Picturing the West 4 – Thoughts at the End of the Trail

In trying to think about how one can conclude a discussion of the Image of the West, I find myself standing at a kind of fork in the road. On the one side is a desire to keep on traveling deeper into the territory, and on the other is the need to point out all the roads we didn’t take. So, I’m going to venture down each fork in the road a little, and then circle back to build a sort of road sign for the other sojourners on the trail.

On Traveling Deeper into the Territory

Underneath each discussion we’ve had here concerning the images of the West has been the slipperiness of that little word, “of.” “Of” can mean “about,” but it can also mean “belonging to” and “from.” For the purposes of illustration, imagine the vastly different meanings of two ways of interpreting the phrase “images of the West”: one, as “images ABOUT the West,” and the other, as “images FROM the West.”

In the former, the “about” means that the images may document real tangible characteristics, or that they may be something made or even falsified. “About” can encompass virtually any point on a continuum between absolute truth and absolute lies. Images “about” can be produced by anyone, from anywhere, about anything that represents the West (and represents it to anyone). These images “about” the West can even be produced outside the West (for instance, when a Hoboken rooftop or a New Jersey wood can stand in for the West in Shreyvogel’s paintings or Porter’s The Great Train Robbery). One of the ways that traditionally presents itself to differentiate between “truer” and “less true” images ABOUT the West has been to judge whether people from the place claim them as their own – a sort of “let’s see which one got asked to dance” approach that is ultimately unsatisfying (not to mention contemporizing). That’s where the “of” is interpreted as “belonging to.” This “belonging” can be judged by the process of claiming an image as the West’s own (questions of authenticity), and it can also be traced through the factual correctness of the image (questions of accuracy). We’ve engaged in both of these practices here.

In the latter version of “images of the West,” the “of” means “images FROM the West.” In this iteration, the autobiographical quality of images of the West become their source for validation and valorization. The Western-ness of Mark Klett or Chuck Forsman, or the spatial belonging of Yolanda M. Lopez and Helen Hardin/Tsa-Sah-Wee-Eh, become a way of documenting the reality of the image that they convey of Western places and people. This is, in essence, what I was doing when I placed the three “cowboy” artists – Schreyvogel, Remington, and Russell – in a ranking by order of their degree of experience in the West. But something else, which we haven’t done that much of, is the documenting of the West as a site of production of images FROM the West. One could do this with a visual documentation of, for instance, Lois Rudnick’s argument that the Southwest was the birthplace of American Modernism. One could also look at the emergence of the conservation movement on Western lands (as reflected in the images produced by Westerners to argue for the conservation of Western wildlands) as a way to document this intellectual production FROM rather than simply ABOUT the West. Both of these stories carry with them the added value that they avoid the sort of creeping “regional essentialism” or even “regional separatism” that threatens this sort of approach, in which one’s identity as a Westerner trumps all other concerns. John Muir was born and raised in the industrializing Northeast; he woke to his sense of man’s place in rather than above nature as nearly everything tried to eat him in the Florida Everglades; he ultimately found his calling in the mountains of California. Is he a Westerner? In the sense that he lived and wrote and died for it, yes. But he wasn’t born there. I would argue that this should not disqualify him as being “of” the West. (I must admit some personal sensitivity on this point – as a fifth-generation Californian who received all of her degrees from a Western land-grant institution and spends every possible moment in the West, I still find myself regularly called upon to prove that my current location as a tenured scholar in New York City does not disqualify me as a Western scholar.)

If, then, we take the “images of the West” phrase to mean “images PRODUCED IN the West,” direction, from East to West. This parallels the larger argument for understanding the movement of ideas in American culture, not as something passed down from intellectual elites to the lower orders, or from whites to non-whites, as a process of uplift and civilization, but rather as a marketplace of interchange, in which ideas and conceptualizations are borrowed in all directions, with mechanisms like the media regulating the flow. Just as labor historians have documented the ways that the culture of workers has affected that of the privileged classes, focusing on the production of imagery in the West is a way to document the rich and less “top-down” history that in fact did exist in the region and nationally.

