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Catlin's Quest
Peter Matthiessen

Choices and Consequences

George Catlin makes significant decisions and courageous choices in leaving his law practice and later his Philadelphia art career to journey far and wide through vast and pathless wild lands to pursue his mission of becoming the historian of American Indians.

He overcomes many obstacles and hazards and receives praise and acclaim for his paintings and writings documenting and interpreting the American West and its native peoples. His work is contemporaneous with the period of Indian removal, when most of the great eastern tribes are banished to the West but the western tribes are largely intact. Like many others, Catlin believes that Native Americans are a vanishing race. As it turns out, they've often adapted to changing conditions and survive today as vigorous living cultures.

I was very impressed, first of all, by Catlin's bravery. It takes a certain special kind of man—it takes an artist of true commitment to abandon the very safe niche that he had. He had been a lawyer. He had been a very successful artist. It wasn't that he was picking up and starting from the beginning. He was established already, and he left that safe berth to go West and follow this dream of recording the entire Indian culture of the West. In going to these lands, Catlin could not have anticipated what might have awaited him. He could have been in very serious danger, and really was, from time to time.

Indians as Individuals

Catlin's work is truly impressive and not simply in quantity. Many of the portraits are truly superb. I'm thinking of the very beautiful young Mandan girl, who has really been the basis of that legend that a white expedition of some kind very early on—Viking or whatever—got that far west and traversed North America and lived with the Mandan people, and that their blood shows in that portrait, and not the only one. That's extremely interesting. Also, Os-ce-o-lá, which I think is probably one of the best portraits of a human being that has ever been done in American art. There is so much said about Os-ce-o-lá that flows out of that tragic portrait, and the artistry of it, too, is superb. Catlin didn't always take that much pains. He wasn't always as precise and didn't feel it quite so deeply, but still there's a uniform excellence as far as I'm concerned. And what I particularly liked is that each person he paints is an individual. It isn't just a stereotyped Indian out there on the Plains. It's a man or a woman or a person or a child. He sees them as human beings. He does not see them from a racist point of view, even though he has racist habits of speech and everything that prevailed in the nineteenth century.


As a naturalist, I'm somewhat disturbed when Catlin just takes target practice on a grizzly bear when his boat is already safe and floating off the bank. That, I think, today would be looked on askance. But unfortunately sportsmen, so-called sportsmen, were doing this all through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. They were shooting loads of buffalo simply for the tongues, or not at all, just slaughtering them, shooting them down from the trains. Prairie chickens, passenger pigeons—they were all were just slaughtered. And I think probably this is true of European culture all around the world—these huge bags of game. So Catlin wasn't doing anything that wasn't being done by everybody, and I'm sure he had no idea at the time that grizzly bears were becoming endangered. They were, at that time, very widespread everywhere. From the Great Plains to California they were a very common animal.

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