Playing “Indian”: Manifest Destiny, Whiteness, and the Depiction of Native Americans

First Things First...

Many art history survey courses touch upon paintings from the Hudson River School, photographs by Edward Curtis, paintings by George Catlin, or sculptures by Frederick Remington. But often, the survey textbooks do not take a complex look at the embedded political history, ideology, brutal violence, and genocide that such works allude to and suggest.

This lecture grew out of my desire and need to address these aspects of American art history in my “non-Western” and my “African, Oceanic, and Native American” surveys. From there, the lesson plan grew further when I taught my First Year Seminar entitled “Race-ing Art History.” This often-ignored history of white America’s need to “play Indian” and categorize Native Americans into long-lasting stereotypical roles is something that many Native artists address directly in contemporary works. So the purpose of this lesson plan is threefold: a reflective look back into American art history, a foundational approach to how Native Americans have been presented by others and have presented themselves, and a progressive current look at contemporary Native art practices.

Comparing current (self) portraits by Native artists such as James Luna, Erica Lord, and Tom Jones to portraits by artists like George Catlin, Jon Mix Stanley, and Edward Curtis helps to highlight and disrupt a longstanding history and tradition of America’s investment in “othering” Native Americans. This lesson also looks at the practice of “playing Indian,” via films and mascots, all under the guise of “respect.”

Background Readings

Erica Lord, Untitled (I Tan To Look More Native) from Tanning Project, 2005–7, Digital inkjet print.

I recommend starting this segment by having your students read the following articles. This will be the basis for the “Depp, Dunham, Deloria, and Disney’s Lone Ranger” assignment (see Content Suggestions).

Additionally, I highly recommend:

  • Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, “Check Your Baggage: Resisting Whiteness in Art History,” Art Journal 60, no. 4, (Winter 2001), 59–61.
  • Jennifer A. Gonzalez, “James Luna: Artifacts and Fictions” in Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art (Chapparral: MIT Press), 2008, 22–62.
  • James A. Luna, “I’ve Always Wanted to Be an American Indian,” Art Journal 51, no. 3 (1992), 19–27.
  • Steven D. Hoelscher, Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).
  • Colleen Kim Daniher, “The Pose as Interventionist Gesture: Erica Lord and Decolonizing the Proper Subject of Memory,” e-misferica 11, no. 1 (2014).
  • Philip Deloria, Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Excerpts from the catalog for the National Museum of American Art exhibit (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920, for which Julie Schimmel wrote more balanced and historical wall labels which you can read here.)
  • The film Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian, 2011, is a wonderful documentary about the 100 year long tradition of portraying Native people in films. Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond takes viewers on a tour of the myth of “the Indian” and explores how some of these live on in the American film fantasy. This serves as an excellent bookend to Schimmel’s article and the Depp discussion. It is available on Netflix if you have a subscription, or for nominal purchase prices on Amazon as an instant video or DVD.
  • ChangetheMascot.Org (in association with the National Congress of American Indians) made a very moving and effective commercial about changing Washington’s NFL team name. This is a great two-minute clip that can be used in class or assigned as homework.
  • Dr. Adrienne Keene’s blog Native Appropriations is a treasure trove of information regarding current event issues such as the continued mascot debates, headdress appropriations, etc. Students love reading her writing, discussing images in class, and reacting to it.
  • The sketch comedy group, the 1491s, have tons of great videos online. I suggest their “Smiling Indians” video in conjunction with Edward S. Curtis photographs in the At the End of Class portion of the lecture.

Content Suggestions

This lesson plan is built around Schimmel’s “Inventing ‘the Indian’” article. I suggest having your students read this for homework and then unpacking it together using the PowerPoint in class.

