Catlin’s Depiction of Native Americans

Catlin’s depiction of Native Americans is one of markedly fake concern and very closely mirrors the way he describes the buffalo. While his writing attempts to come off as sympathetic towards Native Americans, and it very well may have to the readers of his time, in present day it is very condescending and wholly problematic. By relating the Native Americans so closely to the buffalo he completely dehumanizes them, which is (not surprisingly) exactly what he aims to do.   He describes Native Americans and buffalo together by stating “the Indian and the buffalo- joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man” (Catlin 40). Even the use of the word “fugitive” here implies that they are doing something negative by trying to escape from the more “righteous” and “virtuous” culture of the domineering white men. By relating Native Americans so closely with the buffalo, Catlin is stating that they are to close to nature and thus unable to be close to God or fully use his gifts, i.e. the land that the white settlers wish to take.

Catlin goes on to confirm that he does not believe that Native Americans trying to avoid being dominated by the white men is a good or positive action to take when he states “it can be proved that the weak and ignorant have no rights- that there can be no virtue in darkness- that God’s gifts have no meaning or merit until they are appropriated by civilized man- by him brought into the light, and converted to his use and luxery” (Catlin 40). Because nature is a gift from God and the Native Americans are not properly using the land nor the animals as the white settlers desire to, it is justifiable for the white men to take the land from them. It is not hard to see from Catlin’s description of Native Americans nor his fake concern for their well-being, that he is simply trying to find a way to justify the horrible actions he (or the white settlers as a whole) wishes to take against the Native Americans. Because they are too close to nature they are depicted as hardly human and in need of saving and protecting whether they like it or not.

The closeness to animals is once again stated when Catlin describes Native Americans as a “beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to perserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world” as though Native Americans are not actual human beings but rather animals who are too ignorant to preserve themselves (Catlin 42). This is again an instance of him simply stating that because Native Americans are close to animals, it is justifiable to take their land, though mercifully “preserve” them, and do with it what God has apparently ordained. His false concern for Native American’s well-being is very problematic because it makes him appear to want rights for and to help them, while solely depicting them as being in need of protecting and of God because they are too ignorant.


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

3 responses to this post.

  1. I agree that Catlin’s concern for Indians is fake. He seems concerned with them more as some sort of spectacle for whites to gawk at. he thinks of them as part of american history and less as people. You sighted part of this quote as well (196 of the course pack) ” what a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve…” and i agree that he views them as some sort of species, but not human species. This is a typical troupe of Natives, that they are closer to nature and because of this somehow animalistic.

  2. Posted by brightgirl04 on September 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I also agree that Catlin’s concern for the survival of the Indian’s is false. He does describe the Indians as something that should be put on display so real Americans can enjoy. Catlin feels everyone should see “this interesting community, with its sports, its wildnesses, its languages, and all its manners and customs” (43). I agree Catilin sees Indians as animal themselves. They are adept at using all the parts of a buffalo and surviving on the plains yet he feels they cannot save themselves.

  3. Posted by thelorist on September 30, 2011 at 2:36 am

    I completely agree with what you’re saying. Catlin’s lack of sincere concern shows through his writing so clearly I don’t know why he bothers admiring — if we can call it that — the Native Americans for even a moment. It seems to me that he is following a traditional missionary kind of mindset, feeling that the Native Americans are a sort of danger to themselves, in the philosophical / religious sense, and that not only do white settlers have an obligation to “preserve” them like something in a zoo, but also to “help” them by introducing them to worldviews considered superior by settlers, i.e. Christianity: “[…] God’s gifts have no meaning or merit until they are appropriated by civilized man — by him brought into the light and converted to his use and luxury” (40).

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