Indians as Noble Objects: An Analysis of George Caitlin’s “Letters”

In Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, author George Caitlin makes a self-interested attempt at characterizing Native Americans as noble victims of the white man’s expansion, but ends up depicting them in such a way that both dehumanizes and objectifies these people whom he calls “righteously doomed savages.” Initially, he views the Indians and their land with the awe of a man who has discovered something profound about himself in a new, foreign civilization, but he sabotages whatever dignified attempt at addressing the problems of white domination over the Natives with reverence for the indigenous peoples by drawing an (insulting) comparison to the buffalo that they hunt.

Caitlin writes, “the Indian and the buffalo–joint original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man; they have fled to the great plains of the West, and there, under an equal doom, the have taken up their last abode,” (Caitlin, 40). Here, the writer tried to make a clever, evocative analogy between humans and animals, but he ignores the magnitude of decimating an entire culture of people versus the act of what the reader can reduce to “hunting.” The Indians of which he writes were not merely “joint tenants” of the land; they were the founders of their own civilizations with uniquely fascinating and intricate social structures–they were not herd animals (although they might have been treated as such).

While Caitlin makes weak appeals throughout the excerpt for some kind of white sympathy toward the Indians, his ideas of what constitutes compensation for the “troubles” of these people are laughable. He suggests (rather omnisciently, in my interpretation) that Native societies should be preserved in a “magnificent park” where guests would be able to see the Native in his typical ornate attire, like one might view a Broadway show (Caitlin, 43). Ironically, this suggestion, which sounds ridiculous in print, isn’t too far away from that of a modern-day Indian Reservation. Perhaps Caitlin’s cries for a “monument to [his] memory”  have been answered!

Caitlin, George. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ch./Art: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians p. 37-45. pub. Penguin 2008



2 responses to this post.

  1. I can totally see where you are coming from on this post. While he begins his letters seemingly in awe with what his country has to offer, it’s different areas, landscapes, animals, people, etc, he continues on to simplify Native Americans to below human. They cannot understand the world of the white man because his “mode of reasoning” is “unknown to him in his nature’s simplicity” (40). In whatever attempt he makes to bring Native Americans closer to nature he destroys any idea people might have about them being human, or equal to anyone else. They’re in a class by themselves, and not a very good one. Like the buffalo they’re just another commodity, and should become another show piece of his great country.

  2. Posted by teagueoreagan on September 29, 2011 at 4:45 am

    You are absolutely correct about your last point in particular. The idea of having this “magnificent park” (which honestly sounds like a nature preserve) where Native American culture and civilization is forever preserved is such an ignorant notion. This idea for a place where the world could come to see Native American culture preserved in stasis “for ages to come” betrays his monumental ignorance (Catlin, 42). It conjures up images of grinning tourists on a bus snapping photos out of the windows as they pass through impoverished neighborhoods in a third world country, provincially marveling at their simpler way of life as if they would live like that by choice. It indicates that he truly does consider Native Americans a simpler people (a lesser people) that have no capacity for advancement, as if their culture had remained the same since they arrived in North America. A culture frozen in time is not a culture, its an exhibit at a museum. However, the point at which he makes the biggest ass of himself is the passage “What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world…” (42). Specimen? He lowers them to the level of animals and then hits you with specimen? They’ve been demoted in this essay from human, to animal, and now to a sample in a jar (which pretty well sums up his ridiculous “nation’s Park” idea) (42). Its as if he epically fails to realize what he is saying. “Hey, let’s hang on to this group of people that we slaughtered and cheated across the continent by establishing a zoo for them where everybody can come and gawk and of course not think about the horror show of how these people got here”. Maybe he should have stuck with painting.

    Caitlin, George. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ch./Art: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians p. 37-45. pub. Penguin 2008

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