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American Indians in American Art

  • Students will be able to interpret historical evidence and make inferences by observing and describing details in works of art depicting American Indians.
  • Students will be able to entertain and consider multiple viewpoints and revise their thinking by analyzing depictions of American Indians in various styles and for various purposes.
  • Students will be able to practice answering an AP Short Answer Question by using artwork and contextual evidence to draw conclusions about the past.

The works of art included in this lesson can be displayed in a variety of ways as best suits your classroom and teaching situation. The artwork can be presented using a projector and the lesson can be done as a whole-class discussion. Alternatively, small groups can be assigned one high-quality color print of each work of art to interpret and share with the class as a jigsaw activity. Or, each piece of art can be printed and hung around the room or in a large space where students move around the room to interpret each, then come together for debriefing at the end. Six works of art are provided, but not all need to be used in the lesson. This lesson is based on the “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine from Project Zero.

Project the following image in your classroom and invite students to take a minute to observe the painting, State Names(2000) (Figure 6.50). Source:

(credit: Jaune Quick-To-See Smith,State Names, 2000, oil, collage and mixed media on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Elizabeth Ann Dugan and museum purchase)
A painting of a map of the United States with all the states' names provided. Paint is shown dripping down and smearing the map.
  • Ask students what they see (e.g., map of the United States, bleeding paint, only some names showing, names look like they are pulled from newspaper clippings/collaged).
  • Ask students to consider what this work makes them think of. Invite students to share responses. Encourage students to support their interpretation with reasons to make their thinking visible (e.g., “I think the artist thought some states were more important than others, because not all the states are labeled).
  • Tell students this piece was created by artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. Smith is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in Montana. In 2004, the artist said this about State Names, “We are the original owners of this country. Our land was stolen from us by the Euro-American invaders . . . I can’t say strongly enough that my maps are about stolen lands, our very heritage, our cultures, our worldview, our being . . . Every map is a political map and tells a story—that we are alive everywhere across this nation . . .”
  • Ask students if this information about the artist changes their interpretation of what they see in any way. If students struggle, reveal additional details, such as the fact that the collaging is meant to reveal the passage of time and only state names from indigenous sources are included in this map.

  • Tell students that art is a primary source and, like text-based documents, can reveal much about the time from which it came, the “author” (artist), and the intended audience. In this activity, they will look at various depictions of American Indians from the 1830s by the American artist George Catlin.
  • Have students work in pairs or trios to apply the thinking routine used in the warm-up to each of the other images of American Indians by George Catlin.

Invite students to come back together after looking at the images of American Indians to synthesize the content by leading a class discussion of the following questions. Students may orally respond to each question or write their responses, as best fits your needs.

  • What common themes did you see in these depictions of American Indians?
  • Did any of the art seem to be an outlier, or differ from the others significantly? Why do you say that?
  • What do these images reveal about the various subjects?
  • What do these images reveal about George Catlin?

Have students write a short answer response to the following prompt:

The world know generally, that the Indians of North America are copper coloured; that their eyes and their hair are black, &c.; that they are mostly uncivilized, and consequently unchristianized; that they are nevertheless human beings, with features, thoughts, reason, and sympathies like our own; but few yet know how they live, how they dress, how they worship, what are their actions, their customs, their religion, their amusements, &c. as they practise them in the uncivilized regions of their uninvaded country, which it is the main object of this work, clearly and distinctly to set forth.

Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. Vol. 1, by George Catlin, Letter No. 1, 1842


  1. Identify and explain one way in which George Catlin’s assessment of American Indians was typical for his time.
  2. Identify and explain one way in which Catlin’s assessment of American Indians was unusual for his time.
  3. Identify and explain an event of the early-mid nineteenth century that illustrates conflict or cooperation between Native Americans and Americans.

Responses may be collected and assessed using the three-point system for Short Answer questions developed by the College Board, or workshopped as a formative assessment, as best fits your classroom.

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