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Ancestral Lands
George Catlin's Voice
read by Emery Battis

Beauty and Romance of the West

"No man's imagination, with all the aids of description that can be given to it, can ever picture the beauty and wildness of scenes that may be daily witnessed in this romantic country; of hundreds of these graceful youths, without a care to wrinkle, or a fear to disturb the full expression of pleasure and enjoyment that beams upon their faces—their long black hair mingling with their horses' tails, floating in the wind, while they are flying over the carpeted prairie, and dealing death with their spears and arrows, to a band of infuriated buffaloes; or their splendid procession in a war parade, arrayed in all their gorgeous colours and trappings, moving with most exquisite grace and manly beauty, added to that bold defiance which man carries on his front, who acknowledges no superior on earth, and who is amenable to no laws except the laws of God and honour."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 2: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

"Peace and Harmony Prevail"

"I have long looked with the eye of a critic, into the jovial faces of these sons of the forest, unfurrowed with cares—where the agonizing feeling of poverty had never stamped distress upon the brow. I have watched the bold, intrepid step—the proud, yet dignified deportment of Nature's man, in fearless freedom, with a soul unalloyed by mercenary lusts, too great to yield to laws or power except from God. As these independent fellows are all joint-tenants of the soil, they are all rich, and none of the steepings of comparative poverty can strangle their just claims to renown. Who (I would ask) can look without admiring, into a society where peace and harmony prevail—where virtue is cherished—where rights are protected, and wrongs are redressed—with no laws, but the laws of honour, which are the supreme laws of their land. Trust the boasted virtues of civilized society for awhile, with all its intellectual refinements, to such a tribunal, and then write down the degradation of the 'lawless savage,' and our transcendent virtues."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 9: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

"Considerable Taste and Elegance"

"That these people are 'naked' is equally untrue, and as easily disproved; for I am sure that with the paintings I have made amongst the Mandans and Crows, and other tribes; and with their beautiful costumes which I have procured and shall bring home, I shall be able to establish the fact that many of these people dress, not only with clothes comfortable for any latitude, but that they also dress with some considerable taste and elegance. Nor am I quite sure that they are entitled to the name of 'poor,' who live in a boundless country of green fields, with good horses to ride; where they are all joint tenants of the soil, together; where the Great Spirit has supplied them with an abundance of food to eat—where they are all indulging in the pleasures and amusements of a lifetime of idleness and ease, with no business hours to attend to, or professions to learn—where they have no notes in bank or other debts to pay—no taxes, no tithes, no rents, nor beggars to touch and tax the sympathy of their souls at every step they go. Such might be poverty in the Christian world, but is sure to be a blessing where the pride and insolence of comparative wealth are unknown."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 26: Mouth of Teton River, Upper Missouri.

Buffalo Herds

"The Blackfeet and the Crows, like the Sioux and Assinneboins, … generally move some six or eight times in the course of the summer; following the immense herds of buffaloes, as they range over these vast plains, from east to west, and north to south. The objects for which they do this are two-fold—to procure and dress their skins, which are brought in, in the fall and winter, and sold to the Fur Company, for white man's luxury; and also for the purpose of killing and drying buffalo meat, which they bring in from their hunts, packed on their horses' backs, in great quantities; making pemican, and preserving the marrow-fat for their winter quarters; which are generally taken up in some heavy-timbered bottom, on the banks of some stream, deep imbedded within the surrounding bluffs, which break off the winds, and make their long and tedious winter tolerable and supportable."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 7: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Finding the Ideal People

"In traversing the immense regions of the classic West, the mind of a philanthropist is filled to the brim with feelings of admiration; but to reach this country, one is obliged to descend from the light and glow of civilized atmosphere, through the different grades of civilization, which gradually sink to the most deplorable condition along the extreme frontier; thence through the most pitiable misery and wretchedness of savage degradation; where the genius of natural liberty and independence have been blasted and destroyed by the contaminating vices and dissipations introduced by the immoral part of civilized society. Through this dark and sunken vale of wretchedness one hurries, as through a pestilence, until he gradually rises again into the proud and chivalrous pale of savage society, in its state of original nature, beyond the reach of civilized contamination; here he finds much to fix his enthusiasm upon, and much to admire."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 9: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Civilization = Contamination

