History Making and the Plains Indians

Jennifer Truran Rothwell

"History never embraces more than a small part of reality," wrote the seventeenth century French writer of maxims, La Rochefoucauld. The same warning might be applied to historical images. One picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words; rather, it may need those words as context for its meaning to be determined with any degree of accuracy. But many pictures considered together may tell us something about the history-or, alternatively, the historical consciousness-of an era.
The images on these pages date from the 1870s and 1880s. Each relates to an important facet of American history in that era: the destruction of Plains Indian culture and how it was viewed by the dominant European-based culture. Three of the images are iconographic; they involve the deliberate use of familiar symbols to express an important meaning-in this case, the nature of "America" itself. One image refers to the destruction of the Plains buffalo herds, while another offers a satirical comment on the "vanishing" Plains Indian culture. The last is a photograph taken on a reservation in the South Dakota Territory in 1887.

The earliest of these images1 (page 6) is a symbolic representation of America produced by the popular lithographers, Currier and Ives, in 1870. America, the nation, wears a starred headband and conventional classical attire. She is also bedecked with tokens of Native American culture, from the feathers in her headband to various items of jewelry to the arrow quiver showing over her left shoulder. Currier and Ives specialized in presenting a sentimental view of small town "pastoraquot; America, and were commercially successful over several decades in the mid to late nineteenth century. It would be interesting to know why they presented "America" in this way. What made them think this image would sell?

John Gast's painting of The Spirit of Manifest Destiny (these two pages), was popularized in an 1873 chromolithograph that printer George A. Crofutt retitled American Progress. As a collection of historical icons, presented both efficiently and dramatically, it is a kind of masterpiece. Every element in the picture propels the viewer's eye from right to left, East to West, in a gathering of momentum that appears to make one historic outcome inevitable. Despite the abundant icons of "progress" in the middle ground, the artist manages to convey a sense of empty vistas stretching to virginal white mountain peaks, which appear as non-resistant to the Spirit as the retreating group of Plains Indians.

The Slaughter of Buffalo on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (undated) depicts one way the Plains buffalo herds were destroyed-but shows only a small part of the story. During the late 1860s and 1870s, railroad companies ran special trains for the "sport" of removing buffalo from the paths of locomotives. But these efforts were trivial compared to the work of professional hunters in the decade after 1872. Buffalo hunting was a career open to men rendered jobless by the economic depression of 1873. The resulting slaughter of perhaps a million buffalo each year fed a fashion market in buffalo hides. The effort was condoned by the U.S. Army, whose General Philip Sheridan once remarked: "They (the buffalo hunters) have done more... to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army... in the last thirty years."

The United States celebrated its centennial by hosting an International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Total attendance over the six months the fair was open amounted to upwards of 9.7 million people. Admissions on July 6th-the day news of Custer's defeat in the Battle of Little Big Horn reached Eastern cities-numbered 46,088 people. But the apotheosis of technological progress that characterized the exhibit had already relegated Native Americans to their place in history.

The sculpture of America (opposite page) occupied the central rotunda of Memorial Hall, which housed art from many nations (including, among other landscapes in the American Gallery, T.B. Thorpe's, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way).

The America statue was actually a terracotta reproduction of an original in Albert Memorial Hall in London-suggesting that the iconography of the U. S. triumph over its native populations was well understood on the other side of the Atlantic. Both Indian and buffalo occupy positions of subservience, the buffalo's head sunk beneath a prod, the Indian sitting resignedly on a felled tree trunk and gazing-in awe?-at a female figure who looks forward determinedly.

Native American culture was in evidence in other parts of the Centennial Exhibition. The Interior Department exhibit in the U.S. Government Building contained an Indian Office that chronicler James D. McCabe described as "the largest and most interesting exhibit in this section of the building." These were among his few impartial words in a description of Indian customs and artifacts that hovered between mere disdain and open ridicule. One thing that did excite McCabe's admiration, however, was the model of an ancient cave ruin from the banks of the Rio de Chelly, "bearing the stamp of a prehistoric and high civilization."2

A report by Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.Q. Smith in the centennial year offered three recommendations that came to define U.S. policy towards Native Americans in succeeding decades: all of the native population should be concentrated on reservations; the tribal system of common property should be replaced by individual land ownership; and, the occupants of reservations should be subject to U.S. law.

