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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians

Primitivism

Going into the Twenties, many American artists and writers felt that modern American culture and society were inadequate. They felt the refined traditions of the literary and artistic production of previous generations were no longer interesting and lacked spiritual depth, due in part to the rise of mass consumption and materialism. Some found a solution in "primitive" societies, especially the Native American Pueblo societies of the Southwest, who seemed to live deeply spiritual lives that involved communal relationships with other people and closeness to the natural world.

To the artists and writers who idealized these societies, Native Americans seemed completely removed from the problems of modern society, particularly from troubles in increasingly crowded urban areas. Some 1920s intellectuals adopted primitivism—the belief in the superiority of ways of life that seemed simpler than modern ones. The artists and writers who embraced primitivism believed that imitating the practices of Native Americans would guide them and the American people as a whole toward more active spiritual lives and more harmonious relationships with each other and the world, ultimately resulting in better creative output. Many intellectuals who subscribed to primitivism "played Indian," adopting Native American dress, behaviors, and language.

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Photograph of a pueblo and Native American dancers
Photograph of a pueblo and Native American dancers
Frederick A. Williams

Photographer and collector Frederick A. Williams, who, like many intellectuals of the 1920s, observed, romanticized, and sometimes imitated Native American lifeways, gathered these pictures of Pueblo architecture and life.

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