European Exploration to the “New World”
“European Exploration to the “New World” began with Columbus’s Voyage across the Atlantic in 1492, which reveals a new civilization of native people with their own way of life, believed by modern archaeologists to built upon the first arrivers in the Americas in roughly 12000 BC. Over these thousands of years, as the natives migrated across the continents, they developed a wide range of language, trading systems, agriculture, customs, and civilizations. This discovery, however, quickly shifted into the favor of the Europeans, unknowingly bringing disease, which rapidly spread throughout the Native American population, wiping out thousands. The Europeans began spreading throughout the Americas to discover unseen areas, and to grow their economies with discoveries of new materials, and resources. This expansion allowed the colonists to see the Native Americans religions, and cultures. Although, this was an outside view, and was seen as inferior or indifferent from the normalcy of European Culture. Multiple artists and artworks have depicted the Native American people, some with the idea of capturing history, others to justify wrong-doings. How did these depictions portray the Native Americans, and what impacts did these portrayals have upon the Native Americans and the view upon them?
The European colonizers have regarded the Native Americans to be in a category of other, that is as being fundamentally different from them. Applying this category, and the viewpoints associated with it lead to stereotypes. Not allowing for the way of life of the natives to be realistically and culturally represented throughout their first encounters. Stereotypes about Native Americans are portrayed in ways that affect others views upon them, and the views upon their religions and cultures to be shown as barbaric, and savage. Within the imagery upon original discovery on the native people, the Europeans took this opportunity to encase themselves as superior within their depictions of first meetings with the native americans. John Vanderlyn was commissioned by Congress to paint the “Landing of Columbus” in 1836, and he finished in 1846. This painting depicts Christopher Columbus and his crew landing on a beach in the West Indies in 1492. The imagery depicts Columbus as being the most prominent center figure, raising his flag in the air as if he is claiming the land. To Columbus’ left, Natives lurk in the trees, some of them are running from the scene, and one of them is bowing to the arrival of Columbus, signifying the ideology that the Natives needed to be saved, and Columbus was that savior.
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This painting is currently displayed within the Capital Building in DC, and they leave a description of the painting that only mentions the Natives once, “To his left, a sailor kneels, gazing upward, and a soldier looks warily into the woods, where native West Indians watch the visitors from behind a tree.” To me, this statement is a bit unnatural, considering Columbus’ viewpoints towards the natives, and his actions towards them, encaptured within his diary. The statement makes the Indians depicted as being a threat immediately inferring that soldiers look warily into the woods. Although within the painting the Native Americans are portrayed as either submitting to the settlers, or curious towards them. The statement could have been changed to note the natives expressions, and how they were portrayed within the piece itself, as curious and submitted, instead of a threat to the new arrivals. Of course, this statement encapsulates the philosophy of sweeping old commited tragedies under the rug, instead of clearly identifying both sides of the encounter. This piece however did not negatively portray the Native Americans, as it did show curiosity within them, it only glorified the Western Settlers. For the time, other works were predominately more negative towards the native people.
The most prevalent negative portrayals of Native Americans were in the 18th and 19th century, and showed them killing white people, especially women. Which, in turn associated fear of death and savagery with the Native Americans in the common settlers mind. These images showed brutish Indian males overpowering terrified white women, who would face an implied torture and death. Negative artwork towards Native Americans proved to be successful and popular, as they were used as a scapegoat to justify hardships on the settlers founding new cities. This scapegoating and savage depictions lead to a plethora of illustrations which allowed the artist’s views to be spread to the population of the settlers. “Black Hawk War”, 1894 was an illustration done by F.Opper, and it stated that the, “The Black Hawk War occurred in the Northwest Territory in 1832. It grew out of the fact that the Sacs and Foxes sold their lands to the U.S. and afterward regretted that they had not asked more for them: so they refused to vacate, until several of them had been used up on the asparagus beds of the husbandman [killed].” The illustration shows the leader of the Sauk American Indian Tribe, Black Hawk, and he is drawn in a characterized style scalping a white man as he is eating at a table, showing Black Hawk behaving with savagery and immortality. In actuality, scalping was used by European bounty hunters, as a means to confirm kills within clearing out the native people in areas of potential living space, farmland, or to clear out the “danger” that the natives were considered to be.
