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Idaho's lynching murals to get explanations

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By John Miller -- Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Two murals in Idaho's makeshift Capitol, depicting an Indian being lynched, are to be outfitted with official interpretive signs by early next year.

The wall paintings have been problematic for lawmakers who have taken up temporary quarters inside the old Ada County Courthouse through late 2009 while the Idaho Statehouse undergoes $120 million in renovations. They so offended one state court judge in the 1990s that he ordered them concealed - with U.S. and Idaho flags. American Indian groups have also objected to them.

Janet Gallimore, the Idaho State Historical Society director, is among historians working with Indian groups to provide interpretive signs. On Oct. 22, Gallimore was expected to update the state's Idaho Council on Indian Affairs on materials being developed with help from the Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute tribes.

''I see this as not only an opportunity to work with tribes and make sure they are comfortable with the mural interpretations, but also to start a circle of tribal advisers for the Idaho State Historical Society who we can work with on an ongoing basis,'' Gallimore said.

She was hired by Idaho in June after leading fund-raising efforts for the Confluence Project, a public- and privately-funded art installation designed to highlight the Lewis and Clark expedition and its effect on the American Indians that the early 19th century explorers encountered.

Though some signs describing the Ada County Courthouse's history are due to be completed by December, Gallimore said others providing the context for the lynching murals will likely take into 2008.

The courthouse was one of several in Idaho built with the help of federal programs started during the Roosevelt administration and aimed at lifting the United States out of the 1930s Depression. Its 26 murals were installed in 1940, part of the Works Progress Administration Artists Project that put unemployed artists to work.

''It's the largest collection of WPA art existing in the state and is a legacy to thousands of workers who labored during the Great Depression,'' Gallimore said. ''If you think about this discussion in the framework of the larger issues that were going on in our country, they are an important body of work.''

Still, ever since they went up 67 years ago, the murals provoked controversy. The first artist pulled out of the project; the murals are hung in the wrong order and make little chronological sense; one female figure has two right arms.

And the paintings don't appear to depict the specific history of southwestern Idaho. Though accounts from the mid-1850s describe American Indians being hanged on gallows erected near the Boise River in retaliation for an Oregon Trail massacre, the courthouse murals are thought to be merely a mythical depiction of frontier justice meted out by settlers on the region's original inhabitants, according to historian Arthur Hart.

Some Idaho Indian groups suggested taking the murals down, which proved impossible; they're attached to concrete walls and likely wouldn't survive. Others wanted them covered. Others demanded they be preserved as a reminder of the harsh treatment Indians often received, including confinement to reservations.

On Oct. 16, Chief Allen, chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, told The Associated Press that he supports the solution of providing appropriate, accurate interpretations of the murals.

''The main thing the tribes want, if they couldn't be taken down, was to have an accurate history of the murals, like in a museum,'' Allen said. ''That would take away a lot of the hurt feelings that some of the tribes have.''