Twenty-four oil paintings on state Capitol walls depict the life of Shoshone Chief Washakie in vibrant color, with browns and greens of the Wyoming landscape muted in the background.
They show Washakie -- one of the most famous figures to live and lead people in what is present-day Wyoming -- as a child during an attack by the Blackfeet, as an adult providing military training to braves, his witnessing of white settlement, and his coffin draped with the U.S. flag.
The mid-century artwork by Western painter J.K. Ralston has been on loan to the State of Wyoming and housed in the Capitol for the past two years by the Del Monte family, whose patriarch Harold D. Del Monte commissioned them for the now-closed Noble Hotel in Lander.
During the just-adjourned 2015 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature, lawmakers agreed to spend $156,000 to buy the Washakie paintings to keep them permanently in the Capitol. Gov. Matt Mead vetoed the expense.
Mead said it was premature to spend money on artwork for the Capitol, which is about to undergo a rehabilitation and renovation that will take about 33 months. But Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the larger issue is the lack of representation of American Indian history and culture in the building. Case is afraid the state has lost the opportunity to buy the paintings.
Washakie was born about 1804 and grew up in the Green River Valley, an area that stretches from around Daniel to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in modern-day Wyoming, said University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts.
His father was Umatilla. His mother was Shoshone, according to the “Wyoming Almanac,” which Roberts penned with his brothers David L. Roberts and Steven L. Roberts.
Washakie became a chief in 1842, and signed the Fort Bridger treaty, which essentially set out the boundaries of the Shoshone reservation, Roberts said. The treaty predated the creation of the Wyoming Territory and became the Wind River Reservation in the 1930s. It is also home to many Northern Arapaho.
In the 1870s, he fought his tribe’s traditional enemies – the Sioux, the Blackfeet and the Cheyenne.
When he died in 1900, he was buried in a military cemetery at Fort Washakie, an army post named after him. Modern day Fort Washakie is a town on the reservation.
He was friendly with white settlers throughout his life. The chief knew Brigham Young, the Mormon Church leader who led members of his faith to Utah, Case said.
“Here was a guy who made, in a lot of ways, white settlement possible,” Case said.
Washakie knew whites were going to migrate to the region in the future. He is credited with having the foresight to work with the whites, and in doing so, was able to secure land for his people, said Sandra Del Monte of Lander, whose family now owns the oil paintings.
An argument could be made that Washakie is the most famous person in Wyoming history, Case said.
The $156,000 price for all 24 paintings is based on a seven-year-old appraisal, Case said.
In recent years, the reputation of J.K. Ralston’s has been gaining prominence in the art world. His work has been selling at higher prices, he said.
“I think it was a good buy,” Case said.
Ralston started the research for the paintings in 1935. He visited with elders in the tribe to ensure the stories he had heard and read about Washakie were accurate. He visited the places where key events occurred.
He painted the oils in the mid-1940s, and they hung in the dining room of the Noble Hotel.
“Mr. Del Monte bought (the hotel) in about 1930 and wanted it to it to be a landmark hotel in the area,” said Sandra Del Monte, who is the now-deceased owner’s daughter-in-law. “He did all this Indian art, and he had a collection of Indian artifacts, a marvelous collection.”
After Del Monte sold the Noble in 1968, the paintings went into storage, Sandra Del Monte said.
“We wanted them to go to an institution that would keep the collection intact,” she said. “We don’t want the paintings to be sold off separately because that would damage the historic story of the pictures.”
She is disappointed the state will not purchase the paintings, considering there’s already a statue of the chief outside the Capitol. The paintings could be a visual story inside the Capitol to complement and explain the statue outside, she said.
The paintings will eventually be removed from the Capitol in Cheyenne – they’re currently in the rotunda on the second floor -- and returned to storage until the family can find a suitable buyer.
“We’re hoping that the next session something else can be done. You never know,” she said. “If someone wants to put them in an institution, a museum, well then the state has lost their opportunity.”
Mead’s veto of the $156,000 on the Chief Washakie art was one of three line-item vetoes of the supplemental budget this year.
In a statement explaining the veto, Mead said he has great respect for the chief as a leader and for his place in history.
“My decision not to fund the purchase of art this session was based on the prematurity of the action and the lack of discussion about it, not the nature of the collection,” he said.
Mead noted the Capitol will soon be vacated for renovation. The logistics of relocating employees, furniture and work spaces is foremost on people’s minds, he said.
The time to discuss art will be when the project moves toward completion. Mead hopes for input from many people about interior features.
“This will also allow us to visualize the renovated space in order to make the best decision about decor and possible display of historic objects and art,” he said.
Mead isn’t seeing the entire picture, Case said.
“We had a chance to acquire the story of (Washakie’s) life in paintings by someone who did the paintings after first- and-second-hand interviews,” Case said. “By a famous artist. It’s not about interior design, which is what I think the governor was focused on.”
For the past six months, he said the Lander delegation had worked toward the state purchasing the art, including consulting with the tribes. In December, the Select Tribal Relations Committee met in Lander and invited members of both tribes to discuss the art.
The Eastern Shoshone were more positive about it. There were mixed feelings from the Northern Arapaho, Case said.
The Star-Tribune asked representatives of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho to comment on art at the Capitol. They did not respond.
The Capitol doesn’t have many pieces of art that consider the state’s viable American Indian population and its contributions, Case said.
They are significant and should not be ignored, he said.
“Wyoming has had people for probably 12,000, maybe more, years,” he said.