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Chiefs and Leaders
George Horse Capture


My name is George Paul Horse Capture. I'm an A'aninin Indian, Gros Ventre, from Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, and I've worked at the National Museum of the American Indian for eight years. My position here is Special Assistant for Cultural Resources, and I'm also Senior Counselor to the Director and I work in the Cultural Resources Department. Basically, my main job—the one I enjoy the most—is being a curator for exhibits. We come up with an idea and look in our collections and find material, and then write the story and tell the story of the American Indian, using the Indian voice. And that's the way—the ideal way—to do such things.

Warrior Society and Symbolism in Dress

I think, in order to understand the object, you have to understand the society, and the people and their standards. These are not just upper-body coverings. They are much more. They symbolize the warrior society—the warrior class in the Indian world—it is crucial to survival because if you don't have warriors, you don't have the people. In those early days, there was no central federal government. There were no police. There were no SWAT teams. There was nothing in this protective national way, so anything that happened to a tribe, they had to deal with it in whatever way they could. And so, in order to protect themselves, they developed this warrior society where all young men had to go through this learning process and this process of involvement, similar to our draft, where they're obligated to perform military duty. And as a military, you protect your tribe. You could do it in the camp, passively, or you could, preemptively, go to other areas. And you had to have this warrior class in order to survive. So we had to become warriors in order to fulfill our responsibilities in our tribe.

Tasks Determined by Gender

Well, for Indian art in general, there was a gender difference in who did what. It's always said that men did the realistic and the religious things—paintings. And the women did everything else. Well, the men got the animal. The women did all the processing of the hide and the tanning, and then they'd reach a certain level, say, if it was a robe with the hair on, then the men could come together and paint it. And if it's painted in realistic figures or pictograph figures, the men probably did it. And if it was abstract, then the women did it. And the shields are always men.

And, on a shirt, I think it was a combination, where the women got it together and sewed it together. But it was the man's victories, and the drawings represented the man, so he would instruct, say, if they wanted to put a design on the strip, the women would do the work under the direction of the man. So, he said, "Put bear claws walking this way on the strips, and put a bear up here on each side because I had it in a dream." And then she would do it. If you look at Indian art in a certain way, some of it is very delicate, very meticulously done, very creatively done, combination of colors, and little tiny stitches on various items, and all of this was done by women. They were very creative. I think they were more aesthetically balanced and creative than men because men were interested in other things, like religion and their brave deeds. Where the assembling of the item and creating the balance of the whole item reflected back on the women, so that was truly a collaboration, where some items weren't. There's a rawhide element, suitcase-like thing, in the Indian world. It's called a parfleche. And they're very colorful—all geometric—and I don't think men had anything to do with any of that process. The women made it all. So, in addition to taking care of their husband, raising their family, taking care of the tipi, running the whole life, gathering the wood, cooking, was all women. And the men were the warriors.

Contemporary "Power" Clothes

Well, I think we have to remember that George Catlin and other painters, classical painters of Indian people, happened before 1850. It was during this time that our country was overrun by non-Indian people and we suffered massive losses to our culture. Most of our land is gone, and our religion is under attack even to this day. But we survived and, in order to survive, you have to adapt. So these classical styles here have changed. They've turned into something else. In order to function in our society, we don't want our children to stick out and become spectacles, so we have to utilize the styles of the others, so we dress in regular clothes and we live in regular houses, but on very special days in the summer and sometimes in the winter, we have our ceremonies and our gatherings and some of them take place at powwows, and that's the time that we can utilize our tribal customs and the new power shirts, or power clothing, or dancing clothing. That's the time we can bring it out and show it to our friends and our relatives and perform in it, and these are the good times. These are the times we get to live in tipis.

Admiration for Catlin

Well, we can all appreciate George Catlin and what he did. He preserved images of many great people at a great time in their lives, and he was a master painter as far as I'm concerned, but he was more than that. And if you study him in any detail, you can quickly determine, although he died in poverty, that he was a great humanitarian. He related to the Indian people, even in that short time that he lived with us. And he said some things, and I have a a few quotes here that kind of explains his view. And this is what he says:

"I love a people who always made me welcome to the best they had . . . who are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poor-house . . . who never take the name of God in vain . . . who worship God without a Bible, and I believe that God loves them also . . . who are free from religious animosities . . . who have never raised a hand against me, or stolen my property, where there was no law to punish either . . . who never fought a battle with white men except on their own ground . . . and oh! how I love a people who don't live for the love of money." [George Catlin, Last Rambles Amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, (London, 1868), pp. 354-55, as quoted in Harold McCracken, George Catlin and the Old Frontier (New York: Bonanza Books, 1959), p. 14.]

Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears

The reason why we know about Four Bear is because he was a Mandan and he lived on the upper Missouri River at what is now called the Fort Berthold Reservation. And at that early day, all the exploration used the Missouri River as a highway, starting with primarily—although there were explorers before—Lewis and Clark is probably the most famous early one. I don't think they met the Four Bear, but the later ones did; almost everybody who went through met him. And, apparently, he was the second chief of the tribe—a great warrior, a great diplomat and, apparently, was very friendly and gregarious, unlike some of the others. And, so, as they went through, they all captured his likeness, either in painting or in watercolors or whatever medium, and he would visit with them. And they'd exchange materials. Some of them, I think Catlin was one, gave him a notebook and pencils and watercolors and he began to paint on paper rather than on skin, and so he was very talented in that area. And in the communication he would tell about his life—all of this is recorded—and his battles and his wounds. If you look at his image carefully, he had a number of accoutrements around his body, particularly in his hair. He would stick a little wooden knife there to signify something, a feather over here, some arrows here, and he had explanations for all of these things. And he would befriend almost everybody that came up. And he was very helpful. And being as how he was so helpful to these visitors, I'm sure that his behavior towards them convinced his tribesmen to be friendly as well. He was apparently a great man.

