Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Studying Native American Imagery, Art, and Expression

George Caleb Bingham (American genre painter, 1811- 1879) Captured by Indians

Native Americans and American History 
by Francis Flavin - US National Park Service

Native American Imagery, Art, and Expression

Native Americans—and the value judgments associated with them—have been cast and recast throughout the centuries based on contemporaneous social, cultural, and political forces. The book that best documents these reinterpretations of “the Indian” is Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.’s The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1978). Brian W. Dippie’s The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982) explains how White perceptions of “the Indian” influenced government policy. June Namias’s White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) surveys the captivity narratives genre, a genre that often used the Indian as a foil for White society.

Many artists have chosen Native Americans as subjects for their works. Perhaps the most famous is George Catlin, who painted Native American scenes and portraits in the mid-nineteenth century. There are many books on Catlin, including George Catlin and his Indian Gallery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), edited by George Gurney and Therese Thau Heyman. The work of Karl Bodmer, one of Catlin’s contemporaries, is noted for its ethnographic value in Karl Bodmer’s America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), by David C. Hunt, et al. Paula Richardson Fleming and Judith Luskey’s The North American Indians in Early Photographs (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992) provides a broad overview of Native American photography from the 1850s through the early twentieth century. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991) discusses the significance of Native Americans in frontier art.

Native people documented their own histories and cultures using a variety of visual media. Ledger drawings—or ledger art—was a common way for native peoples to record and commemorate their history. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: A Ledgerbook History of Coups and Combat (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 1997), edited by Jean Afton, et. al., is a handsome presentation of a ledgerbook illustrated by Cheyenne warriors in the 1860s. Janet Catherine Berlo has edited a similar book entitled Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk’s Vision of the Lakota World (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2000), in which a Lakota Sioux depicts a wide range of scenes from late nineteenth century tribal life. There are many informative books that explore Native American art and artifacts. David W. Penney’s Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press and The Detroit Art Institute, 1992) presents over two hundred decorated weapons, pipes, headdresses, accessories, and articles of clothing—and his North American Indian Art (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), provides a good region-by-region overview of Native American art.