A stereotype I recognized I had been furthering relates directly to American art. That stereotype being the connection by most non-indigenous people to tie indigenous art and culture primarily – if not exclusively – with the Western tribes. When thinking about depictions of Native Americans in American popular culture – the good, the bad and the ugly examples – typically, those depictions are of Western tribes.
Headdresses. Geronimo. Crazy Horse. Red Cloud. The Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn). “Dances with Wolves.” The Diné (Navajo). The Apache. The Plains Indians. Teepees on the prairie.
These are the “romantic” notions American popular culture defines as “Native American.”
Even in the art world, Native American influence is wildly unbalanced to the West. Earl Biss. T.C. Cannon. Tony Abeyta. The Santa Fe School. The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Jaune-Quick-to-See Smith. Wendy Red Star. Kevin Red Star. Mateo Romero. Most of the individual Native American artists even devotees like myself can name come from Western tribes.
American art – and myself until I recognized it – stereotypes Native American culture as “Western.” Further entrenching this mindset, the Western genre of American art continues to be heavily influenced by Native artists and non-Native artists producing Native imagery.
What about all the Native Americans from the eastern half of the continent? Native Americans – of course – covered every inch of what is now North America prior to contact with European colonizers. What of their culture and artwork?
The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida is increasingly giving attention to Native Americans – from the East and the West – in its galleries and programming. The most prominent and long-standing example from its collection speaks directly to the Western stereotype of Native people.
Thomas Moran was one of America’s most famous late 19th and early 20th century painters. His grandiose depictions of the West – Grand Canyon, the Green River Cliffs in Wyoming – are icons of the Western and American genres. They can be found hanging in the nation’s most prestigious institutions including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
I’ve seen them. They’re stunning. They do, however, feature a good deal of artistic license most viewers will be unaware of. Moran never saw the Green River Cliffs in Wyoming undisturbed and peopled by indigenous tribes. When he saw it, the landscape had already been scarred by the white man’s railroads, mining and abuse. He didn’t paint that.
The Cummer Museum’s monumental Moran, Ponce de León in Florida (1877-1878), also conjures an image he obviously never saw – Ponce de León arriving in Florida hundreds of years prior.
Moran also injects his Western bias – cultural appropriation, ignorance, market-driven art, white supremacy, call it what you will – into this painting. While the scene is supposed to show Florida as evidenced by the title and foliage, the indigenous people depicted are clearly from Western tribes. Look at the headdresses and the long spears for hunting in wide open spaces from horseback. No Native person in Florida is wearing a full eagle headdress or carrying a seven-foot spear through saw palmetto and the thick Florida woods.
The peaceful, harmonious nature of the encounter further speaks to Moran’s desire to shape a story from the colonial perspective. Genocide was committed upon the Timucua people of northeast Florida by Spanish colonizers. Moran didn’t paint that.
The most well-known tribe of Florida Native people is the Seminole who fought an ongoing war against the United States government for most of the first half of the 19th century before retreating all the way to the Everglades of south Florida where many remain to this day.
The Cummer has on view Eugene Savage’s (1883-1952) Cypress Colonnade (1952) showing a Seminole in a canoe poling a narrow stream between cypress trees. Savage was not a native himself and is not related to famed Jacksonville sculptor Augusta Savage.
Savage regularly visited the Everglades beginning in 1935 to study the tribe. The image here – the Seminole’s head down, the forest in the background appears partially cleared, the plume of smoke moving across the picture perhaps sent up by a burning pile of timber or grassland being cleared for farming, a lone egret flying away – clearly expresses the artist’s concern for the future of these people and this land.
Lastly, in a new gallery dedicated to indigenous artwork, we come across Shan Goshorn’s (Eastern Band Cherokee, 1957-2018) Zero Tolerance (2016). In this piece, Goshorn has used indigenous weaving techniques using paper printed with text from a speech given at the Carlisle Indian Board School, part of the United States’ forced assimilation horror operating in the late 19th to mid-20th century operating under the debased principle, “kill the Indian, save the man.”
I have written previously about the terrors of the Indian Boarding Schools and their impact on artists. Recently, hundreds of unmarked graves with Native children were found near the grounds of an Indian Boarding School in Canada which also practiced this form of genocide.
As many as 10,000 children were relocated to Carlisle during its 40 years in operation. While Goshorn includes racist and prejudiced text in this piece, sections of the patter also feature lyrics of a Cherokee memorial song, “We remember your sacrifices. You are not forgotten.”