Posts Tagged ‘George Catlin’

Paper Proposal Topic Apocalypse and Wilderness inGeorge Caitlin’ Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians

For my paper, essentially I would like to explore the apocalypse trope within George Caitlin’ Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians. His basic notion of the clash between an avaricious and decadent culture of “civilization” in comparison to “nature” and the depletion of both buffalo and Native American’s has implications of an impending cataclysm. The fact that culture and nature are at odds makes apocalypse seem not only imminent but also inevitable. His use of Native Americans could serve as an actual and explicit example of extermination. To supplement the notions of “civilized” culture, I would include some references to Thoreau and Washington Irving, also, so as to supplement the ethical, cultural notions of a culture’s trajectory or movement towards apocalypse, especially American culture during that century, as well as similar examples of prairie narrative and its relation to Eastern urban culture.

I find this particularly interesting because of its relevance to contemporary culture, where there is much more rhetorical apocalypticism dealing with the environment now more than ever. I find it interesting that people in an earlier time tended to enjoy the Judeo-Christian idea of a sinful earth, flagellated by a fearsome god, and how also advocates of apocalypse tend to find what the want. Exploring the apocalypse trope in its early American forms can potentially be enlightening as what the current state of apocalypse in our culture.

In an analytical sense, I would like investigate and potentially qualify what type of apocalypse Caitlin subscribes to, either a tragic Millenarian or a comic Augustinian, secular eschatologist or somewhere in between or neither. Also, Caitlin essentially proposes a wilderness or wildness “quarantine” from ‘civil’ culture because of its hunger to impose its will and sustain its material comforts, and thus, depleting the resources of nature.


  1. How much does Caitlin’s apocalypse depend on the elegiac pastoral model? How do they relate?
  2. What kind of authoritative element is prevalent in Caitlin’s desire to “quarantine” wilderness, i.e. why is preserving wilderness important to him?
  3. Although Caitlin relies on the stereotypical Nobel Savage imagery, what type of society does he expect or imply will remain, if any at all? (Future primitivism, total destitution or reduced society after cataclysm)
  4. Can Deep Ecologists be accused of using the apocalypse trope to influence birth rates, or discourage reproduction?
  5. Finally, what solution is there, if human culture inherently uses “nature” will there be any form of living that is not apocalyptic?

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?


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

George Catlin’s Attitude Towards Native Americans

Overall, George Catlin has a positive attitude towards Native Americans in the excerpt from Letter and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. Even though he is primarily a painter, he puts forth effort to document his admiration for the culture of the Native Americans. Catlin emphasizes the abuse the white man enacts upon North America and its inhabitants. In his work the Native Americans end up coming off more likeable than the European settlers.

The white men ruthlessly slaughtered herds of buffalo for “their pleasure and elegance, over the backs of the sleighs, and trail them ostentatiously amidst the busy throng, as a thing of beauty and elegance that had been made for them!” (41). Catlin parallels the white man’s wasteful use of buffalo to the Native Americans who utilize the buffalo in myriad applications ranging from “food…robes…blankets…canoes…bows…” etc. (42-43). Catlin dedicates an entire paragraph to the native’s practical uses of the buffalo, highlighting their reliance on the species, whereas he only mentions a couple sentences of buffalo being used for “white man’s luxury” (39).  He denounces the notion of the government allocating money to the Indians because it “passes immediately into the hands of white men” (44). The Native Americans and buffalo are forced to retreat to a “hiding place” found on “sterile” land “of no available use to cultivating men” (38,42). Catlin’s attitude seems to be that event though the white man is appearing to compensate the Indians; they are really just taking advantage of them while attempting to keep a clean conscience.

Although Catlin is overall arguing for Native Americans and criticizing the Europeans, his writing comes off slightly condescending. He states there are “no nobler specimens” than the Indian and the buffalo. They are often referred together; “joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man” (41). Catlin numerously refers to the Native Americans as “savages” and states that “the weak and ignorant have no rights” (40).Catlin divides them into two sides- the Native Americans and the buffalo versus the white man. In a sense he is almost equating the Indians with the buffalo. The Indians are stuck in “nature’s simplicity” and where the white man is capable of utilizing higher powers of thinking, “an Indian cannot” (40).

I also found Catlin’s call for the preservation of the prairie and it’s inhabitants noble in theory but very insulting. He talks about creating a “magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian” (42). He wants to preserve the Indians and the buffalo more for the enjoyment of the white man to admire, rather than for the sake of humanity and saving a culture within our species. He doesn’t even really seem to view the Native Indians as real people calling them a “beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens” (42). His reasons for saving the denizens of North America seem very selfish and focused on how to exploit them for personal admiration.

