Should we end End of the Trail?

Why do artists remix this American cliché?

David Titterington
4 min readNov 10, 2022


“One of the most iconic images of American Indians in our culture.”
Terrance Houle, Trails End / End Trails, 2007

Native and non-Native artists are remixing James Earl Fraser’s 1894/1915 poignant tribute to Native America. The original sculpture is beautifully rendered—notice the suggestion of wind and movement through the horse’s tail and young man’s braids, and how the horse is clearly stressing about nearing the edge of the pedestal or cliff, but it's also really, really sad. Inspired by a poem by Marion Manville Pope, the image was originally meant to represent the defeated Native American, at the end of one of many Trails of Tears. For Fraser and other patriotic Americans, it was a way to honor the struggle of all Indigenous peoples (a sort of settler “move to innocence”) and within a year of it’s unveiling, End of the Trail became a national icon and emblematic of the sad fate of all Indigenous Americans, a “billboard for extinction.”

So why the hell is it appearing on Christmas cards, key chains, and souvenir trinkets? In 1971, the Beach Boys further popularized it by making it the cover art for their Surf’s Up album! The Trail of Tears was a massacre. What is going on here?

This odd use of such a disturbing image inspires Indigenous artists like Fritz Scholder to remix it. Scholder (Luiseno) enlarges the iconic image and renders it like a pop art painting of Marilyn Monroe. Scholder is known for painting Native people “real,” unfinished, and unromantic.

Terrance Houle (Kainai/Blood) humorously recreates the sculpture with his own body on playground equipment. Likewise, James Luna (Payómkawichum and Mexican) uses his body and a wooden sawhorse to reenact the famous work. Luna also embroidered the sculpture’s silhouette onto his famous Lounge Luna jacket.

Queer artist Kent Monkman (Cree), by re-working a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome, depicts a homoerotic scene about the construction of the sculpture and the romantic stereotype. We see maybe a red-haired Fraser, playing Indian, and in love with his own settler dream.

Chicano artist Louis Himenez’s version is cast in fiberglass and includes dozens of lights, reminiscent of carnival signs and the gaudy figurines you might find at a truck stop.

Robert Colescott in 1976 race-swaps the Native man for a grimacing black man in underwear and tennis shoes, while an online artist who goes by the name Emek envisions Fraser’s image as a robot or machine. Cheyenne painter Archie Blackowl creates a super flat, Bacone-style Disney-esque version. Roy Lichtenstein in 1951 also created a couple of his own versions, and in an interview, Lichtenstein said the image was the “first conscious cliché.” How would you recreate this famous image?

Perhaps we should reconsider the meaning of End of the Trail. Choctaw artist Jeffery Gibson suggests that reclaiming the image also means changing the meaning. Maybe this isn’t a defeated Native: maybe it is someone who was just resting but is now sitting back up to move forward.

End of the Trail (with Electric Sunset) (1971).
End of the Trail
Archie Blackowl, End of Trail Theme, 1911–1992
Robert Colescott, End of the Trail, 1976
Fritz Scholder, Indian Cliché, lithograph.
James Luna, End of the Frail (1993)
Roy Lichtenstein, End of the Trail, 1951, oil.
Roy Lichtenstein, End of the Trail, 1952, watercolor.
Beach Boys album.

For more, see Kristina Borrman, 2012. The Paradoxical Persistence of James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail: Nostalgia, Souvenirs, and the Politics of Pictorial Representation