On The Roads We Didn’t Take

When thinking about the roads we didn’t take, I think I am mulling over topics for a Picturing United States History II – areas for further illumination, by scholars who have specialized in these specific issues which are tangled around images of the West. The ten-lane superhighway that we didn’t take and which looms largest in my mind is this: a serious consideration of images of Native peoples in the West. There are many lanes on this highway – that Native peoples have sometimes been represented as if they were the Western lands themselves (consonant with the placement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of the Interior); sometimes as barriers to settlement; sometimes as reasons to go there (for instance, in Santa Fe Railway and Harvey House ads). Sometimes they are the rightful heirs, sometimes only placeholders waiting to turn it over to whites, sometimes absent or hidden. I would argue that this issue – images of Native peoples in the narrative of U.S. history – is a topic so rich and complex that it deserves treatment on its own, and as I could not hope to do it justice in this forum, I have only alluded to it obliquely – choosing instead to make a plea for seeing Indians as central to the twentieth century West. A second road not taken is the promise specifically of focusing on illustration, especially as it appeared in illustrated newspapers; in the comments in this forum, Josh Brown and John McClymer have provided examples of how powerfully that category of images could work in conveying perhaps more nakedly the intentions and values of those who produced, published, and consumed such images. A third road, and one which ideally transcends the regional history of the West, is the role of the federal government in producing and disseminating the images that have come to shape our view of specific regions, sites, and events, in national history. In the age of the visual internet, when the Library of Congress has become the source for a large number of the historical images which populate sites like Wikimedia’s Commons, this is an important issue. I’m certain there are many other roads branching off into the wilds; I invite the participants to suggest those that they see there.

And Back Again

For most of the twentieth century, Westerners have enjoyed marking roadside attractions with odd sculptures. Jackalopes in silhouette on a Wyoming hillside, Neon cowboys waving from Nevada casino signs, even California’s giant Randy’s Donuts or Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand have served as signs – and not only of the sad reality that much of Western Americana – like antler furniture – is actually more kitsch than culture.

And so I’ll offer as my roadsign something that exists somewhere along the line where kitsch and culture meet – one of my favorite images made in the West. This is a Mickey Mouse Kachina, produced sometime after 1930, and held in the Smithsonian’s collections in Washington, DC (although not currently on view). The Smithsonian acquired it from the Delacourt Gallery in New York in the early 1950s; it had been owned previously by Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., a collector of folk art.

(Unknown artist) Mickey Mouse Kachina, (sculpture). After 1930. Carved and painted cottonwood, feathers, and string. Smithsonian American Art Museum

(Unknown artist) Mickey Mouse Kachina, (sculpture). After 1930. Carved and painted cottonwood, feathers, and string. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Here’s what I like about the story of this image’s production in the West: although we don’t precisely know who made this, a fair assumption is that the person who made it was a Native person. The main reason for its collection, then, is the surprising juxtaposition of its form (traditional) and its content (modern). But it is held as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, despite the fact that the Smithsonian has a branch, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), dedicated specifically to the cultural production of Native Americans. In that museum, works are attributed as carefully as possible to the person who made it, and if that kind of precision is not possible, then every effort is made to date the piece, to locate it geographically, and to, at the very least, be culturally specific about the piece’s origins. This kachina is not in the NMAI in part because it cannot be located in that way. It cannot even be definitively linked to a specific cultural group with any surety (although both curator Rayna Green and museum educator Elizabeth Shear Bredin have stated in print that it is a Hopi artifact). And yet, despite this less-than-pristine provenance, it is called, not a sculpture, but a “kachina.” A kachina is not simply a kind of sculpture – it’s a sculpture imbued with sacred significance to the person who made it and the specific group to which that person belongs. At the same time, the “shock of the new” that led to its inclusion in the collection of the Smithsonian assumes that Mickey Mouse and the maker of the kachina belong to separate worlds – yet, we also know that Mickey Mouse (the real Mickey Mouse created by Walt Disney) is a cultural product made in the West.

Seeing an image that has come to mean a kind of globalized homogeneity (consider the term “Disneyfication” here) captured in the (assumed to be) authentic cultural product of a Hopi Kachina suggests the complexity of intraregional Western cultural exchanges. In my own research into ethnographic narratives in the American Southwest, I was surprised myself when Mickey Mouse made several appearances in anthopologists’ field notebooks recording Tewa partum taboos. This was in part because I hadn’t expected to come across him in the midst of folklore, and in part because I had read the published versions of these stories which had edited out the Mickey Mouse references. But in the field notes, Tewa women told each other that, in addition to avoiding skinning rabbits during pregnancy lest the child be born with nicks on its skin, pregnant women should avoid watching Mickey Mouse movies lest their babies come out “jumping around and making no sense.” Rayna Green, in her discussion of the Mickey Mouse Kachina, argues that the use of Mickey Mouse as the face of a Mudhead clown in the carving of the kachina is an evocation of the Hopi tradition of Tusan Homichi, the mouse who saved the Hopi from starvation by fighting off the Hawk who was stealing their chickens; in this tradition, Tusan Homichi is a kind of Trickster who, through his clowning, teaches important lessons. Green argues, “When Disney Studios put its version of the Mouse spirit on the silver screen, it must have been wonderful for Hopis to see him sing, dance, and perform brave and Clownlike acts, just as in their old stories and in his then infrequent appearances in Hopiland…. In this instance [Hopi people] expropriated a symbol of power from the other culture, just as theirs had been expropriated for centuries by bahanas, the whites who’d come to Hopiland so long ago.

