A Closer Look at Art of the American West

By Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

When you first walk into Art of the American West: Highlights of the Haub Family Collection from the Tacoma Art Museum at the Lightcatcher building, you’re met with a brilliant, colorful painting depicting a Native American man. As you look to your left, your gaze falls upon a portrait of another Native American man painted in 1851 by Paul Kane. But if you look more closely at this painting something else may catch your gaze: two large medals that are affixed to the sash on the chief.

A patron looks at “Portrait of Maungwudaus,” c.1851 by Paul Kane (1810-1871). Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. Courtesy of the Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Gift of Erivan and Helga Haub.

This seems like a peculiar sight. “Medals?” You may ask. “What are these medals for and who awarded them?” The answers to these questions are quite interesting.

The man depicted in this painting is Maungwudaus, meaning the great “hero” or “courageous,” (known by his English name, George Henry). Maungwudaus was born circa 1807 on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario and was an Ojibwa interpreter, performer, and Methodist mission worker. In 1844 he formed a travelling Native American dance troupe, which included members of his own family and several Walpole Island Ojibwa. They traveled to Britain, France and Eastern North America to perform, and the show gained quite the reputation. Maungwudaus had the opportunity to perform for royalty such as the Duke of Wellington, King Louis Philippe of France and the king and queen of Belgium. The group continued to perform for several years in Canada and the US after leaving Europe.

During the troupe’s 1845 performance for King Louis Philippe I, Maungwudaus was presented with a gold medal along with several other members of the troupe. Five years later he was awarded a silver medal from US President Zachary Taylor.

But the portrait of Maungwudaus isn’t the only one depicting a Native American man with medals. To the left of this portrait, in the corner of the room, hangs another painting that depicts a Native American man in ceremonial dress, holding a feather-endowed pipe, with three peace medals hanging around his neck. The man in the portrait is Naw-Kaw, a Winnebago chief. The portrait was painted circa 1832 by artist Henry Inman.

Peace medals were awarded by the US government throughout the early colonization of the Americas up until the late 1800s. The medals were awarded to Native American tribes or individuals after almost every formal interaction with the US federal government. The medals served as a way of promising the prospects of peace and trade with Native American tribes. For many tribes, being awarded a medal held great pride, and these medals were sometimes passed down from generation to generation.

While these medals conveyed a sense of importance and respect, there has been much controversy associated with peace medals and their use in building relations between the US government and Native Americans. Some tribal leaders were critical of US peace medals and their effectiveness in negotiations.

The medals depicted in these two portraits are only one of the many sights and mysteries that you’ll encounter at the Art of the American West exhibition. The paintings and sculptures give you a vivid look into the diverse land of the American West, and the people and wildlife that inhabit it — from snowy towns in New Mexico to herds of the mighty buffalo that once roamed the West. Explore the American West for yourself through this collection and maybe you’ll discover something new.

Learn more about the artworks featured at the Whatcom Museum in the exhibition catalog, available for purchase at the Museum Store.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *