Displacement in America and Art

From the inception of America, displacement has been a rampant force that has affected our citizens. Our country was founded by people that were uprooted from their original homes in Europe and forced to attempt to create a new space for themselves. Most Americans today, while born in America, had ancestors that were from Europe who immigrated to America in the late 16th century and 17th century. Despite not having many written accounts of this time to truly know what the early American colonists were feeling, it is very easy to assume that they were burdened with feelings of loneliness and loss in their new environment. Although the original colonists were dislocated from their European homelands and knew the negative feelings that this produced, once they reached America they continued to displace others, the natives, from their homelands.

Ever since the European immigrants came into contact with the native tribes that resided on the American continent, the tribes have been killed, jeered at, commoditized, and forced off of their lands all in the name of the creation of a new nation. In America, they were the first to be displaced, and their displacement was inevitable given the mindset of the colonists and early settlers who wanted to build a new nation on their ancestral lands. We forced the native tribes off of their lands and removed them from their physical homelands. But we took it a step further; we displaced them from their culture and forced them to abandon their traditions and beliefs in favor of our newly developing ones. The call in the 19th century became either “extermination or assimilation;” either we were going to eradicate the native tribes for want of their land, or we were going to physically remove them from it and force them to adopt our new beliefs and traditions.

This displacement and treatment of the Native tribes can be clearly seen in some of the art produced by the Native tribes during the 19th century. Cohoe was a prisoner at Fort Marion after a battle between his tribe, the Cheyenne, and the Americans and he produced several pencil drawings of different aspects of life at the fort. These pencil drawings present how the native warriors were forced off of their homelands and were being forced to adapt to the new “American” culture. Cohoe’s drawing Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists is a prime example of the treatment of Natives by the Americans (Figure 1). The image is a rather crude image of a group of native prisoners dancing; surrounding the dancing natives are modernly dressed American tourists who are being entertained by the dancing. Cohoe, in depicting a normal event that occurred at the fort, was in reality trying to comment on how him and his people were not only physically removed and displaced from their homes, but their cultures and traditions were no longer their own and were turned into a commodity to be consumed by the civilized Americans. Their tribes’ traditions of dances and other ceremonies were turned into a form of entertainment for the Americans.

Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists

Figure 1: Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists, Cohoe, Cheyenne, 1875-1877, pencil and colored pencil on paper. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Library

Another example of this displacement can be seen in a photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston titled Class in American History (Figure 2). As a photograph, this image is irrefutable evidence of how the natives were removed from their homes and cultures. The photograph shows a group of native children in a modern classroom being shown a grown native man dressed in traditional warrior’s clothes. The children are dressed not in their native and customary clothing, but are dressed in contemporary European clothes and their hair has been cut short. They have literally been stripped of their culture and are now being forced to look on it as “history,” rather than as a part of who they are. The older native man is dressed in his tribe’s traditional warrior’s garb, but is essentially not being honored the way he would have been in his own tribe. He, like his tribe and the whole Native American culture, has been turned into a teaching tool, a museum artifact, an item of the past that is used not to honor the culture it represents, but to educate and, more or less brainwash the younger generations into seeing their cultures as inferior to America’s and therefore assimilate easier into it.

Class in American History

Figure 2: Class in American History, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899-1900, photograph. Credit: Artnet

Despite what some Americans would say, America was built, founded, and expanded to the detriment and displacement of others, specifically the Native tribes. This action is still extremely prevalent in the country, and as a nation we need to acknowledge how deeply seeded it is in our country; we need to look at history and the images that recorded it, in order to move away and stop removing people from their cultures and homes.

By: Erin Rothweiler