Thomas Cole’s Landscape Painting Through an Indigenous Lens

Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted with permission and adapted from the essay “Native Prospects: Indigenous Peoples and the Landscape-Painting Tradition” by Scott Manning Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk) in the catalog Native Prospects: Indigeneity and Landscape, published by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site with the Florence Griswold Museum and available online. The exhibition, curated by Stevens, continues at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site through October 27.

The arc of the sky creates a vast dome over the land, which may or may not have hills or mountains, but central to it all, a seedling bursts forth and pushes toward the sky as if in imitation of the celestial tree that grows in the Sky World beyond the apex of the dome’s arc. This is a Haudenosaunee landscape; it is depicted frequently in our art, with many variations, but all with minimally crisp lines that form a familiar design used in beadwork, pottery, and carvings. 

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We know this figure in English as the Sky Dome design, and we are taught its significance from our early childhoods. Like all ancient representations of the land in Haudenosaunee arts, the Sky Dome’s significance to us rests in our understanding of our place within the environment. Its minimal representational details demand explanation, and explanations demand stories. Such representational strategies seem formulated to engage Haudenosaunee visual culture with our traditional oral culture. In the ages before European colonization of our homelands, that story would have been passed on to the inquirer in one of the six Haudenosaunee languages (known in English as Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). 

An elder would have explained that the Sky Dome design is a mnemonic of sorts, meant to call to mind and celebrate the Haudenosaunee creation story, in which there exists a whole perfect world above our sky where the sky people live their peaceful lives. One day the great Celestial Tree blew over and left a large hole in the ground of the Sky World, and the person we know as Sky Woman fell through the hole. She grasped at the ground as she started to fall and caught the roots and seeds of what would become sustaining foods and medicines for humankind. As she tumbled through air to the watery world below, a great turtle rose to the surface for her to land on; and then, to slow her fall and protect her, as she was pregnant, flocks of geese wafted her safely to the surface of the turtle’s back. The humble muskrat would provide the soil on which we all live by diving deep enough to find earth at the water’s bottom. With this soil, the Sky Woman would cover the surface of what would become Turtle Island — North America. This is just a tiny portion of the creation story, greatly simplified, to explain some of the features of the Sky Dome design’s layered dome, representing our sky, with a symbolic Celestial Tree atop the dome and a seedling growing on the surface of the earth. Sometimes a stylized mountain design is included, often not, but each time we see this motif, our origins in this place are called to mind and thus our timeless and elemental relationship to it.

For many Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee, it is our relationship with the land that is of paramount importance. That relationship teaches us the ethics on which our societies are built. Unlike European Christian notions regarding humankind’s dominion over the earth and all of creation, the Haudenosaunee belief (similar to that of other Indigenous peoples) is that our relationship with the earth is one of responsibilities. We say we have a custodial relationship with our environment, one resting primarily in our duty to be good caretakers of the world around us. Thus, animals are seen as other-than-human beings, with needs and rights of their own, as are plants and all other living things. Features of the landscape are described as ancestors from whom we learn to live correctly on this land. In that way, any abstract portrayal of the land and its features in our visual culture is meant to call to mind those relationships — relationships that we have a sacred duty to remember and maintain. A central feature of Haudenosaunee ethics is the call to “mindfulness,” a constant awareness of our place in this world and the societies (human, other-than-human, topographical) that also live in it. There are frequent reminders in our social lives, both civic and ceremonial, that are meant to call those duties to mind. One specific tradition of mindfulness among my people that I wish were universal is the Thanksgiving Address, or Ohenten Kariwatekwen (literally, “the words before all else”), which is recited at the commencement of all community events and calls to mind our need to be thankful to each portion of the world around us and our duties toward it. It usually opens with the following sentiment: “We who have gathered together are responsible that our cycle continues. We have been given the duty to live in harmony with one another and other living things.” It is a long address that is meant to take time, to make one generally mindful, rather than rambled off quickly by rote. Each speaker approaches it in their own way, but every form of the address must cover the basics by name: the earth, the variety of plants upon it, people and our other-than-human relatives, the waters, the winds, the sun, the moon, and the other celestial bodies, all. They must be called to mind so that we do not take them for granted. Our visual representations of our land likewise call to mind our specific relationships with it.

