George Catlin’s Attitude Towards Native Americans

Overall, George Catlin has a positive attitude towards Native Americans in the excerpt from Letter and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. Even though he is primarily a painter, he puts forth effort to document his admiration for the culture of the Native Americans. Catlin emphasizes the abuse the white man enacts upon North America and its inhabitants. In his work the Native Americans end up coming off more likeable than the European settlers.

The white men ruthlessly slaughtered herds of buffalo for “their pleasure and elegance, over the backs of the sleighs, and trail them ostentatiously amidst the busy throng, as a thing of beauty and elegance that had been made for them!” (41). Catlin parallels the white man’s wasteful use of buffalo to the Native Americans who utilize the buffalo in myriad applications ranging from “food…robes…blankets…canoes…bows…” etc. (42-43). Catlin dedicates an entire paragraph to the native’s practical uses of the buffalo, highlighting their reliance on the species, whereas he only mentions a couple sentences of buffalo being used for “white man’s luxury” (39).  He denounces the notion of the government allocating money to the Indians because it “passes immediately into the hands of white men” (44). The Native Americans and buffalo are forced to retreat to a “hiding place” found on “sterile” land “of no available use to cultivating men” (38,42). Catlin’s attitude seems to be that event though the white man is appearing to compensate the Indians; they are really just taking advantage of them while attempting to keep a clean conscience.

Although Catlin is overall arguing for Native Americans and criticizing the Europeans, his writing comes off slightly condescending. He states there are “no nobler specimens” than the Indian and the buffalo. They are often referred together; “joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man” (41). Catlin numerously refers to the Native Americans as “savages” and states that “the weak and ignorant have no rights” (40).Catlin divides them into two sides- the Native Americans and the buffalo versus the white man. In a sense he is almost equating the Indians with the buffalo. The Indians are stuck in “nature’s simplicity” and where the white man is capable of utilizing higher powers of thinking, “an Indian cannot” (40).

I also found Catlin’s call for the preservation of the prairie and it’s inhabitants noble in theory but very insulting. He talks about creating a “magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian” (42). He wants to preserve the Indians and the buffalo more for the enjoyment of the white man to admire, rather than for the sake of humanity and saving a culture within our species. He doesn’t even really seem to view the Native Indians as real people calling them a “beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens” (42). His reasons for saving the denizens of North America seem very selfish and focused on how to exploit them for personal admiration.

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