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Interview Transcript
Catlin's Quest
George Catlin's Voice
read by Emery Battis

Rescuing History

“I have, for many years past, contemplated the noble races of red men who are now spread over these trackless forests and boundless prairies, melting away at the approach of civilization. Their rights invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed, and therefore lost to the world; and they at last sunk into the earth, and the ploughshare turning the sod over their graves, and I have flown to their rescue — not of their lives or of their race (for they are “doomed” and must perish), but to the rescue of their looks and their modes, at which the acquisitive world may hurl their poison and every besom of destruction, and trample them down and crush them to death; yet, phoenix-like, they may rise from the “stain on a painter's palette,” and live again upon canvass, and stand forth for centuries yet to come, the living monuments of a noble race. For this purpose, I have designed to visit every tribe of Indians on the Continent, if my life should be spared; for the purpose of procuring portraits of distinguished Indians, of both sexes in each tribe, painted in their native costume; accompanied with pictures of their villages, domestic habits, games, mysteries, religious ceremonies, with anecdotes, traditions, and history of their respective nations.”

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter 2: Mouth of Yellowstone, Upper Missouri.

"Becoming Their Historian"

“I there [in Philadelphia] closely applied my hand to the labours of the art for several years; during which time my mind was continually reaching for some branch or enterprise of the art, on which to devote a whole life-time of enthusiasm; when a delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the “Far West,” suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty,—with shield and helmet,—with tunic and manteau,—tinted and tasseled off, exactly for the painter's palette!

In silent and stoic dignity, these lords of the forest strutted about the city for a few days, wrapped in their pictured robes, with their brows plumed with the quills of the war-eagle, attracting the gaze and admiration of all who beheld them. After this they took their leave for Washington City, and I was left to reflect and regret, which I did long and deeply, until I came to the following deductions and conclusions.

Black and blue cloth and civilization are destined, not only to veil, but to obliterate the grace and beauty of Nature. Man, in the simplicity and loftiness of his nature, unrestrained and unfettered by the disguises of art, is surely the most beautiful model for the painter, —and the country from which he hails is unquestionably the best study or school of the arts in the world: such I am sure, from the models I have seen, is the wilderness of North America. And the history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and becoming their historian.”

The Indian Gallery as History

“I have visited forty-eight different tribes, the greater part of which I found speaking different languages, and containing in all 400,000 souls. I have brought home safe, and in good order, 310 portraits in oil, all painted in their native dress, and in their own wigwams; and also 200 other paintings in oil, containing the views of their villages—their wigwams—their games and religious ceremonies—their dances—their ball plays—their buffalo hunting, and other amusements (containing in all, over 3000 full-length figures); and the landscapes of the country they live in, as well as a very extensive and curious collection of their costumes, and all their other manufactures, from the size of a wigwam down to the size of a quill or a rattle.”

"Civilized" View distorts Indians

“I am fully convinced, from a long familiarity with these people, that the Indian's misfortune has consisted chiefly in our ignorance of their true native character and disposition, which has always held us at a distrustful distance from them; inducing us to look upon them in no other light than that of a hostile foe, and worthy only of that system of continued warfare and abuse that has been for ever waged against them.”

“The very use of the word savage, as it is applied in its general sense, I am inclined to believe is an abuse of the word, and the people to whom it is applied. The word, in its true definition, means no more than wild, or wild man; and a wild man may have been endowed by his Maker with all the humane and noble traits that inhabit the heart of a tame man. Our ignorance and dread or fear of these people, therefore, have given a new definition to the adjective; and nearly the whole civilised world apply the word savage, as expressive of the most ferocious, cruel, and murderous character that can be described.”

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 1.

Pursuing Fame

Letter of 1829 to Gen. Peter B. Porter:

“My feelings are becoming too enthusiastic for the limited and slavish branch of the arts which I am now pursuing, and in which I am wasting my life and substance for a bare living, without the possibility of attaining in this country, to the higher & more exalted walks of my profession. . . . Life is short, and I find that I have already traveled over half of it without stepping out of the beaten path in the unshackled pursuit of that Fame for which alone, the Art, to me, is valuable, and for the attainment of which I wish to devote the whole energies of my life.”

SOURCE: William Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), p. 13

"Practicing in the True School of the Arts"

“I take an indescribable pleasure in roaming through Nature's trackless wilds, and selecting my models, where I am free and unshackled by the killing restraints of society; where a painter must modestly sit and breathe away in agony the edge and soul of his inspiration, waiting for the sluggish calls of the civil. Though the toil, the privations, and expense of travelling to these remote parts of the world to get subjects for my pencil, place almost insurmountable, and sometimes painful obstacles before me, yet I am encouraged by the continual conviction that I am practicing in the true School of the Arts; and that, though I should get as poor as Lazarus, I should deem myself rich in models and studies for the future occupation of my life. Of this much I am certain—that amongst these sons of the forest, where are continually repeated the feats and gambols equal to the Grecian Games, I have learned more of the essential parts of my art in the three last years, than I could have learned in New York in a life-time.”

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 37: Fort Gibson, Arkansas Territory.

The "Medicine" of Pipestone

“This curious stone has many peculiar qualities, and has, undoubtedly, but one origin in this country, and perhaps in the world. It is found but in the hands of the savage, and every tribe, and nearly every individual in the tribe has his pipe made of it. I consider this stone a subject of great interest, and curiosity to the world; and I shall most assuredly make it a point, during my Indian rambles, to visit the place from whence it is brought. I have already got a number of most remarkable traditions and stories relating to the 'sacred quarry;' of pilgrimages performed there to procure the stone, and of curious transactions that have taken place on that ground. It seems, from all I can learn, that all the tribes in these regions, and also of the Mississippi and the Lakes, have been in the habit of going to that place, and meeting their enemies there, whom they are obliged to treat as friends, under an injunction of the Great Spirit.”

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 5: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Pigeon's Egg Head Returns from Washington

“On his way home from St. Louis to this place, a distance of 2000 miles, I travelled with this gentleman, on the steamer Yellow-Stone; and saw him step ashore (on a beautiful prairie, where several thousands of his people were encamped), with a complete suit en militaire, a colonel's uniform of blue, presented to him by the President of the United States, with a beaver hat and feather, with epaulettes of gold—with sash and belt, and broad sword; with high-heeled boots—with a keg of whiskey under his arm, and a blue umbrella in his hand.”

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 8: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.


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