Greater Perspective on Native American History and Catlin

After 1815, life for indigenous people in North America changed dramatically from the colonial period. During the War of 1812 a Shawnee chief and warrior, Tecumseh, promoted resistance to the expansion of the United States onto Native American lands. Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, used diplomacy and vision to create a pan-Indigenous movement. More than a thousand warriors from the Shawnee, the Miami, the Potawatomi, and other Native polities of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley region formed an alliance to halt American expansion along the border of what is now Ohio and Indiana. Tecumseh’s death in 1813 ended the movement, and settler expansion increased. Some Native people like the Potawatomi began leaving their eastern homelands and migrated westward, while others were removed by force and legislation. In 1830 the United States Congress passed The Indian Removal Act authorizing the president to exchange lands west of the Mississippi for Indian lands within eastern state borders. The last major Native revolt east of the Mississippi ended with the defeat of Sauk warriors under Black Hawk in 1832.

It was into this cataclysm that George Catlin traveled to paint his famous portraits and western landscapes of the Indigenous people. He was not alone. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition from 1803 to 1806 had opened the vast American interior to exploration with the publication of their journals. While many white migrants crossed the Ohio Valley to places west of the Mississippi in pursuit of land and a new start, others like Catlin went west in search of Native people and artifacts. In Paris, he opened an exhibit in 1845 to display the more than 500 paintings of scenes of Indigenous customs and everyday lives. He exhibited, with his paintings, twelve living Iowa people, some skulls, a wigwam, jewelry, calumets (peace pipes), tomahawks (axes), arrows, and clothing “fringed with scalp-locks from their enemies’ heads” (Catlin, 1848, 2: 248-296).

Americans had come to view Indigenous people with romanticized ideas about their nobility, even while the military began a steady campaign to defeat them in battle and confine them to reservations. Authors lamented the “vanishing Indian” and Catlin and other artists were lauded for recording these disappearing people as they died out. The trope of the vanishing Indian convinced many Americans that the deaths of large numbers of Native people was inevitable, an “uncivilized” people giving way to civilization. Those collecting their material culture did so for various reasons but often justified it as contributing to knowledge.

Native people had been displayed in Europe before Catlin took the Iowa people there. The practice of putting people Europeans thought of as exotic on display began in the so-called Age of Exploration (1400-1700). Sailors brought people with them from the Americas, just as they brought plants and animals to prove the biodiversity of the newly encountered places. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) brought seven Arawak people from Hispaniola to Europe from his first trip. In 1610 the explorer Champlain took a Huron man to France. Others were not displayed, but were nevertheless the focus of European interest. Pocahontas, who married the Englishman John Rolfe, met both King James I and the bishop of London was was reunited with John Smith, who had made her famous in his travel narrative. She died in England in 1617 and was buried at Gravesend. In 1735, the Mohegan sachem Mahomet Weyonomon brought a petition to the British Crown asking for redress for the colonization of tribal lands in the colony Connecticut. Before he could present his petition to a royally appointed commission, Mahomet, like Pocahontas before him, died of smallpox in London. Catlin continued the practice.

The people Catlin painted were in the midst of a great struggle for survival. In the twenty years after Black Hawk’s war, the territory that became the state of Iowa went from being occupied almost wholly by Native people to being completely settled by whites. Forts and trading posts came to dot the landscape of the Midwest and Great Plains. Plains Indians had varied lifestyles, from nomadic, hunting societies to settled agriculturalists. By the 1840s those Native peoples who had adopted the horse, first introduced by the Spanish colonists, had become so skilled at mass bison hunting that they experienced an increase in wealth and prosperity. It soon came to end as railroads began to traverse the nation and whites also began to kill the buffalo. Soldiers kept close surveillance over the Indigenous polities of the region. Between 1830 and 1890 the United States military waged war against Native nations. Native people attempted diplomacy with their leaders making frequent trips to Washington, DC, and they fought back, with the most significant defeat of the US army in the Montana Territory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought on June 25, 1876.