GREEN RIVER CLIFFS, WYOMING, 1881, ARTIST: THOMAS MORAN
This painting depicts the Green River Cliffs of Wyoming. However, the beautiful landscape and clear pathways are false depictions of what that area looked like during this period. American corporations took over the land from indigenous people and industrialized it with railroad construction. This area was known as a “boomtown,” which included a schoolhouse, hotel, and brewery. American settlers dominated the real scenery of the area. However, Moran’s painting does not depict any of that reality. The colorful rock formations and Native peoples roaming the land erase any evidence of the advancement of settlers on this visually appealing land.
The impact of this painting is indicative of the ignorance Americans chose during Westward expansion and colonization of Native land. The artistic choice to leave out the boomtown and replace it with nature-filled scenery and local Natives pushes a narrative that the land was maintained peacefully, but historically this land was taken by force from indigenous peoples and converted into an industrialized town.
AMERICAN PROGRESS, 1872, ARTIST: JOHN GAST
Manifest destiny- the idea that Americans were destined to territorially expand westward and beyond, is the primary theme of this painting by John Gast. In the center is a woman who depicts an angelic or even biblical presence moving towards the darker side (left) side of the painting. Behind lies the highlights of American industrialization: white manpower, railroads, telegraphs, education, extensive ocean trade, farming technology. She and industrialized America are actively moving from the very light and dainty land in the far right to the dark and unrestricted land on the far left. Within that darkness, the figures of Native people running from her light are indicative of the American perspective of Westward expansion.
The painting itself lends the narrative that American industrialization is inherently something that lights up the world, and the indigenous land was dark; therefore Manifest Destiny was needed to save the “savage” land of the Native peoples. It reinforces a savior complex for white Americans ready to expand westward and dehumanizes Indigenous people.
THE DEATH OF JANE MCCREA, 1804, ARTIST: JOHN VANDERLYN
The legends and tales of Indigenous men being violent and savage were promoted by white Americans ever since Columbus’ first steps onto the newfoundland.
The painting highlights this narrative as Jane McCrea, a docile, friendly, and beautiful white woman is restrained and likely to be beheaded. McCrea was killed by a Native American warrior, but only under the instruction of white expedition officer John Burgoyne. Lore explains that her husband had sided with the British empire during the Revolutionary War, and was consequently punished for his treacherous role against the 13 colonies. This, of course, does not detract from the horrors the painting accurately depicts, it simply omits some of the story’s complexities.
The painting itself is quite fascinating; it boasts exquisite contrasts between highlighted and dark regions- most notably in the bodies of the three figures vs. the murky background. McCrea glows with a feminine aura while the Native men emanate a sense of fierceness that is characterized by their rippling muscles and the terror in their eyes. The wind in the Native men’s attire also captures the mood before the apotheosis in a fashion that captures the audience’s breath.
THE NATIVE AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS LANDING IN 1492, YEAR: UNSPECIFIED, ARTIST: UNKNOWN
This piece depicts the infamous Christopher Columbus’ arrival onto Native land in 1492. Behind Columbus waves a flag that reads “Joannes Est Nomen Ejus,” which translates to “John is His Name.” This is the Coat of Arms of Puerto Rico’s motto and shows the religious drive behind colonization.
The piece is also balmy: it features blue skies and a golden beach. Natives are lounging about in nearly the nude, while the formally dressed Columbus seem to be explaining or preaching to them from what appears to be a religious text. In response, the Natives are depicted as curious about the easterners rather than fearful. What is certain is that without the Europeans, the Natives had already built a sturdy society. This is confirmed by the bountiful crops in baskets on the piece’s forefront and the huts built in the far back right.
The relationship between colonized and colonizer is also on display in this painting. On the sea, various European ships represent the impending influx of Europeans. Where the ships are sailing, the sea also embraces a darker hue, which alludes to the Natives’ impending doom.
NATIVE AMERICAN MASSACRE, 1643, ARTIST: DARLEY, FELIX OCTAVIUS CARR
This painting is a prime example of violence that was committed against Native peoples. The imagery of the white soldier taking his musket and pointing it at the innocent Native woman and her child are more accurate depictions of white colonialism than other art from white American settlers at the time. The soldiers, who are of European descent, hold weaponry and are instigating the violence while the Native people are running and not reciprocating the violence. Both these actions depict the relationship between white people and Indengious people equated to aggressor and victim. Historical accuracy from Carr is necessary to juxtapose from the propaganda of Manifest Destiny.
NATIVE AMERICAN MEDICINE MAN SUCKING OUT DISEASE WITH SPECIAL HOLLOW BONE, 1891, ARTIST: WALTER JAMES HOFFMAN
The title of this painting speaks for itself, but its significance lies in the purpose to capture this moment of this Native man helping another person. This imagery highlights Indigenous technology to treat sickness and highlights the healing nature of Native culture. Oftentimes the narrative that surrounded Native men was violent and associated with savagery. However, this depicts a new perspective that highlights a healer instead of a soldier or huntsman.
AN ANALYSIS OF EUROPEAN COLONIZATION OF THE NATIVE AMERICANS
The paintings provide the full scope of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and colonizers. For example, the comparison between Manifest Destiny and the Massacre of Indians at Hoboken are two narratives that compete for defining the history and effects of colonization to this day. Manifest Destiny is used as justification for the violence purported in the Massacre of Indians at Hoboken. Establishing Native people as uneducated and savage, associating them with a dark image, to justify colonization is the prime objective of the European perspective.
White women have played a pivotal role in creating victimhood to push forward colonization and keep inequitable status quos. In this context, they have helped to define the narrative to associate Indigenous men with violence. White women have also shaped the romanization of colonization; their writings about Indengious culture, and particularly Indigenous women, are another example of false representation. They acclaimed their beauty and virtue to white standards and defined their positive characteristics as close to whiteness as possible. Writing about false stories and theorizing that “...[Native] women learned their virtues from contact with white missionaries, traders, and settlers” (Clemmons 8). This only reinforces the white settler mindset overtaking land, and forcing assimilation without taking into account the Native perspective. Paintings such as the second and third from the Native perspective demonstrate the violent and forced settlement of white people, as well as highlighting the knowledge and culture of Indigenous peoples. Beyond art, writing from Native people has also changed the historical narrative surrounding colonization. Zitkála-Šá, an Indigenous woman, writes from her experiences and published a book in 1921 titled American Indian Stories. Perspectives like this are pivotal in interjecting historical accuracy when discussing colonization.
Women, of all races and perspectives, have played a role in defining Indigenous colonization throughout history. White women have been pivotal in justifying injustice throughout American history, and therefore they have served to maintain status quos that benefit them. Even in progressive movements that should be inclusionary of all women, they have carved out a space that progresses only their rights—leaving behind women of color. However, women of color have made themselves heard and defined their liberation. Historical recounts of the truth surrounding colonization are important in defining problems that concern the effects of Native colonization. Native women have consistently been the backbone of changing narratives and progressive reform in their communities and beyond.