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Interview Transcript
Catlin's Quest
W. Richard West

"The Cheyenne Way"

I am Southern Cheyenne, and like my brother and my father, am a member of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Oklahoma is not the historical territory of the Southern Cheyenne, that is the area to which they were removed in the mid to late nineteenth century. My father was actually born in Darlington, Oklahoma, which no longer exists, but it was at the time the reservation was first established in the 1860s in Oklahoma, the principal Bureau of Indian Affairs Agency. It was the agency town on the reservation. And that's where he was born, in a tipi by the North Canadian River in western Oklahoma. I grew up in Oklahoma, along with my brother, and both of us are members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma also. And even though where I grew up in Oklahoma is in a different part of Oklahoma from where the Cheyenne reservation was, and where most of the Cheyenne and Arapaho communities are today, we nevertheless had most of our Cheyenne family that was there. And so as I was growing up in Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s, we went back and forth between where we lived in Oklahoma and those communities out there. And it was a very, very vital link, and even though my mother was nonnative, my father and she, and we know this only in retrospect obviously, I don't think we appreciated it at the time, had an agreement by which my brother and I were basically raised in the traditions of the Cheyenne, even though my mother was a fierce Scot and we respect that very much, too. So that's how we grew up and my father, who was an artist, a painter and a sculptor, and who was very attuned to the cultural life, the traditional cultural life, of the Cheyenne people, made sure that my brother and I were schooled as we grew up in, what we refer to or what translates into English as "the Cheyenne Way," with all of the particular values, traditions, rituals, and ceremonies that go along with that.

Catlin's Complexity

I think that a Native person reacts to what Catlin attempted to do in a variety of ways probably. Catlin has always been an intriguing figure to me, as a Native person, because he was and he wasn't reflective of his particular period. There were ways, I think, in which Catlin departed from the mainstream in terms of his attitudes toward Indian people. I was actually impressed, in reading some of the materials that I did in connection with this show of the American Art Museum, to be reminded of the fact that Catlin, I believe, had genuine respect for these people who were the subjects of his paintings—and, on a very personal level, was genuinely a friend of many of these people and respected them as human beings. I believe he truly did.

And that was exceptional in that period because, if anything, this was a period in American history when the attempt was to dehumanize Indians in an effort to deal with them politically. And if you're not dealing with human beings, it doesn't matter if you kill them off or take their land away. It makes it much easier as a matter of a fact. Catlin swam against that particular tide. And I think that native people recognize that. Anybody who knows a great deal about Catlin or his work, understands that in this respect, he was exceptional. I think that Catlin was probably more attuned, if you will, to the age in which he lived, in his belief about the ultimate fate of the Native people of the United States. He lived during a period and painted during a period of immense cultural destruction amongst the indigenous peoples and communities of the United States or in what is now the United States, and everybody, and I do mean virtually everybody, treated Indians as a passing historical phenomenon at that point. That we would be taken from the stage of history and simply pass into history and really have no future—cultural, political, or otherwise in the United States. And I think probably Catlin did feel that way. My sense is that that is what he thought probably was going to happen. And that in some respects that motivated him, because he was really trying to capture what he felt was something that would exist probably no more in the future, and in that respect, putting aside his commercial interest for a moment, if you will, I think he really did feel in a genuine and in a good faith way, that he was embarked on a visual cultural reclamation project; that what he was recording as a painter simply would not exist and that he was therefor creating a very important cultural and ethnographic visual record of the indigenous peoples here.

Catlin's Commercial Interests

Now if you look to the commercial side of it, obviously he had commercial interests. He did this to earn a living and I think you can also look, as I did in my essay in contributing to the catalog for this exhibition, you can certainly pick certain parts of what he did—taking the show to Europe, peddling it in Europe—kind of associating Native people with the show in ways that Indians are quite accustomed to. I mean Catlin was not the first or the last person to undertake that kind of commercial venture. Buffalo Bill certain did it to a fare-thee-well, a little bit after Catlin had embarked on his adventure in the same direction. And there is a sense I think among Native people, of some conflict about that, because it is commercial manipulation in a way that was not uncommon during that time and into which we sometimes lent ourselves.

He's a complex figure, I guess is what I would like to say about him. There's nothing simple about George Catlin. And that's why he is a particular interest to me because he was he was in some ways reflective in the times in which he lived, and yet in others, he was not, and that gives him a certain kind of personal complexity that is out of synch in some ways with his time, that is more than most people were in his time.