Schimmel’s article will lead you through a brief history of American expansion to the West and how political ideologies of the time strongly influenced and justified the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Schimmel posits that there were three roles that white American and European artists often reserved for depicting Native Americans:

  • The noble savage
  • The barbarian or brutal warrior/aggressor
  • The doomed Indian (i.e., Last of the Mohicans)

As you go through the PPT images, have students identify which role Schimmel would argue they fit into and why (they should know from their readings, but since the article doesn’t include all of the images, they like seeing them in the PPT and making their own arguments). I have inserted prompts to facilitate this as well.

In an hour and fifteen minutes, this content area can be investigated through many objects, including:

  • George Catlin, Self-Portrait Among the Mandans, c. 1861–9
  • Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1868
  • John Gast, American Progress, c. 1872
  • Charles Bird King, Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees, 1821
  • George Catlin, Bird’s-Eye View over Mandan Village, 1837–9
  • Jon Mix Stanley, Barter for a Bride, c. 1850
  • Jon Mix Stanley, Osage Scalp Dance, 1845
  • Thomas Cole, Indians at Sunset, 1845
  • Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836
  • Valentine Walter Bromley, Crow Indian Burial, 1876
  • James Earle Fraser, End of the Trail, 1890s
  • Marcus Amerman, A Day at the Beach, 2002
  • Edward Curtis, Grinding Meal, 1907
  • Marcus Amerman, A Moment in Time, 2002
  • Edward Curtis, Piegan Lodge, 1910
  • Tom Jones, Choka Watching Oprah, 1998
  • James Luna, Artifact Piece, 1985–7
  • James Luna, AA Meeting/Art History, 1991
  • James Luna, End of the Frail, 1991
  • Erica Lord, Artifact Piece, Revisited, 2008
  • Erica Lord, The Tanning Project, 2005–7
  • Kirby Sattler, I am Crow, 1991–2013


Schimmel argues that “attitudinizing” permeated the relationship between whites and Indians. While a painting like George Catlin’s Self-Portrait Among the Mandans leads the viewer to believe that nothing but reality is being recorded, it emphasizes what is important to the artist and Euro-American white culture. Catlin’s work serves as an introduction as to how white artists perceived Native-ness through the lens of their own culture.

The idea of American “progress” is another place to discuss the incongruity between a Native viewpoint and that of the white settler. Schimmel’s essay specifically discusses this in relationship to the Currier and Ives print Across the Continent: Western the Course of Empire Takes Its Way: “America’s growth is expressed in terms of the Indians’ decline. On the left, a white community bustles with activity. The major features of the town are the public school, the foundation of enlightened citizenry; the woodsmen, who prepare the way for future settlement; and the telegraph and railroad lines, the technological lifelines of civilization.” These symbols of growth and expansionism visually separate the Native Americans in the painting. John Gast’s American Progress makes this even more explicit. Here, we see a white allegory of Progress sweeping the West, emphasizing the Euro-American settlers’ rights to expand across America. Historically, this would lead to Native Americans being driven out or removed onto reservations. Visually, the viewer sees Native Americans and buffalo running, as if being chased by Progress’s movement “westward” from right to left, light to dark. The light is on the city in the background, where telegraph wires and various modes of transportation follow the movement of progress. Gold miners, farmers, and even the Pony Express denote figures of progress and civilization follow the light. The allegorical figure carries a school book in her hand, representing civilization.

A quote from President Andrew Jackson around 1836 that Schimmel reproduces drives the point home: “[Indian Removal] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers.” With this sentiment, Jackson shows the racist and patronizing attitude toward Native Americans that existed even at the highest position in America.

This idea of the “happy savage,” “pursuing happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions,” was reinforced by images such as Catlin’s Bird’s-Eye Over Mandan Village. Catlin described his key figures as “stern warriors, wooing lovers.” Notably, even when the Native Americans are shown at leisure, the implication is one of carelessness and laziness, versus white industry. Schimmel, again: these paintings “portray Indians as separate from white civilization, as if colonization had not yet introduced epidemics, alcoholism, and tribal disintegration caused by removal from traditional to distant lands. Artists ignored current realities in favor of earlier literary and artistic traditions, which placed Indians in remote and pristine environments.”

