Early Native American Images Still Echo

early paintings of Native Americans CBS

The early paintings of native North Americans done by English colonists provide an interesting glimpse into how the colonist not only saw the new people they encountered in America, but also how they saw themselves. Now there is rare exhibit of some of the watercolors done by a man named John White, who was part of the first group of English settlers trying to colonize America in 1585. His work is being shown at the British Museum in London.

"It is sort of what we call first contact images," Kim Sloan, the curator of the exhibit, told CBS News foreign correspondent Mark Phillips. "In other words, they show the Native Americans before the Europeans arrived or at the very moment that they arrived."

The images depict first Indians colonists encountered, the Algonquians, who lived on the coast of what is now North Carolina, but was then called Virginia, after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. Sloan said the paintings can't be trusted completely because the English are seeing the culture for the very first time from their own unique perspective.

"They are going to see it through their own eyes," said Sloan. "Through eyes that are used to the European, to the English, to the Elizabethan court."

She showed Phillips a painting of one of the chiefs in which he is standing in a pose often used to depict powerful European men.

"So the chief is seen in a familiar pose - one hand on hip, the other on his weapon, his legs flexed with power," she said. "There's a message in these pictures: these people are different, but not that different. We can work with them. More to the point, we can use them."

Joan-Pao Rubies is an authority on early American colonization at the London School of Economics. He says the pictures in the exhibit set out what would become the basic equation in the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized.

"These people also have the basics of civil life: they live in families they have basic institutions; they have chiefs; they have the rudiments of religion," Rubies said. "I think that's the crucial message here, they are not beyond the pale; they are not something totally different."

The Algonquians had structured towns. They had organized fishing and agriculture industries. All that was important to those who had invested in the very risky business of settling the new world, and who were trying to convince the queen and her court that the American adventure was a worthwhile proposition. These pictures weren't about art. They were advertising posters.

"They got 115 people who were willing to risk their lives — because these were very, very dangerous voyages at the time — and to bring their children, and John White actually brought his daughter who was pregnant at the time who gave birth shortly after they arrived," Sloan said.

But the intriguing first encounter between the European and Native American cultures already had the seeds of destruction in it. In one painting, a Native American child is carrying a European doll, which was probably a gift and was probably infected with the diseases that the white man brought to America, and for which the local tribes had no natural defenses. For them, this encounter was the beginning of the end.

"Well, smallpox, measles, typhus," said Rubies. "Smallpox is usually one of the crucial ones. There are waves of illnesses that come, every 10, 20, 30 years, which decimate whole villages, which make it absolutely impossible for the natives to ever learn from the new technologies and mount a challenge. In effect they are constantly losing manpower."

As it happened, the first English coastal settlements would fail. Relations with the natives that had apparently started so well, soon broke down.

War with Spain and the arrival in English waters of the Armada, diverted English attention elsewhere. And the colonial process would be put on hold until the settlement of Jamestown, twenty years later in the Chesapeake Basin.

But as the first colonial adventure died out, John White's pictures began to take on a life of their own. White's original paintings may only have been seen only by the influential members of Elizabeth's court.

Prints made from engravings of the pictures by Dutchman Theodor de Bry were distributed all over Europe. And because no other similar pictures were made for a couple of centuries, this was the image of the American Indian that was so indelibly tattooed on the European heart. It's still there and can be seen in today's Hollywood image of the Indian.

"It's because they're based on white," Sloan said. "It's because those images became the Hollywood version for all of Europe for 200 years."

Because they're delicate watercolors and sensitive to light, the paintings are only exhibited occasionally and briefly. But they'll soon be going home for two showings, home to where John White recorded this historic encounter, home to America.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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