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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Painter among the Indians

By George Catlin (1796–1872)

[Born in Wilkesbarre, Penn., 1796. Died in Jersey City, N. J., 1872. Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, 1841.]

PERHAPS nothing ever more completely astonished these people than the operations of my brush. The art of portrait-painting was a subject entirely new to them, and, of course, unthought of; and my appearance here has commenced a new era in the arcana of medicine or mystery. Soon after arriving here, I commenced and finished the portraits of the two principal chiefs. This was done without having awakened the curiosity of the villagers, as they had heard nothing of what was going on, and even the chiefs themselves seemed to be ignorant of my designs, until the pictures were completed. No one else was admitted into my lodge during the operation; and, when finished, it was exceedingly amusing to see them mutually recognizing each other’s likeness, and assuring each other of the striking resemblance which they bore to the originals. Both of these pressed their hand over their mouths awhile in dead silence (a custom amongst most tribes, when anything surprises them very much); looking attentively upon the portraits and myself, and upon the palette and colors with which these unaccountable effects had been produced.

They then walked up to me in the most gentle manner, taking me in turn by the hand with a firm grip; with head and eyes inclined downwards, and in a tone a little above a whisper, pronounced the words, “te-ho-pe-nee Wash-ee!” and walked off….

That moment conferred an honor on me, which you as yet do not understand. I took the degree (not of Doctor of Laws, nor Bachelor of Arts) of Master of Arts—of mysteries—of magic, and of hocus-pocus. I was recognized in that short sentence as a “great medicine white man;” and since that time, have been regularly installed medicine or mystery, which is the most honorable degree that could be conferred upon me here; and I now hold a place amongst the most eminent and envied personages, the doctors and conjurati of this titled community….

After I had finished the portraits of the two chiefs, and they had returned to their wigwams, and deliberately seated themselves by their respective firesides, and silently smoked a pipe or two (according to an universal custom), they gradually began to tell what had taken place; and at length crowds of gaping listeners, with mouths wide open, thronged their lodges; and a throng of women and girls were about my house, and through every crack and crevice I could see their glistening eyes, which were piercing my hut in a hundred places, from a natural and restless propensity, a curiosity to see what was going on within. An hour or more passed in this way, and the soft and silken throng continually increased, until some hundreds of them were clung, and piled about my wigwam like a swarm of bees hanging on the front and sides of their hive.

During this time, not a man made his appearance about the premises—after a while, however, they could be seen, folded in their robes, gradually siding up towards the lodge, with a silly look upon their faces, which confessed at once that curiosity was leading them reluctantly, where their pride checked and forbade them to go. The rush soon after became general, and the chiefs and medicine-men took possession of my room, placing soldiers (braves with spears in their hands) at the door, admitting no one, but such as were allowed by the chiefs, to come in.

Monsieur Kipp (the agent of the Fur Company, who has lived here eight years, and to whom, for his politeness and hospitality, I am much indebted) at this time took a seat with the chiefs, and speaking their language fluently, he explained to them my views and the objects for which I was painting these portraits; and also expounded to them the manner in which they were made,—at which they seemed all to be very much pleased. The necessity at this time of exposing the portraits to the view of the crowds who were assembled around the house, became imperative, and they were held up together over the door, so that the whole village had a chance to see and recognize their chiefs. The effect upon so mixed a multitude, who as yet had heard no way of accounting for them, was novel and really laughable. The likenesses were instantly recognized, and many of the gaping multitude commenced yelping; some were stamping off in the jarring dance—others were singing, and others again were crying—hundreds covered their mouths with their hands and were mute; others, indignant, drove their spears frightfully into the ground, and some threw a reddened arrow at the sun, and went home to their wigwams….

