Another great article from Juliane Jennings:
“Many of us remember learning and singing the bubbly little pre-school nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians” as we sat in a circle with our legs crossed, Indian style. And what appeared to be an innocent way to educate and stir young imagination through “comic” song was also a peculiar way of mental conditioning.
The original version was written by songwriter Septimus Winner in 1868 and performed at minstrel shows…”
A collection of perspectives on the history & implications of Columbus’s legacy.
“Christopher Columbus’ reputation has not survived the scrutiny of history, and today we know that he was no more the discoverer of America than Pocahontas was the discoverer of Great Britain. Native Americans had built great civilizations with many millions of people long before Columbus wandered lost into the Caribbean…” (Continue Reading…)
“Columbus Day is also marked with parades, pageants and retail shopping bargains across the nation. Schools close and government employees enjoy the day off. However, some wish this chapter of our history could be forgotten, some project this as a triumph of Western civilization and Christianity over paganism and savagery, still others have marked this as the soul of American national character and that reparations or at least admission of the truth are due…” (Continue Reading…)
(My op-ed on Worldpress.org – Changing views about the Americas before Columbus)
“In time for Columbus Day, I thought it would be appropriate to note a few of the major convulsions in the established historical record that highlight the fact that the “era of Columbus” is now over. It’s already firmly established that Columbus didn’t discover America; and the illusion that the Americas existed in a bubble of cultural isolation is being shattered with every new finding of global interchange. But beyond that, it’s time to observe this ideological regime change by questioning whether Columbus is really so important after all – and what that means in the context of America’s colonial and imperialist legacy…” (Continue Reading…)
This National Geographic news story caught my eye, since it resonates with a subject dear to my heart: modern technology vs. indigenous tradition.
It’s a little known fact that the desert oasis of Phoenix was built on an irrigation center constructed by the “millennial kingdom” of the Hohokam culture. Residents of today’s Phoenix, or San Diego, or Las Vegas can sit it climate-controlled homes and offices supplied with potable water diverted from entire river systems. But does the fact that our modern tech culture thrives on top of the remains of this and other hubs of ancient trade and infrastructure mean that our civilization is more advanced – or less vulnerable – than theirs? It’s a perennial question that is more pressing than ever now that we’re beginning to realize the serious sustainability issues faced by our own modern culture.
“Whether the noble Indian is shedding a tear for a 1960s’ environmental public service commercial or being saved by the great white hope Captain John Smith in the recent Disney movie Pocahontas, hints of self-pity and romanticism continue to haunt American Indians in film. While Hollywood no longer portrays American Indians as painted and uncivilized savages, waving tomahawks and scalping the innocent European settlers, contemporary movies maintain the stoic `Indian’ image smothered with sentimentality…”
The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators
From Journal of Navajo Education, Fall/Winter 1996/97
Cornel Pewewardy, Ph.D. (Kiowa/Comanche)
An exhaustive writing about Native stereotyping in film and particularly its effects on Native youth.
(You can find the editorial version of this post under the title “Reframing Columbus Day” on Worldpress.org, an online magazine for independent journalism.)
Recently I posted about research positing a link between peoples of the Na-Dene/Athabaskan family (e.g. Navajo, Apache, Tlingit) and Central Asian refugees of Genghis Khan’s conquests. The connection, based on physical, cultural & religious similarities and linguistic and genetic evidence, has been proposed for decades but is only now being verified by concrete evidence.
The implications of such a realization are staggering – but no more than those of other recent discoveries challenging our conceptions of the early Americas.
In time for Columbus Day this year I thought it would be appropriate to note a few of the major convulsions in the established historical record that highlight the fact that the “era of Columbus” is now over. It’s already firmly established that Columbus didn’t discover America; and the illusion that the Americas existed in a bubble of cultural isolation is being shattered with every new finding of global interchange. But beyond that, it’s time to observe this ideological regime change by questioning whether Columbus is really so important after all – and what that means in the context of America’s colonial and imperialist legacy.
1: Norse Colonies & the First Native American in Europe
The presence of Scandinavians in North America before Columbus is well-established. At present they lay title to being the first Europeans to set foot on American soil. But one of the major revelations of the past year was the evidence of the earliest Native Americans in a European country – not as chattel transported via the English and Spanish slave trades, or even as diplomatic attaches to European monarchs – but as part of the saga of Norse exploration along the Atlantic seaboard.
