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Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER—No. 38.

FORT GIBSON, ARKANSAS.

Nearly two months have elapsed since I arrived at this post, on my way up the river from the Mississippi, to join the regiment of dragoons on their campaign into the country of the Camanchees and Pawnee Picts; during which time, I have been industriously at work with my brush and my pen, recording the looks and the deeds of the Osages, who inhabit the country on the North and the West of this.

The Osage, or (as they call themselves) Wa-saw-see, are a tribe of about 5200 in numbers, inhabiting and hunting over the head-waters of the Arkansas, and Neosho or Grand Rivers. Their present residence is about 700 miles West of the Mississippi river; in three villages, constituted of wigwams, built of barks and flags or reeds. One of these villages is within forty miles of this Fort; another within sixty, and the third about eighty miles. Their chief place of trade is with the sutlers at this post; and there are constantly more or less of them encamped about the garrison.

The Osages may justly be said to be the tallest race of men in North America, either of red or white skins; there being very few indeed of the men, at their full growth, who are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet. They are at the same time well-proportioned in their limbs, and good looking; being rather narrow in the shoulders, and, like most all very tall people, a little inclined to stoop; not throwing the chest out, and the head and shoulders back, quite as much as the Crows and Mandans, and other tribes amongst which I have been familiar. Their movement is graceful and quick; and in war and the chase, I think they are equal to any of the tribes about them.

This tribe, though living, as they long have, near the borders of the civilized community, have studiously rejected everything of civilized customs: and are uniformly dressed in skins of their own dressing—strictly maintaining their primitive looks and manners, without the slightest appearance of innovations, excepting in the blankets, which have been recently admitted to their use instead of the buffalo robes, which are now getting scarce amongst them.

The Osages are one of the tribes who shave the head, as I have before described when speaking of the Pawnees and Konzas, and they decorate and paint it with great care, and some considerable taste. There is a peculiarity in the heads of these people which is very striking to the eye of a traveller; and which I find is produced by artificial means in infancy. Their children, like those of all the other tribes, are carried on a board, and slung upon the mother's back. The infants are lashed to the boards, with their backs upon them, apparently in a very uncomfortable condition; and with the Osages, the head of the child bound down so tight to the board, as to force in the occipital bone, and create an unnatural deficiency on the back part, and consequently more than a natural elevation of the top of the head. This custom, they told me they practiced, because "it pressed out a bold and manly appearance in front." This I think, from observation, to be rather imaginary than real; as I cannot see that they exhibit any extraordinary development in the front; though they evidently shew a striking deficiency on the back part, and also an unnatural elevation on the top of the head, which is, no doubt, produced by this custom. The difference between this mode and the one practiced by the Flat-head Indians beyond the Rocky Mountains, consists in this, that the Flat-heads press the head between two boards; the one pressing the frontal bone down, whilst the other is pressing the occipital up, producing the most frightful deformity; whilst the Osages merely press the occipital in, and that, but to a moderate degree, occasioning but a slight, and in many cases, almost immaterial, departure from the symmetry of nature.

These people, like all those tribes who shave the head, cut and slit their ears very much, and suspend from them great quantities of wampum and tinsel ornaments. Their necks are generally ornamented also with a profusion of wampum and beads; and as they live in a warm climate where there is not so much necessity for warm clothing, as amongst the more Northern tribes, of whom I have been heretofore speaking; their shoulders, arms, and chests are generally naked, and painted in a great variety of picturesque ways, with silver bands on the wrists, and oftentimes a profusion of rings on the fingers.

The head-chief of the Osages at this time, is a young man by the name of Clermont, the son of a very distinguished chief of that name, who recently died; leaving his son his successor, with the consent of the tribe. I painted the portrait of this chief at full length, in a beautiful dress, his leggings fringed with scalp-locks, and in his hand his favorite and valued war-club.

By his side I have painted also at full length, his wife and child. She was richly dressed in costly cloths of civilized manufacture, which is almost a solitary instance amongst the Osages, who so studiously reject every luxury and every custom of civilized people; and amongst those, the use of whiskey, which is on all sides tendered to them—but almost uniformly rejected! This is an unusual and unaccountable thing, unless the influence which the missionaries and teachers have exercised over them, has induced them to abandon the pernicious and destructive habit of drinking to excess. From what I can learn, the Osages were once fond of whiskey; and, like all other tribes who have had the opportunity, were in the habit of using it to excess. Several very good and exemplary men have been for years past exerting their greatest efforts, with those of their families, amongst these people; having established schools and agricultural experiments amongst them. And I am fully of the opinion, that this decided anomaly in the Indian country, has resulted from the devoted exertions of these pious and good men.

Amongst the chiefs of the Osages, and probably the next in authority and respect in the tribe, is Tchong-tas-sab-bee, the black dog, whom I painted also at full length, with his pipe in one hand, and his tomahawk in the other; his head shaved, and ornamented with a beautiful crest of deers' hair, and his body wrapped in a huge mackinaw blanket.

