Representing Native Identity: Native American Leaders in Art

August 22, 2018

Representing Native Identity: Native American Leaders in Art

Above: Three Native Americans on Horseback, print by Edward S. Curtis, available at The Great Republic in Colorado Springs


Native American Leaders Represented in Western Art

Thousands of years ago, predating European expeditions for The New WorldNorth America was inhabited by tribes of indigenous peoples. The peoples native to North America are socially and geographically diverse groups with rich cultural backgrounds. However, many Native Americans were displaced by foreign explorers, which put their cultural practices in danger of being lost. Nowadays, Native American history is celebrated with institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian, where visitors are given the ability to learn about the complex history of some of their country's first inhabitants. One of the first scholars on the subject was Thomas McKenney, whose documentation of the Native Americans spread teachings of their history during the 19th century. Representations of Native American leaders were documented in literature, art, and numismatics during the 19th century, which created a rich portrayal of Native American culture and history.

Thomas McKenney: Putting Native American History into Words

Thomas L. McKenney (1785-1859) encouraged the preservation of Native American history and culture as the Superintendent of Indian Trade and head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. McKenney, in collaboration with James Hall, completed a rich work of literature documenting his personal experiences with Native Americans during the late 19th century. The three volume set entitled The Indian Tribes of North America is one of the most thorough and elaborate documentations of Native American culture and history, complete with hand colored portraits of Native Americans chiefs.

Upon its first release in 1836, the book served as a visual record of Native American culture to the general American public. 



The Indian Tribes of North America

Thomas McKenney, Three Volume Set, Circa 1933-34


Native American Portraits

The majority of published lithographs in the book are based off of artist Charles Bird King's original oil paintings. McKenney’s role as Superintendent of Indian Trade meant that it was his responsibility to host Native American leaders and meet with chiefs of major tribes. Upon the conclusion of these meetings, McKenney often commissioned King to create high-detailed, colorful oil paintings from life of the Native American chiefs. These dynamic portraits made up the majority of King’s life works, and were hung first in the National Institute and later in the Smithsonian Institution in 1858. When McKenney’s Indian Tribes of North America was published, many of King’s portraits were included as colored lithographs. Unfortunately, a fire in 1865 fire at the Smithsonian destroyed the majority of King’s original pieces, leaving McKenney’s book as the only surviving evidence of the likeness of many of the most prominent Native American leaders.

Below is an example of one of King’s portraits that appears in McKenney’s Indian Tribes. This lithograph depicts Wa Baun See, a Pottawatomie Chief who sat for King during a visit to Washington, D.C. Wa Baun See was known for his dedication to the British in the War of 1812. Here, he is depicted wearing a Presidential Peace Medal after he signed the Treaty of Greenville, which dedicated Pottawatomie allegiance to the U.S. The lithograph represents the detail and accuracy that King incorporated into his portraits. Wa Baun See sports an elaborate jacket and large trade silver earrings, as it was customary for U.S. government representatives to gift lavish clothing and precious medals to visiting Native American chiefs in order to gain their respect and favor. Nevertheless, Wa Baun See’s headdress is typical for Pottawatomie tradition.



Waa Baun See: A Pottawatomie Chief

1838 Lithograph with Arrowhead


Similarly, the portrait of Waa Pa Shaw, a Sioux Chief, is another work completed by King in his collection of Native American paintings. This lithograph is also pulled from McKenney’s complete three book set. Waa Pa Shaw was influential in preventing conflict even after war was instigated by the Winnebago. Just as Wa Baun See, Waa Pa Shaw was invited to Washington D.C. to discuss his relations with the United States government. Here, Waa Pa Shaw wears gifted attire including a lavish jacket and necktie.


Waa Pa Shaw: A Sioux Chief

1838 Lithograph with Arrowhead


The Indian Head Penny

While Native American history can be tracked back thousands of years, their presence in art is still prominent today. From 1865 to 1909, 'Indian Head' copper pennies were minted by the United States Bureau of the Mint. As a tangible example of coin history, this copper one cent coin has lasted for over one hundred years. As a prime example of Native American representation in art, this penny depicts a Native American figure in a traditional feather headdress. 



Indian Penny Cufflinks

Stacey Lee Webber Design


Here, the Indian Head penny is hand-cut with a jewelry saw by artist Stacey Lee Webber to create unique cufflinks. An old reminder of Native American history is now wearable with these beautiful cufflinks






Also see these other Native American pieces available at The Great Republic:


      Indian on Horseback                     Photo of Apache Indian Chief







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