Native Americans and Manifest Destiny at The Met

american art, landscape, frederic edwin church, hudson river school
“Heart of the Andes” (09.95), Frederic Edwin Church, 1859. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing.

In Gallery 760 of the American Wing, Emanuel Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” shares the walls with large-scale landscapes paintings, including Frederic Edwin Church’s “Heart of the Andes.” What is a scene of the Peruvian Andes mountains doing in the American Wing? The many landscape paintings throughout the American Wing represent both American pastoral scenes that feed the fantasy of Manifest Destiny and breathtaking landscapes existing outside US borders (captured by the likes of Church and Asher Brown Durand of the Hudson River School) to celebrate American artists’ mastery of the genre. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” sets a tone of conquering and fearlessness while the paintings of majestic mountains, expansive valleys, and dramatic cloud-filled skies celebrate the US’s vastness.  The narrative of expansion and growing through land acquisition doesn’t pay much attention to the people who were displaced and violently removed from those romantic landscapes. In most of the landscapes, people are simply there for scale, to show how small we are in comparison to the colossal natural beauty of the land. In addition, usually these people are white. Just as the United States government removed large percentages of indigenous populations through settler colonialism, the American Wing mostly removes the indigenous voice from the historical narrative told in its galleries.

Thomas Cole, American Art, landscape, Hudson River School
“Landscape—Scene from ‘Thanatopsis'” (11.156), Asher Brown Durand, 1850.

The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian conducted a survey of high school US history textbooks that are 800-1,000 pages in length. On average, 5 pages of text total are dedicated to Native American content. There is a legacy of silencing, ignoring, and skewing the Native American experience in American history and the Met continues this legacy. Gallery 765 entitled “The West, 1800-1920” contains bronze statues and paintings depicting stereotypes of Native Americans: men in loincloths with feathers in their hair, either single feathers or a full traditional headdresses like those worn by male leaders of the Lakota nation in North and South Dakota. (The Lakota headdress and ones similar to it still serve as the visual signifier of “Native American person.”) The gallery’s works show proud or defeated Native American men, feeding into the myth of “the vanishing Indian,” without explanation of why this “noble” population is disappearing. This myth was developed to distract from the realities of white America removing indigenous people from the land and to justify the land takeover. If Native Americans were simply vanishing, then the land was not being forcefully seized but instead, increasingly available.

american indian, native american, american history, us history
In Gallery 765 “The West 1860-1910” of The American Wing. Left: “End of the Trail” (2010.73) bronze statue by James Earle Fraser, 1918. Right: “In Hot Pursuit” (62.241.62) oil painting by Charles Schreyvogel, after 1900.

The explanation text for Gallery 765 reads,

Beginning in the 1820s, the American West inspired artists to explore its vast thematic potential, from the breathtaking beauty of the landscape to the gripping adventures of scouts and trappers. After the Civil War, industrialization and urbanization fueled a market for art that mythologized the vanishing frontier, while the saturation of American culture with genteel sentimentality inspired a countervailing yearning for heroes who tested their manhood in dangerous lands. Frederic Remington and other painters and sculptors represented in this gallery celebrated cowboys and cavalrymen, who also emerged as stars of fiction, the popular press, and motion pictures. At the same time, the government’s slaughter of the buffalo herds and the decimation and relocation of native peoples encouraged artists to glorify endangered animals and to commemorate American Indians as a noble, doomed race.

This text acknowledges “the decimation and relocation of native peoples.” But, are the statues and paintings in the galleries a form of commemoration? Marabou is not too sure about this. Sure, The Met openly acknowledges the violence against Native Americans in two sentences, but this is not enough. More can be done to activate the art on display in a way that actually provides visitors with the art’s greater historical significance. Marabou suggests the following information as possible supplements to existing gallery content:

  • The concept of Native Americans being “noble” or “doomed” can be explained in the context of “the vanishing indian” mythology. This myth still resonates today. There is a a common misperception that Native Americans lived long ago and aren’t alive today; the opposite of the truth.
  • Museum labels could explain why the Lakota headdress becomes the iconic representation for Native Americans as a whole: The Battle of Little Bighorn (aka “Custer’s Last Stand”). The battle was covered in newspapers nationwide, and for people who had never seen a Native American before, illustrations depicted and articles described Lakota warriors. This imagery informed the American imagination of what Native Americans look like and this imagery is perpetuated to this day.
  • The mid-nineteenth century idea and visual representation of “the Indian”  planted the seed for most US citizens believing indigenous populations are one homogenous group, all sharing the same culture. As of 2018, there are 537 tribes federally acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they should be thought of as having their own unique cultures and characteristics, just as countries do.

Including this type of information on the gallery and object labels would enrich visitor understanding. Although The Met is an art museum, appreciation of its collection should go beyond just artistic technique, skill, and craftsmanship.

On previous visits, Marabou saw a handful of Native American objects on display in the American Wing, usually tucked in a corner or installed like a curatorial afterthought. During this visit, many of those objects are missing, likely removed in anticipation of the exhibition, “Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection,” opening in October 2018. As expressed in an earlier post, Marabou is curious to see 1) whether this exhibition will provide the perspectives of indigenous populations that are missing from the American Wing narrative as it is currently and 2) if the curatorial team will go deep and address the complicated, violent, and deadly relationship between the American government and native people in the creation of the United States. A more truthful and representative history cannot be presented through one exhibition alone. Will “Art of Native America” be the beginning of a more just and inclusive curatorial approach in the American Wing to art and objects belonging to and created by indigenous populations? [Read Marabou’s thoughts on “Art of Native America” here.]

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