Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
by George Catlin
(First published in London in 1844)
MOUTH OF YELLOW STONE, UPPER MISSOURI.
Since my last Letter, nothing of great moment has transpired at this place; but I have been
continually employed in painting my portraits and making notes on the character and customs of the
wild folks who are about me. I have just been painting a number of the Crows, fine looking and
noble gentlemen. They are really a handsome and well-formed set of men as can be seen in any part of the world. There is a sort of ease and grace added to their dignity of manners, which gives them the air of gentlemen at once. I observed the other day, that most of them were over six feet high and very many of these have cultivated their natural hair to such an almost incredible length, that it sweeps the ground as they walk; there are frequent instances of this kind amongst them, and in some cases, a foot or more it will drag on the grass as they walk, giving exceeding grace and beauty their movements. They usually oil their hair with a profusion of bear grease every morning, which is no doubt one cause of the unusual length which their hair extends; though it cannot be the sole cause of it, for tl other tribes throughout this country use the bear's grease in equal profusion without producing the same results. The Mandans, however, and the Sioux of whom I shall speak in future epistles, have cultivated a very great growth of the hair, as many of them are seen whose hair reaches near to the ground.
This extraordinary length of hair amongst the Crows is confined to the men alone; for the women, though all of them with glossy and beautiful hair, and a great profusion of it, are unable to
cultivate it to so great length; or else they are not allowed to compete with their lords in a fashion so ornamental (and on which the men so highly pride themselves), and are obliged in many cases to cut it short off.
The fashion of long hair amongst the men, prevails throughout all the Western and North Western tribes, after passing the Sacs and Foxes; and the Pawnees of the Platte, who, with two or three other tribes only, are in the habit of shaving nearly the whole head.
The present chief of the Crows, who is called "Long-hair," and has received his name as
well as his office from the circumstance of having the longest hair of any man in the nation, I have not yet seen: but I hope I may, here I leave this part of the country. This extraordinary man is known
to several gentlemen with whom I am acquainted, and particularly to Messrs. Sublette and Campbell, of whom I have before spoken, who told me they had lived in his hospitable lodge for months together; and assured me that they had measured his hair by a correct means, and found it to be ten feet and seven inches in length; closely inspecting every part of it at the same time, and
satisfying themselves that it war the natural growth.
On ordinary occasions it is wound with a broad leather strap, from his head to its extreme end, and then folded up into a budget or block, of some ten or twelve inches in length, and of some
pounds weight; which when he walks is carried under his arm, or placed in his bosom, within the
folds of his robe; but on any great parade or similar occasion, his pride is to unfold it, oil it with
bear's grease and let it drag behind him, some three or four feet of it spread out upon the grass,
and black and shining like a raven's wing.
It is a common custom amongst most of these upper tribes, to splice or add on several lengths of hair, by fastening them with glue; probably for the purpose of imitating the Crows, upon whom alone Nature has bestowed this conspicuous and signal ornament.
Amongst the Crows of distinction now at this place, I have painted the portraits of several, who exhibit some striking peculiarities. Amongst whom is Chah-ee-chopes, the four wolves; a fine
looking fellow, six feet in stature, and whose natural hair sweeps the grass as he walks; he is
beautifully clad, and carries himself with the most graceful and manly mienhe is in mourning for a brother; and according to their custom, has cut off a number of locks of his long hair, which is as much as a man can well spare of so valued an ornament, which he has been for the greater part of his life cultivating; whilst a woman who mourns for a husband or child, is obliged to crop her hair short to her head, and so remain till it grows out again; ceasing gradually to mourn as her hair approaches to its former length.
Duhk-pits-a-ho-shee, the red bear, a distinguished warrior; and Oo-je-en-a-he-ha, the woman who lives in the bear's den. I have also painted Pa-ris-ka-roo-pa (two crows) the younger, one of the most extraordinary men in the Crow nation; not only for his looks, from the form of his head, which seems to be distortion itselfand curtailed of all its fair proportions; but from his extraordinary sagacity so a counsellor and orator, even at an early stage of his life.
There is something very uncommon in this outline, and sets forth the striking peculiarity of the Crow tribe, though rather in an exaggerated form. The semi-lunar outline of the Crow head, with an exceedingly low and retreating forehead, is certainly a very peculiar and striking characteristic; and though not so strongly marked in most of the tribe as in the present instance, is sufficient for their detection whenever they are met; and will be subject for further comment in another place.
