Hiding our history

This is a city where the idea of community responsibility is limited to picking up (occasionally) after one’s pets and an OHSU project fiscally out weighs worries about school funding. It may seem a little rash to get worked up over murals in Boise. Why as a Portlander, liberal to the tune of green roofs and park blocks, should issues of cultural sensitivity 350 miles away raise my hackles or occupy your time? Why should the fate of murals, part of a New Deal works program, forgotten for nearly 70 years be an issue in Portland? Because, the issue of the murals brings to light a disturbing trend of disinterest and forgetfulness on the part of the people of the Northwest about the consequences of U.S. expansion through the region.

The murals I’m talking about are housed in the former Ada County Courthouse in Boise, which has stood empty for the past 5 years, and is about to become the temporary home to Idaho’s legislators. The murals are historical depictions of the lynching of Native Americans painted as part of a public works project during the great depression. In all, 26 murals were brought to the courthouse 66 years ago, and for many the removal of these murals would detract from the historical significance of the building. But as Idaho’s defacto capitol, many (including legislators and Native American leaders) worry that the depictions are too controversial.

A handful of options are being debated, including painting over the murals or removing them to a local museum where the issue can be subject to a more thorough dialogue. However, Tim Mason, administrator of Idaho’s public works says that removal, as part of the $5.9 million legislative move would be both too costly and time consuming leaving worried officials with very few avenues to explore.

It’s bothersome to me that, trying to hide these historical, if troublesome images when they should be faced head on, is even issue. The expansion to the pacific, and how the native presence was dealt with here, is a troublesome part of U.S. history. It is something all North westerners should be ready to face head on. These murals should be an immediate point of dialogue, a look at the complicated issues we face living here, and should by no means be glossed over or hidden. We have a brutal history in the Northwest that is our responsibility to acknowledge without hesitation, because no matter where you were before the region was occupied, you are part of its history now.

Without risking the exoticization of Northwest Native Americans I feel like it’s safe to say the indigenous culture here was a rich and mature one. Theirs’ were (and are) traditions seeped in the land that even after expansion continued to shape the face of the northwest. The history of Northwest Native Americans, even when ugly, is our history too, and needs to be open for discussion. I’m not talking simply about murals in Idaho.

As our region expands, and becomes a larger cultural force in the U.S. it’s easy to deny or ignore our history. In many cases we do. Take for example the atrocious expansion in the Pearl. Its no secret I cannot stand the developer-run homogenizing of Northwest Portland. Its lifeless, cheap design is the worst in our city and its claim as cultural center of Portland is a laughable collection of bad galleries, cum wine bars and displaced retirees sipping Starbucks. But the most offensive aspect of the entire district has to be Kenny Scharf’s mocking totem poles surrounding Jameson Park. The idea that developers in the Pearl paid good money to have a washed up Warhol groupie create work that is not only ugly and dated but also culturally insensitive infuriates me. Totems are an integral part of Northwest history, they were a form of communication and story telling for Northwest tribes as well as one of the first commodities glommed onto by white traders and speculators in the region. Which is not to say Scharf’s whimsical recreations are a purposeful affront, but more so an insensitive gaff on the part of the developers responsible for their inclusion.

This is not an attempt at overt political correctness. I’m not suggesting sacrificing our regional growth in the form of reparation, but issues in Portland as well as Boise’s courthouse quandaries are a trend worth acknowledging. Northwest Native Americans need to be represented by more than conglomerate casinos. We have a rich heritage in this region and if we truly want to represent ourselves as the open and progressive people then this heritage needs inclusion in our regional identity. More than a fucking tram, that’s for sure.