American Progress Re-Visioned

Suzanne Caruso asked her students to re-vision John Gast's painting, "American Progress” as they finished up their unit on nationalism and expansionism in her class, “Perspectives of the American Experiment.” They looked to the work of Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist, for inspiration. 

To prepare for the project, students read varying perspectives from primary sources on the impact of westward expansion. Then, they created their own representations of American progress and wrote brief reflections on their artwork. Here are some examples of their work.

I made a piece that expresses education about the Treaty of New Echota. Highlighting the promises unfulfilled. I used charcoal in this piece depicting a man, representing the American government, signing the Treaty of New Echota with one hand and the other behind his back with his fingers crossed. The message I wanted to get across was the secrecy of the hand behind the back with the fingers crossed expressing how the government had the promises to the Indigenous people and how they were not yet fulfilled. The power American Exceptionalism had over the government and the actions they took in order to achieve western expansion and the effects that had on the people living on that land. I have the perspective of being from an outsider, specifically, someone looking at this piece of history with the information we have now and the knowledge of what the people migrating had to go through.  - Lily

When we, as Americans, think of the idea of liberty, we tend to imagine the wars we won, the endless stories of heroism, and the bravery it took to get us to where we are now. Though I firmly believe in all of those sentiments, they can often shield reality in its fullest, most gruesome state. The lives that were ended, the trust that was broken, and the lies that were recklessly spewed to get us to where we are now are becoming more evident than ever with the power of education. Hearing stories from descendants and uncovering first-hand sources have become the building blocks in America’s reinvention, and the erasure of ignorance. Though we can take pride in the country we reside in, and be grateful for our lives, it is imperative that we, as Americans, recognize what got us here, and not rationalize the brutal insanity that has occurred. Watercolors are beautiful, vibrant, and imaginative, and a part of that beauty is the ability to see each stroke, color, and line that went into it. Taking pride in our country and ignoring the events that created it are not mutually exclusive, a narrative that needs to be disproven. My piece, a watercolor painting of the Statue of Liberty, with the word “liberty” in the background represents the very strokes that brought us the symbol of our nation today and highlights the darkness and light of the country that is America. - Sabrina

I made this shirt because I felt that it was a unique medium, through which I was able to tie in not only a timeline but also a concept. As textile manufacturing gained popularity and the weave got more efficient and user-friendly, we became able to see the progression of clothing from what the Native Americans wore, to what we wear today. The second and much more impactful notion that inspired this shirt was genocide, and the fact that most of our technology today is built on scaffolding provided by Native tribes. I’ll be content if this piece of art only inspires a minute of thought in one person about the messages our country has and continues to send. - Sebastian

My intention was to capture the horrific suffering and oppression the Indians Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole had to face on the Trail of Tears, and the end of the Indians’ true identities as they were driven off their native lands. The drawing is showing a reflection in the eye of an Indian tribal leader as he watches his people being taken from their homelands. - Emily

My piece captures the desperate situation the Native Americans were in where they were being forced westward running from expansion. In my art, you can see that safety is in the forest to escape to but eventually, the railroad made it all the way west and there was no longer any land to move to. The golden spike at the end of the railroad signifies the final spike hammered in by Stanford himself and the symbolic end to Native American sovereignty. - Marcus

This collage expresses the Manifest Destiny concept of colonial westward expansion, but with a different emphasis than the original painting. Instead of having a unified, heroic subject like Lady Columbia, my piece is a mishmash of different elements. I replaced the original dichotomy between the light of the settlers and the darkness around the indigenous tribes with a contrast between black-and-white photographs and colorful natural images and paintings. The Manifest Destiny painting shows Lady Columbia trailing telephone lines behind her, and a railroad cuts through the peaceful landscape. My collage shows industry and technology creeping in from the right, driven by greed and capitalism.
- Ursula

The red-stained boot on the shore of a glimmering ocean view is a simple photography piece that I put together to show the bloody journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic in the quest to manifest American destiny. I wanted to frame it as a single, small perspective that shows in its most simple elements the boot, the shore, and what it cost. I hope that the piece can help people understand that while the trip to the shining sea was fruitful for the United States, the toll it took on the Mexicans and Native Americans is not to be ignored. - William

I made the decision to make my piece about an unmarked gravestone topped with Native American jewelry. I wanted to bring attention to the Indian Removal act and fight the stigmas that have been presented about the people who suffered through it. I wanted to keep the grave unmarked to honor the people who were killed and buried without being honored properly. I chose to alter the original date on the photograph by four years to instead display “1830”. I made this choice because this was the start of the Indian Removal act, which is a major event in American history that completely altered the lives of tens of thousands of Native American people. - Evan

My painting depicts a city with the sun coming up behind it, which represents industrialization and American expansion. The city's reflection in the water is of the past before the indigenous people were removed and depicts a lush green landscape with buffalo. The contrasting imagery of the past and present shows how there is always a history to the land that you are living on. Even when only a certain part of the past is shown to us, there is always more than the eye can see. -Thalia

“From sea to shining sea” is a saying that we have all heard. It exalts the progress of America westward. However, this progress is tainted by the suffering brought upon native people to achieve these ends. This photograph is set by the Shining Sea Bike Path in Falmouth, MA. The name of the bike path and the fact that it used to be a railroad (a tool used in America to further expand to the west) makes it a perfect symbol of progress and expansion. In the background, an ocean glimmers, representative of both coasts and the present glorification of American progress created by revisionist ideas. These symbols are blurred in the background, while in the foreground, a fallen, dead leaf is in clear focus. This leaf represents the loss of Native culture as a result of American Expansion both in the loss of land and life in Indian Removal and in the further expansion westward. - Ben

I choose to do blackout poetry because it provides such great symbolism for revisionist history, I could shape the poems to be whatever I want out of a pre-existing work that means something else entirely. Both poems are on the same page of meeting notes from the Sixth Annual Session of the General Council of the Indian Territory. I choose to use the same page for both poems to highlight how both sides of history stem from the same events, even though they can seem completely different from each other.
- Adele

Our intention with this piece was to show how these five Native American nations (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw creek, and Seminole) were wronged and pushed out of their homes by White settlers but to show this without victimizing them and while highlighting their strength in making it through despite the odds. We chose sand as our medium because when we leave it will disappear, but the photos we take immortalize it, kind of like how the history that has happened will disappear if we do not continue to tell it. Our piece focuses on just the Indian Removal Act, the “discovery” of America, and the concept of Manifest Destiny, simplifying history just enough to be able to focus on one specific event. The end product is a 137-frame stop-motion video that symbolizes the actions of people using simple objects, and movements that symbolize their intent. - Natalie and Oona

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