The Crow women (and Blackfeet also) are not handsome, and I shall at present ray but little of them. They are, like all other Indian women, the slaves of their husbands: being obliged to perform all the domestic duties and drudgeries of the tribe, and not allowed to join in their religious rites or ceremonies, nor in the dance or other amusements.
The women in all these upper and western tribes are decently dressed and many of them with great beauty and taste; their dresses are all of deer or goat skins, extending from their chins quite
down to the feet; these dresses are in many instances trimmed with ermine, and ornamented with
porcupine quills and beads with exceeding ingenuity.
The Crow and Blackfeet women, like all others I ever saw in any Indian tribe, divide the hair on the forehead, and paint the separation or crease with vermilion or red earth. For what purpose this little, but universal, custom is observed, I never have been able to learn.
The men amongst the Blackfeet tribe, have a fashion equally simple, and probably of as little
meaning, which seems strictly to be adhered to by every man in the tribe; they separate the hair in two places on the forehead, leaving a lock between the two, of an inch or two in width, which is carefully straightened down on to the bridge of the nose, and there cut square off. It is more than probable that this is done for the purpose of distinction; that they may thereby be free from the epithet of effeminacy, which might otherwise attach to them.
These two tribes, whom I have spoken of connectedly, speak two distinct and entirely dissimilar languages; and the language of each is different and radically so, from that of all other tribes about them. As these people are always at war, and have been, time out of mind, they do not inter-marry
or hold converse with each other, by which any knowledge of each other's language could be acquired. It would he the work of man's life-time to collect the languages of all the different tribes which I am visiting; and I shall, from necessity, leave this subject chiefly for others, who have the time to devote to them, to explain them to the world. I have, however, procured a brief vocabulary of their words and sentences in these tribes; and shall continue to do so amongst the tribes I shall visit, which will answer as a specimen or sample in each; and which, in a sequel to these Letters (if they should ever be published), will probably be arranged.
The Blackfeet are, perhaps, the most powerful tribe of Indians on the Continent; and being
sensible of their strength, have stubbornly resisted Traders in their country, who have been gradually forming an acquaintance with them, and endeavouring to establish a permanent and profitable system of trade. Their country abounds in beaver and buffalo, and most of the fur-bearing animals of North America; and the American Fur Company with an unconquerable spirit of trade and enterprize, has pushed its establishments into their country; and the numerous parties of trappers are tracing up their streams and rivers, rapidly destroying the beavers which dwell in them. The Blackfeet have repeatedly informed the Traders of the Company, that if their men persisted in trapping beavers in their country, they should kill them whenever they met them. They have executed their threats in many instances, and the Company lose some fifteen or twenty men annually, who fall by the bands of these people, in defence of what they deem their property and their rights. Trinkets and whiskey, however, will soon spread their charms amongst these, as they have amongst other tribes; and white man's voracity will sweep the prairies and the streams of their wealth, to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; leaving the Indians to inhabit, and at last to starve upon, a dreary and solitary waste.
The Blackfeet, therefore, having been less traded with, and less seen by white people than most of the other tribes, are more imperfectly understood; and it yet remains a question to be solvedwhether there are twenty, or forty or fifty thousand of them? for no one, as yet, can correctly estimate their real strength. From all I can learn, however, which is the best information that can be got from the Traders, there are not far from 40,000 Indians (altogether), who range under the general denomination of Blackfeet.
From our slight and imperfect knowledge of them, and other tribes occupying the country about the sources of the Missouri, there is no doubt in my mind, that we are in the habit of bringing more Indians into the computation, than are entitled justly to the appellation of "Blackfeet."
Such, for instance, are the "Grosventres de Prairie" and Cotonnés, neither of which speak the Blackfeet language; but hunt, and eat, and fight, and intermarry with the Blackfeet; living therefore in a state of confederacy and friendship with them, but speaking their own language, and practicing their own customs.
The Blackfeet proper are divided into four bands or families, as follow:the "Pe-a-gans," of 500 lodges; the "Blackfoot" band, of 450 lodges; the "Blood" band, of 450 lodges; and the "Small Robes," of 250 lodges. These four bands constituting about 1650 lodges, averaging ten to the lodge, amount to about 16,500 souls.
