American Progress and the Native American Struggle

John Gast’s painting of “American Progress” refers to modernization, to the idea of advancement and improvement in areas of technology, politics, economics, and sciences. A very influential marketing piece, the story the painting tells connects progress with achievement, development, and expansion. Euro-American men were actively participating in what they saw as a God-granted right, a historical destiny they were helping to manifest, as they moved forward across the plains towards the Rockies and beyond. The idea of manifesting a historical destiny can only lead one to the Manifest Destiny, brought about by John O’Sullivan, a newspaper editor. O’Sullivan claimed that America had been chosen to drive out the wilderness and bring light of civilization across the Americas through expansionism. 

The unrealistic, womanlike figure portrays the development of the split of spirit from daily life as well as the holy power of the colonists above human beings who have lived in harmony with the spirit of the land, in other words the Native Americans. The ruling and centralized innocent angelic woman has the effect of distracting and relaxing the reality and the violence of this movement west.  Native Americans depart from the frame as non- natives, “the white man”, stakes claim in the form of farmers, homesteaders, and travelers. Americans are thriving across the continent into the west without a second thought about the Native Americans.

Gast portrays every class of man, from the rich in stagecoaches to the poor that have to travel by foot. The picture is trying to proclaim that anyone has the opportunity to move west and thrive, or even start a new life. Most people who want to start a new life do not want to remember their past, but in the picture you can see the angelic woman holding the telephone wire that seems to connect the east to the west. Also, with railroads being placed throughout the countryside, people are able to travel back and forth from the east to west.

“American Progress” leads us to think that the United States is a great country that helped to settle and enlighten this dark place now as the west and that it was a divine country that had the will of God behind it. This is a very biased view that is from an American perspective and this picture may not look the same if it were painted by a Native American that lived in the west at that time. The word native can be defined as, “characteristic of, belonging to, or relating to the indigenous inhabitants of a particular place, particularly those with a traditional culture” according to the Encarta Dictionary. Reading the definition of a native makes it hard to not side with Native Americans in some fashion. Expansion for America is great, but no one appeared to have concern for the Native Americans.

A Native American’s view of the west would be much different than that of John Gast’s “American Progress”. When trying to understand the viewpoint of a Native American, a picture I have seen before come to mind. An oil painting by Max D. Standley, “Trail of Tears”, is a great representation of the struggles and hardships the Native Americans had to face while the “white man” was enjoying undiscovered possibilities.  The common theme I have found throughout “American Progress” is the neglect of the Native Americans. It just goes to show you that humans will do whatever is necessary to make sure they get what they want. Thousands of Native Americans were forced to move from the land they had discovered and called home for many years. The only harm they would cause the land is the little they did to survive on a day to day basis, while the “white man” caused permanent damage by creating railroads and such.



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