Critiquing American Progress Under the Lens of Decolonization

John Gast's’ painting, American Progress is symbolic of the prevalent early American theme of manifest destiny. Manifest destiny was a term used to define what white Americans sought to do: bring civilization to the west. Thus, John Gast is perpetuating the idea that the west is not civilized, and that it is the duty of the white Americans to civilize the west like they did with the rest of the United States through colonization and the conquering of Native lands.

John Gast understands the theme of the painting to be that the West is in desperate need of white civilization. The disposition of the western half of the painting shows the unruly and fearful Native Americans. Gast paints the Natives as running away from the goddess, who symbolizes the goodness of the American Progress. The Natives, fearfully running away from westward expansion could reveal that Gast views the Native Americans as concerned about what will happen to them if the Americans come. However, it is more probable that Gast depicted the Native Americans as fearfully running away from American Progress to show that they are uncivilized and fear technological advancements to their society.

John Gast did not have positive opinions of Native Americans, and his painting, American Progress clearly reflects his feelings of superiority towards Native Americans. Whether or not he shares the same views as he depicts in his paintings, the main theme of American Progress is that Native Americans are barbaric and uncivilized and that they need the holiness and goodness of white Americans to fix them. The left side of the painting, which depicts the west and Native Americans, is dark, stormy, and very tumultuous. This reflects the view that the west is wild and uncontrollable whereas the land that has already been afflicted by American Progress is pure and civilized. The message of Gast’s painting is very clear: white Americans are doing God’s work by spreading civilization and technological advancements to the uncivilized and primitive west, which only thrives under westward expansion.

George E. Tinker’s view on colonization is that Americans have romanticized their past and the history of colonization. Tinker argues that the American narrative romanticizes their history, which hides the true atrocities that they have committed. White Americans romanticize their past in order to make them feel good about the crimes they have committed. In a lecture George Tinker presented at a university, he said that the romantic narrative says that it is okay for Christian people to steal and kill all natives and their land because they are doing it as an act of God (Tinker, “How The West Was Lost,”14:46). The narrative serves the purpose of allowing white Americans to excuse their actions and say that they were chosen by God to rid the land of savages. God made them chosen people to kill on this earth (Tinker, “How The West Was Lost,”41:52). The consequences of this narrative is that it excuses and exonerates violence (Tinker, “How The West Was Lost,”9:40) and it celebrates genocide (Tinker, “How The West Was Lost,”15:59).

I believe that George Tinker’s view of the painting, American Progress differs vastly from John Gast’s intended purpose of the painting. However, Tinker understands what the theme of the painting is and uses it to support his argument about american romanticism. Tinker says that it is “a gastly painting” (Tinker,“How The West Was Lost,” 16:35). It captures American romantic narrative because it tells the narrative of Lady Progress and all the innovation of white Americans. On the other side of the painting it shows all the things that are fleeing the advances of progress, all the wild animals. Natives are included as wild animals because the American romantic narrative fixed them as savages (Tinker, “How The West Was Lost,” 18:17). Therefore, Tinker would critique this painting by saying that it grossly romanticizes American colonization and its treatment and attitude towards Native Americans.

Edward Said’s view of western colonization is that westerners create an image of those colonized that is outside the realm of history. They do this especially through literature and art. Said’s argument in Orientalism is that the orient is a man made discourse and that it is a factual reality embedded in reality.

Edward Said would critique this painting by arguing that John Gast is degrading knowledge about Native Americans (Said, Orientalism, 328). Said would say that this painting purposely portrays Native Americans as uncivilized and in need of Christian purity and technology in a way to have authority and control over the narrative about Native Americans (Said, Orientalism, 2-3). Gast has a definitive line between good and bad in American Progress and Said would analyze that distinction as an attempt by Gast to control the discourse about Native Americans and create them in a western reality. The image of the Native American is not an “inert fact of nature” (Said, Orientalism, 4), but rather it is the western creation and representation of the Native as a savage and uncivilized.

While both Said and Gast understand that the painting is showing Native Americans as uncivilized and in need of European intervention, Said would see that intervention as a way to control the Native whereas Gast would see it as an attempt to uplift the Native. Said would also understand this painting as a way for westerners to create and control the Native American discourse. Whereas Gast would argue that his portrayal of Native Americans is true, Said would argue that there are no real depictions of the Native American, there is only western representations (Said, Orientalism, 7).

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue that there is such a thing as settler colonialism, which is very different from other colonization because it is an invasion and the settler never leaves (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”, 5). Tuck and Yang argue that settler colonization is about land and the only way to get the land is through genocide and displacement.

Tuck and Yang would analyze this painting as an example of how western expansion is settler colonialism. The Native Americans are seen running away from American progress in the painting. Tuck and Yang would argue that this shows how white Americans forcefully stole the land from Native Americans and then “occupy and settle [on] stolen Indigenous land” (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”, 7). Tuck and Yang would also argue that the only way it would be possible for white Americans to inhabit Native lands is to either kill them or displace them. This painting shows them being displaced, because they are abandoning their land and running away from what Gast entitles American Progress.

Tuck and Yang see this painting as settler privilege, the colonizers (who are white Americans in this painting but who Tuck and Yang define as any non-Native person living on Indigenous land) are enjoying the land they are stealing from Natives and imposing new technology on it in an attempt to make it their own (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”, 11). This is in contrast to Gast’s view of the painting because he understands it as Americans advancing the land and bringing civilization and purity to an otherwise savage and civilized territory.

The true meaning of this painting, according to these authors, is not one of American Progress. Instead it is a painting that portrays the cruel acts of American colonization and their attempt to erase it from history. All four authors would agree that John Gast’s painting is rewriting the American narrative of violence in favor of a more idealized notion that erases the negative aspects of colonization and the suffering of Native Americans. The painting does not depict technological advancements or the need to ‘civilize’ the west. Tinker, Said, Tuck, and Yang would argue that American Progress is a painting that shows how westerners romanticized their violent actions and created the image of a barbaric and uncivilized Native who is in desperate need of western aid.

Gast, John. American Progress.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. NY: Random House, 1978.

Tinker, George E., “Missionary Intentions, Missionary Violence,” from Missionary Conquest.”

Tinker, George. “How the West Was Lost: An Indian Take on the American Romance of the West.”

Tuck, Eve and Young, Wayne K.. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.”


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