There are then of the other tribes above-mentioned (and whom we, perhaps, incorrectly denominate Blackfeet), Grosventres des Prairies, 430 lodges, with language entirely distinct; Circees, of 220 lodges, and Cotonnés, of 250 lodges, with language also distinct from either. (1)
There is in this region a rich and interesting field for the linguist or the antiquarian; and stubborn facts, I think, if they could be well procured, that would do away the idea which many learned gentlemen entertain, that the Indian languages of North America can all be traced to two or three roots. The language of the Dohcotas is entirely end radically distinct from that of the Mandans, and theirs equally so from the Blackfoot and the Crows. And from the lips of Mr. Brazeau, a gentleman of education and strict observation, who has lived several years with the Blackfeet and Shiennes, and who speaks the language of tribes on either side of them, assures me that these languages are radically distinct and dissimilar, as I have above stated; and also, that although he has been several years amongst those tribes, he has not been able to trace the slightest resemblance between the Circee, Contonné, and Blackfoot, and Shienne, and Crow, and Mandan tongues; and from a great deal of corroborating information, which I have got from other persons acquainted with these tribes, I am fully convinced of the correctness of his statements.
Besides the Blackfeet and Crows, whom I told you were assembled at this place, are also the Knisteneaux (or Crees, as they are commonly called), a very pretty and pleasing tribe of Indians, of about 3000 in number, living on the north of this, and also the Assinneboins and Ojibbeways; both
of which tribes also inhabit the country to the north and north-east of the mouth of Yellow Stone.
The Knisteneaux are of small stature, but well-built for strength and activity combined; are a people of wonderful prowess for their numbers, and have waged an unceasing warfare with the Blackfeet, who are their neighbours and enemies on the west. From their disparity in numbers, they
are rapidly thinning the ranks of their warriors, who bravely sacrifice their lives in contentions with
their powerful neighbours. This tribe occupy the country from the mouth of the Yellow Stone, in a
north-western direction, far into the British territory, and trade principally at the British N. W. Company's Posts.
The Assinneboins of seven thousand, and the Ojibbeways of six thousand, occupy a vast extent of country, in a north-eastern direction from this; extending also into the British possessions as high north as Lake Winnepeg; and trading principally with the British Company. These three tribes are in a state of nature, living as neighbours, and are also on terms of friendship with each other. This friendship, however, is probably but a temporary arrangement, brought about by the Traders amongst them; and which, like most Indian peace establishments, will be of short duration.
The Ojibbeways are, undoubtedly, a part of the tribe of Chippeways, with whom we are more
familiarly acquainted, and who inhabit the south-west shore of Lake Superior. Their language is the
same, though they are separated several hundred miles from any of them, and seem to have no
knowledge of them, or traditions of the manner in which, or of the time when, they became severed
…from each other.
The Assinneboins are a part of the Dohcotas, or Sioux, undoubtedly; for their personal
appearance as well as their language is very similar.
At what time, or in what manner, these two parts of a nation got strayed away from each other is a mystery; yet such cases have often occurred, of which I shall say more in future. Large parties who are, straying off in pursuit of game, or in the occupation of war, are oftentimes intercepted by their enemy; and being prevented from returning, are run off to a distant region, where they take up their residence and establish themselves as a nation.
There is a very curious custom amongst the Assinneboins, from which they have taken their
name; a name given them by their neighbours, from a singular mode they have of boiling their meat,
which is done in the following manner:when they kill meat, a hole is dug in the ground about the size of a common pot, and a piece of the raw hide of the animal, as taken from the back, is put over the hole, and then pressed down with the hands close around the sides, and filled with water. The meat to be boiled is then put in this hole or pot of water; and in a fire, which is built near by, several large stones are heated to a red heat, which are successively dipped and held in the water until the meat is boiled; from which singular and peculiar custom, the Ojibbeways have given them the appellation of Assinneboins or stone boilers.
This custom is a very awkward and tedious one, and used only as an ingenious means of boiling their meat, by a tribe who was too rude and ignorant to construct a kettle or pot.
The Traders have recently supplied these people with pots; and even long before that, the Mandans had instructed them in the secret of manufacturing very good and serviceable earthen pots; which together have entirely done away the custom, excepting at public festivals; where they
seem, like all others of the human family, to take pleasure in cherishing and perpetuating their
Of these three tribes, I have also lined my painting-room with a number of very interesting
portraits of the distinguished and brave men; and also representations of their games and
ceremonies, which will be found in my INDIAN GALLERY, if I live, and they can be preserved until
I get home.
