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Interview Transcript
Chiefs and Leaders
George Catlin's Voice
read by Emery Battis

Government by Virtue and Example

"Their Governments, if they have any (for I am almost disposed to question the propriety of applying the term) are generally alike; each tribe having at its head, a chief (and most generally a war and civil chief), whom it would seem, alternately hold the ascendency, as the circumstances of peace or war may demand their respective services. These chiefs, whose titles are generally hereditary, hold their offices only as long as their ages will enable them to perform the duties of them by taking the lead in war-parties, [Etc.], after which they devolve upon the next incumbent, who is the eldest son of the chief, provided he is decided by the other chiefs to be as worthy of it as any other young man in the tribe—in default of which, a chief is elected from amongst the sub-chiefs; so that the office is hereditary on condition, and elective in emergency."

"The chief has no [control] over the life or limbs, or liberty of his subjects, nor other power whatever, excepting that of influence, which he gains by his virtues, and his exploits in war, and which induces his warriors and braves to follow him, as he leads them to battle—or to listen to him when he speaks and advises in council. In fact, he is no more than a leader, whom every young warrior may follow, or turn about and go back from, as he pleases, if he is willing to meet the disgrace that awaits him, who deserts his chief in the hour of danger."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 58: North Western Frontier.

Ten-sqúat-a-way, The Open Door

"[Ten-sqúat-a-way] (the open door), called the 'Shawnee Prophet', is perhaps one of the most remarkable men, who has flourished on these frontiers for some time past. This man is brother of the famous Tecumseh, and quite equal in his medicines or mysteries, to what his brother was in arms; he was blind in his left eye, and in his right hand he was holding his 'medicine fire,' and his 'sacred string of beans' in the other. With these mysteries he made his way through most of the North Western tribes, enlisting warriors wherever he went, to assist Tecumseh in effecting his great scheme, of forming a confederacy of all the Indians on the frontier, to drive back the whites and defend the Indians' rights; which he told them could never in any other way be protected. His plan was certainly a correct one, if not a very great one; and his brother, the Prophet, exercised his astonishing influence in raising men for him to fight his battles, and carry out his plans. For this purpose, he started upon an embassy to the various tribes on the Upper Missouri, nearly all of which he visited with astonishing success; exhibiting his mystery fire, and using his sacred string of beans, which every young man who was willing to go to war, was to touch, thereby taking the solemn oath to start when called upon, and not to turn back."

"In this most surprising manner, this ingenious man entered the villages of most of his inveterate enemies, and of others who never had heard of the name of his tribe; and manoeuvred in so successful a way, as to make his medicines a safe passport for him to all of their villages; and also the means of enlisting in the different tribes, some eight or ten thousand warriors, who had solemnly sworn to return with him on his way back; and to assist in the wars that Tecumseh was to wage against the whites on the frontier. I found, on my visit to the Sioux—to the Puncahs, to the Riccarees and the Mandans—that he had been there, and even to the Blackfeet; and everywhere told them of the potency of his mysteries, and assured them, that if they allowed the fire to go out in their wigwams, it would prove fatal to them in every case."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 49: St. Louis.

Peh-tó-pe-kiss, Eagle's Ribs

"Of the Blackfeet … whose portraits are now standing in my room, there is another of whom I must say a few words; Peh-tó-pe-kiss, the eagle ribs. This man is one of the extraordinary men of the Blackfoot tribe; though not a chief, he stands here in the Fort, and deliberately boasts of eight scalps, which he says he has taken from the heads of trappers and traders with his own hand. His dress is really superb, almost literally covered with scalp-locks, of savage and civil."

"I have painted him at full length, with a head-dress made entirely of ermine skins and horns of the buffalo. This custom of wearing horns beautifully polished and surmounting the head-dress, is a very curious one, being worn only by the bravest of the brave; by the most extraordinary men in the nation. . . .

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 5: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Wún-nes-tou, White Buffalo

"Besides the chiefs and warriors above-named, I have also transferred to my canvass the 'looks and very resemblance' of an aged chief, who combines with his high office, the envied title of mystery or medicine-man, i.e. doctor—magician—prophet—soothsayer—jongleur—and high priest, all combined in one person, who necessarily is looked upon as 'Sir Oracle' of the nation. The name of this distinguished functionary is Wún-nes-tou, the white buffalo; and on his left arm he presents his mystery-drum or tambour, in which are concealed the hidden and sacred mysteries of his healing art."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 5: Mouth of Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri.