This dignitary, who is blind in the left eye, is one of the most conspicuous characters in all this country, rendered so by his huge size (standing in height and in girth, above all of his tribe), as well as by his extraordinary life. The Black Dog is familiarly known to all the officers of the army, as well as to Traders and all other white men, who have traversed these regions, and I believe, admired and respected by most of them.

His height, I think, is seven feet; and his limbs full and rather fat, making his bulk formidable, and weighing, perhaps, some 250 or 300 pounds. This man is chief of one of the three bands of the Osages, divided as they are into three families; occupying, as I before said, three villages, "Clermont's Village," "Black Dog's Village," and "White Hair's Village." The White Hair is another distinguished leader of the Osages; and some have awarded to him the title of Head Chief; but in the jealous feelings of rivalry which have long agitated this tribe, and some times, even endangered its peace, I believe it has been generally agreed that his claims are third in the tribe; though he justly claims the title of a chief, and a very gallant and excellent man. The portrait of this man, I regret to say, I did not get.

Amongst the many brave and distinguished warriors of the tribe, one of the most noted and respected is Tal-lee, painted at full length, with his lance in his hand—his shield on his arm, and his bow and quiver slung upon his back.

In this portrait, there is a fair specimen of the Osage figure and dress, as well as of the facial outline, and shape and character of the head, and mode of dressing and ornamenting it with the helmet-crest, and the eagle's quill.

If I had the time at present, I would unfold to the reader some of the pleasing and extraordinary incidents of this gallant fellow's military life; and also the anecdotes that have grown out of the familiar life I have led with this handsome and high-minded gentleman of the mild woods and prairies. Of the Black Dog I should say more also; and most assuredly will not fail to do justice to these extraordinary men, when I have leisure to write off all my notes, and turn biographer. At present, I shake hands with these two noblemen, and bid them good-bye; promising them, that if I never get time to say more of their virtues—I shall say nothing again them.

I have represented three braves, Ko-ha-tunk-a (the big crow); Nah-com-e-shee (the man of the bed), and Mun-ne-puskee (he who is not afraid). These portraits set forth fairly the modes of dress and ornaments of the young men of the tribe, from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet. The only dress they wear in warm weather is the breech-cloth, leggings, and moccasins of dressed skins, and garters worn immediately below the knee, ornamented profusely with heads and wampum. (1)

These three distinguished and ambitious young men, were of the best families in the Osage nation; and as they explained to me, having formed a peculiar attachment to each other—they desired me to paint them all on one canvass, in which wish I indulged them.

Besides the above personages, I also painted the portraits of Wa-hobeck-ee (—), a brave, and said to be the handsomest man in the Osage nation; Moi-een-e-shee (the constant walker); Wa-mash-ee-sheek (he who takes away); Wa-chesh-uk (war); Mink-chesk (—); Wash-im-pe-shee (the mad man), a distinguished warrior; Shin-ga-wos-sa (the handsome bird); Cah-he-ga-shin-ga (the little chief), and Tcha-to-ga (the mad buffalo); all of which will hang in my INDIAN MUSEUM for the inspection of the curious. The last mentioned of these was tried and convicted of the murder of two white men during Adams's administration, and was afterwards pardoned, and still lives, though in disgrace in his tribe, as one whose life had been forfeited, "but (as they say) not worth taking."

The Osages have been formerly, and until quite recently, a powerful and warlike tribe: carrying their arms fearlessly through all of these realms; and ready to cope with foes of any kind that they were liable to meet. At present, the case is quite different; they have been repeatedly moved and jostled along, from the head waters of the White river, and even from the shores of the Mississippi, to where they now are; and reduced by every war and every move. The small-pox has taken its share of them at two or three different times; and the Konzas, as they are now called, having been a part of the Osages, and receded from them, impaired their strength; and have at last helped to lessen the number of their warriors: so that their decline has been very rapid, bringing them to the mere handful that now exists of them; though still preserving their valor as warriors, which they are continually showing off as bravely and as professionally as they can, with the Pawnees and the Camanchees, with whom they are waging incessant war; although they are the principal sufferers in those scenes which they fearlessly persist in, as if they were actually bent on their self-destruction. Very great efforts have been, and are being made amongst these people to civilize and Christianize them; and still I believe with but little success. Agriculture they have caught but little of; and of religion and civilization still less. One good result has, however, been produced by these faithful labourers, which is the conversion of these people to temperance; which I consider the first important step towards the other results, and which of itself is an achievement that redounds much to the credit and humanity of those, whose lives have been devoted to its accomplishment.

Here I must leave the Osages for the present, but not the reader, whose company I still hope to have awhile longer, to bear how I get along amongst in a few days, in the wild and untried scenes, that I am to start upon company with the first regiment of dragoons, in the first grand civilized foray, into the country of the wild and warlike Camanchees.

(1) These three young men, with eight or ten others, were sent out by the order of the Black Dog and the other chiefs, with the regiment of dragoons, as guides and hunters, for the expedition to the Camanchees, an account of which will be found in the following pages.

I was a fellow traveller and hunter with these young men for several months, and therefore have related in the following pages some of the incidents of our mutual exploits whilst in the Camanchee country.