What a contrast this is from the European tradition and its relationship to God’s creation, with its insistence on humankind’s superiority to all else. Scholars have long debated just how profoundly Europeans were influenced by the biblical injunction we encounter in Genesis 1:28 (here from the King James Version): “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” It helps us understand why in so much European art, and later American settler art, the land is either a wilderness to overcome or property to be resourced for the wealth of its owner. The teleological thinking behind notions of progress, domestication, and exploitation when it came to the environment would seem to put the environment in danger, no matter how picturesque. One wonders how a devout Christian such as Thomas Cole understood the biblical injunction from Genesis. The Puritan settlers that preceded him were certainly no friends of the wilderness nor of the peoples that called it home. For the latter generations of Puritan settlers, as they moved away from the coastal regions into the interior of what they styled New England, in their quest for more land, the environment was an obstacle to be overcome, not celebrated. The redoubtable Cotton Mather noted that settlers had come to “an uninhabited Wilderness, where they had Cause to Fear the Wild Beasts, and Wilder Men.”

Of course, by the time Thomas Cole was painting scenes of the Hudson River Valley and parts of New England, the violent struggle to dispossess the Indigenous peoples of their lands in that region had been over for several generations. This is why Native figures in his paintings are reduced to staffage — a term of art meaning they serve only to provide touchstones of information for the contemporary viewer. The presence of a Native figure, represented almost purely through a stereotypical rendering of a figure with feathers in its hair, wearing Native dress and with dark skin tones, is there as a sort of shorthand. Once the figure is recognized as Native American, the viewer can presume the location is North America and the time period somewhere in the past, and sense that Cole exhibits no particular interest in ethnographic specificity or accuracy as much as a wish to provide his viewers with an indicator of human scale for the scenery that is his true subject. 

The figures also add a romantic element of nostalgia for an imagined past. Cole rarely portrayed acts of Indigenous-settler violence, and when he did, it was to fulfill his commission for paintings illustrating scenes from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. Otherwise, his Natives are more likely placed there only to signal locale, period, and scale. By the time Cole arrived in the region of the United States where he was to live, the violence of conquest had achieved its goals and had moved westward. Still, he would inadvertently echo Mather when he noted in his famous “Essay on American Scenery” that it had been only several generations ago that much of the continent had been covered with vast primeval forests, “whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, or scarcely less savage men.”

But Cole’s relationship to nature was not the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness.” The artist was very much influenced by the prevailing notions of Romanticism, a cultural movement born in Europe and taken up by numerous American artists and intellectuals. Cole’s nature in America was idealized — a latter-day continuation of Eden in his mind. What had once been terrifying and threatening in it to the early New England settlers had now been rendered sublime by European aesthetic notions. But even when rendered sublime, the notion of wilderness itself had the effect of evacuating the land of its original inhabitants. The European concept of “wilderness” was based in a notion that there were places devoid of human habitation. The Puritans’ “errand” made them understand “wilderness” as another cognate with “savagery.” Given its valences of signification for settlers, it is a deeply problematic term that usually denoted an uninhabited place or one inhospitable to human society, in effect a place for wild animals (as its etymology tells us). So to insist on North America, before the arrival of Europeans, as a wilderness is to vacate it of its Indigenous inhabitants or demote them to the status of wild animals.

In Cole’s world, wilderness carried that common original meaning, one that would have been incomprehensible to American Indigenous peoples in the same period of history. That concept of wilderness as a deserted place devoid of human laws and civility — a concept wholly lacking in my own culture — had deep consequences during the colonial encounter. The Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” was meant to be transformative, and it was, violently so. Other colonial aspirations — such as the transformation of a desert into a garden — likewise have left a legacy of environmental problems that we deal with to this day. Elsewhere in my scholarship, I have examined the “wilderness problem” in the context of the translation of biblical texts in the 18th century. When confronted with the task of translating lines from the Gospel of Mark describing John the Baptist, the Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), as a native speaker of Mohawk, was stymied as to how best to render “the voice crying in the wilderness.” In the end, he chose the Mohawk equivalent of “the forest,” simply because no version of “wilderness” exists in our language. Even if we were to consider the term “wild” versus “domesticated,” the Mohawk language renders the term “wild” as “free.” A locale of freedom simply cannot carry the negative connotations of “wilderness.” In this way, European cultures have long mistaken the landscape of the Americas, peopled as it was with humans and others.


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