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Visual Representations of Native Americans

The Native American and the "Grand Drama of Progress."

John Gast "American Progress" 1873

White Americans in the  age of incorporation subscribed to a linear conception of human progress.  In the "Grand Drama of Progress" the figure of the Native American represented a "barbarous race," and the lowest level of civilization in America.   John Gast's painting "American Progress,"  illustrates in the words of its explanatory text,"the grand drama of progress in the civilization, settlement , and history of our happy land." The painting demonstrates both the linear construct of human progress and the marginal place accorded to the  Native American by the proprietors of American progress. 


The figure of the Native American in "American Progress" runs away from its "civilizing forces." Not only is the Native American unincorporated into the framework of American progress, the painting represents the tenuous place of the Native American in the age of incorporation. The Native American in this section of the painting runs from the agents of western incorporation, the settlers. 


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Paintings of this time often included references to the   brutal incorporation of Indian Lands.The Buffalo was a unifying symbol of these paintings.  Albert Bierstadt's, Last of the Buffalo painted in 1888 illustrates this trend.

Incorporating the Image of the Native American

Following the adoption of the Dawes Severalty Act, the legislation behind the government mandated "assimilation" of Native Americans, many attempts were made to incorporate the image of the native American into the traditional American trope of the Yeoman farmer.


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The Benjamin Harrison Medal(1889) provides an illustration of Native Americans before and after assimilation.

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The section on the left signifies the Native American prior to assimilation through the use of the word tribe, the construction of a traditional Native American housing, and with the traditional dress of the subject.

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The section on the right suggests the positive effects of the Dawes Severalty Act. The "tribe" has now become an agency. The Native American's traditional housing and dress are replaced by that of the yeoman farmer.



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Designed and Created by Laura Grand-Jean MA '01