George Catlin, LETTERS AND NOTES ON THE
MANNERS, CUSTOMS, AND CONDITIONS OF
NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, 1844, letter no. 14
...I find that the principal cause why we underrate and despise the savage, is generally because we do not understand him; and the reason why we are ignorant of him and his modes, is that we do not stop to investigate--the world have been too much in the habit of looking upon him as altogether inferior-as a beast, a brute; and unworthy of more than a passing notice. If they stop long enough to form an acquaintance, it is but to take advantage of his ignorance and credulities -- to rob him of the wealth and resources of his country;-to make him drunk with whiskey, and visit him with abuses which in his ignorance he never thought of. By this method his first visitors entirely overlook and never understand the meaning of his thousand interesting and characteristic customs; and at the same time, by changing his native modes and habits of life, blot them out from the view of the enquiring world for ever.
It is from the observance of a thousand little and apparently trivial modes and tricks of Indian life, that the Indian character must be learned; and, in fact, it is just the same with us if the subject were reversed: excepting that the system of civilized life would furnish ten apparently useless and ridiculous trifles to one which is found in Indian life; and at least twenty to one which are purely nonsensical and unmeaning.
The civilized world look upon a group of Indians, in their classic dress, with their few and simple oddities, all of which have their moral or meaning, and laugh at them excessively, because they are not like ourselves -- we ask, " why do the silly creatures wear such great bunches of quills on their heads? -- Such loads and streaks of paint upon their bodies -- and bear's grease? abominable!'' and a thousand other equally silly questions, without ever stopping to think that Nature taught them to do so-and that they all have some definite importance or meaning which an Indian could explain to us at once, if he were asked and felt disposed to do so -- that each quill in his head stood, in the eyes of his whole tribe, as the symbol of an enemy who had fallen by his hand--that every streak of red paint covered a wound which he had got in honorable combat -- and that the bear's grease with which he carefully anoints his body every morning, from head to foot, cleanses and purifies the body, and protects his skin from the bite of mosquitoes, and at the same time preserves him from colds and coughs which are usually taken through the pores of the skin.
At the same time, an Indian looks among the civilized world, no doubt, with equal. If not much greater, astonishment, at our apparently, as well as really, ridiculous customs and fashions; but he laughs not, nor ridicules, nor questions, -- for his natural good sense and good manners forbid him,-until he is reclining about the fire-side of his wigwam companions, when he vents forth his just criticisms upon the learned world, who are a rich and just theme for Indian criticism and Indian gossip.
An Indian will not ask a white man the reason why he does not oil his skin with bears' grease, or why he does not paint his body-or why he wears a hat on his head, or why he has buttons on the back part of his coat, where they never can be used -- or why he wears whiskers, and a shirt collar up to his eyes -- or why he sleeps with his head towards the fire instead of his feet -- why he walks with his toes out instead of turning them in -- or why it is that hundreds of white folks will flock and crowd round a table to see an Indian eat -- but he will go home to his wigwam fire-side, and "make the welkin ring" with jokes and fun upon the ignorance and folly of the knowing world.
A wild Indian thrown into the civilized atmosphere will see a man occasionally moving in society, wearing a cocked hat; and another with a laced coat and gold or silver epaulettes upon his shoulders, without knowing or enquiring the meaning of them, or the objects for which they are worn. Just so a white man travels amongst a wild and untaught tribe of Indians, and sees occasionally one of them parading about their village, with a head-dress of eagles' quills and ermine, and elevated above it a pair of beautifully polished buffalo horns; and just as ignorant is he also, of their meaning or importance; and more so, for the first will admit the presumption that epaulettes and cocked hats amongst the civilized world, are made for some important purpose,-but the latter will presume that horns on an Indian's head are nothing more nor less (nor can they be in their estimation), than Indian nonsense and stupidity.
This brings us to the "corned crest" again, and if the poor Indian scans epaulettes and cocked hats, without enquiring their meaning, and explaining them to his tribe, it is no reason why I should have associated with the noble dignitaries of these western regions, with horns and ermine on their heads, and then to have introduced the subject without giving some further clue to their importance and meaning. For me, this negligence would be doubly unpardonable, as I travel, not to trade but to herald the Indian and his dying customs to posterity.
