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1870-1945: learning resources

The power of the bear and the story of an American massacre

Bear Claw Necklace (Pawnee), before 1870, grizzly bear claws and hide, otter pelt, beads, cedar, tobacco and other materials (Denver Art Museum)
Bear Claw Necklace (Pawnee), before 1870, grizzly bear claws and hide, otter pelt, beads, cedar, tobacco and other materials (Denver Art Museum)

Key points

  • The Battle of Massacre Canyon was the last large-scale battle between Native Americans (the Lakota and the Pawnee). Following this devastating conflict, the Pawnee were relocated to Oklahoma.
  • This necklace was worn by Sky Chief during the last large-scale buffalo hunt on the plains.
  • The Pawnee assisted the United States in protecting lands that were under development for the transcontinental railroad. This agreement was known as an “accommodation treaty,” though it was not a formal treaty.
  • The Bear Claw Necklace is a sacred and powerful Pawnee object that is believed to provide protection to its wearer. It is still revered by the Pawnee people today.

Additional historical narratives

Matt Reed, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Cultural Resource Division of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma notes that:
"When the Lakota attacked, Sky Chief put the necklace and the family’s sacred bundle on his young daugther, put her on his horse, and told her to run. She made it to safety. Sky Chief died right after he killed his own little boy to prevent the child’s capture, torture, and death by the Sioux. When Sky Chief’s daughter eventually got back to Genoa, Nebraska (then the Pawnee Reservation), the little girl, now an orphan, was taken in by Bluehawk (Matt Reed’s grandfather), who raised her as his own. She grew up, married, and in 1987, her granddaughter, Elizabeth, gave the sacred bundle to the Earthlodge Museum in Republic, Kansas. More information on the bundle can be found here."
Roger Echo-Hawk, Pawnee tribal historian, notes that:
"Stacy Matlock, a Chaui Pawnee chief, was said to have worn this necklace in 1925 during a visit to the Lakota when they formally apologized for the 1873 attack at Massacre Canyon. The Denver Art Museum acquired the necklace in 1973."

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More to think about

The Bear Claw Necklace remains a potent spiritual object for the Pawnee, and it gives visitors to the museum a glimpse into U.S. history. What are some issues raised by the presence of Native American objects in museums or other cultural institutions? Based on the prayer read by William Riding In (below), how do you think the Pawnee feel about the necklace’s current display in the Denver Art Museum?
Fathers, smoke and take note of this smoke. I have clothed you and placed you upon Mother Earth. Now then, Fathers, smoke with me. Take pity upon me. Hear my prayers and give long life to him who will hereafter keep you and place you in a prominent place in his home. Once, you were owned by Sky Chief, a prominent chief. It was through your power that he was great. I have placed new clothing upon you. Another man will now take care of you and be with you always. Show your powers to him and make him a good, wise chief and great man as you did to the others. May the men of the Bear Society have long life.

The closing of the frontier and the Fall of the Cowboy

Frederic Remington, The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, 24 x 35 1/8 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)
Frederic Remington, The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, 24 x 35 1/8 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

Key points

  • In the late 19th century, the United States saw the closing of the frontier and the completion of westward expansion.
  • Cowboys played an essential role in the ranching industry by driving cattle across the open range in the mid-19th century, but the invention of barbed wire fencing, the increased privatization of land, and the growth of the railroad brought an end to the cowboys’ way of life.
  • Remington’s painting uses a
    monochromatic palette
    , quiet winter setting, and minimal movement to evoke nostalgia about the end of the era of the cowboy.
  • In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that settlement of the west had ended the frontier era in the United States.
  • As the 19th century came to a close, the image of the cowboy began to transform into a mythic persona that reflects a romanticized history of the U.S. frontier.

Go Deeper

More to think about

Remington’s depictions of cowboy combine details of close observation with idealizations of the American West. Compare this 1895 photograph of cowboys on a ranch in California to Remington’s painting. What is similar? What is different? How does the photograph present cowboys differently than the painting?

