A Farewell to Arms and Welcome to “Railroaded” Indians

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

This week, The Wolfsonian’s art handlers de-installed In the Shadows: American Pulp Cover Art and rapidly installed our new library show, America the Beautiful: American Indians and the Promotion of National Parks.

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As the title suggests, the new installation focuses on promotional literature using images of American Indians to encourage tourists to visit national parks in the U.S. Given their vested interests in promoting domestic tourism in the twentieth century, railroad companies became influential boosters of the national parks.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Nearly a century after the steel rail and “iron horse” first bridged the continent and carried Anglo-American pioneers and immigrants into the Indian country, the railroads began carrying a new group of leisure travelers from urban terminals to the national parks. In promoting domestic travel to the nation’s natural wonders and preserves, railroad executives incorporated romanticized images of American Indians and appropriated “traditional” native artwork into their advertising literature and even rail-car decorations. Reviled as “savages” and obstacles to “progress” in previous centuries, the American Indians’ image and imagery were now valued for their association in the American mind with “pristine,” unspoiled nature and “exotic” cultural traditions.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Louis W. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railroad company and owner of several hotels in Glacier National Park, recognized that the Blackfeet Indians who lived in an adjacent reservation could draw in tourists, and he hired many to serve as greeters, storytellers, and entertainers. In the summer of 1927, Hill invited the New York-based artist Winold Reiss (American, b. Germany, 1886–1953) to travel by rail to the park, providing him with a studio and art supplies with which to paint the Blackfeet. Hill purchased all fifty-two of Reiss’ American Indian portraits, encouraged the artist to make semi-annual return visits over the next two decades, and purchased and reproduced hundreds of his paintings on railroad-company calendars, souvenir portfolios, playing cards, and puzzles to promote travel to the park.

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Playing cards

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

The patronage of the Great Northern Railway allowed Reiss special access to the Blackfeet peoples, with whom he cultivated positive relationships and lasting friendships. The artist did not stereotypically focus solely on chiefs or traditionalists in feather headdresses; while many of his paintings did capture Blackfeet elders, children, and others in ceremonial attire, he also portrayed them in modern clothing and blankets that nevertheless remained distinctively American Indian in pattern and fashion.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Always attracted to multicultural themes and subjects, Winold Reiss went on to create the larger-than-life murals and mosaics of American Indians, pioneers, black stevedores, and construction workers that adorned the walls of the rotunda in Cincinnati’s Union Terminal station.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Promoters of the southwestern railroad routes also used images of Navajos, Hopis, and Pueblo Indian material culture and art in their logos and advertising literature. The Santa Fe Line was especially keen on using American Indian imagery to distinguish their brand, sometimes employing subtle American Indian-inspired patterns, and at other times using images of native peoples in their advertisements.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase, The Mitchell Wolfson, Sr. Foundation

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Charles L. Marshall, Jr. and Richard L. Tooke

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The association of the railroads with American Indians proved so popular that the Santa Fe company even used these same motifs in murals adorning their ticket offices, in metal ornamental sculptures for the walls of their dining cars, and even for the upholstery used on the railway car seats.

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Corn Dance, mural by William Penhallow Henderson, from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Ticket Office, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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Hopi Kachina doll-inspired sculptures designed by Paul Cret as wall ornaments for the Santa Fe dining car, The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

~ by "The Chief" on July 12, 2017.

One Response to “A Farewell to Arms and Welcome to “Railroaded” Indians”

  1. Looks like a great exhibition, wonderful collection. Charles Marshall & Richard Tooke

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