The ill-fated Norse colony of L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, dating to the 11th century, may have shared less than ideal relations with their Beothuk neighbors, according to extant records; but their association may have been closer than those records indicate. It remained for DNA science to reveal that many present-day Icelanders carry the genes of Newfoundland’s extinct indigenous populations, indicating that this Norse emigration was, at least on one occasion, a two-way street. This discovery marks a milestone in our understanding of early European involvement in North America and raises numerous questions about the nature and extent of the interaction between these groups.
2: Polynesian Trade with the Pacific Coast
There is a growing body of evidence that Polynesian sailors reached the Americas long before the 15th century, setting up an exchange that left clues on both sides of the Pacific. The Polynesians are an optimal candidate in the search for pre-Columbian contact, because they had both the technology and the motive to reach the Americas.
The prime evidence:
Chickens – Ancient remains of chickens found on the coast of Chile predate the arrival of domesticated breeds introduced by European colonists. There were no chickens indigenous to the Americas; they are native to southeast Asia where they were first domesticated and later brought as far east as the Pacific islands. Obviously their presence in Chile could not be explained as a simple case of migratory spread. The carbon dating of the chicken bones gave them a tentative age of 600 years, right around the peak of the Polynesian’s Pacific expansion.
Sweet potatoes – As part of the Columbian Exchange, many of the New World’s important native foodcrops – including maize, potatoes, and cacao – were transported to Europe, Asia, and Africa where they became fundamental commodities. One of these crops, the sweet potato, has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years by peoples in Central and South America, where it first originated. Apart from direct human introduction, it is difficult to account for sweet potato cultivation by the Polynesians dating back more than a millennia. (Sweet potatoes propagate through tubers or plant cuttings, not by seeds that can be windblown or spread by birds.) It is even more difficult to explain how they came to be called by almost identical names in both regions.
There are even deeper connections on the horizon. Many researchers point to linguistic similarities and parallels in artifacts found in the Polynesia Pacific (including Easter Island) and in America’s Pacific coast cultures. Such suggestions of an information and technology exchange may be circumstantial at best. But there is considerable support rising from other fronts, not the least of which is recent DNA research confirming the exchange of much more than just trade goods.
3: Tibetan origins of Athabaskans
The portrayal of Native Americans in the arts and media is fraught with controversy and contradiction. It’s a disputed territory where art, stereotype, politics, and propaganda intersect. It’s hard to think of another artistic genre where the subject can so easily be glorified and demeaned at the same time. And because of the checkered past of the modern Native American experience, sometimes the line between the two can be disturbingly fine.
In a post I did a couple of months ago I wrote about Edward Curtis and the “smiling Indian” controversy. My question was, how much responsibility did early 20th century photographers have in manufacturing stereotypes of Native Americans – in particular the image of the “stoic” Indian – and how did that influence popular opinion through the mass-media later in the century?
The reason the works of early photographers have come under such scrutiny is because their pieces became the groundwork for the way media would approach Native Americans for the next century. The popular appeal of Native Americans as a cultural symbol was much the same around the turn of the 20th century as it is today. It was customary to portray them with the usual templates – the noble, stoic warrior race; the romanticized breed of nature’s children; the “vanishing kind”; and so on.
Granted, the period around turn of that century might well have been the worst time to be an Indian. Tribal lands (and sovereignty) had been wrested away in shocking proportions; resistance movements had been brutally crushed one by one; Indian children were being forcibly re-educated under the residential school system; Native languages and religions were outlawed and the very existence of many Native lifestyles was in question. In this setting it is partly understandable why so many people would be interested in projecting that idea that Indians were about to disappear altogether.
But as we know today, Indians did not disappear. Their perennial humor, ingenuity, and fortitude have helped carry them through the horrors of colonialism and the reservation system. And while their ways of living have changed and adapted, they have been largely successful in reclaiming their cultural identity. Part of that is by actively challenging and confronting false or misconstrued representations of their history and heritage.
It’s not only the Indians who are concerned with this kind of integrity. Artists, and those seeking to be well-informed about art, bear the responsibility of seeing works of historical or cultural significance in a critical way. When evaluating such pieces, one asks what the photographer or artist is trying to communicate when they represent their model in a certain way – what are they saying, both intentionally and unintentionally, about their concept of the subject? What is the overall tone of the portrait? Is the apparel authentic? This is where details such as a mere facial expression can become such a hotly disputed topic.
