First published in three volumes between 1838 and 1844, the History of the Indian Tribes of North America captures 125 portraits of Native American chieftains, orators, and translators who engaged in territorial negotiations with the U.S. government.
Initiated by Thomas Loraine McKenney, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, this project developed over the course of a decade as he witnessed the destabilization of many Native tribes leading up to President Andrew Jackson’s endorsement of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. This act resulted in many Native people being coercively deprived of their homeland, and forcefully displaced to the western frontier of the United States. McKenney’s project records the likeness and biography of many of the Native individuals who acted as liaisons between their tribes and the United States federal government during the period of negotiation prior to the Indian Removal Act.
Captured in lithographic print, the pantheon of Native American portraits illustrate their position as cultural, economic, and political negotiators who speak the codified language of both their native tongue and that of the U.S. political and economic sphere. These individuals visualize their positions as mediators through modes of self-presentation in which the body becomes a site of contestation for what remains visible and palpable.
Self-Presentation, Exchange, and Negotiation
Take for example Yoholo-Micco, A Creek Chief, Pl. 49, in which we are confronted with Yoholo-Micco’s steady gaze and self-assured posture. The Creek chieftain presents himself in a consortium of native regalia and American clothes, and, in doing so, visually preserves his Creek garb while also entertaining American dress standards. As a result, his position as cultural and political mediator is visualized through the negotiation of textiles on his body. The white collared shirt, black cravat, and gold vest all speak to Yoholo-Micco’s ability to consort with American standards of dress, while his multi-colored headdress, face paint, sash and strapped bag all herald his Creek heritage. In this way, his self-presentation echoes the conflict and negotiation that took place between the Creek Nation and U.S. government.
Yoholo-Micco, who was the principal chief of Eufaula, an Upper Creek Town located on the Tallapoosa River, accompanied the Creek delegation to Washington in 1825-26 to secure peace with the United States, and to regain title to their land by protesting the Indian Springs Treaty. This treaty, like many that were to follow, sought to expand U.S. control at the expense of the Native Nations. McKenney recalls how Yoholo-Micco was “The favorite orator of the nation” and that “his bravery was equaled only by his eloquence, which gained him great distinction” (Horan 1986, 138).We can sense the gravity of Yoholo-Micco’s presence by his posture and confident self-presentation. Likewise, it is interesting to note how the artist has presented him in a classical stance popular among American politicians in which the subject leans to rest on one elbow.
Likewise, in Metea, A Pottawatomie Chief, Pl. 68, the man is sanctioned in the tradition of Western classical portraiture by the representation of his posture and clothing. Most notably, Metea’s furrowed brow and Aurelian cloak, which is loosely wrapped about his shoulders, allude to classical portrait iconography of Greco-Roman orators. McKenney recalls how “Metea was one of the principal chiefs and orators at the treaty council held in Washington in the summer of 1821, between the United States commissioners and the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi nations” (Horan 1986, 326). It is likely that the artist purposefully emphasized these qualities of Metea in order to tie him to the Western visual tradition of orators. It is necessary to note, however, that the cloak Metea wears is of Native origin and would not have been viewed by him as having the same visual connotations as those perceived by an American or European audience. Additionally, Metea, like Yoholo-Micco, similarly wears both Western and Native attire. His silver earrings, carmine face paint, and feathers all signal his Pottawatomie identity while his inclusion of Western clothing signals the cultural and political diplomacy occurring at this time.
History & Material Process
Initially, these portraits hung in McKenney’s office in Washington D.C., but were ultimately compiled into a publication with accompanying biographical texts written by James Hall. The portraits themselves were first painted by artists Charles Bird King, James Otto Lewis, and George Cooke before being reproduced as lithographs by renowned Philadelphia printmaker J.T. Bowen. The process of lithography allowed the prints to retain a hand-drawn aesthetic while being manufactured on a commercial scale. Likewise, the hand-coloring of the prints endows each one with nuances of color variation and textural appeal.
The History of the Indian Tribes of North America is unique in that it records a story of the struggle and resilience of many Native American diplomats who sought to combat the U.S. possession of their land. The vestments and accoutrement recorded in these portraits demonstrate the tactful ability of Indigenous leaders to harmonize traditional modes of self-presentation with Western standards of appearance as a visual manifestation of the cultural exchange and political negotiations taking place at this time.
For additional prints by McKenney and Hall, please see the links below.