The Power of Imagery in Steve Premo’s “Free the Slave — Slay the Free”

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I’ve always held the conviction that “reality” is something akin to the eye of a fly, which has 2000 individual lenses facing all directions.* In some remarkable way the input from all these sources is synthesized in the fly’s brain to form a picture of the reality in which it finds itself.

This, whether my biology is accurate or not, is a metaphor I’ve used to explain why we each need to hear one another’s stories. It is by listening to one another and seeing other points of view that we get a better picture of our shared experience on this planet we call home.

Sometimes, however, viewpoints that diverge from the comfortable stories we’ve told ourselves cause chafing, make us uncomfortable. Many of the voices for these viewpoints have never been heard at all, quenched as they are by the reigning cultural perspective.

In America, the story of “how the West was won” has many heartbreaking incidents that have been seldom been heard, lest they unsettle us. Broken treaties, slaughter of innocents, blatant confiscation for example. One of these is reflected in this Steve Premo painting, “Free the Slave — Slay the Free.”

Even with zero knowledge of the historical moment which Premo is addressing, the painting speaks volumes.

The central image of Abraham Lincoln features the 16th president in a white robe and saint-like posture. The full moon behind his head creates a halo effect, certifying his stature. This is the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, who spoke out against slavery and ultimately received a bullet in the head for bending the nation to his viewpoint.

In the background to his right (the viewer’s left) we see a black man with hands lifted high, shackles broken, in a “Hallelujah, free at last!” posture. This is the popular image we have of Lincoln the liberator, Lincoln the change agent.

To his left we see a different response to this president from a different segment of our population. We see sorrow. Looking closer we see blood staining the left shoulder of the president’s robe.

The title directs us to the story. “Slay the free.” People who were once free have been brought into submission, and many slain.

Having grown up out East I never encountered evidence of the Native culture that once lived on this continent, other than in books, and those primarily about the West. Upon moving to Minnesota the Native culture is much closer to the surface, especially here in Duluth.

The title of this painting gives one pause. What does it mean?

Abraham Lincoln, who has been accorded near saint-like stature for his commitment to ending slavery, made several decisions that put a stain on his reputation in the eyes of our Native peoples here in this region.

Minnesota is a relatively young state. European settlements in this region are part of the recent past, not hundreds of years ago as in New Jersey, but rather mid-nineteenth century.

The power of this painting is this: even if you know nothing about the details of what occurred during Lincoln’s presidency, it makes you curious enough to want to investigate further. Second, with just a view basic images you know it was not good.

Briefly, here is what occurred with regard to relations with Native Americans during Lincoln’s presidency. The Dakota had traded 24 million acres in exchange for an annuity from the U.S. government in which they could purchase food, farming implements and other goods. Due to corruption within the Office of Indian Affairs, and after treaties were signed and broken, there was mass starvation which led to an uprising which became known as the Dakota War.

When you look into the details, by means of numerous accounts of the outcome of this conflict which lasted a matter of weeks, you will catch a few echoes of a repeated pattern.

The newspapers write sensational stories, create hysteria. The rounding up of culprits follows. A show trial takes place. And someone has to hang.

Nearly 400 Dakota men were rounded up. Without evidence or representation or a fair trial 303 were sentenced to hang. This is the headline that appeared in the Stillwater, MN newspaper: “DEATH TO THE BARBARIANS! is the sentiment of our people.” The same kind of sensitive “measured response” that blacks would later receive in the Jim Crow South.

Some would argue that Honest Abe was benevolent because he commuted the sentences of a majority of these and only approved the hanging of 38, men who did not have a fair trial or lawyers, most of whom did not even understand what was happening.

What would have happened had the U.S. hanged 10% of the Confederate Army for having risen up against the government? Is this how we treat the losers in a war?

As I said above, the power of this painting comes from its raising instant awareness that there may be reasons our Native peoples here in the Upper Midwest have mixed feelings about the 16th president. You can read the following articles to gain a better appreciation for what really went down. It was the largest mass execution in American history and it occurred under Abraham Lincoln’s watch, with his approval.

Here’s one more summary, in the event you don’t have time to read these articles above:

On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were publicly hanged after being convicted of war crimes. The charges, originally brought against 393 Dakotas, stemmed from their attack of farmers and villagers in Minnesota earlier that year.

Known as the Dakota Uprising or the Sioux War, the one-month skirmish came after the Santee Sioux of Minnesota ceded their land to the U.S. and agreed to live on reservations. Then, as the federal government turned its attention to the Civil War, corrupt Indian agents failed to provide food and white settlers stole horses and timber. “The Dakota were literally starving,” said Paul Finkelman, a historian and professor of human rights law at the University of Saskatchewan. “They had no food and people who traded with them refused to give them any.”

AFTERWORD: Please understand that I am not striving here to tear down a man who served as president the best he knew how at an extremely challenging period in our nation’s history. Rather, it is an effort to bring balance to our assessments of leaders who instead of being seen as human beings with feet of clay have instead become symbols of something else. Lincoln has been placed on a pedestal, enshrined on monuments and even our currency. For Native peoples in Minnesota Lincoln symbolized a foreign government that continuously demonstrated disrespect for these people and their ways. Though they never met the man himself, their assessment of him had to be based on his corrupt and self-serving appointed agents.

For more about the art show where this painting is on view, visit:
Powerful Images & Native Stories Fill Main Hall at the Tweed Museum of Art.

*Some sources say a fly’s eye has 3000 lenses.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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