Question 1: Catlin’s Depiction of Native Americans

George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians offers an interesting perspective on the lives and fate of the American Indian in the 1800s. The overall tone of the letter seems to be one of pity; Catlin pities the Indians for their inability to understand what is happening to them which he mercilessly refers to as: “the ignorance of the disastrous fate that awaits them” (43). Catlin emphasizes the greatest amount of pity and concern in regard to the white settlers trading spirits for buffalo skins, ““Oh insatiable man, is thy avarice such! wouldst thou tear the skin from the back of the last animal of this noble race, and rob they fellow-man of his meat, and for it give him poison!”” (39). The concern demonstrated in this quote is that of a man who feels guilt for the actions of his own race against another. The pity that Catlin reiterates throughout the letter is comparable to that of a parent for an unknowing child, there is sympathy intermixed with pity because Catlin sees and understands something that the Indians do not. This undervaluation of American Indians was very common for the time.

Though Catlin’s pity is clear throughout the text, there is also a slight allusion toward a sense of admiration. In spite of the beautiful qualities Catlin associates with the lifestyle of the American Indian he manages to insert an undertone of degradation and pity. Catlin, while observing the prairies, says:

“Nature has nowhere presented more beautiful and lovely scenes, than those of the vast prairies of the West; and of man and beast, no nobler specimens than those who inhabit them—the Indian and the buffalo—joint and 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, they have taken up their last abode, where their race will expire, and their bones will bleach together” (40).

In this passage it is clear that Catlin is trying to emphasize the majestic lifestyle of the American Indian living in unison with the buffalo; however, what comes across is a demeaning lumping of Indians and buffalo together. The reliance of the Indians on the buffalo, in Catlin’s eyes, means that the two must share an untimely end. What Catlin fails to see is that “civilized man” is equally as reliant on the resources of the earth and it is the Indian’s ability to peacefully and successfully coexist in nature that makes them as civil as any other race. The grouping of Indians and buffalo together only furthers the stereotype of the era that Indians were savage, equal only to the beasts they live among.

While this letter may have been intended to shed some light on the unfortunate plight of the American Indians, it was certainly not enough to stir people to action. This letter was not a strong enough argument supporting American Indians, it merely brought forward some of the many, many injustices being brought upon the natives. Whatever his intention may have been, Catlin manages to both praise and undermine the lifestyle of this dying culture without ever truly giving it a chance.

Catlin, 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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One response to this post.

  1. I completely agree with all of your points, and I think you hit on every aspect of Catlin’s text that proves problematic. Catlin wants to preserve both the buffalo and Native Americans, but his propositions come across as too patronizing. You mentioned how he creates a dichotomy between the Indians and the white man; I might go so far as to say his arguments come across as racial determinism, in that he is arguing that the two cultures should be completely separated. Not only does this imply that Native Americans have nothing to gain from the white man, but also that Euro-Americans have nothing to gain from Native American culture, other than as a form of entertainment. I think his argument for establishing a park is not completely selfish, since he does argue that “when the buffaloes shall have disappeared in his country…who is to supply him [the Indian] with the necessaries of life then?” (44) The park would be a way to preserve a valuable food source without which Native American culture could not be sustained, but I do agree that the language in Catlin’s argument is extremely condescending and hurts his argument considerably.

    Catlin, 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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