Cities and pueblos, the search for an authentic America

E. Martin Hennings, Rabbit Hunt, c. 1925, oil on canvas (Denver Art Museum)
E. Martin Hennings, Rabbit Hunt, c. 1925, oil on canvas (Denver Art Museum)

Key points

  • The Taos Pueblo Indians have maintained residence for centuries in what is now New Mexico. Their history was deeply affected by the Spanish colonial presence.
  • The people in the painting wear 20th-century clothing as well as items that refer to their cultural identity as Pueblo people. This imagery disrupts the stereotype of the American Indian as belonging only to the past.
  • In the early 20th century, the American Southwest became a popular destination for tourists. Railroads made travel easier and developed marketing materials promoting the region as a site for recreation.
  • The landscape and the mix of Taos Pueblo Indians and Hispanic cultures drew
    academically-trained
    artists from cities like New York and Chicago. They were looking for fresh and distinctly American subjects that differed from the industrialized places the artists had come from.
"Many readers today carry an image of New Mexico seen through the lens of Georgia O’Keeffe’s now famous paintings…But O’Keeffe is only the best-known of an extensive colony of artists drawn to New Mexico by its particular blend of austere beauty, premodern village life, and Pueblo and Hispanic spirituality. Beginning in the 1890s, artists from the East flocked to Taos and Santa Fe in northern New Mexico. Culturally remote from the Euro-dominated eastern half of the nation, New Mexico was, as Charles Lummis put it, “the United States which is not the United States.” Spanning the spectrum from academic to modernist, these artists struggled to anchor the lessons of their European training in native themes. The peasant cultures of Brittany had furnished subject matter for American artists working in France. Returning to the United States, they responded eagerly to the possibilities presented by the Pueblo Indians and Hispanic villagers of the Rio Grande Valley, whose lives seemed to embody a timeless round of earthbound ritual and communal piety.
From the Renaissance to the “new age” movements of the late twentieth century, Europeans have romanticized Native cultures as embodying virtues their own societies were lacking."
-From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 494. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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More to think about

Compare Hennings’s representation of Native Americans in Rabbit Hunt to photographs by Edward Curtis. How might images of Native Americans have contributed to perceptions about American Indians today?

Strange Worlds, immigration in the early 20th century

Todros Geller, Strange Worlds, 1928, oil on canvas, 71.8 x 66.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
Todros Geller, Strange Worlds, 1928, oil on canvas, 71.8 x 66.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

Key points

  • The early twentieth century was a period of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the United States. Strange Worlds draws on
    modern European painting
    by fragmenting forms to suggest the immigrant struggle to adapt to life in the United States.
  • Anti-immigration sentiment and
    nativism
    arose in the U.S. during the early twentieth century, strengthening groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and prompting laws such as the
    Johnson-Reed Act
    of 1924.
  • Todros Geller represents aspects of his own experiences as an Eastern European Jew who immigrated to the U.S., but also represents the more general struggle to retain cultural identity in America.

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More to think about

Like the early twentieth century, immigration to the U.S. has resulted in divisive public rhetoric and political unrest today. How do the issues raised in contemporary discussions around immigration compare to the historical conditions seen in Geller’s painting?

Pottery and tourism, Pueblo culture and the lure of the Southwest

Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar, c. 1930s, clay and pigment, 13 x 21 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)
Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar, c. 1930s, clay and pigment, 13 x 21 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)

Key points

  • In the early 20th century, indigenous artists—including Nampeyo—helped to create a market for their artwork that became a way of managing relationships between native peoples and Anglo Americans.
  • Nampeyo’s pottery, which built on Hopi-Tewa traditions, appealed to Anglo-American collectors as they sought an authentic Native American culture, partly in response to the rise of mass production in the early twentieth century.
  • The Pueblo peoples create pottery that draws on traditions passed down through individual families. Pots can be distinguished by the use of local clays and the designs that decorate them.
  • The Southwest became a popular travel destination in the early 20th century, spurred on by tour companies in partnership with the railroads that had recently expanded into this area.

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More to think about

What does it mean when something is considered “authentic?” Discuss how Nampeyo’s story challenges and/or contradicts notions of authenticity when applied to questions of history, identity, or cultural heritage.