Catlin's Enterprise

I think that the contemporariness of Catlin is a contemporariness that a museum director can particularly appreciate because again he was more complex I think, and had more foresight about even his commercialization of Indian culture at the time. There was a respect I think, in which he truly wished to educate people about Native communities and Native history here in the United States. And he felt some kind of obligation to do that and so he put together a complex of programs really. It wasn't just the paintings. It was the paintings, but it was the appearance in some instances of live Indians in the grouping as well as lectures about them, and about the paintings and about Indian cultures and when we think back upon that, really, museums themselves at that time, were hardly at that point. That was a much later phenomenon: museologically in terms of this kind of connection with broader audiences outside of museums and fleshing out what it was that took place inside museums. So in that way, I think that Catlin had something to say that really wasn't picked up by those of us in that business for the better part of that century. And that I think is a very contemporary aspect of George Catlin.

Catlin and Ethnography

I think there was a very important respect in which Catlin—and I don't even really know whether it was intentional or whether he did it consciously—but has confirmed through his paintings things about Native peoples that only now are being fully appreciated. One of the things that I think of most particularly concerns the aesthetic qualities of much of what was created by Native peoples.

Catlin had a fascination with the regalia, the trappings of being Indian—the clothing. In his paintings you will notice, especially as he is painting some of the peoples in the upper Midwest, in what is now the upper midwest part of the United States. And of course he had particular relationships with the peoples who are now on the Ft. Berthold Reservation in North Dakota; the Arikara and some of the tribes in that area who are Plains Indians, but who were village dwellers if you will. They had permanent villages on the Plains. And their regalia—which I think typifies in many respects the regalia of Plains Indians—was really breathtakingly beautiful. And Catlin, perhaps because he was an artist, had both an immense amount of respect for the detail of that as well as the beauty of it. So in his paintings, you will see in fantastic detail that Indian artisans even now go back to, to try to see how certain things were made, the designs that were in certain things, as they used those designs in their material today. But what it did was to document, I think, at a time when nobody else thought that, really. I mean we were indeed looked at as primitives and barbarians who could not possibly have any well-developed aesthetic sense that pertained to anything that we did, any of the art that we produced. And his paintings—because of course they're visual statements, and that makes them even more powerful than descriptive statements, verbally descriptive statements—we have that as proof of what Native people had achieved at that point. And that is documentation, which really probably wasn't acted upon in some respects in terms of our modern perceptions of Native people until well into the twentieth century. But the basis for some of those conclusions and those alterations, those revisions of opinion exist in paintings that were created much earlier, in the nineteenth century.

A Living History

In looking at John Ewers's volume on George Catlin, Painter of Indians of the West, John or Jack, as he was known to most of us here at the Smithsonian, was perhaps the first of the real ethnologists who came to the Smithsonian Institution. And more than many, he actually knew the people about whom he was writing and whose lives and cultures he attempted to depict as an ethnologist. And I know from having known him myself that these personal connections are really what drove how he felt and what he wrote about these people. And in this particular instance, there was a portrait of an Oglala brave done, named Shell Man painted by Catlin in the 1830s and what appears in this particular monograph by Jack is a photograph of Maggie No Fat, who is actually a daughter of Shell Man, in 1947, which means, and she looks to be a very elderly woman in this picture of her, her life obviously went back into the nineteenth century, I'm sure. And she's holding a picture of Catlin's portrait of her father, Shell Man. The picture is beautifully surrounded by a frame, which is actually quillwork, which at the time was a dying art—and only recently has been revived. But the fact that it was a quillwork frame, I think, is some indication, some considerable indication of the value that she attached to this because quillwork is not easily done. It is a wonderful art. So she obviously thought well of this and valued what she had. And I think the reason that she valued it, if I had to speculate, just a bit here without having read this monograph myself is because for Indians living during the period that Maggie No Fat would have lived, which is to say the late part of the nineteenth century, the first half or so of the twentieth century, that was a period of the most abject kind of of cultural devastation and desolation that I can possibly think of and to survive through that period, which Maggie No Fat obviously did, based upon what I know here, you clung tenaciously to anything that sort of linked yourself with a past that had been known that would serve as a basis for surviving into the future. So my suspicion is that this picture of this portrait is one of the few visual documents that Maggie No Fat had that connected her to the heritage that she was looking to, to try to sustain her in what could only have been a very, very difficult present. And so that, I think, is metaphor, for at least me, as the Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, for the tremendous value to us now, whatever the motivations may have been then, or however mixed they may have been then, on the part of Catlin himself, for valuing what Catlin did. Because now it has basically all come full circle and it represents a set, if you will, of cultural assets that however they were created, and under whatever circumstances, and by whatever motivation, they are tremendously valuable, visual records of our own lives and history that really can serve as the basis for our cultural continuance into the future. I think that's what Maggie No Fat was talking about, and certainly, it is what I, as the Director of this institution am talking about in looking at things like the work that Catlin did about Native peoples and depicting them in the nineteenth century.

