An Ecocritical Perspective on Catlin

George Catlin’s excerpt from “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians” had the tone of a “Save the Whales” campaign – only in this case, the “Indian” is the endangered animal.

Garrard calls the idea of the Ecological Indian a “seductive myth” and Catlin seems to be seduced by this myth. Garrard says that “‘We’ apparently cannot dwell in working harmony with nature, but perhaps other cultures are able to do so” (120). Please note how Garrard put the ‘we’ in quotation marks – almost demarcating that any person reading his words must be of a civilized nature, out of touch with working in harmony with nature.

Catlin takes on a similar tone – the “we” in his text are the civilized people. He contrasts that the “civilized” world has words and systems to overrule the laws of nature, but then states, “I say that we can prove such things; but an Indian cannot” (40). I gasped when I read that sentence the first time. I thought he was joking. But the italics are from the original text (!) and give a terrific air of condescension.

Catlin’s nation’s park for the “Ecological Indian” (as ‘we’ would call them) was the most spectacular demonstration of a man who has been seduced by the “myth.” Catlin gushes that Indians are beautiful in their ancient, preserved state and insists that this admirable, exotic beauty should be showcased to the rest of the world. He says, “What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages!” Please note the word “specimen” in this passage in reference to the Indian, which contrasts quite jarringly with “refined citizens.” Indians are specimens of a lost world that can live in harmony with nature, but at the end of the day, I believe Catlin would rather be a “refined citizen” than a “specimen.”

Catlin goes on to sketch out his idea: “A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!” (42)  I sincerely believed that Catlin was joking. A Park to showcase the Indian as a specimen?? But when he later states that he wants to be known – after he dies – for establishing such a park, I understood that Catlin was romanticizing the Indian as an ecological wonder.

Let’s get a show of hands, shall we? Would you, my dear reader, visit such a park – or, shall I say, zoo? Does the idea delight or disgust you?



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on September 28, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    It is interesting how Caitlin does not give Native Americans much credit at all. And for one who is so rhapsodic in his exhortations he very much belittles the American Indian’s plight by almost making the buffalo and Indian as one species (thus they end up in a pen together). This sort infantile idea of a Zoo also has a weird connection to Garrard’s chapter on Apocalypse. Caitlin’s anthropomorphism could lump him into being a subscriber of the ‘tragic’ millenarian apocalypticism where, “by tragedy as predetermined and epochal, always careering towards some final, catastrophic conclusion”, the white settlers are bringing it on (Garrard 87). Through the avarice of white settlers it has finally come to zoo-ing up nature (including Indians) and saving a last little piece before the rapture. But Caitlin’s plea to the government makes me think he was more secular than the average American back then. Hard to tell. However, didn’t they capture Inuit, Native Americans and all kinds of other native tribes living in America(s) and put them on display all over Europe during its Age of Exploration? This replication of antiquated European fashion makes me think that Caitlin is appealing to the ones who were most likely heading west, which would be the less Anglo, more Germanic, Scotch and Irish (or anyone of a lesser degree of an Englishman) and maybe sympathizing with them, establishing a kind of complicity that this is really the result of the imperialism of British and the French.
    We get a glimpse of Caitlin playing witness to an environmental crisis, commodity comes first and then the plains are littered with dead, rotting buffalo or pollution: Culture over Nature/ anthropocentric colliding with eco-centricity or Ecological Indian, which totally disregards any indication of Indians having their own culture.

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

  2. Posted by lmc908 on September 29, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I agree when you say that Catlin sees the Natives as a “seductive myth” but I do not think that he was joking about the nation’s park. All throughout he talks about the Natives as lesser but intriguing beings, so when he brings up the idea about enclosing them as an attraction, although horrified, I did believe him– “…the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow,…A nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty” (Catlin 42). Catlin seems concerned with preserving this myth of humans being able to dwell in nature by preserving the Indians in their natural habitat, but by doing so he is removing everything that is natural about it. By enclosing the Indians and making them a national attraction, we no longer have nature but a man made object. We would again have man controlling nature and using it for its advantage. This is exactly what Catlin wants to do. He is writing under the pretense of saving the “savages,” but in reality his main concerned is his immortality and the future of civilized Americans; as he states, “I would ask no other monument to my memory…than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution” (Catlin 42). He is just trying to make his immortal mark on the nation. He is also concerned for the future of the civilized when they consume the subsistence of the natives as he states, “…who is to resist the ravages of 300,000 starving savages” (Catlin 44). Catlin believes himself and the whites to be superior to the natives and offers proof of their advanced understanding but we never see it. He constantly says “we can prove” but he never says what nor proves it (Catlin 40). He also puts God on the side of the civilized. Given the belief in his superiority, and his need for recognition, I believe that Catlin was serious about the nation’s park. He wants to enclose Indians for the entertainment and betterment of the civilized.

    Catlin, George. American Earth: Environment 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. Posted by brightgirl04 on September 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    I think it is interesting that Catlin sees the Indian as the endangered species and doesn’t find any inherent value in the buffalo. He describes how 300,000 indians subsist off the the flesh of buffalos, “every part of their flesh is converted into food, in one shape or another. The robes of the animals are worn by the Indians, their skins when tanned used as covering for their lodges, and beds, horns are shaped into ladles and spoons” (196), etc. Catlin does not marvel at the beauty of the buffalo on their own. He only wants the buffalos to live on so the Indians can live on.

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