This custom then, which I have before observed belongs to all the northwestern tribes, is one no doubt of very ancient origin, having a purely classic meaning. No one wears the head-dress surmounted with horns except the dignitaries who are very high in authority, and whose exceeding valor, worth, and power is admitted by all the nation.
He may wear them, however, who is not a chief; but a brave, or warrior of such remarkable character, that he is esteemed universally in the tribe, as a man whose "voice is as loud in council'' as that of a chief of the first grade, and consequently his power as great.
This head-dress with horns is used only on certain occasions, and they are very seldom. When foreign chiefs, Indian agents, or other important personages visit a tribe; or at war parades, at the celebration of a victory, at public festivals, &c. they are worn; but on no other occasions-unless, sometimes, when a chief sees fit to lead a war-party to battle, he decorates his head with this symbol of power, to stimulate his men; and throws himself into the foremost of the battle, inviting his enemy to concentrate their shafts upon him.
The horns on these head-dresses are but loosely attached at the bottom, so that they easily fall back or forward, according as the head is inclined forward or backward; and by an ingenious motion of the head, which is so slight as to be almost imperceptible -- they are made to balance to and fro, and sometimes, one backward and the other forward like a horse's ears. giving a vast deal of expression and force of character, to the appearance of the chief who is wearing them. This, reader, is a remarkable instance (like hundreds of others), for its striking similarity to Jewish customs, to the kerns ;or keren, in Hebrew), the horns worn by the Abysinian chiefs and Hebrews, as a symbol of power and command; worn at great parades and celebrations of victories.
''The. false prophet Zedekiah, made him horns of iron" (I Kings xxii. II). " Lift not your horns on high; speak not with a stiff neck".
This last citation seem?; so exactly to convey to my mind the mode of raising and changing the position of the horns by a motion of the head, as I have above described, that I am irresistibly led to believe that this custom is now practiced amongst these tribes very nearly as it was amongst the Jews; and that it has been, like marry other customs of which I shall speak more in future epistles, handed down and preserved with very little innovation or change from that ancient people. The reader will see this custom exemplified in the portrait of Mah-totoh-pa. This man, although the second chief, was the only man in the nation who was allowed to wear the horns; and all, I found, looked upon him as the leader, who had the power to lead all the warriors in time of war; and that, in consequence of the extraordinary battles which Ire had fought.
In a former Letter I gave some account of Mah-to-toh-pa (the four bears), second chief of the Mandans, whom I said I had painted at full length, in a splendid costume. I therein said, also, that " this extraordinary man, though second in office, is undoubtedly the first and most popular man in the nation. Free, generous, elegant,and gentlemanly in his deportment-handsome, brave and valiant; wearing a robe on his back, with the history of all his battles painted on it, which would fill a book of themselves if they were properly enlarged and translated."
I gave you also, in another epistle, an account of the manner in which he invited me to a feast in his hospitable wigwam, at the same time presenting me a beautifully garnished robe; and I promised to say more of him on a future occasion. My readers will therefore pardon me for devoting a Letter or two at this time, to a sketch of this extraordinary man, which I will give in as brief a manner as possible, by describing the costume in which I painted his portrait; and afterwards reciting the most remarkable incidents of his life, as I had them from the Traders and the Indian agents, and afterwards corroborated by his own words, translated to me as he spoke, whilst I was writing them down.
The dress of Mah-to-toh-pa then, the greater part of which I have represented in his full-length portrait, and which I shall now describe, was purchased of him after I had painted his picture; and every article of it can be seen in my Indian Gallery by the side of the portrait, provided I succeed in getting them home to the civilized world without injury.
