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Idaho murals of lynching spark debate

Indians dispute preservation effort

BOISE, Idaho -- For 66 years, two murals depicting the lynching of an Indian have hung in a now-abandoned county courthouse in Idaho's capital -- reminders of the bloodshed that accompanied America's westward expansion.

Starting in 2008, the Idaho Legislature plans to meet in the old Ada County courthouse while the state Capitol is renovated. And lawmakers, historians, and Indian leaders disagree over whether the murals should be preserved as history or removed or covered up as disturbing and offensive.

''They should be painted over," said Claudeo Broncho of the Shoshone- Bannock tribe, whose traditional territory included Ada County.

Others want the murals to remain as reminders of injustices committed against Indians.

''The shame is not on those who painted the picture, but on those who refuse to acknowledge our history for what it is," said Ted Howard, cultural resources director for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes on the Idaho-Nevada line.

Preservationists said they will fight efforts to remove the murals, products of the Works Progress Administration Artists Project, a Depression-era program that put artists to work.

A week ago, the Legislature approved $5.9 million to begin moving its offices to the courthouse, which the state bought five years ago after a new courthouse was built several blocks away. The 2008 and 2009 sessions will be conducted there while the century-old Capitol undergoes a $115 million expansion.

People entering the courthouse will have to walk past the murals as they climb the steps to where the House and Senate will meet. The murals show an Indian in buckskin breeches, on his knees with his hands bound behind his back. He is flanked by one man holding a rifle, and another armed man holding one end of a noose dangling from a tree. The pictures show the moments before the Indian is hanged.

''All of the murals need to be evaluated, both for their appropriateness and their artistic value. I find those offensive," said state Senator Joe Stegner, whose district includes the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.

Race relations in Idaho, home to the white supremacist Aryan Nations group until 2004, have been a sore spot for years. In the 1990s, District Judge Gerald Schroeder, now Idaho's chief justice, found the murals so offensive that he draped an American flag over them, keeping them covered for eight years.

Arthur Hart, director emeritus of the Idaho State Historical Society and author of a 2005 book on the courthouse, acknowledged the scenes are ''not politically correct anymore," but said removing them would detract from their historical significance. Twenty-six murals in all were painted in Southern California and then mounted in the courthouse in 1940.

While Hart said the lynching murals do not represent any known event in Ada County, they are representative of things that went on in Idaho and elsewhere across the West.

Just west of Ada County, near present-day Middleton on the Oregon Trail, at least four Shoshone Indians were hanged in 1854 after the massacre of a group of settlers. The Idaho State Historical Society says the Indians murdered settlers in a wagon train; Howard of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe says the executed Indians were innocents.

Near the Idaho-Washington line, Qualchan, a Palouse Indian, was hanged at the conclusion of the Coeur d'Alene War of 1858.

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