In the center of the US Capitol, under the iconic white dome, is a large round room called the Rotunda. There are eight niches in it, circling the room, each with an oil painting twelve feet tall and eighteen feet wide. The figures painted in the historic scenes are nearly life-sized. In both their content and backstory, the paintings tell a story of conquest, ethnic cleansing, and the rape of Native women.
The first four paintings, installed between 1820 and 1826, do not include Natives explicitly. They depict key moments in US-British relations: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, two British surrenders during the Revolutionary War, and George Washington preparing to become the first president. Natives are literally out of picture, although the Declaration of Independence describes them as “merciless Indian savages”.
It’s the second four paintings, installed between 1840 and 1855, that send a political message regarding US-Native relations. The Trail of Tears occurred in 1838, paving the way for massive ethnic cleansing east of the Mississippi and ultimately for outright Native extermination in some states, complete with government subsidies and bounties, thru the late 1800s.
The first painting, Baptism of Pocahontas, was installed in 1840. It’s a curious choice because Pocahontas precedes US history by over a century. She lived and died in the early 1600s and had been largely forgotten for over two hundred years. Her story is not that different from the Boko Haram girls. She was kidnapped by the men of Jamestown, impregnated by and married to her captor, and then converted to his religion while in captivity. In reality, she was not so submissive, but that story is buried by this painting and, later, by Disney. In the 1800s she was revived, portrayed as nearly white in appearance, and used to illustrate the good, obedient Indian. The artist was not shy about his purpose. He wrote: “She stands foremost in the train of those wandering children of the forest who have at different times—few, indeed, and far between—been snatched from the fangs of a barbarous idolatry, to become lambs in the fold of the Divine Shepherd. She therefore appeals to our religious as well as our patriotic sympathies and is equally associated with the rise and progress of the Christian Church as with the political destinies of the United States.”
The next painting, installed in 1844, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, again hails from the early 1600s and shows the colonists in England about to depart. This painting is significant for what it does not show. It leaves out the role of Squanto, so critical as their guide in the early days, and the Sachem Massasoit, who formed an alliance of peace with the Pilgrims that lasted forty years, providing a critical buffer between Plymouth and powerful inland tribes.
It also avoids the unpleasant reality of Plymouth, a town built on the ruins of Patuxet, which had just been devastated by a plague and abandoned by its people. The Pilgrims literally had to move Native skeletons from the plague off the fields in order to re-use their corn plots.
A year later, the term “manifest destiny” was coined. Two years after that, in 1847, white US settlers were shooting Pauites in Nevada, Comanches in Texas, and Cayuse in Washington. In California, John Sutter was posting decapitated Miwok and Maidu heads by the gate of his fort. And the painting Landing of Columbus filled the next niche. This time reaching back to the 1400s, it was an interesting choice, for Columbus had nothing to do with the US. He was Italian; he worked for Castile (which later became Spain). And the land upon which Columbus landed was an island in the Bahamas. He never touched the US mainland on any of his journeys. In the painting, as he stakes a flag into the sand, naked Native women run away through the forest. They were right to run; the odds are high they were later raped by the Spanish men.
The last painting, Discovery of the Mississippi, is set in the 1500s. It was installed in 1855, as all-out war with the Sioux was breaking out on the Great Plains and door-to-door genocide was taking place in California. It features Hernando de Soto, a Spaniard, whose three-year “exploration” of the Southeast was nothing more than an expedition to rape, pillage, and burn nearly every Native community he came upon. His own biographer bemoaned, “Oh, wicked men! Oh, devilish greed! Oh, bad consciences!” Despite behavior more akin to the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, today de Soto is honored by the names of counties, towns, parks, elementary and high schools, and bridges.
The message of course, and the reason why this painting hangs in the Capitol Rotunda, is that de Soto represents white conquest of Native America. Again, the specter of rape would be historically accurate. The same image has appeared on the back of the $10 bill and $500 bill in the past.
That makes three enormous paintings in the Capitol Rotunda depicting naked or captive Native women, one raped and the others about to be raped, all installed during the mid-1800s. They were installed during a time of ethnic cleansing and genocide to create a national myth of white supremacy and providential entitlement to the land. Today, they still hang there and send the same message.