Hollow Horn Bear (1851-1913), a Brulé Lakota warrior and leader, was the first American Indian man whose portrait appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.
The first U.S. stamps, with images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were issued in 1847. Hollow Horn Bear’s stamp was included in a new series of stamps issued in 1922, stamps displaying what we have called “a new national iconography,” one deemed suitable by the stamps’ designers for the times.[i] They incorporated Hollow Horn Bear’s portrait into a series featuring named U.S. presidents, natural symbols of North America (like the buffalo and Niagara Falls) and monumental buildings. Although postal officials knew very well who Hollow Horn Bear was, his stamp bore the legend “American Indian.” He thus was made to stand for the final “taming” of the frontier, a national historical episode that turned Indians into symbols of the past, alive as White cultural heritage but dead as Indian people.[ii]
Hollow Horn Bear was photographed in the Smithsonian Institution studio of De Lancey Gill, staff photographer of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He had come to Washington by invitation, to march in the inaugural parade of Theodore Roosevelt.[iii] As philatelic historian Gary Griffith details,[iv] he arrived at the studio in Western clothing, but for his portrait, Gill had him don the Indian accoutrements we see in the photograph, from underneath which an inauguration pin peeps through. Hollow Horn Bear returned to Washington in 1913, for the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. On this occasion he fell ill and died, an event that was reported in the Washington newspapers in rhetoric that in retrospect we can see to be consonant with the iconography of the 1922 stamps.
Upon the occasion of his death, national news media, like the U.S. Post Office, incorporated Hollow Horn Bear into the body politic as a neutralized ancestor to white ascendancy across the territory that now comprises the United States. In an obituary titled “Big Indian Chief Dead,” the Washington Post adopted a caricature of Indian vernacular as a show of respect and affection as well as a playfulness that can only exist once the newspaper deemed it safe to conclude that the threat of Indian resistance had been neutralized by the U.S. government.[v] In addition to the unconventional and ungrammatical use of the term “big” in the title, the article lamented that the “paleface medicine men” could not save Hollow Horn Bear when he contracted pneumonia following Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration and that he had been called by the “Great Spirit” to the “happy hunting ground.”[vi] This despite the fact that the article also noted that Hollow Horn Bear died a devout Christian and thus could have been cast as a figure of successful assimilation, rather than an artifact of an earlier time.
Despite these culturally patronizing adoptions of a purported Indian vernacular, the article and others like it nonetheless maintained a respectful and even affectionate tone towards Hollow Horn Bear. The Washington Post described him as “the most famous of all Sioux chieftains” and the “foremost orator of his tribes, and […] for all the Indians of this country.” Likewise, an earlier Washington Post article written days before his death celebrated his friendship with his erstwhile enemy, Captain William M. Wilcox.[vii] Like his image, this juxtaposition between the culturally appropriative and the honorific served to portray Hollow Horn Bear, and other Native Americans like him, as infantile and benevolent, a prosthesis for white ascendancy and progress, rather than a threat to it.
Hollow Horn Bear’s stamp had a second life, when the 1922 series was pressed into service in the period 1924-28 for the U.S. Canal Zone. The Canal Zone, under sole U.S. jurisdiction from 1904-1979, had a Canal Zone Postal Service which used stamps of both Panama and the U.S. overprinted with the words “Canal Zone”.
Thus do we have the Hollow Horn Bear Canal Zone stamps as palimpsests displaying the historical overlap between U.S. territorial wars at home and imperial adventures abroad. In the Canal Zone iteration of the stamp, an image of an Indian man wearing White man’s clothing beneath an Indian costume given him by the White man taking his picture is overprinted with a new legend to do duty in new political circumstances. So, too, does the historical memory of the Indian wars—and the Indians’ eventual supersession to become caricatured and defanged touchstones for white cultural ancestry in the U.S.—serve as a blueprint and analogue for the turn to imperialism. The Canal Zone overprinting of the Hollow Horn Bear stamp suggests that the logical sequel to settler colonialism on the territory comprising the U.S. is the expansion to global imperialism.
[i] Laura Goldblatt and Richard Handler, “Toward a New National Iconography: Native Americans on United States Postage Stamps, 1847-1922, Winterthur Portfolio in press.
[ii] Curtis Hinsley, “Zunis and Brahmins: Cultural Ambivalence in the Gilded Age.” In George Stocking, ed., Romantic Motives: Essays on Anthropological Sensibility (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 169-207.
[iii] Katharine Turner, Red Men Calling on the Great White Father (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 182-83, 192-93.
[iv] “Hollow Horn Bear,” The United States Specialist, April 1993, 152–63.
[v] “Big Indian Chief Dead: Hollow Horn Bear Succumbs at Providence Hospital: Victim of Inaugural March,” Washington Post, March 16, 1913.
[vi] Charles Cutler traces this phrase to James Fennimore Cooper and Washington Irving; O Brave New Words!: Native American Loanwords in Current English (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 132. Barbra Meet points out that a conventional “Hollywood Injun English” had already begun to take form in the mid-19th century and that it functioned, within White discourse, to index the Indian as either a noble or ignoble savage. In doing that, it marked standard White English as indigenous “because it is linguistically unmarked and ‘correct,’ thus serving to erase Native American diversity, primacy, and contemporary presence.” “And the Injun Goes ‘How!’: Representations of American Indian English in White Public Space,” Language in Society 35 (2006), 95.
[vii] “Sioux Chief Near End: Hollow Horn Bear Will Live Only a Few Days: Lies in a Local Hospital,” Washington Post, March 15, 1913.