The “Great” White Father


Thomas Nast – Harper’s Weekly 1830

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.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Reyes, Natasha says:


    I really enjoyed your post and have always felt this to be a really horrific moment in history. I appreciate how you portrayed the negative influence that this took on the Native American community. You mentioned briefly the steps that were taken towards assimilation and among them was the boarding schools that they forced the young children to attend. This has always been one of the most shocking things to me and how often times it is tried to be twisted into something so positive. Often times you hear claims of this being something positive where the children were even taken from broken homes and were taught to adjust to society. In reality, the children were taken from good, loving homes and were put through a process where they were taught to hate themselves, their language, and their history. They were not allowed to speak in their native tongues and did not speak English. They weren’t not allowed to do any of their native practices or they were punished and hit. It is truly a heartbreaking story to hear and there a few videos on Youtube where you can hear the testimonies of some Native American families. If you are interested in watching them here are a few links:

    Best, Natasha Reyes

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