"Robinson Crusoe Making a Man of his Friday"

February 12, 1870

Thomas Nast

"Robinson Crusoe Making a Man of his Friday"

American Indians; Analogies, Literature; Labor; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant; Voting Rights;

Grant, Ulysses S.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Indian Chief. "Mr. President, we call here to-day to offer our fealty to you as our recognized Guardian and Ward, and to pray you, Sir, to continue our Good Friend and Father."

The President. "You are welcome; and in reference to continuing your 'Good Father,' as you say, I must answer that I have long thought that the two nations which you represent, and all those civilized nations in the Indian Country, should be their own Wards and Good Fathers. I am of the opinion that they should become Citizens, and be entitled to all the rights of Citizens--cease to be Nations and become States."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast incorporates some of the major assumptions and biases of reformers concerning federal Indian policy and Native Americans.  

Since the early days of colonization, European Americans had pushed Native Americans further west.  By the 1870s, most Native Americans lived west of the Mississippi River, where they continued to clash with white settlers.  During the 1870s and 1880s, a series of bloody wars was fought between the U.S. Army and various Native American tribes in the West.  Some Americans called outright for the extermination of Native Americans.  By 1890, most Native Americans had been "pacified" and placed on reservations.

The reformers' alternative to extermination, war, or reservations was assimilation of Native Americans into European-American culture.  President Ulysses S. Grant's comments in the caption of this cartoon indicate that he was interested primarily in the political assimilation of Native Americans through citizenship, the rights of citizenship, and statehood for the Indian tribes.  

The Nast cartoon portrays the more complete transformation of cultural assimilation; that is, of the Native American accepting the cultural norms of European Americans as his own.  The cartoon's title conveys a familiar image from Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe, to emphasize the "white man's burden" of civilizing the natives.  In order to achieve genuine manhood, the Native American ("Friday") must emulate Grant ("Robinson Crusoe") and the concept of masculinity exhibited by European American males.  President Grant dresses the Native American man (he does not dress himself) in the contemporary clothing of European American men.  The Indian's new suit comes with the rights and responsibilities of citizenship--voting and taxes--in its pockets.  

Reformers wanted Native Americans to become educated Christians who live with their families on small farms (private property), rather than as a tribe on common lands or reservations.  Here, the traditional Native American way of life (as Nast perceives it)--represented by weapons and alcohol ("fire water")--has been shelved (right-background) as a sign of peace.  The new way of life for the Native American is symbolized (right-foreground) by agricultural implements, a book of ABCs, and a copy of Harper's Weekly.  The work ethic and Christianity are both referenced in the Biblical passage "By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy bread."  

Robert C. Kennedy

"Robinson Crusoe Making a Man of his Friday"
May 21, 2024

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