Mah-to-toh-pa had agreed to stand before me for his portrait at an early hour of the next morning, and on that day I sat with my palette of colours prepared, and waited till twelve o'clock, before he could leave his toilette with feelings of satisfaction as to the propriety of his looks and the arrangement of his equipments; and at that time it was announced, that "Mah-to-toh-pa was coming in full dress!" I looked out of the door of the wigwam, and saw him approaching with a firm and elastic step, accompanied by a great crowd of women and children, who were gazing on him with admiration, and escorting him to my room. No tragedian ever trod the stage, nor gladiator ever entered the Roman Forum, with more grace and manly dignity than did Mah-to-toh-pa enter the wigwam, where I was in readiness to receive him. He took his attitude before me, and with the sternness of a Brutus and the stillness of a statue, he stood until the darkness of night broke upon the soiltary stillness. His dress, which was a very splendid one, was complete in all its parts, and consisted of a shirt or tonic, leggings, moccasins, head-dress, necklace, shield, bow and quiver, lance, tobacco-sack, and pipe; robe, belt, and knife; medicine-bag, tomahawk, and war-club, or po-Ko-mo-Kon.
The shirt, of which I have spoken, was made of two skins of the mountainsheep, beautifully dressed, and sewed together by seams which rested upon the arms; one skin hanging in front, upon the breast, and the other falling clown upon the back; the head being passed between them, and they falling over and resting on the shoulders. Across each shoulder, and somewhat in the form of an epaulette, was a beautiful band; and down each arm from the neck to the hand was a similar one, of two inches in width (and crossing the other at right angles on the shoulder) beautifully embroidered with porcupine quills worked on the dress, and covering the seams. To the lower edge of these bands the whole way, at intervals of half an inch, were attached long locks of black hair, which he had taken with his own hand from the heads of his enemies whom he had slain in battle, and which he thus wore as a trophy, and also as an ornament to his dress. The front and back of the shirt were curiously garnished in several parts with Porcupine quills and paintings of the battles he had fought, and also with representations of the victims that had fallen by his hand. The bottom of the dress was bound or hemmed with ermine skins, and tassels of ermines' tails were suspended from the arms and the shoulders.
The Leggings, which were made of deer skins, beautifully dressed, and fitting tight to the leg, extended from the feet to the hips, and were fastened to a belt which was passed around the waist. These, like the shirt, had a similar band, worked with porcupine quills of richest dyes, passing down the seam on the outer part of the leg, and fringed also the whole length of the leg, with the scalp-locks taken from his enemies' heads.
The Moccasins were of buckskin, and covered in almost every part with the beautiful embroidery of porcupines' quills.
The Head-dress, which was superb and truly magnificent, consisted of a crest of war-eagles' quills, gracefully falling back from the forehead over the back pa;t of the head, and extending quite down to his feet; set the whole way in a profusion of ermine, and surmounted on the top of the head, with the horns of the buffalo, shaved thin and highly polished.
The necklace was made of fifty huge claws or nails of the grizzly bear, ingeniously arranged on the skin of an otter, and worn, like the scalp-locks, as a trophy--as an evidence unquestionable, that he had contended with and overcome that desperate enemy in open combat.
His Shield was made of the hide of the buffalo's neck, and hardened with the glue that was taken from its hoofs; its boss was the skin of a pole-cat, and its edges were fringed with rows of eagles' quills and hoofs of the antelope. His Bow was of bone, and as white and beautiful as ivory; over its back was lairl, and tirmly attached to it, a coating of deers' sinews, which gave it its elasticity, and of course death to all that stood inimically before it. Its string was three stranded and twisted of sinews, which many a time had twanged and sent the whizzing death to animal and to human victims.
The Quiver was made of a panther's skin and hung upon his back, charged with its deadly arrows; some were poisoned and some were not; they were feathered with hawks' and eagles' quills; some were clean and innocent, and pure, and others were stained all over, with animal and human blood that was dried upon them. Their blades or points were of Aints, and some of steel; and altogether were a deadly magazine.
The Lance or spear was held in his left hand; its blade was two-edged and of polished steel, and the blood of several human victims was sem dried upon it, one over the other; its shaft was of the toughest ash, and ornamented at intervals with tufts of war-eagles' quills.
His Tobacco-sack was made of the skin of an otter, and tastefully garnished mith quills of the porcupine; in it was carried his K'nick-k'neck, (the bark of the red willow, which is smoked as a substitute for tobacco), I contained also his flint and steel, and spunk for lighting His Pipe, which was ingeniously carved out of the red steatite (or pipestone), the stem of which was three feet long and two inches wide, made from the stalk of the young ash; about half its length was wound with delicate braids of the porcupine's quills, so ingeniously wrought as to represent figures of men and animals upon it. it was also ornamented with the skins and beaks of wood-peckers' heads, and the hair of the white buffalo's tail. The lower half of the stem was painted red, and on its edges it bore the notches he had recorded for the snows (or years) of his life.