The Assinneboins, or stone boilers, are a fine and noble looking race of Indians; bearing, both in their looks and customs, a striking resemblance to the Dohcotas or Sioux, from whom they have undoubtedly sprung. The men are tall, and graceful in their movements; and wear their pictured robes of the buffalo hide with great skill and pleasing effect. They are good hunters, and tolerably supplied with horses; and living in a country abounding with buffaloes, are well supplied with the necessaries of Indian life, and may be said to live well. Their games and amusements are many, of which the most valued one is the ball-play; and in addition to which, they have the game of the moccasin, horse-racing, and dancing; some one of which, they seem to be almost continually
practicing, slid of all of which I shall hereafter give the reader (as well as of many others of their
amusements) a minute account.
Their dances, which were frequent and varied, were generally erectly the same as those of the Sioux, of which I have given a faithful account in my Notes on the Sioux, and which the reader will I meet with. There was one of these scenes, however, that I witnessed the other day, which appeared to me to be peculiar to this tribe, and exceedingly picturesque in its effect; which was
described to me as the pipe-dance, and was as follows;On a hard-trodden pavement in front of their village, which place is used for all their public meetings, and many of their amusements, the young men, who were to compose the dance, had gathered themselves around a small fire, and each one seated on a buffalo-robe spread upon the ground. In the centre and by the fire, was seated a dignitary, who seemed to be a chief (perhaps a doctor or medicine-man), with a long pipe in his hand, which he lighted at the fire and smoked incessantly, grunting forth at the same time, in half-strangled gutturals, a sort of song, which I did not get translated to my satisfaction, and which might have been susceptible of none. While this was going on, another grim-visaged fellow in another part of the group, commenced beating on a drum or tambourine, accompanied by his voice; when one of the young men seated, sprang instantly on his feet, and commenced singing in time with the taps of the drum, and leaping about on one foot and the other in the most violent manner imaginable. In this way he went several times around the circle, bowing and brandishing his fists in the faces of each one who was seated, until at length he grasped one of them by the hands, and jerked him forcibly up upon his feet; who joined in the dance for a moment leaving the one who had pulled him up, to continue his step and his song in the centre of the ring; whilst he danced around in a similar manner, jerking up another, and then joining his companion in the centre; leaving the third and the fourth, and so on to drag into the ring, each one his man, until all were upon their feet; and at last joined in the most frightful gesticulations and yells that seemed almost to make the earth quake under our feet. This strange manoeuvre, which I did but partially understand, lasted for half or three-quarters of an hour; to the great amusement of the gaping multitude who were assembled around, and broke up with the most piercing yells and barks like those of so many affrighted dogs.
The Assinneboins, somewhat like the Crows, cultivate their hair to a very great length, in many instances reaching down nearly to the ground; but in most instances of this kind, I find the great length is produced by splicing or adding on several lengths, which are fastened very ingeniously by means of glue, and the joints obscured by a sort of paste of red earth and glue, with which the hair is at intervals of every two or three inches filled, and divided into locks and slabs of an inch or so in breadth, and falling straight down over the back to the heels.
I have painted the portrait of a very distinguished young man, and son of the chief, his dress is a very handsome one, and in every respect answers well to the descriptions I have given above. The name of this man is Wi-jun-jon (the pigeon's egg head), and by the side of him will be seen the portrait of his wife, Chin-cha-pee (the fire bug that creeps), a fine looking squaw, in a handsome dress of the mountainsheep skin, holding in her hand a stick curiously carved, with which every woman in this country is supplied; for the purpose of digging up the "Pomme Blanche," or prairie turnip, which is found in great quantities in these northern prairies, and furnishes the Indians with an abundant and nourishing food. The women collect these turnips by striking the end of the stick into the ground, and prying them out; after which they are dried and preserved in their wigwams for use during the season.
I have just had the satisfaction of seeing this travelled-gentleman (Wi-jun-jon) meet his tribe, his wife and his little children; after an absence of a year or more, on his journey of 6000 miles to Washington City, and back again (in company with Major Sanford, the Indian agent); where, he has
been spending the winter amongst the fashionables in the polished circles of civilized society. And
I can assure you, readers, that his entrée amongst his own people, in the dress and with the airs of a civilized beau, was one of no ordinary occurrence; and produced no common sensation
amongst the red-visaged Assinneboins, or in the minds of those who were travellers, and but spectators to the scene.
