PLEASE NOTE: This site is best viewed using current versions of Firefox, Chrome, or Safari.

Download the latest version of Firefox

Download the latest version of Google Chrome

Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

"There is much to be discerned about these post office murals from the 1930s and 1940s, and what they can tell us about the way we see, and have seen, the world."
–Dr. Jose Barreiro, Assistant Director, History and Culture, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

National Postal Museum logo

National Museum of the American Indian logo

United States Postal Service logo

Preface

To Create Public Art

In 1934, during the era of the New Deal, the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department, in a non-relief effort, established a “48 States” art competition to commission artists to create public art in post offices.  All of these visual stories, created as a result of the national contest, were the work of a vast majority of non-Native artists whose themes were also influenced by the desires of local post office communities.  Many of the artists were unfamiliar with the region connected to the post office they were assigned, and most, unless they were Native artists themselves, were unfamiliar with American Indian culture.  While some mural images succeeded in capturing the importance of Native peoples in the American historic tableau as a result of an increased national consciousness, others were based on rumor, legend, and stereotype resulting in dramatic and sometimes bizarre inaccuracy. These murals in post offices across the United States are telling and re-telling an American Indian story to the general public every day. 

A History and Culture Research group at the National Museum of the American Indian examined the 1,630 black and white images of these murals and sculptures, which were provided exclusively to the NMAI on archived discs by the United States Postal Service. The NMAI team created notebook printouts of all of these murals in black and white, which can now be available to researchers.  The review effort showed that 400 murals contained images of American Indians. A very small number of the 400 have been photographed in color.  Only 24 were painted by American Indian artists.

The long-range goal of this project titled Indians at the Post Office: Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals, is to critique, from a contemporary vantage point, all 400 of these murals. The purpose is to address both the virtues and the inaccuracies in these historic depictions, and to launch and continue to populate a web-based virtual exhibition on the Smithsonian National Postal Museum website.  We begin this launch with 27 of these murals and look ahead to a further project collaboration with the documentation of the other 370, to be periodically premiered on the NPM website. Our focus is to have all of the future mural research essays written by American Indians, particularly from the areas and cultures depicted. Collaboration with tribal and state college faculties and students from the various regions is contemplated in order to address the over-300 murals left to be interpreted and commented upon.

In an on-going effort to challenge stereotyping, and correct the current nature of education concerning American Indians, the NMAI mission devotes the required scholarship to inform and assess these permanent visual statements on American history.

Sandra Starr
Senior Researcher Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
and Indians at the Post Office Project Leader

About the Exhibit Introduction Resources

Post Office Murals

Indian Lifeways and the Native Artist


Image by Jimmy Emerson. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Native ways of life, culture, always distinct and unique to place and particular people, still resonate in the overarching themes . . .

Indian Lifeways and the Non-Native Artist


Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Interpretation by academic method and significantly by the “outsider” perspective differs, sometimes in stark ways, from . . .

Encounter


Image by David Stansbury. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Encounter, the point of before and after, pervades much Native consciousness, and even more overwhelmingly, nearly all . . .

Trade and Commerce


Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Trade drives nearly all exploration. It was an early occurrence of the contact period in the Americas. The crude bartering of . . .

Evangelization


Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Evangelization comforted many Native people, particularly after periods of warfare and of epidemics that caused drastic death . . .

Conflict


Image by Jimmy Emerson. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Thirst for land, resources and opportunity drove a major human migration over the American continent. But the shout of . . .

Treaties


Used with the permission of the General Services Administration.

American Indians, or American Indigenous – the Native nations of North America understood diplomacy and developed . . .

Myth of Extinction


Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

In the sciences, the expectation of extinction has plagued Native peoples. The expectation today is one of survival . . .