Depictions of Native Americans by Apess and Catlin

After reading William Apess’ A Son of the Forest and George Catlin’s Letter’s and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians I found the perception of Native American Indians from the viewpoint of a Native American and white settler to be similar.

Apess conveyed the viewpoint of a Native American living among white settlers.  When discussing white settlers Apess used ‘whites’ to refer to them which gave a negative connotation.  However, when Apess would discuss fellow Native Americans he would use terms like ‘brethren of the forest’ or ‘natives’ all of which had a positive connotation of respect.  Unlike these favorable terms Apess describes the negative use of the term ‘Indian’:

I thought it disgraceful to be called an Indian; it was considered as a slur upon an oppressed and scattered nation, and I   have often been led to inquire where the whites received this word, which they so often threw as an opprobrious epithet at the sons of the forest” (Apess, 10).

This is significant because it demonstrates the racist attitudes of the white settlers towards the Native Americans.  Catlin, a white settler, would often refer to Native Americans as ‘Indians’ without any negative connotation whereas he would mock the white settlers by calling them ‘civilized men.’  The negative connotation attached to Catlin’s use of ‘civilized men’ critiques the white settler’s exploitation of Native Americans and buffalo herds.

Another interesting similarity found involves the subject of alcohol consumption by Native Americans.  Apess describes how his grandparents, fellow Native Americans and he became alcoholics:

This cruel and unnatural conduct was the effect of some cause.  I attribute it in a great measure to the whites, inasmuch as they introduced among my countrymen that bane of comfort and happiness, ardent spirits—seduced them into a love of it (Apess, 7).

The very common practice of taking advantage of trading between Native Americans and white settlers is produced in Apess’ account and Catlin’s passage.  Both express the unfortunate circumstances of alcoholism that plagued the Native Americans as described by Catlin, “the skins were dragged, and dressed for white man’s luxury! where they were all sold for whiskey, and the poor Indians laid drunk, and were crying” (Catlin, 39).  Both Apess and Catlin depict the relationship between Native Americans and alcohol as the white settlers taking advantage of them.

Although at different extremes both Apess and Catlin demonstrate the separation felt and acted upon by both the Native Americans and white settlers.  Apess and Catlin relate the Native Americans as having a close relationship with nature, “the Indian and the buffalo­—joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man” (Catlin, 40).  This explains that the Native Americans and buffalo, nature, are being pursued to be conquered by the white settlers.

Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University ofMassachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

Caitlin, George. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ch./Art: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians.New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

One response to this post.

  1. I think its a stretch to say generally white settlers and natives had the same idea of natives. Im sure there were more settlers like Catlin that shared a similar, positive view of natives, but from other settler peices ive read, it is not the norm. I do agree with you on the similarities of both peices dealing with alcohol, both Catlin and Apess agree that alcohol was a cruelty done to the indians for white man profit.

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