Native American representation on Capitol Hill concerns House lawmakers

Appropriators take aim at what they call offensive art and disrespectful tours

House Appropriators are urging the Architect of the Capitol to work with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to contextualize portrayals of Native Americans on Capitol Hill. Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and pictured here, spoke at the opening of the museum in 2004. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo.)

House lawmakers are raising issues about Native American representation in and around the Capitol — and they aren’t talking about the record number of Native American women in the 116th Congress.

A House Appropriations Committee report released Wednesday highlights disrespectful descriptions of Native Americans on Capitol tours and depictions in artwork around the Capitol campus, which “do not portray Native Americans as equals or Indian nations as independent sovereigns.” 

The report, which accompanies the fiscal 2020 House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, tasks the Architect of the Capitol with contextualizing the problematic works. It urges the AOC to “work with Native American historians and professionals at the National Museum of the American Indian to ensure that the Capitol complex more accurately and respectfully represents the history of Native Americans.” 

There are dozens of paintings, murals and sculptures around Capitol Hill depicting Native Americans including John G. Chapman’s “Baptism of Pocahontas” and William Henry Powell’s “Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto,” which shows naked women cowering before the conquistador.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that the way these works are described during Capitol tours is not always respectful,” according to the report. It goes on to say that the AOC is aware of the issue and will be reformatting tours to reframe how some of the artwork is explained.

The committee also calls for an installation in the Capitol Visitor Center “correcting the sometimes incomplete or incorrect depictions of Native Americans portrayed in historical artwork in the complex.” The CVC has an area recognizing the role of slave laborers who built the Capitol, which the report references as a guidepost.

In an effort to “accurately and respectfully” convey the history of Native Americans, the report encourages the CVC to hire Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians as tour guides.

Representation extends beyond art and hiring practices — all the way to flags. Appropriators requested a report from the AOC assessing possible locations for the display of flags of American Indian nations and pueblos in the Capitol complex.

The committee noted in the report that policy expertise on Native American and tribal issues is also lacking. The Congressional Research Service, which is a part of the Library of Congress, does not currently have a dedicated policy specialist for “American Indian Affairs.”

“Tribal affairs expertise is vital for enabling Members to understand, evaluate, and make informed policy decisions regarding the complex issues Native communities face and the unique trust relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes,” the report said.

The committee recommends that CRS appoint two staff members, a specialist and a senior specialist in American Indian affairs.

Native American representation in Congress itself made strides in the 116th Congress. New Mexico’s Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, and Sharice Davids of Kansas, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, were the first Native American women elected to the House last year. They joined two Native American men already serving: Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin

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