American Indians as Symbols/Icons

views updated

American Indians as Symbols/Icons

On the evening of 16 December 1773, 150 American patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians ran through the streets of Boston and down to the wharves, where they spent the next three hours dumping tea into Boston Harbor to protest the Tea Act. The meaning of this dramatic act of defiance, which became a touchstone for the Revolution and a powerful symbol of burgeoning American nationalism, cannot be understood fully without considering the richly layered history of the Indian as icon in American history.

When the Sons of Liberty chose to disguise themselves as Mohawks for the Boston Tea Party, they called into play a wide range of meanings associated with the figure of the Indian. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, European iconography commonly represented America as an Indian Queen. Such imagery suggested the wealth and availability of the New World along with hints of savagery (usually represented by club or bow and arrows) that indicated both the Indians' need for civilization and their formidable strength to resist.

American colonists adapted existing iconography to a variety of new purposes. The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, features an Indian woman who pleads, "Come Over and Help Us." The Diplomatic Medal designed for President George Washington in 1790 represents the new nation with the figure of an Indian woman seated on bales and barrels signifying American natural resources transformed into items of commerce. The cornucopia she offers to Mercury (god of commerce) reinforces the effort to link the national destiny to the rich potential of the land, and to associate both with the figure of the Indian.

During the years of the Revolution, the Indian Princess was often used by English and American political cartoonists to represent the American cause. Political artists emphasized the Princess's relationship to Mother Britannia, the vulnerability of the daughter, and the Indian's commitment to liberty. Paul Revere's 1774 engraving (copied from a British cartoon) shows America victimized by parliament as Britannia looks away in shame. Other cartoons foreground the Indian's savage strength and love of liberty as representative of American resistance. For example, "Liberty Triumphant" (1774) features an Indian Princess with arrow drawn, leading the attack against England as she cries, "Aid me, my sons, and prevent my being Fetter'd." A follower reaffirms, "Lead on to Liberty or Death."

After the Revolution the symbolic uses of the Indian became more complex. The continuing popularity of Indian captivity narratives reinforced a vision of the Indian as ferocious savage. During the Whiskey Rebellion, backwoods settlers of Pennsylvania dressed as Indians staged violent protests against the 1791 excise tax on whiskey while more peaceful

groups published their demands in an "Indian Treaty" printed in the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1794. During the same period, fraternal organizations such as Tammany societies or the Order of Red Men provided citizens of the new nation a means to forge communal bonds and to assume new roles as they experimented with the values and meanings that would distinguish a new, distinctively American identity.

The Indian continued to be associated with the potential of the new nation, as is evident in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). To refute the theory of the eighteenth-century French scientist Count de Buffon, who argued that the American environment produced degeneration in all organisms including man, Jefferson offered a picture of the Indian as noble savage representing an earlier but not inferior manifestation of human development. As an illustration of the Indian's superior oratorical skills, Jefferson printed Chief Logan's famous speech, which concludes, "Who is there to mourn for Logan?—Not one."

The conjunction of noble and vanishing Indian embodied by Logan was to become a dominant theme in representations of the Indian during the nineteenth century. From Washington Irving's "Traits of Indian Character" (1814) to James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) to the legal and political rhetoric shaping American Indian policy, the disappearance of the noble Indian was lamented even as it was embraced as an inevitable and natural process. In countless novels, plays, and speeches mourning "the last of the tribe," Americans imagined themselves as heirs to the noble American qualities embodied by the doomed and vanishing Indian.

The figure of Pocahontas provided a particularly appealing version of the noble Indian, whose nobility is best evidenced by her willingness to sacrifice herself to the cause of "civilization." In the original story introduced by Captain John Smith in A General History of Virginia (1624), Pocahontas risks her own life to save Smith, then serves as protectress of the colony by warning of impending attack and providing food in times of scarcity. During the years following the Revolution, this image of Pocahontas as patron saint of the fledgling nation became the basis for a powerful nationalistic myth of origins. John Davis was one of the first to popularize the myth in The First Settlers of Virginia, an Historical Novel (1805). Numerous poets, playwrights, and artists followed his lead, thereby contributing to the elevation of Pocahontas to national hero.

The artwork installed in the Capitol during the early nineteenth century illustrates the role of the Indian as national symbol. Above each of the four doors of the Capitol rotunda is a relief sculpture depicting the role of Indians in American history. Two of the four scenes picture peaceful interactions—William Penn's Treaty with the Indians (Nicholas Gevelot, 1827) and the Landing of the Pilgrims (Enrico Causici, 1825)—while The Preservation of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas (Antonio Capellano, 1825) focuses on the moment when violence is interrupted by the Indian's intercession for peace. The fourth sculpture offers a very different vision of the Indian's role in national history. In the Conflict of Daniel Boone and the Indians (Enrico Causici, 1826–1827), Indian and white man are locked in battle, each resting a foot on a dead (or dying) Indian. Together the sculptures make clear that the confrontation with the Indian—whether imagined as noble or savage, compliant or resistant—constitutes the symbolic ground upon which the identity of the new American nation was forged.

See alsoArt and American Nationhood; Nature, Attitudes Toward; Whiskey Rebellion .


Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian, from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Fleming, E. McClung. "The American Image as Indian Princess, 1765–1783." Winterthur Portfolio 2 (1965): 65–81.

Lubbers, Klaus. Born for the Shade: Stereotypes of the Native American in United States Literature and the Visual Arts, 1776–1984. Amsterdam and Atlanta, Ga.: Ropodi Press, 1994.

Scheckel, Susan. The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Susan Scheckel

About this article

American Indians as Symbols/Icons

Updated About content Print Article


American Indians as Symbols/Icons