After Mickey Mouse began to appear in the thirties, how long or how often the Mickey Mouse kachina danced in the winter dances with the other masked spirits is not known. No one has seen him dance since the late fifties.” [Rayna Green, “The Mickey Mouse Kachina,” American Art, Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Winter-Spring 1991): 208-209, p. 208.]

What would this particular road sign mean? Probably something along the lines of, “Come on In; Many Languages Spoken Here.”


  1. Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    One overall theme I see in all the discussion about the West, and a great way to sum up the concept, is through the lens of the journey.

    Because of its remoteness, the “West” involved people to journey in some form or another, either towards a new life (pioneers), away from the encroaching settlement (Native Americans), away from revolution towards oppression of another variety (Mexicans and other Latinos) or just a journey to find meaning (John Steinbeck, Jack kerouac, and in a wierd way, Hunter S. Thompson).

    The 21st Century West is still a marker of journeys. The old wagon trails and railroad runs are now superhighways and roadside attractions. It should not surprise anyone that the West has been defined, in large part, by the automobile. Getting to these places often requires hours of car travel. And as so often is the case, the journey becomes more important than the destination.

    We’ve been harping on the “West” as a place, some sort of terminus. Yet the more I see it, and the more I want to convey to my students, is that the “West” as a mindset, a rationale, an ethos, is all about the journey, whatever it may be.

  2. John McClymer
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    One highway we have not gone down is the West as popular entertainment. I am currently putting together a revised version of a one-semester survey of Women in U.S. History and am designing a project in which teams of students will select scenes from movies to show and report on. One of my choices is “The Grapes of Wrath.” If I were to choose one movie for a course on the West in the 20th Century, I might select “Old San Francisco” (1927). It is available on DVD and the picture quality is quite good.
    The story is preposterous, to say the least. Delores Costello plays the heir to one of the last great ranches still owned by a Mexican family. An evil Chinese, played by the Swedish actor Werner Oland, who also starred as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan, schemes to win her hand and get the land. She recoils in horror when she learns of his “Chinese blood.” He then kidnaps her, holds her in his Chinatown hideout, and plots to sell her into white slavery. Nature intrudes as the great earthquake of 1906 enables her Irish-American boy friend to rescue her. His heroism overcomes the hostility of her family and their marriage symbolizes the birth of the new San Francisco.
    However ridiculous the story, the movie’s themes track those of “Birth of a Nation” in highly interesting ways. First is the non-white villain who lusts after the heroine. When she refuses in disgust, he kidnaps her. Foiled at the last minute by a hero from a different group (an Irish American in “Old San Francisco” and a Southern in “Birth of a Nation) a marriage opens a new era of progress premised on white supremacy. This is a highway we have gone down in this conversation.
    This westernizing of a white Southern myth is itself interesting. So is the use of Oland to play a Chinese. His next role was Al Jolson’s father in “The Jazz Singer.” He also was cast in that part because of his “Oriental” features. It is worth recalling that a white actor in blackface played the villain in “Birth of a Nation.”

  3. Christopher Johnson
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Catherine, its great that you conclude with the Mickey Mouse Kachina, for as I consider the contemporary west I think about the presence of artistic creations and the voice of native American peoples. As well, the “Our Lady of Guadalupe” series in section three are all fascinating as social history artifacts of a layered cultural heritage. The Kachina also speaks to an interesting and yet complicated presentation of ethnic symbol and American pastiche! Since most viewers do not know the connection to Hopi symbolism, or even after we do, it does feels like American culture is being made fun of here. This is an unexpected kind of appropriation, a type of reversal.

    One branch or academic pursuit, for classroom use, that I’d like to suggest is the use of native American sources. The “Guadalupe” paintings and the Kachina represent native American art, and, they represent, arguably, images for consumption, for purchase, or, at least in the case of the Kachina, for appreciation. I use the book Black Elk Speaks (1979) and its images as part of a presentation on the internationalization of the West. This is yet another path, that is, the view from Europe of the American west. The photographs of Black Elk and his association with “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show which performed in London and Paris in 1886 present the commercialization of the fixed “place” notion of the west. Here are two photos and two paintings from the book.

    I think it is amazing that during his lifetime Black Elk moved from warrior to performer to warrior. He describes hearing voices and having visions beginning in his youth. Yet this is a man who participated in the Battle of Wounded Knee, in 1890, at the age of twenty-seven. The paintings in the book, done by Standing Bear on behalf of Black Elk, also navigate a conscious self expression. Black Elk spoke no English, and, the narrative created by John Neihardt presents a look at another reversal, violence against whites.