Schimmel also notes the category of the “Noble Savage” is represented in how Native Americans are depicted in a work like Charles Bird King’s Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees: “Conceived as Roman nobles, these are men to be admired for physical prowess as well as reason. They represent a race that could perhaps be persuaded by rational argument as well as the formidable presence of the United States government to abandon tribal tradition for a more civilized life-style.”

In other cases, earnest attempts at portraying Native American customs were simply inaccurate or hampered by misunderstanding. John Mix Stanley’s Barter for a Bride is based on collected sketches from Stanley’s fieldbook, but ultimately draws upon stereotypes. The prospective bride lies unadorned, with a stable pyramid of past generations behind her looking off nobly, while the suitor brings gifts to barter. There is a diversity in marriage customs depicted here that Stanley likely didn’t understand. For some, a barter legitimized marriage—however, the bride’s seductive pose or “titillation” or availability would not be a part of the transaction, and the actual barter would not be a subject of painting or everyday life. It did, however, intrigue the painter and fulfill a desire on the behalf of whites for information (however inaccurate) and articulations of Native life. Even now (as the following slide of the U.S. State Department website shows), there is an attempt to portray the work as “correct”: “Widely viewed as an exceptional masterpiece, this painting captures the Blackfeet Native Americans in accurate and vivid detail.”

Images by Thomas Hill and Arthur F. Tait show a second Native American stereotype, that of the barbarian or savage warrior. This was a reaction to the often violent friction caused by Indian Removal policies. Schimmel: “Indian removal was a singularly brutal and dramatic moment in the history of the Unites States, yet no hint of it ever appeared on canvas. Instead artists turned to conflict scenes in which Indians were cast as villains who prevented a peaceful appropriation of western lands. Such scenes gradually made obsolete the group of images first discussed in this chapter, which were often pejorative but not provocative. Conflict iconography (in both painting and literature) was a manufactured response to Indian hating.”

Again, an analysis of a Stanley painting, Osage Scalp Dance shows all of these tensions being represented visually. The Native body is portrayed as violent, savage, and uncivilized and juxtaposed with a helpless white body, creating conflicts of light and darkness, barbarism and reason. The would-be killer is portrayed in a loin cloth, whereas the savior has been touched by civilization, wearing a medal around his neck. Images like these served to justify intervening within Native American affairs, and ultimately, to ordain violence.

Thomas Cole’s Indians at Sunset fits into Schimmel’s third category, the “doomed” or “last Indian.” Resigned to his fate as a remnant of a bygone American era, the Indian in Cole’s painting reconciles himself to watching the last of America taken over. At this point, the last resort of the Native becomes acculturation. Schimmel quotes Thomas Jefferson in a letter from 1803: “In truth, the ultimate point of rest and happiness for them is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people. Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the United States, this is what the natural progress of things will, of course, bring on, and it will be better to promote than to retard it.”

“Or Indians were not seen at all,” Schimmel notes in relation to Cole’s most famous painting, The Oxbow, “at least in terms of the cultural organization particular to Indian tribes or in terms of the negative impact white contact had on Indian culture.” The Oxbow is traditionally viewed as an allegorical landscape portraying the idea of Manifest Destiny (a packed term that alludes to white settler expansion as being ordained by God, but which led to the mass genocide and forced relocation of previous generations of Native Americans). This painting depicts a now-familiar symbolism like the dark, stormy sky above the “unknown” wilderness being set against the light of civilization coming from the east. A comparison can be easily made between The Oxbow and the earlier Currier and Ives print in this respect.

More and more, the “doomed Indian” was depicted as retroactive justification for the violence associated with westward expansion and the by-any-means-necessary push of Manifest Destiny. In response to a painting like Crow Indian Burial “For Bromley’s patron, then,” Schimmel notes, “the paintings must have served a dual purpose: they lament the past and the demise of the Indian, but they simultaneously acknowledge that barbaric customs must give way to a more ‘productive’ use of the land.”

