Plaster figures of Native American heroes
He’s not looking right at you, he’s looking past you, the auction-goer observed as I stood looking myself at a wall plaque of the plaster bust of a Native American chief. I was standing directly in front of the figure, and he did appear to be looking beyond me.
Maybe he sees something over my shoulder, I remarked. His stern face and narrow eyes appeared fixed on the man who stood to my left, whose own face resembled the Europeans who had taken his peoples’ land. The figure’s piercing glare made me wonder about the temperament of the person who had carved and painted him. Had the carver embedded this figure with the angst of a people whose being had been wronged?
This plaque was not the only plaster figure for sale at auction recently. On shelves not far away were painted plaster busts of four other figures: Hiawatha, Red Cloud, Black Hawk and one, like the plaque, that was not identified. I could find no manufacturer’s name on either of them. All had some chips in the plaster from age and handling, and could use a good cleaning.
Here’s who they were and their significance to American history:
Hiawatha was a Mohawk chief who was credited with the founding of the Iroqouis Confederacy, a group of five Native American tribes formed between 1400 and 1600. There is some question about whether he was a single person or a composite of several historical figures, but always a symbol of peace. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized him in a poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” about him and a fictional lover Minnehaha, in 1855.
Sculptor Edmonia Lewis, of African American and Native American heritage, created marble sculptures of Hiawatha and Minnehaha based on the poem during the mid-19th century. Lewis produced three sculptures: “The Wooing of Hiawatha,” “The Marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha” and “The Departure of Hiawatha and Minnehaha.” She spent most of her life in Rome and became an internationally known artist. Most of her works did not survive, but the Marriage sculpture was discovered in 1991.
Red Cloud was an important Lakota leader of the 19th century, conducting the most successful wars against U.S. aggression into his peoples’ territory in what is now Wyoming. With other Native American peoples, he orchestrated a series of assaults on U.S. forts, defeating the government’s garrisons and striking fear of subsequent attacks. His campaign led to a treaty that forced the government to give up its forts on Lakota land and left them alone. But not for long, because the fight came to them again, but this time the Native Americans lost. Red Cloud spent the rest of his life resisting U.S. control of his people – not through war but other means (even when they were corralled onto reservations).
Black Hawk was a leader among the Sauk peoples who fought to preserve his Native American heritage. He was a warrior not a chief, and fought with the British against the United States during the War of 1812. He is known for another war that bears his name, the Black Hawk War of 1832, said to be the last by Native Americans to retain their land east of the Mississippi River. Native peoples had sold the land to the United States (in an illegal treaty) and were allowed to live on it until it was needed for white settlement. When that time arrived, while other Native American peoples left, Black Hawk and his people refused. They were finally forced to move west of the river, but later returned and attacked the settlement. That fight turned out badly, though, for him and his warriors. He later was assisted in writing his autobiography, “The Life of Black Hawk” in 1833.
When the busts came up for auction, there was much interest for some of them. Hiawatha sold for $70, the most expensive. The unidentified bust sold for $65, Black Hawk, $10, Red Cloud $50, and the plaque, $50.