His Robe was made of the skin of a young buffalo bull, with the fur on one side, and the other finely and delicately dressed; with all the battles of his life emblazoned on it by his own hand.
His Belt, which was of a substantial piece of buckskin, was firmly girded around His waist; and in it were worn his tomahawk and scalping-knife.
His Medicine-bag was the skin of a beaver, curiously ornamented with hawks' bills and ermine. It was held in his right hand, and his po-ko-moKon (or war-club) which was made of a round stone, tied up in a piece of rawhide, and attached to the end of a stick, somewhat in the form of a sling, was laid with others of his weapons at his feet.
Such was the dress of Mah-to-toh-pa when he entered my wigwam to stand for his picture; but such I have not entirely represented it in his portrait; having rejected such trappings and ornaments as interfered with the grace and simplicity of the figure. He was beautifully and extravagantly dressed; and in this he was not alone, for hundreds of others are equally elegant. In plumes, and arms, and ornaments, he is not singular; but in laurels and wreaths he stands unparalleled. His breast has been bared and scarred in defence of his country, and his brews crowned witli honours that elevate him conspicuous above all of his nation. There is no man amongst the Mandans so generally loved, nor any one who wears a robe so justly famed and honourable as that of Mah-to-toh-pa.
I said his robe was of the skin of a young buffalo bull, and that the battles of his life were emblazoned on it; and on a former occasion, that he presented me a beautiful robe, containing all the battles of his life, which he had spent two weeks' time in copying from his original one, which he wore on his shoulders.
This robe, with his tracings on it, is the chart of his military life; and when explained, will tell more of Mah-to-toh-pa.
Some days after this robe was presented, he called upon me with Mr. Kipp, the trader and interpreter for the Mandans, and gave me of each battle there pourtrayed the following history, which was interpreted by Mr. Kipp, from his own lips, and written down by me, as we three sat upon the robe. Mr. Kipp, who is a gentleman of respectability and truth ; and who has lived with these people ten years, assured me, that nearly every one of these narrations were of events that had happened whilst he had lived with them, and had been familiarly known to him; and that every word that he asserted was true.
And again, reader, in this country where, of all countries I ever was in, men are the most jealous of rank and of standing: and in a community so small also, that every man's deeds of honour and chivalry are farniliarly known to all; it would not be reputable, or even safe to life, for a warrior to wear upon his back the representations of battles he never had fought; professing to have done what every child in the village would know he never had done.
So then I take the records of battles on the robe of Mah-to-toh-pa to be matter of historical fact ; and I proceed to give them as I wrote them down from his own lips. Twelve battle-scenes are there represented, where he has contended with his enemy, and in which he has taken fourteen of their scalps. The groups are drawn according to his own rude ideas of the arts; and I proceed to describe them in turn, as they were explained to me.
Excerpt from Letter 22 :
From the ignorant and barbarous and disgusting customs just recited, the world would naturally infer, that these people must be the most cruel and inhuman beings in the world -- yet, such is not the case, and it becomes duty to say it: a better, more honest, hospitable and kind people, as a community, are not to be found in the world. No set of men that ever I associated with have better hearts than the Mandans, and none are quicker to embrace and welcome a white man than they are -- none will press him closer to his bosom, that the pulsation of his heart may be felt, than a Mandan; and no man in any country will keep his word and guard his honour more closely.
The shocking and disgusting custom that I have just described, sickens the heart and even the stomach of a traveller in the country, and he weeps for their ignorance--he pities them with all his heart for their blindness, and laments that the light of civilization, of agriculture and religion cannot be extended to them, and that their hearts which are good enough, could not be turned to embrace something more rational and conducive to their true happiness.
Many would doubtless ask, whether such a barbarous custom could be eradicated from these people? And whether their thoughts and tastes, being turned to agriculture and religion, could be made to abandon the dark and random channel in which they are drudging, and made to flow in the light and life of civilization?