By the 1890s, James Fraser’s famous End of the Trail effectively trumpeted the end of the Native way of life. Schimmel: “The profile of the despondent Indian and his tired horse described a series of downward arcs that eloquently reinforce the mood of the piece. A symbolic wind whips the pony’s tail and bends the rider’s back. Body drained of energy, the Indian slumps lifelessly, his spear, once raised in war and the hunt, hangs downward, as if about to slip to the ground.” Fraser’s sculpture (as shown in the following slide by a Google Image search) has become an extraordinarily reproduced depiction of the Native American, disseminating this false and imagined stereotype of the defeated Native as a continual justification of white expansion and the violence that came with it.

Images like Ernest L. Blumenschein’s Words of the Nation—Their First Vacation from School (widely reproduced on the cover of Harper’s Weekly) hearkened the next step: the hope for acculturation or assimilation that reinforces “the civilizing process” set in motion by both governmental and purportedly humanitarian efforts. The truth was not so positive. In the General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887, Schimmel notes, “organizations insisted on overthrow of tribalism and communal organization.” Reservations were broken up into 160-acre homesteads subject to white law, and Natives were required to attend English-speaking governmental schools. This legislation “acted on the assumption that inside every Indian was a white American citizen and property holder waiting to be set free; the job of reform was to crack the shell of traditional tribal life and thus free the individual.” The photographs on the following slide, however, show that Native individuality was precisely what was being suppressed by these actions.

With this history in mind, you can ask your students what Schimmel might have said in response to the following photographs taken by Edward Curtis, who was applauded for capturing images of a “dying” civilization with his orotones of Native Americans in the early twentieth century. Are these “noble savages”? Are they “doomed Indians”? Do they borrow from both of these constructs, or are they something new?

Schimmel ends her article with this quote: “Real Indians never inhabited the paintings of white artists. Paintings in which Indians were represented were created to embody whites’ attitudes about nature, the right of conquest, and the priorities of civilization. To whites, Indians at odds with Anglo-Saxon culture, refusing to abandon tribal custom and become ‘productive’ citizens, were either primitive, savage, or doomed. Over the nineteenth century, Indians had been reduced to a few stereotypes or worse, as Alexander Pope suggests in Weapons of War, 1900…In this image, Indian culture no longer possesses the myth of corporeal presence but has been reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of bric-a-brac devoid of function, impoverished of meaning, and displayed against yet another grid of white construction.” How does this image, then, compare to Karl Bodmer’s Hidatsa Warrior Pehriska-Ruhpa (Two Ravens), who holds one of those “weapons of war” and embodies a landscape?

After seeing the ways in which Native Americans have been “invented,” assumed, and appropriated, students will be able to better understand artists like photographer Marcus Amerman, who recreates Edward Curtis photos in the modern day, or photographer Tom Jones who brings in current popular culture like The Oprah Winfrey Show in his Choka Watching Oprah as if to challenge the notion of Schimmel’s “doomed Indian”—as if to say, “We are still here in the very present, watching Oprah.”

James Luna’s now famous Artifact Piece also directly challenges this assumption that Native Americans are dead and gone (or only in natural history museums) by inserting his living, breathing body into a glass display case at the museum. In his own words:

    I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one—sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn’t talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people. In The Artifact Piece, I became the Indian and lied in state as an exhibit along with my personal objects. That hit a nerve and spoke loud both in Indian country, the art world, and the frontier of anthropology.

Thus, Luna’s reaction to a history of conquest and stereotypes takes a form that questions the repatriation of bones and artifacts, museum display, and constructions of stereotypes realized in anthropology. Erica Lord revisited this piece in Artifact Piece, Revisited, inserting the female Native American and mixed race body into the picture and discussion. Colleen Kim Daniher comments on Lord’s reappraisal of Edward Curtis’s often-staged “documentary” photographs: “Whereas the subjects of Curtis’s camera were posed in order to tell the story of their inevitable disappearance, Lord’s contemporary poses accomplish something quite different: they testify to the persistence of Indigenous survival and sovereignty in the twenty-first century colonial present. [They also detail the]…intersection of multiple oppressions that is necessary for an ethics of non-competitive memory that prioritizes connections and visions of decolonial justice across different sites to take place.”

