Caitlin’s depiction of Native Americans

In George Caitlin’s In Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, there is a an obvious comparison between the Native American and the buffalo who are both part of the same vast area who have fallen victim to the civilization and the noble white man. He talks about them as strong creatures that have fought their battles just too simply survive. Caitlin’s depiction of Native Americans shows how closely related they are to nature and just how distant they are from anything considered “civilized”.

 

Even though in his writing and even more so in his paintings he depicts Native Americans as strong individuals, the noble white man is seen as have almighty power over them and without civilization they will fall and eventually” expire”, along with the buffalo. Indians are seen as valuable resources only because of what they have to offer to the white man which is land, the clothes off their backs and the food they have to eat which are added to what Caitlin calls “fashionable world luxuries”. They are merely there to supply the necessities, just like the buffalo supply coats to the noble but where will they be many years from now when the Native Americans are all gone and the last buffalo has skinned and used up?

 

It is not just that the Native Americans and buffalo are seen as one in the same but that they more the buffalo are being used by the noble, civilized white man, the less the Indians can use them and the harder it is for them survive. Near the end of Caitlin’s letters he says “ It seems hard and cruel, that we civilized people with all the luxuries and comforts of the world around us, should be drawing from the backs of these useful animals the skins for our luxury…”(43) Even though he is talking about the buffalo in these situation it can relate to how the white man is taking from the Native American because in a way, taking the buffalo away from them is taking about resources that they need to survive; so they are stripping luxuries from them even though the noble have all the luxuries they could ever want. Caitlin’s image of the Native American is one that has a will to survive and strength has big as a herd of buffalo. His view point on the civilized man is one that is seen has destroying the Native Americans and in slowly allow them to disappear into the vast land that they once called their own.

 

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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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on September 28, 2011 at 12:02 am

    I think you touched on an important subject as far as a distinctive model of value between white European settlers and Native Americans. With the settlers their mode of operations are speculation, commerce and luxury. Caitlin possibly gives us a hint of what is happening in our more modern climate of what ‘wilderness’ is worth. “At Best, the wilderness experience and its deep ecological philosophy risks identification with privileged leisure pursuits that sell authenticity while mystifying the industrialized consumerism that makes them possible” (Garrard 71). These settler speculators, albeit, most likely had little idea or concept of what we consider ‘wilderness’ as we do now, but their behavior and Caitlin’s idealizing of a national park, displays what Garrard explained as an inherent problem with wilderness. It is a place to visit and have fun or in this case hunt with unadulterated violence, and this is what Caitlin considers ‘civilized’.
    Caitlin simultaneously is nostalgic about the eroding flora/fauna, eulogizing it and perpetuates the ecological Indian. He also throws in a bit of pastoral idyllic while describing the what most likely is an arduous and tasking process of turning the buffalo into numerous tools, as if it were simple and fun, having no sense of the hard and demanding work it takes to do so. It is easy to put both the Ecological Indian or noble savage within the realm of a Deep Ecologist’s core values: low population, culture that acknowledges inherently value in nature and is always aware of ecological repercussions due to man’s consumption. The white settlers are all consumption and the Indians are harmonious. Just as the buffalo have been pushed onto the prairies so have the Indians, uniting them. And Caitlin also defines the two groups necessities or lack there of. The whites have leisure and a sense of fashion when it comes to buffalo skin where as life necessitates every bit of a buffalo’s body, every function serves a purpose.
    It’s also interesting to think that Caitlin as a painter wanted a national park. He dealt primarily in static, motionless mediums, and it may have translated into a kind of conservationism that was still coming from potentially the ego of an artist.

    Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. 121. Print

  2. You touched on a very important aspect that is often included in literature regarding the settling of North America’s vast land which here is the negative impact it had on native animals and people. The buffalos suffered terribly under the exploring and conquering missions of the white colonists, which eliminated their population and impacted the Native Americans negatively. The Native Americans lost a large portion of their food supply while yet dying from disease and violence. Also, you touched on the selective value placed on Indians that I noticed in the text. Indians were only valuable based off of what they could give to benefit the white settlers. Sadly, the tragedy of the decline of buffalos foreshadowed what would take place for the Native American population and all for the benefit of white settlers.

  3. While I completely agree with you that Catlin depicts Native Americans as similar to buffalo and as distanced from “civilization,” and that they are seen as resources I have to add that in those same ways that he glorifies them he also dehumanizes the Native American. He describes them as simple, and incapable of reasoning like the white man. He makes the case that we should leave the plains to the Indians because they are no use to the “cultivating man,” so that people can look upon the fair country and her whole expanse and see all the great things she has to offer. Which is exactly what happens in the end, we put Native Americans on reservations. Great for the “cultivating [white] man” because of course they’re the only ones that cultivate, and are civilized – kind of the idea of hunters versus farmers, in Crevercoeur’s What is An American.

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