I stepped forth, and was instantly hemmed in in the throng. Women were gaping and gazing—and warriors and braves were offering me their hands—whilst little boys and girls, by dozens, were struggling through the crowd to touch me with the ends of their fingers; and whilst I was engaged, from the waist upwards, in fending off the throng and shaking hands, my legs were assailed (not unlike the nibbling of little fish, when I have been standing in deep water) by children, who were creeping between the legs of the by-standers for the curiosity or honor of touching me with the end of their finger. The eager curiosity and expression of astonishment with which they gazed upon me, plainly showed that they looked upon me as some strange and unaccountable being. They pronounced me the greatest medicine-man in the world; for they said I had made living beings,—they said they could see their chiefs alive in two places—those that I had made were a little alive—they could see their eyes move—could see them smile and laugh, and that if they could laugh they could certainly speak, if they should try, and they must therefore have some life in them.

The squaws generally agreed that they had discovered life enough in them to render my medicine too great for the Mandans; saying that such an operation could not be performed without taking away from the original something of his existence, which I put in the picture, and they could see it move, could see it stir. This curtailing of the natural existence, for the purpose of instilling life into the secondary one, they decided to be an useless and destructive operation, and one which was calculated to do great mischief in their happy community; and they commenced a mournful and doleful chaunt against me, crying and weeping bitterly through the village, proclaiming me a most “dangerous man; one who could make living persons by looking at them; and at the same time, could, as a matter of course, destroy life in the same way, if I chose. That my medicine was dangerous to their lives, and that I must leave the village immediately. That bad luck would happen to those whom I painted—that I was to take a part of the existence of those whom I painted, and carry it home with me amongst the white people, and that when they died they would never sleep quiet in their graves.”

In this way the women and some old quack medicine-men together had succeeded in raising an opposition against me; and the reasons they assigned were so plausible and so exactly suited for their superstitious feelings that they completely succeeded in exciting fears and a general panic in the minds of a number of chiefs who had agreed to sit for their portraits, and my operations were, of course, for several days completely at a stand. A grave council was held on the subject from day to day, and there seemed great difficulty in deciding what was to be done with me and the dangerous art which I was practising; and which had far exceeded their original expectations. I finally got admittance to their sacred conclave, and assured them, that I was but a man like themselves,—that my art had no medicine or mystery about it, but could be learned by any of them if they would practise it as long as I had—that my intentions towards them were of the most friendly kind, and that in the country where I lived, brave men never allowed their squaws to frighten them with their foolish whims and stories. They all immediately arose, shook me by the hand, and dressed themselves for their pictures. After this, there was no further difficulty about sitting; all were ready to be painted,—the squaws were silent, and my painting-room a continual resort for the chiefs, and braves, and medicine-men; where they waited with impatience for the completion of each one’s picture,—that they could decide as to the likeness as it came from under the brush; that they could laugh, and yell, and sing a new song, and smoke a fresh pipe to the health and success of him who had just been safely delivered from the hands of the “white medicine.”…

I was waited upon in due form and ceremony by the medicine-men, who received me upon the old adage, “similis simili gaudet.” I was invited to a feast, and they presented me a she-shee-quoi, or a doctor’s rattle, and also a magical wand, or a doctor’s staff, strung with claws of the grizzly bear, with hoofs of the antelope—with ermine—with wild sage and bats’ wings—and perfumed withal with the choice and savory odor of the pole-cat—a dog was sacrificed and hung by the legs over my wigwam, and I was therefore and thereby initiated into (and countenanced in the practice of) the arcana of medicine or mystery, and considered a Fellow of the Extraordinary Society of Conjurati.

Since this signal success and good fortune in my operations, things have gone on very pleasantly, and I have had a great deal of amusement. Some altercation has taken place, however, amongst the chiefs and braves, with regard to standing or rank, of which they are exceedingly jealous, and they must sit (if at all) in regular order, according to that rank; the trouble is all settled at last, however, and I have had no want of subjects, though a great many have become again alarmed, and are unwilling to sit, for fear, as some say, that they will die prematurely if painted; and, as others say, that if they are painted, the picture will live after they are dead, and they cannot sleep quiet in their graves.