Case Study: Gertrude Kasebier
On the subject I thought it would be interesting to compare the work of a near-contemporary of Edward Curtis – Gertrude Kasebier, an American photographer who made Indians a major part of her portfolio. While she did not combine the extensive ethnographic travels that made Curtis’ work so significant, it was obviously an unusual subject for a female photographer of her day. She compiled a striking photographic collection – some documentary, others very personal and intense – that essentially showed how the Native American fit into her world.
Kasebier was born Gertrude Stanton in 1852 and grew up alternately in the environments of the industrialized East and the frontier West, giving her an early taste of both worlds. An unhappy marriage led her to seek a creative outlet in photography, and in her late thirties she began formal study in the US and abroad. Counter to all decorum, she began to establish herself professionally, and by the 1890’s she was operating out of her own studio and was in demand for lectures and commissions.
Kasebier’s first foray into Native American portraiture came when Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” visited New York. Like many artists, she was drawn to the expressiveness in the faces of the Indians she saw. She began by photographing the Lakota performers and later expanded to documentary work during a brief tour with the show. While the project comprised a relatively small portion of her output, it resulted in some of her finest and best-known pieces.
Above right: Gertrude Kasebier, c1900 (Wikimedia Commons)
During the pinnacle of her career, Kasebier was considered one of the elite of modern photographers, complete with a distinguished clientele – and scathing professional rivalries. Her strong business sense – and certainly her ambition – not only preserved her career but made her a role model for many enterprising young women of the new century. She was a leading figure of the emerging pictoralist movement. By the 1920’s, an elderly woman past 70, she retired and dismantled her studio. She died in 1934, leaving her collection in the hands of her daughter, who followed in her footsteps.
So what makes Kasebier’s Indian portraits different from those of her contemporaries such as Curtis or Rinehart? Also, what bearing did the fact that she was a woman trying to make a career in a male-dominated society have on her portfolio?
Take this one for instance: a person who sees it is likely to think, “That’s the quintessential Indian chief.” Complete with the feather headdress, he could have been the model for a college sports mascot – which is exactly why pictures like it are such a problem for people today who recognize the “stoic Indian” stereotype and the false connotations that go along with it. So often there are underlying ideologies that are implied, like the elephant in the room, that once accepted become part of a passive stereotype – like the myth of the vanishing race.
Above: Whirling Horse, an Indian Chief (Library of Congress)
But my argument is that it’s not necessarily the fault of the artist if the subject he/she presents has a double-life as a pop icon. It isn’t equitable to accuse the photographer of contributing to a harmful stereotype without at least examining both the method and the motive behind the work. Certainly Kasebier’s pieces bear a closer look.
The Bonnin Photographs
Many of the portraits, like her photographs of the musician Zitkala Sa (aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) would have been considered quite avant-garde in her day, both in the way the model is presented and the kind of statement it makes to the viewer.
The strong pictoralist styling creates a close, evocative mood, while the depiction of Bonnin in both Indian and white garb actively challenged prevailing stereotypes about assimilation. Kasebier presents her as a woman and an artist foremost, with her ethnicity taking second place. She seems uniquely qualified to have photographed Bonnin; maybe it took a fellow woman and artist to appreciate these qualities.
(College of Staten Island Library “Images of Zitkala Sa“)
The thing that struck me the most about Kasebier’s Indians is how frequently they are shown smiling – even laughing – relative to the total number of portraits. Just imagine if “smiling Indians” made up as large a proportion of Curtis’ portfolio (although there are quite a few they are obscure by comparison).
Joseph Black Fox (Library of Congress)
Charging Thunder, American Indian (Library of Congress)
This one below is my favorite (as a matter of fact it is part of the banner of my website). One wonders what was making William (left) smile and Luke (on the right) have to hold in a laugh? Was Kasebier in on the joke? (Library of Congress)
(Click to enlarge)
If we are to judge what is reflected in these portraits, Kasebier’s Lakota subjects must have felt quite at ease. With the photography taking place in a quiet studio setting, rather than the indignity of the performance stage, and the subjects actively participating in the portrait process, it’s no wonder she was able to capture such a palpable human essence.
Fortunately, Kasebier’s Indian pictures also include a balanced variety of gender and age combination, so while portraits of adult men still predominate in the collection, women and children of various age groups also receive ample attention.