Dressing the Part

"Their head-dresses are of various sorts, and many of them exceedingly picturesque and handsome; generally made of war-eagles' or ravens quills and ermine. These are the most costly part of an Indian's dress in all this country, owing to the difficulty of procuring the quills and the fur. The war-eagle being the 'rara avis,' and the ermine the rarest animal that is found in the country. The tail of a war-eagle in this village, provided it is a perfect one, containing some six or eight quills, which are denominated first-rate plumes, and suitable to arrange in a head-dress, will purchase a tolerable good horse (horses, however, are much cheaper here than they are in most other countries). . . .

"There is occasionally, a chief or a warrior of so extraordinary renown, that he is allowed to wear horns on his head-dress, which give to his aspect a strange and majestic effect. These are made of about a third part of the horn of a buffalo bull; the horn having been split from end to end, and a third part of it taken and shaved thin and light, and highly polished. These are attached to the top of the head-dress on each side, in the same place that they rise and stand on the head of a buffalo; rising out of a mat of ermine skins and tails, which hang over the top of the head-dress, somewhat in the form that the large and profuse locks of hair hang and fall over the head of a buffalo bull."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 14: Mandan Village, Upper Missouri.

"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 valour, worth, and power is admitted by all the nation. . . .

"[You] will see this custom exemplified in the portrait of Máh-to-tóh-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 he had fought."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 14: Mandan Village, Upper Missouri.

Regal Bearing

"Máh-to-tóh-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 'Máh-to-tóh-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 Máh-to-tóh-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 the night broke upon the solitary stillness."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 21: Mandan Village, Upper Missouri.

"I spoke in a former Letter of Máh-to-tóh-pa, (the four bears), the second chief of the nation, and the most popular man of the Mandans—a high-minded and gallant warrior . . . .

"About a week since, this noble fellow stepped into my painting-room about twelve o'clock in the day, in full and splendid dress, and passing his arm through mine, pointed the way, and led me in the most gentlemanly manner, through the village and into his own lodge, where a feast was prepared in a careful manner and waiting our arrival. The lodge in which he dwelt was a room of immense size, some forty or fifty feet in diameter, in a circular form, and about twenty feet high—with a sunken curb of stone in the center, of five or six feet in diameter and one foot deep, which contained the fire over which the pot was boiling. I was led near the edge of this curb, and seated on a very handsome robe, most ingeniously garnished and painted with hieroglyphics; and he seated himself gracefully on another one at a little distance from me; with the feast prepared in several dishes, resting on a beautiful rush mat, which was placed between us."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 16: Mandan Village, Upper Missouri.

The Patriarch, Black Moccasin

"The chief sachem of this tribe is a very ancient and patriarchal looking man . . . and counts, undoubtedly, more than an hundred snows. I have been for some days an inmate of his hospitable lodge, where he sits tottering with age, and silently reigns sole monarch of his little community around him, who are continually dropping in to cheer his sinking energies, and render him their homage. His voice and his sight are nearly gone; but the gestures of his hands are yet energetic and youthful, and freely speak the language of his kind heart.

"I have been treated in the kindest manner by this old chief; and have painted his portrait as he was seated on the floor of his wigwam, smoking his pipe, whilst he was recounting over to me some of the extraordinary feats of his life, with a beautiful Crow robe wrapped around him, and his hair wound up in a conical form upon his head, and fastened with a small wooden pin, to keep it in its place.

"This man has many distinct recollections of Lewis and [Clark], who were the first explorers of this country, and who crossed the Rocky Mountains thirty years ago. It will be seen by reference to their very interesting history of their tour, that they were treated with great kindness by this man; and that they in consequence constituted him chief of the tribe, with the consent of his people; and he has remained their chief ever since. He enquired very earnestly for 'Red Hair' and 'Long Knife' (as he had ever since termed Lewis and [Clark]), from the fact, that one had red hair (an unexampled thing in his country), and the other wore a broad sword which gained for him the appellation of 'Long Knife.'

"I have told him that 'Long Knife' has been many years dead; and that 'Red Hair' is yet living in St. Louis, and no doubt, would be glad to hear of him; at which he seemed much pleased, and has signified to me that he will make me bearer of some peculiar dispatches to him.

"About a year [later], and whilst I was in St. Louis, I had the pleasure of presenting the compliments of this old veteran to General [Clark]; and also of shewing to him the portrait, which he instantly recognized amongst hundreds of others; saying, that 'they had considered the Black Moccasin quite an old man when they appointed him chief thirty-two years ago.'"

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 23: Minataree Village, Upper Missouri.

Osage Head Chief Cler-mónt

"These people, like all those tribes who shave the head, cut and slit their ears very much, and suspend from them great quantities of wampum and tinsel ornaments. Their necks are generally ornamented also with a profusion of wampum and beads; and as they live in a warm climate where there is not so much necessity for warm clothing, as amongst the more Northern tribes, of whom I have been heretofore speaking; their shoulders, arms, and chests are generally naked, and painted in a great variety of picturesque ways, with silver bands on the wrists, and oftentimes a profusion of rings on the fingers.

