June 25, 2008

Mythologizing the American West

The Authentic History Center presents a good summary (with images) of the myth-making process that occurred after the Indian Wars.

The End of "The Indian Threat":  1881-1913

IntroductionIn the July 1891 edition of Century Magazine, an article appeared written by Major George W. Baird, in which he recounts his glory days as an Indian fighter under the command of General Nelson A. Miles. Illustrated with engravings by Frederic Remington, the article covers Mile's career from its beginning at Fort Dodge in 1874 to its conclusion six months earlier at Wounded Knee, where armed troops opened fire on a group of Big Foot's band of Lakota people killing 200-250 men, women and children who were illegally performing the Ghost Dance. Already by July 1891, Baird recognized that Wounded Knee represented the climax of what he called "the battle of civilization," and that the Indian threat in the West was now over. With White hegemony secured, Baird was now in a position to offer a more magnanimous approach to what remained of the "Indian problem":

There are but two goals for the Indians--civilization or annihilation...I feel for the Indians, not only friendly feeling but admiration for many of their qualities....The American people, those who really wish and hope to save the Indians from extinction and degradation, must be prepared to use great patience and summon all their wisdom.
The signal that a new day had come in the history of the West elicited two public responses. There was a new wave of reform, most evident in the creation of Indian boarding schools designed to civilize the Native through forced assimilation. And there was an acceleration of efforts to re-characterize this "battle of civilization" in the public imagination; to cast the Indian as an "other," distinct from Euro-American civilization and deserving of displacement to make the wilderness safe for the civilized farmer. Ever since 1881, when Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford, every generation has recreated this historic conflict with the Plains Indians dramatically; in photographs, Wild West Shows, Victorian advertising, dime novels, paintings, early cinema, pulps, literature, comic books, movies, radio, and on television. That the Western genre of entertainment still thrives reflects the dominant culture's need to dramatize its history and to believe in the righteousness of that history's outcome. This section emphasizes the critical time period from 1881-1913, when the mythic American West became firmly entrenched in the popular imagination.
The Wild West ShowWhen Sitting Bull agreed to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885, he probably didn't realize he was about to make a major contribution to the stereotyping of the American Indian and the romanticizing of the American West in the popular imagination. Sitting Bull himself was a major attraction, as thousands of spectators turned out to catch a real-life glimpse of the infamous "Killer of Custer." A photograph of Sitting Bull with Buffalo Bill taken by William Cross in 1885 was one of the most popular souvenirs of the show. Invented in 1883 by Buffalo Bill, the Wild West Show became an enormous entertainment attraction well into the early Twentieth Century, particularly in the Eastern American cities. At the same time the real frontier was coming to a close, Eastern cities were filling up with native-born Americans and European immigrants who were wholly unfamiliar with the unique American frontier experience. Buffalo Bill and others gave it to them in the form of vaudeville-style theatrics that forever mythologized the West with their presentation of that rapidly vanishing way of life. Buffalo Bill even took his show to Europe in 1886, to wild acclaim.Victorian Trade Card AdvertisingWith the closing of the American frontier in the late Nineteenth Century and the success of the Wild West Show, Euro-Americans quickly came to see the Native American, especially the Plains Indian, in mythological terms, and as a people of the past. Once no longer a threat, the Noble Savage made a comeback. Though he never completely replaced the Ignoble Savage, the Noble Savage was appropriated to represent that vanishing culture, whose demise was inevitable, if tragic, given the march of White hegemony under the banner of manifest destiny. The demise of the Indian coincided with the rise of a new form of advertising; the Victorian trade card. These postcard-sized lithographed images were mass produced in the latter quarter of the Nineteenth Century and became the most important form of advertising of the era. They were widely distributed in stores and as premiums packaged with some products, and were collected by many Americans because of their often lush, colorful graphics. The manufacturers of trade cards catered to America's carnivalesque fascination with imagery, and they often mined the racial attitudes of the time to promote a sense of Euro-American middle class consumer solidarity. Blacks, Asians, Irish, and Indians were all marginalized in Victorian trade advertising in order to foster this sense of White American identity.Comment:  One thing missing from this analysis is the larger context. Perhaps because the owner doesn't have any artifacts or images from earlier times, he doesn't discuss earlier efforts at myth-making.

In fact, Euro-Americans have mythologized Indians ever since their first encounter. The Victorian Age may have been when this process culminated, but it began in the Age of Exploration. Every colonizer following Columbus had to deal with the "Indian problem." Namely, how to justify removing the human obstacles that were inconveniently in the way.

Remember the Boston Tea Party? The romantic odes to Pocahontas and Hiawatha? The paintings, statues, and coins with Indians representing "Liberty"? These were all part of the myth-making process.

I tried to explain how this happened in A Brief History of Native Stereotyping and why it happened in The Political Uses of Stereotyping. For more on the subject, check these postings out.


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Someone has their history and their facts wrong. It is widely recorded here in Oklahoma that the last Kiowa Raid was in 1921...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

What Kiowa raid is that? Since the posting didn't mention either the Kiowa or a raid, what are you talking about?