Posts Tagged ‘Catlin’

Paper Topic: Media Representations of Native Americans as Children in Catlin, Apess, Disney’s Peter Pan

For my final paper, I intend to look into the portrayal of Native Americans as children both in 19th century readings (Apess, Catlin) and more contemporary media (“What Makes the Red Man Red?” from Disney’s Peter Pan; I plan on finding others as well but have had some trouble with my off campus library access today!). In all of these works, natives are portrayed as lesser beings than their white counterparts, but in a sense that it is not “their fault” because they are ignorant, naïve, and unruly, just like children. Apess is especially interesting when delving into this topic because he comes from a “white” upbringing, but still feels a connection towards his Native American brethren.

The crux of this issue is that, in the 19th century works at least, the authors are attempting to further the image of Natives to the American society by using the “child” argument to give excuses for the natives’ differences. I would like to look into how natives are portrayed in the more recent media, and whether or not this twisted “charity” aspect is present, or if it has just become the norm to display natives as lesser beings.  Finally, I will look into implications this has on the current Native American community both in the 19th century and today.


The link to the Peter Pan clip I plan on using:


  1. Do Apess and Catlin realize their rhetorical strategies regarding Native Americans in fact do more harm than good?
  2. What impact did this childish portrayal have on the Native American community in the 19th century? More recently?
  3. Have there been any attempts by Native American groups (or others) to dissuade audiences from believing this portrayal?
  4. How have the childish portrayals, and motives for such a portrayal, shifted from the 19th century to now? What implications does this have?

***If anyone has ideas for more recent media portrayals regarding natives, I would especially love that feedback!


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

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