Why One Historian Says A Disputed Boise Mural Should Remain

Jul 9, 2015

The University of Idaho is set to open its new law center at the renovated Old Ada County Courthouse later this summer. But university officials want to cover up a controversial mural depicting the hanging of a Native American by white settlers. Historians, though, don't want that to happen. 

The mural in question is not unique. There’s even one at city hall in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, where the NBC show Parks And Recreation spoofed a similar display said to show a Native American chief about to be executed by U.S. soldiers.

Light pop culture references aside, Boise State University history professor Todd Shallat says the murals are offensive. Shallat says many of them were painted and displayed in public institutions across the country as part of the New Deal, oftentimes depicting stereotypical and offensive images about racial minorities.

Despite this, Shallat says they are still an important part of Idaho history and should stay up so people can learn about this period of time -- both the good and bad parts.

"It's also an attempt to preserve representative examples," he says, "symbolic examples of the taste of a particular time."

He says the mural show a time when hanging was a part of the state's justice system.

"There were all kinds of hangings that were legal in Idaho that were ordered by the courts. Even if it was vigilante justice, that's still part of our legal history, in the same way that you can't understand Jim Crow without realizing it was enforced by lynching."

Shallat thinks the paintings should have signs nearby to help viewers interpret them with the proper historical context. The state's leading preservation group has also asked the U of I not to hide the mural.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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