painting of white men with rifles guarding a waterhole

Stereotypes in Remington's Fight for the Waterhole

“Of all his paintings, Remington most cherished his dozen scenes of desperate standoffs…most typical was his portrayal of the white pioneers, under siege by Indians. Remington made these pioneers a symbol of civilization: outnumbered, surrounded, caught in the open, and very vulnerable.”

– Steven Car’s Art Review “Frederic Remington’s Little Dark Age,” EIR June 13, 2003

In the year 1903, the East Coast was inundated by people immigrating to the United States in hopes of a brighter future. Euro-Americans, including Frederic Remington, worried about overcrowding and the rapid pace of change. While some looked forward to modernization, others—Remington among them—decried the loss of what had come before. As an antidote, he concocted romanticized notions of wide-open spaces. I say concocted because by this time much of the West had already succumbed to “progress.” Fenced and barb-wired for future prosperity, and readily reachable by train, the West depicted in this image no longer existed at the time Remington made this painting.

However, the stoic, “fight against all odds” depiction of these men ignited the imaginations of many. This work, like many others by Remington, set the stage (pun intended) for Hollywood Westerns that promoted the sweaty, tough-as-nails personas of actors like John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Clint Eastwood, to name a few. But as much as Native people were portrayed as one-dimensional depictions of themselves, so too were these men portrayed as mere caricatures, equally one-dimensional. Note the man just left of center. Eyes wide open, he doesn’t flinch even when a bullet spits up dust just inches from his face. This unreal depiction of manliness set up expectations for generations of men thereafter, who weren’t allowed to show fear, compassion, or empathy.

We know that fairy-tale romances where Prince Charming, perfect and gleaming, comes to rescue a maiden and save her from all of her toils and troubles aren’t real, and in fact, they set up false expectations for relationships. We know this just as we know that Native people weren’t all stoic, silent, holy people who healed white guys and spoke to eagles. Now it’s time to recognize that these squinty-eyed renegades weren’t fearless, unfeeling bits of leather but real men, placed in an environment they weren’t familiar with, imagining potential danger all around them—especially from those "damned" Indians whose cultures were completely alien to them.

Frederic Remington, Fight for the Waterhole, 1903. Oil on canvas.

Frederic Remington, Fight for the Waterhole, 1903. Oil on canvas; 38-1/2 × 51-1/2 × 2-1/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: The Hogg Brothers Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg/Bridgeman Images

Perhaps it’s just the innate nature of humankind to try to dominate another person or the landscape, but throughout time there have been those who have challenged that behavior. In Minnesota, for instance, there is an area that was considered neutral territory by Indigenous people. Because the material needed to build sacred pipes was located there, it was necessary for many Native nations to have access to that place. How does this scenario differ from the watering hole scene proposed by Remington? How much of Remington’s composition was actually motivated by his own desire to control and dominate the rapidly changing East Coast environment he called home?

While I can’t think of a particular instance in Native history when a waterhole was shared, it is very possible that it could have been. In this image, we see a vast plain spread out as far as the eye can see, until it is stopped by the mountains, but there doesn’t seem to be another water resource anywhere in sight. Remington drops us into an imagined landscape where we don’t know what came before to cause this dispute, and we have no idea how this standoff will end. What we do know is images like this one both romanticized and reinforced certain qualities expected in an American male, like fighting when the odds are against you, domination over others, and absolute possession of resources—along with a certain facial squintiness. Such qualities came to be both admired and expected for American men in much the same way that Natives were expected to ride off into the sunset and women were expected to become princesses waiting for true love to sweep them off their feet. Maybe one day, when we learn to share our resources—and buy some good sunglasses—men can be freed from this one-dimensional stereotype.

Learn more about Remington's work in the Natural Forces: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington exhibition.