The native americans watched and learned as their people were scalped, and only took on the practice in means of retaliation. The statement about the illustration and the illustration itself is also misleading, as the Sauk tribe did not cede the land to the settlers, and attempted to establish friendly relations and trade with the settlers, but it was declined, and the land was taken. This type of work was considered anti-Indian humorism, and was extremely popular during the time, which allowed the actions of the settlers to be justified, even though the reality of the “war” was skewed in favor of the settlers. Other historical pieces tend to elevate the European Settlers in a sense of always being attacked, and never making the first move. This allows for the Europeans to justify attacking and slaughtering villages because “the Indians attacked first.” When in reality the settlers make threats and offensive moves towards the Natives. An example of this is within the lithograph print, “General Harrison and Tecumseh”, 1860. This illustration shows a meeting between William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh at Vincennes in 1810.
Harrison wanted to meet with Tecumseh to persuade him to sign a treaty. Within the illustration, Tecumseh is taking on an aggressive and menacing posture towards Harrison, while Harrison and his men seem startled by this and take on a defensive stance. In reality, one of Harrison’s officers made a threatening move towards Tecumseh causing him to react, this tension was quickly resolved with no violent conflict. But, the image depicts Tecumseh as being the savage, and portrayed as having no ability to communicate with diplomacy. The native americans were attempting to secure their homes, farms and claims to the land that they needed in order to survive. Both the federal government in America and the British government guaranteed this land to be protected for the Native Americans through treaties and laws. Regardless of these laws, many Americans continued to violate the laws and doing so often attacked the native americans in the process, mainly in the Ohio Valley. The tragedy is when the Native Americans attempted to defend themselves it was considered an act of violence, and then were attacked by the US military. Under United States policy, land agreements had to be agreed with both parties, the Americans and the Natives. Tecumseh and Black Hawk both refused these attacks towards their villages and their people, both fighting to protect their hunting grounds, and their villages, refusing to leave their claimed territory. Both of these stands lead to conflicts between the US and these leaders. Americans also committed blatant fraudulent attempts towards the Native Americans in order to snatch land from them, this lead to multiple rebellions like the Sioux Conflict. All of these views and parts of history were told in one-sided ways that benefited the viewpoints of the settlers, and left the native’s point of view to be irrelevant, and unknown to the American people.
Although native americans have been portrayed negatively over history, there are depictions that are favorable to their cultures, and peaceful. Positive Portrayals of the Native Americans within the 18th and 19th centuries depicted them as a strong, yet simple people that were beneficial to the American settlers. Native Americans who agreed upon treaties of land and resources seemed to be willing participants and were not forced to sign, creating a feeling of respect within the white american population. Although, these portrayals can be one-sided as many of these “willing participants” often argued to stay on their land, and remain in their homes, but were quickly separated with this belief and enforced to agree. An example of a positive portrayal is the “Ojibwa Show Dancers”, 1844. George Catlin painted nine Ojibwas when they came to London.
Catlin wanted to change the public opinion and educate the public about his view of the “noble” Native Americans that were not familiar with then-modern civilization. So, Catlin opened an exhibit of Native American artworks including sculptures and paintings in New York City in 1837. Catlin also presented the Ojibwas as highly noble Native Americans and regarded them to be a part of history, rather than people of then-modern society. They were dressed in their ceremonial traditional clothing, performing religious dances. The Ojibwas worked for Catlin to enhance their way of life to adapt to new inhabitants in their previously owned lands. These “show Indians” earned money through these performances and displayed a positive image to the American settlers, which lead the Ojibwas to believe that their cultures would be spared. Within the painting, each Ojibwa left a signature of their own kind, showing their forms of writing and personal identification. Catlin’s attempt to show the “noble” culture of the Ojibwa tribe did impact the view of the native american people, but it had zero impact on the regard for their owned territory.
In conclusion, the Native Americans were portrayed in ways that elevated the European settlers, and ways that created stereotypes against them in order to invoke fear, and blatant disrespect in the public eye. The cultures of these tribes were lost, and most attempts of peaceful living were quickly pushed aside, and lead to countless massacres, but, the artwork during this time justified these acts of violence, and portrayed the Native Americans as natural savage enemies of the white settlers. Even though, artists have attempted to show the cultures of tribes; even though they didn’t understand them, the public eye still viewed the natives as an enemy beneath them. To this day, the Native American history has been mostly swept under the rug, and only touched upon in schooling across the United States. It is important to look at this artwork to learn from the tragedies, and to better inform others of the acts upon the Natives.”