"Even here, the predominant passions of the savage breast, of ferocity and cruelty, are often found; yet restrained, and frequently subdued, by the noblest traits of honour and magnanimity, —a race of men who live and enjoy life and its luxuries, and practice its virtues, very far beyond the usual estimation of the world, who are apt to judge the savage and his virtues from the poor, degraded, and humbled specimens which alone can be seen along our frontiers. From the first settlements of our Atlantic coast to the present day, the bane of this blasting frontier has regularly crowded upon them, from the northern to the southern extremities of our country; and, like the fire in a prairie, which destroys everything where it passes, It has blasted and sunk them, and all but their names, into oblivion, wherever it has travelled. It is to this tainted class alone that the epithet of 'poor, naked, and drunken savage,' can be, with propriety, applied; for all those numerous tribes which I have visited, and are yet uncorrupted by the vices of civilized acquaintance, are well clad, in many instances cleanly, and in the full enjoyment of life and its luxuries. It is for the character and preservation of these noble fellows that I am an enthusiast; and it is for these uncontaminated people that I would be willing to devote the energies of my life. It is a sad and melancholy truth to contemplate, that all the numerous tribes who inhabited our vast Atlantic States have not 'fled to the West;'—that they are not to be found here—that they have been blasted by the fire which has passed over them—have sunk into their graves, and everything but their names travelled into oblivion."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 9: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Ancient Ancestral Land

"The distinctive character of all these Western Indians, as well as their traditions relative to their ancient locations, prove beyond a doubt, that they have been for a very long time located on the soil which they now possess; and in most respects, distinct and unlike those nations who formerly inhabited the Atlantic coast, and who (according to the erroneous opinion of a great part of the world), have fled to the West.

"It is for these inoffensive and unoffending people, yet unvisited by the vices of civilized society, that I would proclaim to the world, that it is time, for the honour of our country—for the honour of every citizen of the republic—and for the sake of humanity, that our government should raise her strong arm to save the remainder of them from the pestilence which is rapidly advancing upon them. We have gotten from them territory enough, and the country which they now inhabit is most of it too barren of timber for the use of civilized man; it affords them, however, the means and luxuries of savage life; and it is to be hoped that our government will not acquiesce in the continued wilful destruction of these happy people."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 9: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

"Changed … Government and Religion"

"The great family of Sioux who occupy so vast a tract of country, extending from the banks of the Mississippi river to the base of the Rocky Mountains, are everywhere a migratory or roaming tribe, divided into forty-two bands or families, each having a chief who all acknowledge a superior or head chief, to whom they all are held subordinate. This subordination, however, I should rather record as their former and native regulation … since the numerous innovations made amongst these people by the Fur Traders, as well as by the proximity of civilization along a great deal of their frontier, which soon upset and change[d] many native regulations, and particularly those relating to their government and religion."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 26: Mouth of Teton River, Upper Missouri.

Beautiful Platte River

"The mouth of the Platte is a beautiful scene, and no doubt will be the site of a large and flourishing town, soon after Indian titles shall have been extinguished to the lands in these regions, which will be done within a very few years. The Platte is a long and powerful stream, pouring in from the Rocky Mountains and joining with the Missouri at this place."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 32: Fort Leavenworth, Lower Missouri.

No Permanent Home

"At present [the Kickapoos are] but a small tribe, numbering six or 800, the remnant of a once numerous and warlike tribe. They are residing within the state of Illinois, near the south end of Lake Michigan, and living in a poor and miserable condition, although they have one of the finest countries in the world. They have been reduced in numbers by whiskey and small-pox, and the game being destroyed in their country, and having little industry to work, they are exceedingly poor and dependent. In fact, there is very little inducement for them to build houses and cultivate their farms, for they own so large and so fine a tract of country, which is now completely surrounded by civilized settlements, that they know, from experience, they will soon be obliged to sell out their country for a trifle, and move to the West. This system of moving has already commenced with them, and a considerable party have located on a tract of lands offered to them on the West bank of the Missouri river, a little north of Fort Leavenworth."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 47: Saint Louis.

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