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Historically Speaking


In the June 4 issue of Boise Weekly, we ran a piece on the controversial murals housed in the old Ada County Courthouse, two of which depict settlers preparing to lynch a Native American man. The article stirred up some controversy of its own.

The question surrounding the murals is one that goes way back, said Keith Petersen, Idaho state historian and associate director of the Idaho State Historical Society, who thought that the article overlooked what IHS has been doing.

"There has long been a discussion on whether or not to preserve the building and the murals were always an integral part of that," he said.

"When discussing the murals specifically, there are always two issues. No. 1, they're bad art. OK. I get that," Petersen said. "On the other hand, they represent that building and they are the biggest collection of WPA (the Depression-era Works Progress Administration) art in Idaho. So they're very significant historically, regardless of the art."

During the 2007 session, the Idaho Legislature made the decision to keep the murals and asked the IHS to, instead, interpret them. As state historian, the job fell to Petersen. A decision was made to create six labels, four of which would interpret the "scope of the WPA murals," and those were in place before the 2008 session as planned. They would liked to have had all six up before the 2008 session, but the final two labels have taken more time to create than the first four put together.

In conjunction with members of the five federally recognized Idaho Native American tribes—Kootenai, Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshoni-Paiute and Shoshoni-Bannock tribes, all of whom agreed the murals should stay as is—the IHS formed an advisory council to determine the exact language of the final two labels.

"As with any bureaucracy, to get everyone together was tough," Petersen said. A day-long meeting in November between tribal members and the IHS began the arduous process of not only determining the language of the labels but getting everyone to agree on them.

By late February, the council had everyone's perspective on the labels, which were then sent to Legislative services. The bureaucratic process was only midway through. The labels now have to go through two legislative committees for approval because the murals are housed in the Legislature's building.

As recently as last week, Petersen said, there has been some give and take on the language of the labels. "But I think we are ready for final approval by the legislative committee."

Petersen emphasizes that the labels themselves are controversial. "The story of Indian/White relationships in the Boise valley is bloody. How to tell that story and be historically accurate, culturally sensitive and not blow things up for no reason is very touchy.

Petersen said he plans to have the final version of the interpretive labels to the legislative committee by this week. We'll keep you updated on when the labels will be placed in the building.