Samuel American Horse and his wife – A sensitive and rather domestic portrait. Note the wedding ring on her hand. (Library of Congress)
Mary Lone Bear (Smithsonian)
One of the most poignant and emotionally haunting portraits, Charles American Horse in his Wild West Show costume. (Library of Congress)
The point Kasebier seems to make with this photo is, “What a way to grow up” – a young person whose nation was invaded and resettled, and as if to add insult to injury, made into a public exhibition. It serves as an example of how the collection does a good job of portraying individual humanity, but not at the price of ignoring stark reality.
Based on the recommendation of these facts, Kasebier’s work stands quite favorably as both a historic record and an artistic product.
A few key observations of what defines Kasebier’s portraits:
Kasebier’s approach was completely different from Curtis’s – in fact almost opposite – in that her portraits are deeply personal and introspective. But while they are intimate in nature, they avoid melodrama. It would have been all too easy to lapse into a sorrowful, elegiac “vanishing breed” tone. They do not politicize the Indians or cast them as ethnographic objects.
Kasebier’s portraits are refreshingly honest and un-contrived. She never used artificial poses, apparel or props to achieve a more “photogenic” result at the expense of authenticity. In fact she often portrayed her models without their signature regalia, so as not to detract focus from the individual. Frequently the subjects chose their own costumes and posed in the way that seemed most natural to them. This difference gives Kasebier’s pictures a more dynamic and spontaneous, less “picture book” quality.
Kasebier’s Indian project was a purely personal and artistic one; while she stood to make a considerable profit off of the pieces, she never offered any of them for sale, and only produced prints for a select few individuals.
- Human connection
Finally and (in my opinion) most importantly, Kasebier didn’t just take pictures of these people – she built a rapport with them, and in some cases, became a close friend. In this light, one wonders whether she felt more than a passing kinship with them; both experienced the constraints of a society that denied them their identity. Both experienced the personal rewards that resulted from this mutual understanding and respect – and that’s ultimately the biggest take-away from the end result of this unique collaboration.
Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Division – Results for Gertrude Kasebier
Smithsonian Research: “Portraits offer intimate look at Wild West performers” (If you don’t mind the missing html symbols then this is a pretty good article)
Recently I had the opportunity of watching a lot of the old-fashioned tv westerns, ranging from black and white cowboy movies to classic long-running series. They reminded me how much has changed in the past half century or so in regards to portrayals of American Indians in film; that said, many of these old flicks leave a lot to be desired in their depictions.
Case study: Pimas and Yaquis
One thing that caught my attention was the particular usage of Pima and Yaqui Indians in plots featuring hostilities against white settlers. Had I encountered this just once or twice, I would have passed it off as a fluke – but repeatedly in various scripts, these southwestern peoples were singled out for their particularly aggressive and brutal behavior (replete with totally concocted accounts of their infamous atrocities against whites).
This took me by surprise, since both peoples were peaceful agriculturalists, and I was not aware of any history that would precipitate such a mythology.
“Although the Akimel O’odham [Pima] did have conflicts with other groups they are thought to have been primarily a peaceable people, because they never attacked Euroamerican settlers and they were most well known for their aid to immigrants.”(Wikipedia)
“The Pima have always been peaceable, though when attacked, as in former times they frequently were by the Apache and others, they have shown themselves by no means deficient in courage… Prisoners were rarely cruelly treated; on the contrary they shared the food and clothing of their captors, usually acquired the Pima language, and have been known to marry into the tribe.” (Access Genealogy)
The Yaqui likewise had little or no history of warfare up until the time of the Spanish conquest. Eventually, brutalities by Spanish authorities and later the Mexican government forced them into the mountains of the American southwest, where resistance movement similar to the Cheyenne “dog soldiers” sprang up. The only significant engagement with US forces was a skirmish in 1918 during the Mexican border war.
So what led to the choice of the Pimas and Yaquis being cast in this light? My guess is arbitrary ignorance; the writers cared just enough about historical authenticity to select a tribe from the correct geographical region (they could never get away with staging a Seminole uprising in Arizona, right?) but not enough to get the story straight. After all, they weren’t writing a history book – it’s just entertainment. And who’s going to differ, if anyone should even bother to look it up? After using the Apache so often, it was time for a change.
So this device was used once in a plot, and it caught on, the fallacy firmly implanted; small matter if the Pima became permanently maligned in the process.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Unfortunately, it is exactly this kind of selective ignorance that characterizes so much of what American culture perceives about Native Americans. And when the line between history and popular myth becomes blurred, one has to wonder, who stands to lose more – the Indians who are stuck with a phony label, or average Americans of the non-Native variety who carry around a trumped-up version of their nation’s past? (continue reading…)