Smith's report-sympathetic to Native Americans by its own light-embodied a particular interpretation of the Westward movement in American history. He defined the frontier as "a zigzag, ever-varying line... known as the 'frontier' or 'border'" along which "has been an almost incessant struggle." He noted that "throughout the vast regions of the West the adventurous, grasping Anglo-Saxon race is dominant and in possession of the fairest and richest portion of the land." And he characterized the "Indian question" as one of two that "have transcended all others in importance and difficulty, viz, the relations of the Government and the white people to the negroes and the Indians."4

"Go West" appeared in the book Western Wilds issued by Beadle and Company-big time dime novel publishers-in 1878. The suggestion that the Indian "go west" is a play on the apocryphal advice of Horace Greeley that a young man in search of a fortune should go west. Several elements in this drawing echo Gast's painting, with the addition of a setting sun to sum up the message. Without knowing more about the context, it is hard to determine whether the joke is on the Indian or on white hypocrisy.

Skinning Beef by J.C. H. Grabill records the delivery of the government beef issue to a reservation in the Dakota Territory in 1887. While this photograph makes starkly clear the effect of government policy on the Plains Indians, the photographer's motive for taking it is unknown. Grabill registered 161 photographs with the Library of Congress between 1888 and 1891. He had commercial studios in Deadwood and Lead City, and listed himself as "Official Photographer of the Black Hills & F.P. (Fort Pierre) R.R. and Home State Mining Co." It is probable that he was among the photographers who arrived at Wounded Knee to record images of the frozen dead in December1890.5

Images can have great potency. In using historical images, it is important to try to distinguish between two orders of facts: the facts of history and the facts of image making. While some images may be accurate, others may serve to obscure what actually happened, while simultaneously providing a glimpse into the historical consciousness of a former era-itself part of the facts of history.

The city of Ottawa is currently revisiting an important symbol of Canadian history.6 At the behest of the Assembly of First Nations, a Canadian Indian group, it is removing the figure of an Indian guide from a nineteenth century statue commemorating Samuel de Champlain as "The First Great Canadian." In this statue, an almost naked Indian half-kneels at the base of the pedestal bearing the European explorer. He is being removed for possible, more acceptable use elsewhere. "In lapidary inscriptions," commented Samuel Johnson, "a man is not on oath." History is. n

Teaching Ideas

The images presented in this article might be used in several ways.

1.Teachers might first present these images to students without explanation. What do students make of them? What story or stories about the history of the American West do they think the pictures tell? What viewpoint(s) do they see as being represented? Where, if at all, could they find the Native American viewpoint represented graphically?

2.Have students read the article. Then ask students how these images relate to what they know about American history in the 1870s. Do students agree with Commissioner Smith about the two great questions that faced the nation during this period? Or, do they see one or both as sidelights to the main course of United States history? How do they explain the central position accorded to the America statue at the Centennial Exhibition?

3.Have the class research the International Exhibition of 1876 in terms of what it reveals about the historical consciousness of the period. Assign students, or groups of students, to investigate what was in various pavilions. For example, what kinds of paintings were in the American Gallery? What was in the Indian Office exhibit in the U.S. Government Building? Can students discover any reference to African American history or culture at the fair? (Hint: a bronze statue of an American freedman breaking his chains was to be found in the Austrian exhibit.) This activity could be extended to a comparison of the Centennial Exhibition with the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration in Washington DC.

4.Some historians point to an ambivalence in the attitudes of European Americans towards Native Americans from the earliest days of colonial settlement. For example, says Tom Engelhardt in The End of Victory Culture: "At the beginning..." 'their' (Indian) traits and 'ours' (the colonists') had not yet been fully distributed. The disentangling of traits and acts-who inherited which-would be the narrative spoils of victory."3 Ask students whether they think the images of America shown here suggest an admiration of some Indian traits, the mere display of tribute from the vanquished, or both.

5.What kinds of images do students consider most reliable in understanding the past? For example, are photographs more likely to be accurate than drawings? Do any photographs stand out in their minds as exposing historical truth? Can they think of any photographs that have lied? Can photographs lie?

6.What do students consider the most important icons of America today? What is the history of these symbols? Which do they consider patriotic? Do all students agree as to their meaning and/or how they should be treated? Why or why not?

1 With the possible exception of the undated Slaughter of Buffalo on the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
2 James D. McCabe, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, A Collector's Reprint of the 1876 Edition (Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1975), 205-207.
3 Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 17.
4 Lally Weymouth, America in 1876: The Way We Were, (New York: Random House, 1976), 70-71.
5 Karen Current, Photography of the Old West, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978), 212.
6 The Washington Post, December 4, 1996.
Jennifer Truran Rothwell is Associate Editor of Social Education. She has worked as a social studies textbook editor, a scriptwriter on current affairs for public broadcasting, and a historical picture researcher.