The Native Americans that paddled out to the first ships to come ashore in the New World were part of a momentous meeting. The peoples of the Americas, descendants of the last of man's migrations eastward, had developed civilizations long isolated from Western influence. Separated for tens of thousands of years, neither native nor explorer knew of the other’s existence. And soon after, the colonial society that flourished throughout the Americas, greatly affected our understanding of this encounter and the pre-Columbian world.
Differences in world view, custom, way of life were so great that a true understanding of each other was never a real possibility. And in its absence, the colonial settlers were left with their own biases and motivations when they interpreted the religions, customs, and rituals that they witnessed.
As a result, early descriptions of Native Americans often feature noble savages or savage barbarians, the two being the extreme poles of an imagined colonial reality. Nowhere are these visions more clearly represented then in the illustrations of the first cartographic volumes and histories bound in Europe. In the volumes describing the first hand accounts of the new world, one finds evocative images of the earliest popular depictions of the Americas. These images are primarily found as etchings – as well as the original watercolors these etchings were based on, from the notebooks of naturalists and educated clergy that accompanied the first expeditions. They appear as backdrops of colonial treatises and histories, and the decorative vignettes of cartouches on early maps and atlases. The writings described in these accounts are sometimes part of political discourses, either promoting the necessity of conquering these native peoples, or depicting the reasons they should be conquered.
Once images like those illustrating Theodor de Bry’s “Brief and True Report of the new found Land of Virginia” in 1590, were published Europe, they became the basis for the standard perceptions of the native inhabitants for centuries. These are among the earliest visions of the Americas, and depict the new world inhabitants engaged in daily activities such as fishing and making boats. The illustrators desire for a naturalistic depiction of the variety of new species of animals and plants that he encountered tend to evoke an image of an untainted, plentiful Eden. To the average European at the time, this conjured ideas of the biblical lost tribes of Israel, that didn’t care for earthly possessions that afforded modern man so much grief. Images of lost children reveling in the wild permeated the European imagination. Naked natives dressed in the plumage and skins of exotic beasts, and handling the creatures of the forest as if they were somehow akin to nature and ritual performances also abound in the views of the towns and villages of the early Virginian natives.
Later many of the images that decorate the pages from the writings of the 17th century come to us from the works of educated mestizos. These were the half native and half white generations resulting from the union of the European colonists with their native forebears. Historians such as Garcilaso de la Vega in Peru, utilized this heroic past to further promote their own status in the powerful Creole nobility that was starting to flower in the new world society. These images tend to illustrate the legal journals and dynamic family histories that helped shape the emerging noble classes in colonial America. Where possible, famous native ancestors were represented as part of the cultural lineage that tied their family histories with those of Spain. A political act of unity, that illustrated a link between the former indigenous ruling classes with those supplanted by the Spanish. It is debatable if the respect given to the Inca, and other native forebears was actually a personal appreciation, or merely a political testament will never be known in certainty. But what is certain is that many of the indigenous customs are shown within the guise of European cultural trappings. This is beautifully illustrated in paintings of creole processions that come to us from Peru, complete with carriages, slaves and servants, as well as symbols of the former Inca Empire being worn by the nobility themselves.
Later colonial era images of Native American turn from the romantic, to the puritanical, and the natives begin to be viewed as the pagan forest dwelling inhabitants of the uncivilized past. Like the philosophy of Dante – that separates the world into the sacred and profane, the colonists began to see the natives as the denizens of a savage wilderness. This especially fed into the psyche of those that settled the interior of the Americas. Here the concentrations of native people began to compete with them directly over the dwindling resources they shared. By the 19th century as these final encounters with native peoples resulted in violence, they were seen as nothing more then the savage remnants of a vanished people.
These enigmatic representations continued to inhabit the borders of atlases, and images of noble savages continued to haunt the vignettes of Victorian decorative arts well into the early 20th century. This was long after the native people that were represented by these images, had disappeared from the eastern woodlands of the new world.