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Picturing a Nation: Native Americans and Visual Representation

by Bret Eynon and Donna Thompson, American Social History Project

In this activity you will examine and explore images of Native American culture and history. Many of the images are found in private archival collections or public museums located across the United States. Drawing from the resources found on two sites, you will construct a visual essay that illustrates the Native American experience and helps you to think about how Native American expressive culture is interpreted and what features of Native culture are uniquely “American.”

GOAL: To develop a better understanding of Native American culture in the Continental United States.  To help students advance critical thinking, point of view writing, and visual literacy skills.

Overview: How are Native American cultures depicted in particular archival collections or museum sites.  What is the role of Native peoples in shaping interpretations of Native American expressive culture.  What specific features of Native American culture are uniquely “American?”

This exercise asks students to interrogate an image archive and create a visual essay.


National Museum of the American Indian

William Hammond Mathers Museum


Step One:  Working with your partner, quickly scan the visual resource collections found on each web site shown above.  What images do you find interesting?  Choose a particular set of images that you like, and consider the following questions:

What do select items of the collection remind you of? Why?
Have you ever seen any of these images outside of a museum, gallery, or art center?  Where? For what purpose might the images have been made?  What do you think was the artist’s intent?

What word comes to mind as you review the collection?
What story does the collection tell us about?  What are some of the common ideas, objects, theories, or viewpoints represented in each collection? (40 min.)

 (If you have time, review a second collection of images and compare them with the first set.  How are they similar?  How are they different?)

Step Two: Drawing from any of the sites,  as a team, assemble a collection of not more than five (5) images to construct a visual essay about Native American life, history, and culture.  Look carefully at each image.  Think about the context in which the image will be viewed.  Review your evidence and prepare a short (3 - 4 sentence) opening statement for your visual essay. Be prepared to share your statement and explanation of your selection process with your group. (15 min.)

Group reflections with all teams doing this activity: (40 min.)

Take turns sharing the ideas you sketched for your opening statement and the images you selected for your essay.  What did you learn about Native American life, history, and culture in the United States?  What else would you like to know?

What does the activity reveal about the value and limitations of visual resources as historical evidence?  What other kinds of resources would you need to do this assignment well?

Source: By Bret Eynon and Donna Thompson, American Social History Project