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

Depictions of Native Americans by Apess and Catlin

After reading William Apess’ A Son of the Forest and George Catlin’s Letter’s and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians I found the perception of Native American Indians from the viewpoint of a Native American and white settler to be similar.

Apess conveyed the viewpoint of a Native American living among white settlers.  When discussing white settlers Apess used ‘whites’ to refer to them which gave a negative connotation.  However, when Apess would discuss fellow Native Americans he would use terms like ‘brethren of the forest’ or ‘natives’ all of which had a positive connotation of respect.  Unlike these favorable terms Apess describes the negative use of the term ‘Indian’:

I thought it disgraceful to be called an Indian; it was considered as a slur upon an oppressed and scattered nation, and I   have often been led to inquire where the whites received this word, which they so often threw as an opprobrious epithet at the sons of the forest” (Apess, 10).

This is significant because it demonstrates the racist attitudes of the white settlers towards the Native Americans.  Catlin, a white settler, would often refer to Native Americans as ‘Indians’ without any negative connotation whereas he would mock the white settlers by calling them ‘civilized men.’  The negative connotation attached to Catlin’s use of ‘civilized men’ critiques the white settler’s exploitation of Native Americans and buffalo herds.

Another interesting similarity found involves the subject of alcohol consumption by Native Americans.  Apess describes how his grandparents, fellow Native Americans and he became alcoholics:

This cruel and unnatural conduct was the effect of some cause.  I attribute it in a great measure to the whites, inasmuch as they introduced among my countrymen that bane of comfort and happiness, ardent spirits—seduced them into a love of it (Apess, 7).

The very common practice of taking advantage of trading between Native Americans and white settlers is produced in Apess’ account and Catlin’s passage.  Both express the unfortunate circumstances of alcoholism that plagued the Native Americans as described by Catlin, “the skins were dragged, and dressed for white man’s luxury! where they were all sold for whiskey, and the poor Indians laid drunk, and were crying” (Catlin, 39).  Both Apess and Catlin depict the relationship between Native Americans and alcohol as the white settlers taking advantage of them.

Although at different extremes both Apess and Catlin demonstrate the separation felt and acted upon by both the Native Americans and white settlers.  Apess and Catlin relate the Native Americans as having a close relationship with nature, “the Indian and the buffalo­—joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man” (Catlin, 40).  This explains that the Native Americans and buffalo, nature, are being pursued to be conquered by the white settlers.

Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University ofMassachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

Caitlin, George. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ch./Art: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians.New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Instructions for Group 2’s Second Blog Post

Osage warrior painted by George Catlin

Osage Warrior painted by George Catlin; Image via Wikipedia

For this blog response, you have a few different writing options. Choose only ONE of these topics to write your response. Be sure to make it clear which question you chose in the subject line of your post. Remember, this blog response is for Group 2 only!

  1. Discuss the depiction of Native Americans in this week’s readings. If you choose this option, you can focus on either:
    • Apess’ autobiography A Son of the Forest 
    • George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians and his famous paintings of Native Americans (see Catlin on the resources page for a link to his artwork).
    • A comparison of Native American depictions in both texts
    • A comparison of Apess or Catlin to one of our previous readings

Some questions to consider include: How are Native Americans depicted in this text? To what extent does the writer promote/resist the ecological Indian stereotype (as discussed by Gerrard) and for what purpose? To what extent does Native American self-representation differ from EuroAmerican descriptions of Native Americans? How are Native Americans valued, especially compared to white Americans? What are Native Americans’ relations to nature in this text?

2. Write a rhetorical analysis of either William Apess’ autobiography or George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. What is the author’s purpose in writing this text? What are his main arguments? What strategies does he use to appeal to the reader? How does the author use the rhetorical triangle (logos, pathos, and/or ethos) to convince the reader of his position? How/where does the author anticipate and rebut counter-arguments? Do you believe these writing strategies are successful? Why or why not?

3. Write an ecocritical analysis of Apess’ or Catlin’s text. As you know, there are many directions you can take with this, but here are some questions you may want to consider: How does the text conceptualize nature? What are the characters’/authors’ relationships to nature? How (or, to what extent) do characters’/authors’ experiences with nature differ, and in what ways are they similar? In what ways do gender, class, and/or racial difference influence the way characters/authors’ experience and/or conceptualize nature in the text?

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. If you are writing about more than one text, then you’ll need at least one quote from each as support.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.

Group 2, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, September 27.

Group 1, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, September 29.