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George Catlin
Bird's-eye View of the Mandan Village, 1800 Miles above St. Louis, 1837–39
24 1/8 x 29 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

“I have this morning, perched myself upon the top of one of the earth-covered lodges … and having the whole village beneath and about me, with its sachems—its warriors—its dogs—and its horses in motion—its medicines (or mysteries) and scalp-poles waving over my head—its piquets—its green fields and prairies, and river in full view, with the din and bustle of the thrilling panorama that is about me. I shall be able, I hope, to give some sketches more to the life than I could have done from any effort of recollection.…

“The groups of lodges around me present a very curious and pleasing appearance, resembling in shape (more nearly than anything else I can compare them to) so many potash-kettles inverted. On the tops of these are to be seen groups standing and reclining, whose wild and picturesque appearance it would be difficult to describe. Stern warriors, like statues, standing in dignified groups, wrapped in their painted robes, with their heads decked and plumed with quills of the war-eagle. … In another direction, the wooing lover. … On other lodges, and beyond these, groups are engaged in games of the ‘moccasin,’ or the ‘platter.’ Some are to be seen manufacturing robes and dresses, and others, fatigued with amusements or occupations, have stretched their limbs to enjoy the luxury of sleep, whilst basking in the sun.”

Catlin continues the description of the village over several pages of Letters and Notes (vol. 1, pp. 80–89, pl. 47), noting, in addition, the drumlike shrine in the center of the open area, the medicine lodge, the paraphernalia and trophies of Indian life, and the scaffolds of the Mandan cemetery in the distance.

The subject is not included in the 1837 catalogue, but does appear in the Egyptian Hall catalogue of January 1840, indicating that it was painted in the interval. Audubon thought Catlin had represented the earth lodges as too regular in size and shape (see Ewers, 1956); otherwise, the scene appears to be a unique and vivid account of Mandan village life. The painting is unusually detailed for the late 1830s, and apparently unrelated to a brief drawing of Mandan lodges in the SI sketchbook (see Donaldson, pl. 7). The scene is repeated in cartoon 129 (unlocated).

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