All of us can recall playing “follow the leader” as children. The notion of a leader exists in every society; it is an intrinsic human characteristic fundamental to group survival. Western cultures often assume that the leader is the most powerful individual at the head of a society.
Western culture also teaches people to recognize symbols of power, everything from a king’s crown to a politician’s “power suit.” Located in the North Gallery of the New-York Historical Society’s Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture is a display called “Seats of Power” that demonstrates such symbolism with a series of historic chairs that are imbued with power and leadership.
What do these chairs tell us? The imposing oak armchair that sits above the display honors George Washington and is made from the relic wood of a house in lower Manhattan where he once lived. Carved and gilded, the Marie Antoinette chair was originally part of a suite that the Queen ordered in 1779, and was actually intended for Louis XVI to sit upon when he visited her private apartments. Brooding in the corner, is a grand fauteuil, or armchair, used by Napoleon Bonaparte during council meetings at his estate, the Château de Malmaison; it is as close to a throne that a chair can come short of being in an actual throne room.
Anyone who grew up in a Western culture—a culture that celebrates singular, powerful figures—can look at these pieces and with little to no explanation agree that each represents power. They are meant to represent a king, emperor, or president, and are intended to suggest supremacy. Like these roles, the chairs also transmitted power to the next individuals who sat upon them. Their symbolism remains so intense that it would be assumed that anyone who sat in one of them must be formidable and important.
Interestingly, “Seats of Power” includes one additional artifact: a portrait of Chief Sagoyewatha of the Seneca Nation—more commonly known as Red Jacket—painted by artist Robert Walter Weir during a visit to New York City in 1828. It is not out of place to display Red Jacket in this case—after all, he is a chief and a leader, just like George Washington or Napoleon. But, a portrait is not a chair, nor does he sit in the portrait. So, why does he claim a metaphoric seat of power?
Symbols of power frequently are not transferable between cultures, and chairs have no relevance in symbolism for Indian cultures. Indian cultures have different symbols, and Red Jacket himself became a symbol of leadership during his life as a chief. In the portrait, he dons a pipe tomahawk and an Indian Peace Medal presented to him by President Washington. Neither of these objects, however, are traditional Indian symbols of power.
Tribal societies in North America do not exhibit or recognize the hierarchy of power in the same way as Western civilizations. Simply put, there is not one chief that wields all the power. Individuals are appointed to chiefdoms after obtaining notoriety for a specific skill. As a war chief, Red Jacket was a leader among many; he was distinguished among his peers by the peace medal he received from Washington, but the medal is a symbol of power from Western society adopted into Indian culture. By granting this medal to Red Jacket, Washington effectively said that he was the only leader of the Seneca the United States government would recognize. Red Jacket, of course, was a well-respected leader among his people. But he was given a position of power in Western society as the voice of Seneca—not by the Seneca people, but by Washington. Red Jacket is included in this display of different types of seats of power, not because he is a chief and a leader in his own right, but because the United States chose him from the many to represent the Seneca.
All the men represented in “Seats of Power” were recognized leaders in their society. Chairs are easily identified symbols in Western civilizations as peaks of social hierarchy. They have no symbolism in Native cultures, as a chair is privy to an individual. The accomplishments of these men, from their seats of power, warrant their representation in the exhibition. Westerners easily recognize an elaborate chair or throne as a spot for a leader, but Native American cultures recognize leaders by skill and ability. However, the medal designates Red Jacket as the single leader in Western eyes and as an ambassador role for the Seneca. The symbolism of a chair does not transfer to Native culture: So Red Jacket’s leadership is represented by his own image and the medal that became a symbol for both cultures.
Written by Dakota Oliveira, Marie Zimmerman Foundation intern