- Indigenous Illustration:Native American Artists and Nineteenth-Century US Print Culture
The relationship of Native communities to US print culture during the nineteenth century remains fairly obscure today, some 175 years after the Cherokee Phoenix first saw print in New Echota, Georgia in 1828. In this essay, I would like to focus on one aspect of that history that has received even less notice than movable type—pictorial illustration. The lack of attention paid to printed American Indian illustrations is even more difficult to explain than the lack of critical consideration directed toward early Native books, given that one of the common stereotypes attached to Native utterance is that Indians are image-oriented peoples. The general assumption is that if Native Americans had anything like writing at all, it was "picture writing"—to borrow a phrase from Garrick Mallery's influential nineteenth-century study of pictographic systems in the western hemisphere. Even the spoken forms of Native semiotic production, early ethnographers theorized, were based on object, metaphor, and image.1
In the rest of this essay, I will examine a few of the printed illustrated works produced by Native peoples in North America during the nineteenth century—either by Native individuals and their communities, or in collaboration with non-Natives. I will focus especially on illustrations of folktales and explore the relationship between images and texts that are written/printed versions of what would ordinarily have taken the form of oral performances. I conclude with a theorization of "indigenous illustration" that underscores those aspects of my examples that show how print illustration served Native cultural values or political [End Page 267] objectives. I argue that many Native American printed illustrations from the nineteenth century represent bicultural representational practices emerging out of a desire to preserve oral and pictographic traditions and extend them into the new world of US print culture. Printed pictures offered many Native storytellers the opportunity to recreate traditional stories—rather than merely repeat them—with new technologies that ironically enacted "a righteous paracolonial presence" in performances that otherwise might have been misunderstood as simply nostalgic imitations of the past (Vizenor 77).
Any chronology of nineteenth-century American Indian cultural activities in the US must first grapple with the vastly different timelines or episteme that apply not only to the heterogeneous populations of people residing in the New World now routinely separated into the "Native" and the "non-Native," but also the profound differences between the many Native groups themselves. For the purpose of clarity, I propose that the relationship of Native pictorial traditions to US print culture is best exposed by initially outlining (and simplifying) the interplay of two timelines in North American political and cultural history.
The first follows the development of print culture in the US. With the establishment of copyright in 1790, "the very meaning of public writing was transformed" (Rice 3). Literature became property and authors, "proprietors." At the same time, for Euro Americans across the US, reading became "a necessity of life" (Gilmore 1). The 1830s witnessed a "golden age of local publishing," and for the first time in America there emerged a "fluid and multilayered marketplace for books" (Hall 43, 51). By the 1870s, a national market for magazines made authorship part of a new mass culture of machine-reproduced words and images. During the same period, American periodical and book illustration reached its high point, and lithographic firms like Currier and Ives produced hundreds of thousands of cheap reproductions of genre paintings and historical scenes. Brian Le Beau has argued that such images "were the leading source of popular culture in America" (2). Woodcuts also made a significant contribution to this popular culture of images. Sue Rainey points out that "prints made from woodblocks were a popular feature of the inexpensive, large-circulation newspapers and magazines . . . and their wide distribution made possible a common cultural experience that bridged class divisions" (7).
The second timeline traces relations between the US Federal Government and the several American Indian nations and includes the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788, the Removal Act of 1830, the establishment of the western reservations in the 1870s, and the forced relocation of...