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A Myth That Shaped Reality: The Native Americans And Discrimination

1279 words - 6 pages

Most Americans in the nineteenth century did not appreciate or understand their Indian neighbors. The Native American lifestyle seemed foreign and uncivilized compared with American society, which was experiencing unprecedented revolutions in technology and engineering. For this reason, a myth began to develop in the minds of the American people that the Indian presence in the West was unacceptable and that the American government needed to take action to solve the problem of the “uncivilized” Indians. Over time, two conflicting opinions developed concerning the form that the proposed government intervention should take. Some thought that the Native Americans were pitiful, uncultured people ...view middle of the document...

For example, near the bottom edge of the painting, an Indian kneels by an animal burrow, waiting with his bow poised to shoot the creature when it emerges. Not only do the Indians seem to be primitive in their technology, Bierstadt also portrays them as detached from the Western world that was becoming increasingly dependent on international influence and trade. Bierstadt included images such as the dead antelope and the hunting Indian to remind his viewers that the Indians relied on the land, not other countries, for survival.
Many Americans understood the connection between the Indians and animals such as the bison and the deer (The Humanities pg 1055). Most people also knew that American expansion was placing a tremendous strain on the herds of bison, reducing the populations of these animals to a fraction of what they had been before the American settlers arrived. For this reason, some well-meaning government officials theorized that the Indians would be better able to survive in a changing world if they became “civilized” (The Humanities pg 1048). As a result, the government implemented programs in an attempt to incorporate the Indians into society (The Humanities pg 1050). While these programs did assimilate many Indians into American culture and enterprise, not all of the Indians accepted these policies. Indians who rejected government policies often found themselves at odds with the military, and unfortunately several of the tribes who did participate in the government programs were still sometimes subjected to relocations because of greedy government leaders (The Humanities pg 1051). Thus, even though some Americans had good intentions, efforts to integrate the Indians into society were often unsuccessful.
A painter named John Vanderlyn went to the other mythical extreme in his painting The Murder of Jane McCrea. The painting shows two Native Americans holding a young woman by her arm and her hair while one of the Indians raises a tomahawk to scalp her. Most of the light in the painting is centered on the three figures, which makes the surrounding forest appear dark and sinister. The girl wears a look of terror on her face, pleading for her life with her eyes, but the Indians only look at her with grim, blank expressions. They appear as if they are either not intelligent enough to understand what they are doing or that they are so hardened that they do not care that they are about to commit murder.
Vanderlyn’s painting reflects the widely held view of the time that the Native Americans were horrifying brutes who killed every American in sight. While the death of Jane McCrea was a historical event, the details of her death remain a mystery to this day. There are many theories as to how she died, but Vanderlyn chose to depict one of the more sinister speculations, and he did this without...

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