Revisiting the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree

Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, oil on canvas, 38 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)
Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, oil on canvas, 38 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

From the artist

“I sincerely hope this painting will help reawaken interest in the cherry tree and other bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. In our present and unsettled times, when democracy is threatened on all sides, the preservation of our folklore is more important than is generally realized….While our own patriotic mythology has been increasingly discredited and abandoned, the dictator nations have been building up their respective mythologies and have succeeded in making patriotism glamorous.”
Grant Wood, “A Statement from Grant Wood Concerning his Painting Parson Weems’ Fable.” Unpaginated transcript dated January 2, 1940 (Amon Carter Museum of American Art curatorial files)

Key points

  • Americans watched the rise of fascism in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United States, in the late 1930s. The founding stories about American democracy became newly relevant in the face of these threats.
  • The fable of the cherry tree was first popularized by Parson Weems in 1806 in his biography of George Washington. This story highlighted the virtues of truth-telling and further enhanced Washington’s status as national icon.
  • Grant Wood’s theatrical portrayal of this fable is rooted in his work on the stage earlier in his career.
"In the years between the wars, Regionalism in the visual arts came to be most directly identified with a widely celebrated triumvirate of painters: Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and Thomas Hart Benton. Benton’s self-portrait was on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. Dramatically varied in style, these artists shared a belief that art is most vital when it expresses the particularities of a locality. The Regionalism of Wood, Curry, and Benton also shared with other art forms in these decades between the wars a sense of art’s obligation to shape popular histories, beliefs, and legends. Regionalism was about public memory and collective identity; artists were mythmakers, not only reflecting but also creating a sense of place.
Yet from the 1930s up to the present, the regional themes of Wood, Curry, and Benton have raised suspicions about their conservative social values and rejection of modernism. These suspicions first took shape in the charged international climate of emerging fascism. To some, Regionalism represented a dangerously isolationist, regressive, and anti-modern impulse in art that paralleled the Nazi art of the Third Reich. Regionalism and its foremost apologist, the art critic Thomas Craven, had set its course against European modernism, with its formal distortions and anti-naturalistic interests. Its anti-modern stance linked it to the Nazi propagandizing against the “degenerate art” of the German Expressionists and other modernists.
Was there any validity to these claims that the Regionalists were first cousins to the blindly xenophobic artists who served Hitler’s Reich? The questions are still debated, but the evidence suggests otherwise. All three artists called for an indigenous expression as far removed as possible from the abstractions of blind patriotism. Rejecting provincialism (a narrow attachment to one’s place of birth), all three artists shared a belief that art stemmed from experience, and was most powerful when tied to what the artist himself knew directly. Despite their dismissal of modernism, Wood, Benton, and Curry were all urban-trained artists who had traveled widely, studied the artistic traditions of Europe, and had an understanding of how painting had evolved since Impressionism.
In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, the opening act of World War II. In that year Wood painted Parson Weems’ Fable. A child’s storybook fable of exemplary honesty (George Washington as a child admits his naughty deed to his father), it was popularized by Washington’s most famous biographer, Parson Weems, who stands outside the scene pulling aside a theatrical curtain. The head of the young Washington is that of Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting of the first president as a bewigged old man-an iconic image universally known by its use on the dollar bill. So wide was its circulation that Stuart’s portrait has itself displaced in national memory the historical figure of George Washington as a young boy (or so Wood suggests). In the background of the scene, two slaves are shown picking fruit from a cherry tree, an allusion to the gap between myth and social reality in our national imagination.
Parson Weems’ Fable calls attention to the ways in which our understanding of the past is mediated—literally framed-by representations, by stories within stories, like a series of Chinese boxes. With its toy-like landscape, deliberately naïve presentation, and tale-within-a-tale structure, Parson Weems’ Fable reveals how we construct our national myths, and witnesses the framing power of stories and legends in shaping our collective identity. Unlike the painters of the German Reich, Wood recognized the “folk” as an invented concept, the product not of some essential race identity grounded in the soil, but of stories told and retold, tales whose “authenticity” was itself a product of a nation-state that required unifying myths. Parson Weems’ Fable pointedly exposes the mechanisms of cultural myth rather than presenting them as transparent truths. Among those who collected Wood’s work were a number of Hollywood actors and directors, who, like him, engaged myths with humor and irony."
-From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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More to think about

Wood was associated with American Regionalism, an art movement that focused on the heartland as a symbol of national values and cultural identity. Discuss whether you think Parson Weems’s Fable upholds this idea of wholesome American values or if it offers more critical commentary about the United States in the late 1930s. Which details support your conclusion?

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