    I don’t judge the book but use it as an artifact. I see it as valuable that undergraduates get to ponder a presentation of the west that is not historical in a traditional sense and that includes thinking that is spiritual and mythical. It occurred to me to take a look at the scholarship on Black Elk Speaks so I searched the title in the Project Muse online journal resource. I have included two titles below, with a brief quotation from the first to show the type of language used in this journal article.

    This has been a great forum. I would like to ask for suggestions regarding the use of native American sources. To what extent are there unique questions to ask regarding native American art? Are there scholarly works that come to mind?


    Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Black Elk and John Neihardt. 1979.

    ‘Remember Wounded Knee’: AIM’s Use of Metonymy in 21st Century Protest.” Elizabeth Rich. College Literature. 31.3, Summer 2004. pp. 70-91. In part this author asks how “Homi Bhabha’s theory of metonymy [played] an important role in “the social articulation of difference from the minority perspective.”

    “How Scholarship Defames the Native Voice. . . and Why.” Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Wicazo Sa Review.Volume 15, Number 2, Fall 2000. pp. 79-92.

  4. John McClymer
    Posted October 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink — “The Death of Custer” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as enacted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. (Library of Congress [Lot 2898]) from the PBS series on the West, section 7, 1877-1887 at This is a very rich collection of resources, especially of historic photographs.
    I see this as a nice complement to the images that Christopher Johnson posted about.

  5. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    In his comment about the West as popular culture, John McClymer refers to the wonderfully over-the-top “Old San Francisco,” which I have used myself; it’s extremely teachable (like “Birth of a Nation”). The anti-Chinese sentiment is right on the surface and easily accessible; and embedded in the narrative is something more which students have to be encouraged to pick out which works perhaps on a less conscious but simultaneously more powerful level. That is the possibility of assimilating the (“almost-white”) Mexican elite (especially the women who represent that group) by marrying them to white men who can control them, against the impossibility of incorporating the racialized Chinese (and the inclusion of the radiant Anna May Wong brings so much to the table). The film resonates with other Western intermarriage narratives in interesting ways, as well (I paired it with Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona for an Honors seminar on the American Borderlands). Silent film, as well, especially asks students to focus (as opposed to just being entertained). The one drawback of “Old San Francisco” in the context of a discussion of the Visual West, however, is that it does little with the West visually (the tacky earthquake footage, for instance, could be stock footage). I’d be hard-pressed to choose only one film to represent the West; but if this was the only one I was allowed, I wouldn’t be upset about it – it’s a very rich text.

    I would have, however, to take some tiny issue with the idea that we haven’t addressed at all the idea of the West as popular entertainment – especially if we are using the idea of popular in the mode of the recently departed Ray B. Browne. I imagine that he would applaud the fact that we’ve touched at least in passing on roadside kitsch, Woody Guthrie, postcards and snapshots, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Mickey Mouse, Cole Porter, The Duke, and the films of John Ford (I didn’t get to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, it’s true). But indeed, a much deeper analysis is needed – perhaps even another PUSH forum – about the role that popular culture (film, television, radio, print, cartoons, music, all of it) has played in shaping the national story.

  6. Posted October 29, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I think Catherine’s right in that popular culture’s role in shaping American society deserves a stronger focus.

    In the view of the end of this discussion, I’d like to add another question: In the end of the frontier period, circa 1900, did the people of the time understand it as an end to an era? I ask this because a number of films deal with the end of the “western” experience, the so-called “closing” of the West or the “fencing-in period.” I think of two, Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It seems that in each film, particularly the latter, the protagonists are depicted as an antique relic, of an earlier time–and everyone else seems to understand this. Could two outlaws really survive in the new West? The west of corporations, inventions in transportation, and a decreasing amount of open space?

    My big worry is whether or not people of the time felt that the end was coming. Any insight on this would be most helpful.

  7. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 30, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Luciano, in response to your question about whether people of the 1890s “understood it as an end to an era” — Brian Dippie has argued that when Turner read what was later published as “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the American Historical Association, it was not enthusiastically received. I would think that says something. In the larger sense, I would say that most “endings of an era” are recognized only in retrospect, unless, like the recent tearing down of Yankee Stadium, it is marked by a specific historical act (usually a lamented one).

  8. Catherine Lavender
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Well, friends, it looks like we’ve come to the end. I wanted to say thank you to all who participated — your comments and questions were very stimulating!

    Also, thanks so much to Donna Thompson Ray who kept everything running smoothly behind the scenes, and, especially, to Pennee Bender, Joshua Brown, and Donna Thompson Ray for organizing the overall project.