Looking at Catlin's Portraits

Many of the Catlin paintings are incredibly impressive. I never really looked at them before, but this time I took time, and I went down to the museum and I stood directly in front of them. And I looked at each one of them, and I looked in their eyes and they looked back. It was a very impressive moment. I felt I established some sort of a contact as I looked at these people because the drawings capture an essence of that early time and we should be grateful for that. I regret my tribe wasn't painted by Catlin, but we were way up the river. Another thing that I like about these paintings is, unlike most other painters, Catlin painted many women and many children, often together. He wasn't just dealing with the strict male warrior.

La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull

And I remember looking at The Buffalo Bull and Grand Pawnee warrior, called La-dóo-ke-a [La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior]. I tried to imagine the distance, the connection, the bridges. And I was standing in front of this man, this painting, as Catlin did. I was about that far away and I could look at this painting, and I could see the texture of this man's likeness. I could see the swirl of the brush. I could see the power, the power invested in this image. And I can imagine that Catlin would turn his head and look at this man, then turn back to where I was standing and transfer that image—that essence—from this man to this canvas. It's a powerful image. You can see an Indian man here at his finest—during our finest times. And he had spiritual power and physical power—you could tell by his muscular body.

In this particular one, you could see that there's a buffalo painted on his chest and on his face. And he sits there in complete comfort with this, and he is presenting it. He says, "This is me. This is what I am." And he's proud of it. He gets power and strength from these images and this belief, and there's no fear in his eye. There's no threat in his eye, just confidence and strength. And that was good to see. Most of these paintings have similar traits—just this incredible strength and power. And it's a good representation of our people at that time.

Buffalo Bull's Back Fat

There are some marvelous names and marvelous people. In many you could see the hairstyle; you could recognize it from tribes and often you can see this in pictographs, where they don't put facial features but they put hairstyles. And then from the hairstyles you can tell what tribe—like this one called Buffalo Bull's Back Fat [Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe]. He's a Blood. He has that well-known hairstyle of that time period up there. The Assiniboines used it as well, and probably my tribe. The men didn't braid their hair in those early days. They let it hang down, or they cut it in different ways. And you could see that characteristic breast decoration that he has. And he carries this pipe. You can see the pipestem, and it's decorated by wrapped porcupine quills. It's a very powerful figure as well—one that's ethnographically correct.

Peh-tó-pe-kiss, Eagle's Ribs

Piegan is Blackfeet. And he wears a shirt of the times. This is a good example [Peh-tó-pe-kiss, Eagle's Ribs, a Piegan Chief] of the early period. And you can tell it's early because of the style; it's very long. The tail of the shirt hangs all the way down to the ground. And they leave a little edge at the edge of the skin to stiffen the height and give it body. As times changed, the shirt got shorter and shorter, and, pretty soon, they cut off the tabs until it was in some cases just around your belt. The style did change. This is a good example of the early one.

Pa-rís-ka-róo-pa, Two Crows

The thing that I find most distinguishing about this one [Pa-rís-ka-róo-pa, Two Crows, a Band Chief] is the use of birds. Indian people used eagle feathers as a decoration but also as their spiritual animal, and they used feathers in different ways. But here they used whole bodies. Although it says "Two Crows," he has one in his hair and it's an eagle. It's not a bald eagle, but you can easily tell that it is an eagle, and then he has another one, or maybe even two, hanging from his lance. We see this frequently, where the entire bird is used, and sometimes there's a bird on the head worn as a hat. Maybe there's a buffalo base to it, and then attached to that is this animal.

Also on this one and most of Catlin's drawings of males, the style of the time on the legging was almost skin tight around the leg, and that enhances the use of the fringes as a decoration. If you're muscular, it looks very nice, and then with the shirt overlapping. And all of these people—maybe even the women—they don't wear belts. You can't see a belt over the shirt. But there is a belt underneath holding the leggings up. And the leggings are not connected. They're each separate. And here, with Two Crows, we could see, and this is frequent, too, one legging is a different color than the other. And I think that shows a separation, a dichotomy of man, of almost everything. There's a light and a dark, and a good and the bad, and a sweet and a sour, and all of that. Maybe this is a representation of that. And here we can also see—there's a lot of nice things here. We can see the buffalo robe and he's wearing it over his left arm, and that's the way you do. You leave your right arm free. The Romans did this, too. Because your right arm is your fighting arm. You always have to leave that free.

National Museum of the American Indian

I would just like to conclude with the concept that I've been dealing with—studying my people almost all of my life. And most of it is tragic because we suffered many losses, but much was like everything else—there's a balance. It's exciting and adventurous to be an Indian as well. We get many things in return in the balance of nature. And I feel comfortable as I get older, knowing that we're establishing a National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. And this institution is dedicated to the American Indian people of this hemisphere, and we'll address George Catlin and the other painters and as many tribes as we can over the coming years, and it will be in Indian voice, from our eyes also. So come down and learn more!

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