CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids City Council candidate says a swastika painted into a Native American scene in the Depression-era mural in the city’s council chambers has no place in City Hall, despite its historic context in native culture.
The symbol stained by the Nazis is situated under the arm of a bare-chested Native American chief standing in front of a teepee. The symbol is not prominent but unmistakable just above the public entrance in the City Council chambers. The sweeping mural showcasing scenes of law and order on the prairie wraps around the perimeter of the chambers just below the ceiling.
“That’s best reserved for a museum where we can have some context behind it, but particularly not in City Hall in front of the dais where decisions are made,” said Ashley Vanorny, a candidate for the District 5 City Council seat and regular attendee of council meetings. “I don’t think we need symbols of hatred there.”
Vanorny faces incumbent Justin Shields in a runoff election on Tuesday.
Vanorny said her grandfather John Forell fled to Britain in the late 1930s as a non-Jewish German opposed to the Nazi regime. He was among the Dunera Boys. These refugees were boarded on to the HMT Dunera and shipped over 57 days along with prisoners of war — including Nazis and Italian fascists — to internment camps in Australia, according to the BBC.
“I don’t feel comfortable seeing that, and I wasn’t persecuted. ... They would be offended, even fully embracing the historical context,” Vanorny said of her family. “We can accept it is part of our history, but it doesn’t deserve a place in City Hall.”
Vanorny said the symbol should be painted over, calling it a simple fix that would not alter the mural or the story it is trying to tell while moving “on from that embarrassing part of our history.”
Several artists — contemporaries of Grant Wood — painted the mural as part of the Treasury Relief Art Program in 1936 when the chambers served as a courtroom in the old federal courthouse. The city took over the building in 2011 after the flood ravaged the old City Hall on May’s Island and a new federal courthouse was built.
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“They were hired to remind Americans of the inspiring beauty of their country and heritage during a time most needed,” according to a city description of the mural.
By the 1950s, the art was spurring debate and discussion. Judges ordered the four-wall mural painted over in the 1950s and 1960s deeming the art of not much value and some of the scenes too controversial, including a public hanging depicted across from the jury box.
The city had the mural restored over four years from 2011 to 2015, and officials stand by it, including the challenging images.
“In restoring the murals, we understood there were some controversial images, which is why the murals had been painted over in the past,” said Sandi Fowler, assistant city manager. “We are committed to honoring the historic context of the murals and educating the public on the images and history behind the creation of the artwork.”
The city has endeavored to provide historic context and information about the artists in hopes of engaging residents in “meaningful conversations about the paintings, what was happening at the time of their creation, and how the images are interpreted today,” she said.
The city hosted a lecture series about the mural upon the unveiling in 2015 and again this fall.
Kristy Raine, a reference librarian and archivist at Mount Mercy University and among the lecturers, said the portion of the mural with the swastika is credited to painter Everett Jeffrey, of Oxford Mills.
“The courthouse mural was created during Hitler’s massive rise in Europe, and I think the choice of the symbol certainly speaks to Native American history and also to the world unfolding, as the artists saw during that time,” she said in an email. “The symbol exists on several levels, and it certainly is a commentary to the past and the present, during the 1930s.”
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Sean Ulmer, director of Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and another speaker in the series, said the artist likely was familiar with the symbol from his childhood. Jeffrey lived in South Dakota near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a period, according to a biography as part of a Stone City Art Colony project published on the Mount Mercy University website.
“(He) was probably well familiar with the Native American symbols he would have encountered on a daily basis as a child,” Ulmer said in a 2015 lecture about the mural.
Before the Nazis appropriated the symbol, it had a very rich history dating back to early civilizations in mankind, Ulmer said.
The symbol — which comes from Sanskrit and means “good fortune” or “well-being” — dates back at least 5,000 years across many cultures, including Hindus and Buddhists in India and other Asian countries and pre-Christian European cultures, according the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The swastika was common in America, particularly by prairie and plains Indians, including the Lakota tribe before use by the Nazis, Ulmer said. He pointed to a photograph of a 1908 or 1909 Native American basketball team with swastikas as logos on their uniforms.
“This form — the swastika form — before being corrupted, was very much a part of their identify,” Ulmer said.
Viewed in context
Rabbi Todd Thalblum, of Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids, after being shown the image by The Gazette, said it remains offensive regardless of historical meanings but he views it in context of the full mural. He added none of his congregation has complained about it.
“I am not so offended by it in context of the rest of the mural that I think my community would demand its removal,” Thalblum said.
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