Native Imagery to Claim “Native” Status

by Erin Suh

The Know Nothings were an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant (specifically anti-German and anti-Irish) political party that demonized foreigners, Catholics, Catholicism. Their methods defined political xenophobia in the United States. One of the tactics they often utilized was to use Native imagery to assert their “native American” identity. This worked to push both their anti-immigrant stance and replaced actual indigenous people to affirm their own status as unquestionably American. 

White Protestants with Anglo-Saxon (or British) roots being defined as the only true Americans was a core feature of their ideology; their usage of Native imagery followed a trend to assert Americanness by seizing the native label from indigenous people. The symbolic claim to America can be seen in instances like the Boston Tea Party, where American patriots wore “Native” costumes and adopted “Native” war cries while they dumped tea into the Boston Harbor as an act of rebellion against Britain.

The picture below is an advertisement for the Know Nothings which shows two indigenous people besides an American flag; the expropriation (the state possessing someone else’s property) and appropriation (usage of something without the owner’s permission) of Native culture to represent the Know Nothing party erases the violence and harm committed against indigenous peoples while associating themselves as the legitimate founders of the country.

Know Nothing Soap advertisement (1854)

Reflection Questions:

  1. How do the Know Nothings assert their “native American” identity in the Know Nothing Soap advertisement? What messages were the Know Nothings sending when they used images of the Indigenous Peoples of the United States? What were they trying to tell people about their role in American history and identity?
  2. Historian Erica Lee points out: “Erasing indigenous peoples, the real natives, from history and obscuring their ongoing presence and active participation in contemporary society also served the purpose of Native American sovereignty and ongoing claims to land and rights. Happening amid forced Native American removals across the country at midcentury and growing conflicts between Native Americans and whites in the Midwest and Far West, the use and abuse of Native American histories and culture was not inconsequential.” (p65 of America for Americans: the History of Xenophobia in the United States) What were the consequences of this erasure? How did the Know Nothing’s usage of Native imagery harm indigenous people?
  3. How were indigenous people being treated when the Know Nothing Soap advertisement was published (1854)?
  4. How does the history described in this reading impact the way you think about the language you use to describe the indigenous communities of the United States? The staff at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC created this helpful resource to help