It would have been so easy for an awkward feud to erupt over the aging murals that adorn the former Ada County Courthouse in Boise. It didn’t happen, thanks to a group of Idahoans who resolved a potentially volatile situation with reason and maturity.
The 26 Depression-era murals were painted about 70 years ago under the Works Progress Administration. Most are uncontroversial, but two depict white pioneers apprehending and preparing to lynch a buckskin-clad Indian.
One doesn’t have to be an American Indian to grasp the hurtfulness of the image of a Native man – a symbolic ancestor – kneeling between two captors while a noose dangles from a branch above.
For a time, the two troublesome panels were concealed by strategically placed American and Idaho state flags. But when the Idaho Legislature prepared to move into the historic building for two years while the official state Capitol is renovated, the insensitivity of the display forced a more extensive discussion.
That discussion has produced a rational decision that justifies the year and a half spent crafting it. The murals will not be destroyed or hidden away. Nor will they continue to go unexplained.
They will remain on display, but soon they will be accompanied by interpretive plaques, the wording on which has been agreed to by state officials and representatives of Idaho’s five sovereign Indian tribes. The plaques will provide an appropriate context that acknowledges the cultural tensions that marked the history of the region.
Idaho’s tribes never called for the paintings to be destroyed or removed. There was an early consensus that the murals reflect an unpleasant historic reality that should be explained rather than ignored or denied. But what should the explanation be?
A year and a half later, we know. Idaho state historian Keith Petersen correctly noted that the time spent getting the wording right was worth it.
This incident never rose to the kind of heated divisiveness that South Carolinians dealt with over the Confederate flag. But cultural tensions can and do get loud and ugly in a hurry. Just look at the current hostilities over religious and anti-religious displays in the Washington state Capitol.
The sensible approach used in Idaho averted the embarrassment that cable news anchors snack on for weeks. More importantly, the state’s residents and visitors will benefit from a clearer and more honest presentation of the region’s history.