Chief Wahoo may be the most vivid example of the disconnect between stereotypical representations of Native Americans and their lived experience. Wahoo is the mascot for the Indians, Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team. His dark red skin, exaggerated features and the feather tied to his head create an image that is not representative of America’s indigenous peoples.
A new exhibition in the Greenslade Special Collections and Archives examines the origin of these persistent stereotypes. “Winning the West with Words” presents images and texts from the early 19th century that chronicle the United States’ expansion west and the displacement of Native Americans. The exhibition was co-curated by Assistant Professor of Art History and American Studies Austin Porter. Based on a 2011 book by James Buss with the same name, the exhibition illustrates the effect words and images have on our perceptions of other people.
One of the first paintings in the exhibition is “The Bear Dance” by George Catlin. The Native Americans in the image have painted bodies and wear feathers, bear masks and necklaces. Their body language and facial expressions are exaggerated. This exoticized portrayal, among others by Catlin and contemporaries, is the main source of a pervasive myth from this time period: the “vanishing Indian.”
Americans at this time perceived indigenous populations to be much smaller than they actually were. A common misconception, according to Assistant Professor of History Patrick Bottiger, is that indigenous populations significantly shrank as a result of US government relocation and confinement programs. In fact, indigenous populations remained large, but some Americans had uninformed ideas about a dynamic indigenous culture that they never experienced.
“When you look at what’s published during that period,” Bottiger said, “they maintain those images, even though those images, whether in word or in art, don’t actually reflect the lived existence or actual identities of Native people.” Because Americans did not understand the culture of Native Americans, they claimed that Native American numbers were diminishing while ignoring a significant population, according to Bottiger. “People learn that if you don’t fit the stereotype, you don’t exist as an Indian,” he said.
Portraits of people from the Blackfeet Nation from the 1920s and 1930s by Winold Reiss raise similar issues. These portraits, commissioned by the Great Northern Railroad to help foster tourism, show paintings with stereotypes similar to those by Catlin. One man, named “Arrow Top,” wears a patterned blanket and feathers and holds a two-foot-long pipe.
“The exhibit points to the production of stereotypes that were certainly powerful in the 19th century, are absolutely still powerful today,” Bottiger said. “It reminds us that we need to be aware about how we tell our own stories.”