Jean Fisher has written of Luna’s version that the presence “of the undead Indian of colonialism…and the possibility that he may indeed be watching and listening disarms the voyeuristic gaze and denies its structuring power.” Lord’s feminine version of the work plays up the issue of voyeurism specific to white male fetishization of the Native female body. Lord wore a buckskin dress made of “traditional materials” and often incorporated into facile appropriations of Native American culture like Halloween costumes, which often also sexualize their wearer. She labeled her pedicure and her pierced ears/nose such that she was further raced and gendered as an object of desire and attraction. As an antidote to this, she also pointed to scars from extreme sports—an active lifestyle, refusing to take up the stereotypes that Luna addressed in his piece.

Lord takes the sexualization of the Native and female body a step further in her series of photographs for Tanning Project, in which she tanned phrases into her skin, creating a push-pull between the availability of her nude body and the confrontational tone of the words. As Daniher claims: “Lord’s pinup poses are haunted by the gesture of her inscription of ‘nativeness’ onto her body. This inscription is, in fact, two-fold: both text and tan mark Lord’s latent, otherwise unrecognizable Native identity.”


Assignment Suggestion:
Depp, Dunham, Deloria, and Disney’s Lone Ranger Assignment

After getting through Schimmel’s imagery from her article and the work of a number of contemporary Native American artists, you can introduce Kirby Sattler’s I am Crow, the work that Johnny Depp says inspired his chosen costume and look for his role as Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger remake.

  • Ask the class: what would Schimmel say about Sattler’s painting? Which role/category does “Crow” fit?
  • Read some of the artist’s statements (in the PPT): was he painting a specific person, or was he imagining someone? What tradition does this fall under?
  • How does Depp’s influence from this painting change your opinion of his portrayal as Tonto, or does it?
  • Ask how students replied to Lena Dunham’s tweet. (The PPT has several sample tweets here; ask students to share theirs.)

As mentioned above (Background Readings), I would give the following assignment before class, so that students are well-equipped with a basic history and set of language to discuss the images.

First, please read/view the following, in this order:

Next, write a short 1–2 page response paper to the following questions. Please open your response with a “mock” tweet back to Lena Dunham (the tweet portion should be brief—140 characters or less).

Questions to Consider:

  • In Julie Schimmel’s article “Inventing ‘the Indian’,” what were 2–3 of the different roles she described painters using to portray Native Americans or Native American life?  Why would painters do this?  What was the motivation—or was there one?
  • How does Johnny Depp’s playing Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger play into this conversation?  What was the motivation—or was there one?
  • And remember, what would you tweet back to Lena Dunham—in 140 characters or less?

At the End of Class...

The Slideshow above includes optional slides for a discussion that could be continued in another class period or as homework. All consider the American pastime, justification, and continued practice of playing “Indian.”

  • Consider current events such as the’s fight to change the name of the Washington NFL team—and all of the people who so vehemently oppose the change.
  • Consider groups like the YMCA’s Indian Guides and Indian Princess programs, where dads and children dress as Native Americans.
  • Consider the continued appropriation of the headdress in non-native communities (for example, Victoria’s Secret and Chanel runway shows, Halloween costumes, Pharrell’s recent cover on Elle UK).
  • Consider the ways in which you learned about white settler history through such white-washed terms as “westward expansion” and “Manifest Destiny” when you were in elementary school, junior high, or high school. Does it differ from the history we are discussing in this lesson and with this art? How so, why? Explore.

Ellen C. Caldwell is a Los Angeles-based art historian, writer, and educator. She is a professor of art history at Mt. San Antonio College and contributes to such publications as Riot Material, JSTOR Daily, New American Paintings, and KCET’s Artbound.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.