Posts Tagged ‘buffalo’

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


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

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

Analysis of Catlin’s letters and notes

In Catlin’s text, he discusses the unfortunate impact that the “civilized people,” those who are not Indians and who live outside of the wildness, are having on the plains as a result of their selfish desires and reckless, mindless slaughtering of the buffalo. He goes into detail on how killing such a staple animal to that environment would damage the native lifestyle and how it may evidently lead to the Indian society suffering from starvation.

Catlin early on states, “the further we become separated from the pristine wildness and beauty, the more pleasure does the mind enlightened man fell in recurring to those scenes.” (Catlin, 39) He seems to believe that the further away an individual gets from the wild, the more idealized the idea of it becomes, and the more the person begins to like it.

He demonstrates this idea when he uses the example of the buffalo eventually being brought into a “magnificent park” (Catlin, 42) for the world to see. He sarcastically says the park will hold the “wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty” (Catlin, 42) for the public to view. The individuals would not be viewing nature in its true form, but rather a convenient scene set by people to resemble what nature would be like. It is much easier for someone to say they enjoy the outdoors when there is a food stand 5 feet away from them than it would be for someone stuck in the middle of a forest with nothing to eat.

Catlin says, “His wants are all satisfied, and even the luxuries of life are afforded him in abundance” (Catlin, 42). He believes that nature is the one thing that can provide a person with everything necessary to life. He takes on a similar thought to Emerson who believed everything on this earth was present for some kind of use.

Race certainly plays a factor in this reading. Catlin often refers to the Indians as savages, even though he admits to them being useful of every single resource nature offers. He points out the way white men waste the buffalo simply for their want of the coat and nothing more. Even after bringing up the reckless manner in which these people consume of nature, he does not call them any demeaning names as he openly does with the natives.

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