Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’

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


Animal Deaths in Washington Irving’s “A Tour on the Prairies” and their Colonialist implications

In Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Priaries, the deaths of animals are depicted in a way that alludes to the notion of colonial exploitation of virgin lands and native peoples. In the chapter entitled “A Bee Hunt,” Irving describes the process that the white settlers carry out in order to collect the prized, honey-soaked beehives from the habitats of these airborne insects. He emphasizes the sense of purpose and right of domination exhibited by the bee hunters, stating that they “plied their axes vigorously at the foot of the tree to level it with the ground,” (Irving, 52). Here, the reader can easily draw an imaginary parallel to early British colonialists furiously tearing away at the natural landscape as they work to construct new (and potentially profitable) settlements.

At the same time, the writer characterizes the animals as innocent victims who could not have possibly anticipated their demise at the hands of these foreign beings. He also notes that these animals possess certain noble aspects that are to be admired, indicating that he might hold similar feelings about the Native Americans, who were similarly victimized by white men.  The bees in the narrative met a similar fate—as their once “industrious community” was overtaken by the axe of alien aggressors.

Irving outlines the factor of profitability on the behalf of the hunters, writing that “Every stark bee-hunter was to be seen with a rich morsel in his hand, dripping about his fingers, and disappearing as rapidly as a cream tart before the holiday appetite of a schoolboy,” (Irving, 53). Such wording evokes in the reader’s mind the images and emotionality associated with claiming a well-deserved prize of say, a stuffed animal after a successful day at the carnival—it all seems to be a game with an objective (victory) for these white settlers, who think little of the inhabitants of the habitat that they disturb.

The writer goes on to indulge his feelings of guilt upon his own killing of a buffalo, perhaps to assuage them by having expressed them on paper. Initially, he describes these mammoth creatures with awe, wonderment and terror, again much like an observant white settler might articulate a memory of encountering Indians for the first time. After all is said and done and Irving has fired several shots into the buffalo, which agonizes in pain as it dies, he expresses great remorse. “It seemed as if I had inflicted pain in proportion to the bulk of my victim, and as if there were a hundred-fold greater waste of life than there would have been in the destruction of an animal of inferior size,” he writes (Irving, 178). The reader can only guess that this is a form of apologetic foreshadowing for the magnitude of destruction inflicted upon the natives by colonialist white settlers.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. 50-54, 171-179. Print.