#TBT: Painting the Landscape of the Past
The image above, a watercolor by Seth Eastman in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, is titled “Indians Spearing Fish Three Miles Below Fort Snelling.” It was probably painted during Eastman’s second tour of duty at Fort Snelling, between 1846 and 1848. The location, as listed, would put the scene between present Historic Fort Snelling and downtown St. Paul, roughly where I-35E crosses the river at the old community of Lilydale.
What can be learned about past landscapes from a painting such as this? I’m not an art historian, so can offer only cursory guesses. The vegetation appears to be a prairie-woodland mix, which corresponds to what other sources such as the records of the Government Land Office survey tell us about this region. Dead-looking snag trees on the left perhaps indicate prairie burning. Cattails at the water’s edge on the left may show that the river bed does not fall away steeply from the shore, reinforcing notions that the river was a much more varied stream then than it is now, after the imposition of locks and dams. Other Eastman paintings convey this understanding more clearly, showing animals and fallen trees in mid stream.
What can we not understand from the painting? A lot. The water and sky convey a kind of stillness, but undoubtedly the scene had more action, as the paddler positions the boat advantageously for the spearer to do their work. The people shown are most likely Dakota, this being the area known to Dakota people as Bdote, their ancestral home land. Above all, we can’t understand tides of historical change and the range of reactions these figures would have for that change. Fort Snelling was built in 1820; the first treaty between the United States and Dakota people that aggressively acquired land had been signed in 1837; settlers were filling up St. Paul and fanning out all around the new town. Change was certainly afoot, and the Dakota people would largely be harmed by ensuing developments.
As an artifact, the painting is interesting, perhaps beautiful to some tastes. It can be subjected to formal compositional analysis or, as I have offered above, a rudimentary content assessment. But it was made through the lens of what is now called “settler colonialism,” (see also the extensive background at Decolonization) as Eastman undoubtedly held opinions about indigenous people and land that did not deviate much from other Army officers in the mid-19th century. So observers now have to be extremely cautious about what broader patterns and meanings can be drawn from this image. We have to contextualize it with the voices of Dakota people, such as those contained in the Bdote Memory Map.
We may then learn that the distance between the 1840s and today is not, for some people, quite as far as we first thought.