that the murals were an educational tool that should be used to teach what happened and they were what the artist pictured as life in the prairie and the place where we live. “It should be preserved and studied and it should teach us.”

    • Rani Bhattacharyya has lived in Crookston for almost 10 years and one of the first things she saw were the murals on campus. “As a person of color I asked why are the brown people missing on the bottom part? That question made me seek out those stories. I’ve come to know many of the beautiful cultures; we need to include those voices in public art.”

    • Deb Kiel (District 1B House Representative) appeared on Zoom and said that her intent was to sit and listen to concerns and hear input on the subject manner, but mentioned that the University of Minnesota Crookston is an important campus not just to the university system but also to the local region and its citizens. She added that she agrees with others that the murals are art and part of history. “We need to be careful we do not forget.”

    • Greg Isaacson (Pastor) appeared on Zoom and voiced that he thought there was “great tension” about the murals and he sees that the university in its own mission could use the opportunity to do some teaching while also mentioning that he tries to have conversations at the church about this and justice and equity. “The teaching needs to consider the murals are used in a public place that’s used for speakers, concerts and plays and its a regional venue. While I can appreciate the WPA (Works Progress Administration) aspect of employing artists at a certain time and a time when the history was not quite completed, I really want to encourage this be an opportunity to teach us not just about white immigrants (who came) into this country but (about) indigenous people and be intentional about that. Not just instruction time on the campus, a larger time for the discussion to approach time around race and do it in an open manner. We can’t escape that Kiehle Auditorium is a public place and the university has an opportunity, it should be an opportunity to teach and could be a model to show respect for people of color and how we can move forward, continue teaching and learning. Some of our history was a bit shadowed in understanding what that history was; I commend the university at this opportunity to teach, learn and listen to people. I hope this doesn’t end tonight so this can be a discussion. We need to be people that can hear of those experiences.”

    • Nancy Quinones (UMN Crookston Director of Diversity, Equity and Belonging) appeared on Zoom first saying she appreciated what Pastor Isaacson had noted. “This notion of forgetting. In many ways the murals forget to acknowledge the genocide that happened before it and after it; only looking at one frame of the film and we would have to show the film in its entirety. Some of the people in the native community don’t remember that history. As the director of diversity it’s part of my job to build that bridge. All of the university should be a safe space for everyone. What members of the native community have shared, this art now communicates the values of the university. We have to make decisions about the university that we want to be in the future. If we want to now be able to openly recruit Native Americans to our campus what are we telling them? Some of the people in the native community have told me they wouldn’t feel safe sending their children here.” Later, Quinones asked the group if they could be curious about the power of words and the power of images, and how people perceive them in different ways. “Words have different impacts and so do images. This is not a one-sided issue.”

    • Floyd Jourdain (Director of Equity, Culture and Tribal Archives at Red Lake Nation College) appeared on Zoom introducing himself as a Red Lake band member along with 17,000 others with 8,000 on their reservation and the rest in the Minneapolis St. Paul area. He mentioned that he also works in cultural education and his job is to help educate the history about the treaties, and he continues to hold the chief position. After sharing examples of cultural presentations and being ridiculed, he offered his opinions on the murals. “These images are racist, they’re outdated and just unacceptable. I did offer some recommendations to the University of Minnesota; my personal opinion is they do not need to be on the UMC campus. If they accept and say ‘this is just how our history was’, this is very real to us. Thousands of Indians were displaced, that treaty was broken, we were supposed to be able to hunt and fish on those lands; the U.S. did not honor that treaty. This is the true history of the Red Lake band of Ojibwe Indians. I polled students and they said they didn’t even know they were there. My students laughed and said, “That’s still there and that’s acceptable? Those must be some old people.” In the committee meetings I’ve expressed my feelings and thoughts. I agree there’s a teachable moment. Culture is not stagnant; history is happening now. Do we say that’s fine it’s just art or do we do something about it?” Later, Jourdain talked about being in school and how they were taught early on about American history and government, and how he and others became sophisticated and well-versed on Americans. “There would be no University of Minnesota if not for the Red Lake people. I don’t think it’s too much to ask or for us to apologize.” He added that this discussion should also be shared with national media.

    • Ken Myers (UMN Crookston Associate Professor) appeared on Zoom first detailing his genealogy research on being part Native American and part Norwegian, and then about reading up on the murals artist, Socha, over the decades. “I’ve been trying to understand the murals. I feel very strongly that we have very limited original art on the campus and in the area, and the murals also have some importance as art as well.” Later, Myers brought up the National Gallery of Art that has eight other pieces by John Martin Socha and wondered if they would be interested in the murals. “One of the jobs of the National Gallery of Art is to collect and interpret art so if this administration will be removing the art perhaps the national art gallery would be interested in having them and sharing the University of Minnesota name.”

