The view of native people by the mainstream and dominating culture of the U.S. has changed over time. The composers of early images and descriptions of native people in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkley, for example, tended to overtly objectify the subjects of their compositions, presumably with full support from mainstream society. One way that the native people were objectified in this way is that they were not necessarily represented in an accurate way, but rather they were represented as an exotic novelty, and their way of life and their image (accurate or not) was something which could be consumed as a form of interesting entertainment by the dominating mainstream culture. Sometimes this consumption took the form of education as in the example of the Lantern Slides Relating to Ishi, ca. 1911-1916 (n.d.). Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yano (Yahi) group of Native Americans. The caption that described this image of Ishi explained that he was posed and that the many photographs designed in this way “may tell us more about the photographers than they do about the subject” (Lantern Slides, n.d.). Other times this sort of cultural consumption took the form of stereotypical notions of native people as a means to sell products, as evident in the image on the advertising labels for “Mountain Chief”, which offered a romanticized and noble depiction of North American natives as a positive image for selling oranges (Schmidt Lithograph, n.d.).
These are only two examples of the many ways in which native cultures have been historically ‘consumed’ by a dominating culture that wishes to capitalize on their uniqueness. More recently, the mainstream and dominating culture in the U.S. has become more aware of the harmful nature of this sort of attitude and actions toward native people. This is evidenced in the recent negative attention given to team mascots that represent native people in unwanted fashion. No longer does mainstream society so readily embrace the overt exploitation of ‘others’. In response to this new understanding, there is effort to represent native people “simply as people” and “like any other people” with “strengths and weaknesses as well as valuable contributions” to society (Sutton, 2012, p.17.). Even though many of the stereotypical notions and exploitation of native people still exist in contemporary society, awareness and change toward a more accurate representation, a greater equality and social justice for all is finally beginning to take shape.
Sometimes, different historical views may conflict with one another, perhaps one may be considered more ‘accurate’ while another has been proven to be a less-than-accurate depiction of past events such as the above mentioned stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans. Yet, thinking in terms of accurate or inaccurate depictions of history may be a stumbling block in an effort to gain a deep understanding of the past. What I mean by this is that when looking at historical artifacts, it would be good to think of them not so much as truth or untruth, but rather as perspectives of a larger historical record (only a small part of a more complete story). For example, the paintings by George Catlin of romanticized and idealized Native America and Native Americans, which are displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Campfire Stories, n.d.), are an example of the perspective and purpose of the specific man, George Catlin. We can learn from those paintings about one perspective that can then be compared and contrasted to other perspectives of both then and now. Perhaps Catlin’s work can be compared to other ‘American’ artists or other male artists, and likewise they can be contrasted to Native-American or feminine depictions of the past and/or of the present, this, in order to discover similarities and differences in the many historical perspectives. Compiling and combining information in this way, and comparing and contrasting the many perspectives or stories over time, allows for a more complete picture of a very complex social reality. Therefore, it may at first seem logical to disregard historical views that have proven to be less-than-accurate, but to do so would limit our ability to learn about and learn from the past. Instead of disregarding certain aspects of the historical record, we can understand that there are many historical views of history and when these differing views are combined, a more complete understanding of both the past and the present may then emerge.
Campfire Stories with George Catlin. (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum: Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 23, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html
Lantern Slides Relating to Ishi, ca. 1911-1916. (n.d.). The Bancroft Library: Portraits of Native Americans – Early Ethnography. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/23.html
Schmidt Lithograph Company Records. Advertising Labels, Volume VI., ca. 1950.. (n.d.). The Bancroft Library: Portraits of Native Americans – “ Mass Market Appeal. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/35.html
Sutton, M. Q. (2012). An introduction to native North America (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
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