I have had several most remarkable occurrences in my painting-room, of this kind, which have made me some everlasting enemies here; though the minds and feelings of the chiefs and medicine-men have not been affected by them. There have been three or four instances where proud and aspiring young men have been in my lodge, and after gazing at the portraits of the head chief across the room (which sits looking them in the eyes), have raised their hands before their faces and walked around to the side of the lodge, on the right or left, from whence to take a long and fair side-look at the chief, instead of staring him full in the face (which is a most unpardonable offence in all Indian tribes); and after having got in that position, and cast their eyes again upon the portrait which was yet looking them full in the face, have thrown their robes over their heads and bolted out of the wigwam, filled equally with astonishment and indignation; averring, as they always will in a sullen mood, that they “saw the eyes move,”—that as they walked around the room “the eyes of the portrait followed them.” With these unfortunate gentlemen, repeated efforts have been made by the traders, and also by the chiefs and doctors, who understand the illusion, to convince them of their error, by explaining the mystery; but they will not hear to any explanation whatever, saying, that “what they see with their eyes is always evidence enough for them;” “that they always believe their own eyes sooner than a hundred tongues,” and all efforts to get them a second time to my room, or into my company in any place, have proved entirely unsuccessful.

I had trouble brewing also the other day, from another source; one of the “medicines” commenced howling and haranguing around my domicile, amongst the throng that was outside, proclaiming that all who were inside and being painted were fools and would soon die; and very materially affecting thereby my popularity. I however sent for him, and called him in the next morning, when I was alone, having only the interpreter with me; telling him that I had had my eye upon him for several days, and had been so well pleased with his looks, that I had taken great pains to find out his history, which had been explained by all as one of a most extraordinary kind, and his character and standing in his tribe as worthy of my particular notice; and that I had several days since resolved that as soon as I had practised my hand long enough upon the others, to get the stiffness out of it (after paddling my canoe so far as I had) and make it to work easily and successfully, I would begin on his portrait, which I was then prepared to commence on that day, and that I felt as if I could do him justice. He shook me by the hand, giving me the “Doctor’s grip,” and beckoned me to sit down, which I did, and we smoked a pipe together. After this was over, he told me, that “he had no inimical feelings towards me, although he had been telling the chiefs that they were all fools, and all would die who had their portraits painted—that although he had set the old women and children all crying, and even made some of the young warriors tremble, yet he had no unfriendly feelings towards me, nor any fear or dread of my art.” “I know you are a good man (said he), I know you will do no harm to any one; your medicine is great and you are a great ‘medicine-man.’ I would like to see myself very well, and so would all of the chiefs; but they have all been many days in this medicine-house, and they all know me well, and they have not asked me to come in and be made alive with paints—my friend, I am glad that my people have told you who I am—my heart is glad—I will go to my wigwam and eat, and in a little while I will come, and you may go to work;”—another pipe was lit and smoked, and he got up and went off. I prepared my canvas and palette, and whistled away the time until twelve o’clock, before he made his appearance; having used the whole of the fore-part of the day at his toilette, arranging his dress and ornamenting his body for his picture.

At that hour then, bedaubed and streaked with paints of various colors, with bears’ grease and charcoal, with medicine-pipes in his hands and foxes’ tails attached to his heels, entered Mah-to-he-hah (the old bear), with a train of his own profession, who seated themselves around him; and also a number of boys, whom it was requested should remain with him, and whom I supposed it possible might have been pupils, whom he was instructing in the mysteries of materia medica and hoca poca. He took his position in the middle of the room, waving his eagle calumets in each hand, and singing his medicine-song which he sings over his dying patient, looking me full in the face until I completed his picture, which I painted at full length. His vanity has been completely gratified in the operation; he lies for hours together, day after day, in my room, in front of his picture, gazing intensely upon it; lights my pipe for me while I am painting—shakes hands with me a dozen times on each day, and talks of me, and enlarges upon my medicine virtues and my talents wherever he goes; so that this new difficulty is now removed, and instead of preaching against me, he is one of my strongest and most enthusiastic friends and aids in the country.