This is an image published in Harper’s Weekly and drawn by Thomas Nast, a famous political satirist, in 1830. It is called “The Great White Father” and portrays a stately President Andrew Jackson holding and towering above several American Indians (Trafzer 2009). The relationship between the United States Government and the American Indians could aptly be described as ignorant paternalism. Since arriving in North America several centuries ago, settlers from all origins have assumed their ways of life are superior to those of the native inhabitants. Thus, the massive push to assimilate the Native Americans. I chose this picture as a reminder of the inherent disconnect between helping and abusing present in paternalism.
Native Americans certainly saw no reason to be “helped” – there was nothing wrong. Whites saw their actions, in many cases unprovoked massacres and a complete disregard for the Indians’ religion and culture, as a way to introduce the American Indians to a “civilized” lifestyle. For example, the Dawes Act, or the General Allotment Act of 1887, broke up tribal landownership into individual plots. President Grover Cleveland was lauded for signing this legislation. The establishment of private property was contradictory to the tenants of American Indian cultures. This weakened their societies, but was perceived by whites as helping the Indians to become landed and participate in the market economy. The father figure in this image appears to be concerned about the welfare of the Indians surrounding him. But, the way in which he or white society saw fit to “deal” with American Indians was not helpful at all. It quite literally belittled leaders of sovereign nations as well as their communities. Every single treaty made (300 or so) with tribal governments was broken by the U.S. government. While whites saw their policies as being better for the overall society and ‘helping” the Indians to assimilate in the superior white culture, the American Indians were betrayed; their lands stolen, their children taken to Christian boarding schools never to be seen again, and their culture persecuted.
Nast’s drawing points out the absurdity of the paternalistic relationship between the President (responsible for all treaties between the United States and the Tribal nations) and the American Indians. Other representations of this relationship might be more favorable to the “goodness and helpfulness” of the whites or be from the American Indian perspective, which would likely display the prejudice with which their people have been treated and still are.
Trafzer, Clifford E., ed. American Indians American Presidents: A History. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.