    • Victor Obisakin (UMN Crookston alum and former student ambassador) appeared on Zoom saying one of his regrets while on campus was not doing something or voicing his concerns about the murals. “It’s racist, it’s not okay, it’s disturbing and unacceptable. I think some of us are hiding behind the fact that it’s art. I call it one-sided art. I think we are walking on thin ice and as a former student and ambassador, and as someone who is embarrassed as one of the jobs (I had) was to give tours and I stepped into Kiehle one day and the student said “Why?” and walked out. I feel I should have mentioned something at that time. She wasn’t wanting to go to school there. Some of the people there call it art - is that okay? Is genocide okay? As a former student ambassador I’m ashamed. It needs to get off campus. I’m not sorry, it’s just the way I feel. We need to stop hiding by saying it’s art, it’s racism. I challenge you to do something about it now, don’t need to form another committee. America is moving on. What are the Washington Redskins called now? Looking at our back yard what are the Fighting Sioux called now? That’s a piece of history they’re not happy to remember. Let’s do the right thing, get it off campus.” Later, Obisakin asked the group to “be a human being” and “put yourself in my friends, the Native American’s shoes.” “Imagine walking into that room and seeing stories of their ancestors being massacred. I don’t know how we can still sit there and say it’s a part of my history and it’s okay. I challenge the U of M to do the right thing.”

    • Joy Hoffman (Diversity & Equity consultant and spouse to the Vice Chancellor) said when she first walked into Kiehle Auditorium she had “choice words” and wondered how the university had that on their campus. “Other universities have moved forward, other communities have moved forward. Just because it was well intended doesn’t mean it’s not doing harm. When someone said you’re doing harm to me we need to listen. Up until the time the indigenous voices are centered when they’re saying it’s racist and outdated we need to listen to that. We need to ask what message we’re giving to those students; it really should matter.”

    • Allan Dragseth graduated from the Northwest School of Agriculture in 1957 and told the group that he was “kind of surprised that academics can tell slanted stories.” Dragseth referenced the Kiehle murals brochure and said “if this was all I learned about the murals I’d be hating them too” adding that the wording was one-sided. He mentioned that he’s been visiting the auditorium for over 70 years and didn’t know a committee about the murals was active again. Dragseth brought up an invite last June by Vice Chancellor Hoffman to view the murals and how some of the discussions about the murals’ art when it was redone were centered around the colors of the skin and the size of the character’s heads in comparison to others referencing racist undertones. He also read a portion of his letter to the editor that was submitted to area newspapers which talked about the university’s decline in enrollment and that the university, perhaps, has other problems bigger than the murals. Later, Dragseth said he hopes the university uses the murals as a teaching tool but not a one-sided teaching tool like he felt their pamphlet was.

    • Kent Freberg, a former longtime faculty member and assistant professor, said he remembers being on campus and doesn’t remember anyone saying anything negative about the murals his entire time at the university. “This whole stink was started 4-5 years ago. This is a piece of art and it is in the eyes of the beholder. I just happened to be in charge at the time when those murals were renovated, that was my project when I was here. It was overseen by the university and they gave it the final yes and it was okay then and it was okay when it was painted, but it’s not okay today? Come on. I think history is history; don’t think taking it down is going to do much for this campus. Is there someone at the university that’s going to wave magic and make all this racism go away? I challenge the vice chancellor and chancellor to see what they can do.”

HISTORY OF THE SOCHA MURALS

    The murals in Kiehle Auditorium by artist John Martin Socha, a University of Minnesota graduate, were unveiled on November 7, 1942. The artwork was part of the Works Progress Administration’s federal art project to provide relief to artists and were a gift to the school from the Northwest School of Agriculture’s class of 1932.

    The University of Minnesota Crookston believes Socha created a depiction of the origins of American history with the arrival of Vikings to North America in the left painting, encountering Native people on the shores and perhaps Minnesota shores. The two smaller paintings, they believe, depict the emergence of a newly-established global economy, and, the larger painting to the right depicts a new era that seems to read as a moment of inevitability and Manifest Destiny. The bottom part of the right panel represents cultivation, settlement and productivity with the finale indicating progression of American history.

    More information, the university’s land acknowledgement and full descriptions of the murals and artist can be found at https://www.crk.umn.edu/kiehle-murals

Kiehle Murals left side
Kiehle Murals right side