"The head-chief of the Osages at this time, is a young man by the name of Cler-mónt, the son of a very distinguished chief of that name, who recently died; leaving his son his successor, with the consent of the tribe. I painted the portrait of this chief at full length, in a beautiful dress, his leggings fringed with scalp-locks, and in his hand his favorite and valued war-club."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 38: Fort Gibson, Arkansas.


"Kee-o-kúk (the running fox) is the present chief of the tribe, a dignified and proud man, with a good share of talent, and vanity enough to force into action all the wit and good judgment he possesses, in order to command the attention and respect of the world. At the close of the 'Black Hawk War,' in 1833, which had been waged with disastrous effects along the frontier, by a Sac chief of that name; Kee-o-kúk was acknowledged chief of the Sacs and Foxes by General Scott, who held a treaty with them at Rock Island [present-day Rock Island, Illinois]. His appointment as chief, was in consequence of the friendly position he had taken during the war, holding two-thirds of the warriors neutral, which was no doubt the cause of the sudden and successful termination of the war, and the means of saving much bloodshed. Black Hawk and his two sons, as well as his principal advisors and warriors, were brought into Saint Louis in chains, and Kee-o-kúk appointed chief with the assent of his tribe. In his portrait I have represented him in the costume, precisely, in which he was dressed when he stood for it, with this shield on his arm, and his staff (insignia of office) in his left hand. There is no Indian chief on the frontier better known, or more highly appreciated for his eloquence, as a public speaker, than Kee-o-kúk, as he has repeatedly visited Washington and others of our Atlantic towns, and made his speeches before thousands when he has been contending for his people's rights, in their stipulations with the United States Government, for the sale of their lands."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 56: Rock Island, Upper Missouri.

"I found Ke-o-kúck to be a chief of fine and portly figure, with a good countenance, and great dignity and grace in his manners.

"General Street had some documents from Washington, to read to him, which he and his chiefs listened to with great patience; after which he placed before us good brandy and good wine, and invited us to drink, and to lodge with him; he then called up five of his runners or criers, communicated to them in a low, but emphatic tone, the substance of the talk from the agent, and of the letters read to him, and they started at full gallop—one of them proclaiming it through his village, and the others sent express to the other villages, comprising the whole nation. Ke-o-kúck came in with us, with about twenty of his principal men—he brought in all his costly wardrobe, that I might select for his portrait such as suited me best; but at once named (of his own accord) the one that was purely Indian. In that he paraded for several days, and in it I painted him at full length. He is a man of a great deal of pride, and makes truly a splendid appearance on his black horse. He owns the finest horse in the country, and is excessively vain of his appearance when mounted, and arrayed, himself and horse, in all their gear and trappings."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 52: Camp Des Moines.

Os-ce-o-lá, The Black Drink

"The prisoners who are held here, to the number of 250, men, women and children, have been captured during the recent part of this warfare, and amongst them the distinguished personages whom I named a few moments since; of these, the most conspicuous at this time is Os-ce-o-lá, commonly called Powell, as he is generally supposed to be a half-breed, the son of a white man (by that name), and a Creek woman.

"I have painted him precisely in the costume, in which he stood for his picture, even to a string and a trinket. He wore three ostrich feathers in his head, and a turban made of a vari-coloured cotton shawl—and his dress was chiefly of calicos, with a handsome bead sash or belt around his waist, and his rifle in his hand.

"This young man is, no doubt, an extraordinary character, as he has been for some years reputed, and doubtless looked upon by the [Seminoles] as the master spirit and leader of the tribe, although he is not a chief. From his boyhood, he had led an energetic and desperate sort of life, which had secured for him a conspicuous position in society; and when the desperate circumstances of war were agitating his country, he at once took a conspicuous and decided part; and . . . acquired an influence and name that soon sounded to the remotest parts of the United States, and amongst the Indian tribes, to the Rocky Mountains. . . .

"I am fully convinced from all that I have seen, and learned from the lips of Osceolá, and from the chiefs who are around him, that he is a most extraordinary man, and one entitled to a better fate.

"In stature he is about at mediocrity, with an elastic and graceful movement; in his face he is good looking, with rather an effeminate smile; but of so peculiar a character, that the world may be ransacked over without finding another just like it. In his manners, and all his movements in company, he is polite and gentlemanly, though all his conversation is entirely in his own tongue; and his general appearance and actions, those of a full-blooded and wild Indian."

SOURCE: George Catlin, Letters and Notes, Letter No. 57: Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.

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