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 goldwith sash and belt, and broad sword; with high-heeled bootswith a keg of whiskey under his arm, and a blue umbrella in his hand. In this plight and metamorphose, he took his position on the bank, amongst his friendshis wife and other relations; not one of whom exhibited, for an half-hour or more, the least symptoms of recognition, although they knew well who was before them. He also gazed upon themupon his wife and parents, and little children, who were about, as if they were foreign to him, and be had not a feeling or thought to interchange with them. Thus the mutual gazings upon and from this would-be-stranger, lasted for full half an hour; when a gradual, but cold and exceedingly formal recognition began to take place, and an acquaintance ensued, which ultimately and smoothly resolved itself, without the least apparent emotion, into its former state; and the mutual kindred intercourse seemed to flaw on exactly where it had been broken off, as if it had been but for a moment, and nothing had transpired in the interim to check or change its character or expression.
Such is one of the stoic instances of a custom which belongs to all the North American Indians, forming one of the most striking features in their character; valued, cherished and practiced, like many others of their strange notions, for reasons which are difficult to be learned or understood; and which probably will never be justly appreciated by others than themselves.
This man, at this time, is creating a wonderful sensation amongst his tribe, who are daily and
nightly gathered in gaping and listless crowds around him, whilst he is descanting upon what he
has seen in the fashionable world; and which to them is unintelligible and beyond their
comprehension; for which I find they are already setting him down as a liar and impostor.
What may be the final results of his travels and initiation into the fashionable world, and to what disasters his incredible narrations may yet subject the poor fellow in this strange land, time only will develope.
He is now in disgrace, and spurned by the leading men of the tribe, and rather to be pitied than envied, for the advantages which one might have supposed would have flown from his fashionable tour. More of this curious occurrence and of this extraordinary man, I will surely give in some future epistles.
The women of this tribe are often comely, and sometimes pretty; the dresses of the women and children, which are usually made of the skins of the mountain-goat, and ornamented with porcupine's quills and rows of elk's teeth.
The Knisteneaux (or Crees, as they are more familiarly called in this country) are a very numerous tribe, extending from this place as high north as the shores of Lake Winnepeg; and
even much further in a north-westerly direction, towards, and even through, a great part of the Rocky
I have before said of these, that they were about 3000 in numbersby that, I meant but a small part of this extensive tribe, who are in the habit dr visiting the American Fur Company's
Establishment, at this place, to do their trading; and who themselves, scarcely know anything of the
great extent of country over which this numerous and scattered family range. Their customs may properly be said to be primitive, as no inroads of civilized habits have been as yet successfully made amongst them. Like the other tribes in these regions, they dress in skins, and gain their food, and conduct their wars in a very similar manner. They are a very daring and most adventurous tribe;
roaming vast distances over the prairies and carrying war into their enemy's country. With the
numerous tribe of Blackfeet, they are always waging an uncompromising warfare; and though fewer in numbers and less in stature, they have shewn themselves equal in sinew, and not less
successful in mortal combats.
Amongst the foremost and most renowned of their warriors, is Bro-cas-sie, the broken arm, in a handsome dress; and by the side of him, his wife, a simple and comely looking woman. In a sketch, will be seen the full length portrait of a young woman with a child on her back, shewing fairly the fashion of cutting and ornamenting the dresses of the females in this tribe; which, without further
comment, is all I shall say at this time, of the valorous tribe of Crees or Kniteneaux.
The Ojibbeways I have briefly mentioned in a former place, and of them should say more; which will be done at a proper time, after I shall have visited other branches of this great and scattered family.
The chief of that part of the Ojibbeway tribe who inhabit these northern regions, and whose name is Sha-co-pay (the Six), is a man of huge size; with dignity of manner, and pride and vanity,
just about in proportion to his bulk. He sat for his portrait in a most beautiful dress, fringed with scalp locks in profusion; which he had snatched, in his early life from his enemies' heads, and now
wears as proud trophies and proofs of what his arm has accomplished in battles with his enemies. His shirt of buckskin is beautifully embroidered and painted in curious hieroglyphics, the history of his battles and charts of his life. This, and also each and every article of his varied dress, had been
manufactured by his wives, of which he had several; and one, though not the most agreeable, is seen represented by his side.
I have much to see of these people yet, and much consequently to write; so for the present I close my book.
(1) Several years since writing the above, I held a conversation with Major Pilcher (a strictly correct and honourable man, who was then the agent for these people, who has lived amongst them, and is at this time superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis), who informed me, much to my surprise, that the Blackfeet were not far from 60,000 in numbers, including all the confederacy of which I have just spoken.