One Horn

The paintings here are interesting to me. I want to comment on three of them. One is of One Horn, painted in 1832. And he's referred to as the Head Chief of the Miniconjou Tribe. Now the Miniconjou are a band of the Western Lakota, the Western Sioux—or the Lakota. They are the tribes that for the most part are now in South Dakota and North Dakota. And the Miniconjou are the historical band that is now really mostly located on the Cheyenne River Reservation, which is just north of Pierre, South Dakota. And one of the things I must say that comes to me in looking at this picture is that One Horn belongs to the same band that was at a later date, some almost sixty years later exactly, was the subject of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 in South Dakota, or what is now South Dakota. And Chief Big Foot was the head of that band. And it was a Miniconjou band, of the Lakota, who, unfortunately, were subjected to that particular battle, although it wasn't really a battle; it was a massacre. So but they were a very distinguished people. And one of the things that strikes me in looking at the picture of One Horn, there is a respect, I suppose in which there is in paintings of this period, almost an enforced nobility. I'm the first to say that Plains Indians are for the most part, an extremely handsome people, but there is a respect also in which this is almost artificially built into representations of that period. In the 1830s, I think we were still very much enamored in the United States amongst those who were sympathetic at all with the Indian interest with the image of the noble savage. And of course you have in One Horn, a very, very noble looking man—complete with the high cheekbones and the Roman nose. Again, what impresses me in ways about this painting and what we've talked about a little bit before, is Catlin's attention to detail.

One of the things that is very clear in this image is the beauty of the shirt that One Horn is wearing. It involves quillwork—not even bead work—but pure quillwork. And pure quillwork of this complexity and this quality almost died as an art form somewhat later in the nineteenth century and the people who had done quillwork then began working with beads primarily and only recently have we gone back to quillwork. But the quillwork on this shirt is beautiful. There are obviously, these could well be scalp locks that are on the shirt, they could also be horse tail. One can't tell for sure by looking at this. And it's unclear whether this was a scalp shirt, which was a particular kind of shirt and was worn in particular kinds of honor, if you will, or only on certain kinds of occasions. But to look at this, it's a beautiful piece of work. The quillwork looks magnificent. There are beautiful symbols with it; the bar designs that you see on the quillwork on the sleeve are very old designs. The Cheyenne themselves have a box design which I have on my own regalia that is very evocative of this particular design. The Cheyenne were very close to the Lakota. We went back and forth a great deal in terms of cultural impact, if you will. The sun symbol, which sits in the medallion that's in the middle of his shirt, are all beautiful symbols that were frequently on these shirts. And really a shirt like this was a very personal kind of statement, and they had a certain kind of power and importance attached to them that went beyond simply being a piece of clothing, and you sense that in this painting somehow—that here is a man, a very distinguished member of his community I am sure, who wore this shirt with honor and great pride.

Wolf on the Hill

The other two paintings are of a Cheyenne warrior, a Cheyenne man, and a Cheyenne woman, and let's talk about the Cheyenne man, first. It's Wolf on the Hill, Chief of the Tribe. I'm assuming, quite frankly, although I cannot tell myself, that this is a Northern Cheyenne that I am looking at here. That has more to do with where I know Catlin painted than it does with looking at the dress that is on this particular person. What is most distinctive here and is of interest to me is not the shirt so much—although again it is a very handsome shirt, beaded in a very traditional way, with a band of beads across the shoulder and beads down the sleeve. It could also be a scalp shirt. That doesn't surprise me that if Catlin were painting somebody and the individual knew what was going on, that he would don his finest. And my guess is that this is probably one of the finest things that he had. Another beautiful piece that is here; you can just see the stem of it.

It is a beautiful pipe, wonderfully decorated and again, one of the things that is distinctive about it which makes it a period piece in a way, is the fact that the decoration here again is quillwork, not beading. And really, it wasn't much beyond this period, as I mentioned a moment ago, that the beading began to replace the quillwork because there simply were not the artists or artisans any longer to do the quillwork. Quillwork is very complicated. It is a labor-intensive technology and it just almost disappeared. But the quillwork here, which you can see, the bands of white, red, black are all again beautifully done. It is quillwork for almost the length of the pipe stem, beautifully decorated with feathers. He, of course, has eagle feathers on the top of his head. He is dressed up. There's no question about it. He's dressed up. Looks very fine to me. If I could look half that good in my regalia, I'd be perfectly happy.

She Who Bathes Her Knees

And then we have the last one of a Cheyenne woman. Now this is interesting to me because I must say in looking at this that I would not necessarily have assumed that this was Cheyenne. And I say that both from the nature of the clothing, the cut of the dress, in particular the sleeves of the dress, are at least not the way that I would certainly recognize women's regalia at this point. I'm not an expert on regalia. Although it may just be that this is so early that it is different. Now this is actually beadwork, I think, on her shoulder here. I can't quite tell whether that's quill or beadwork—maybe it is actually still quillwork. But it is beautiful and very, very well done. She obviously is holding a blanket or a quilt, that is also partially decorated with this same sunburst design, which was a very common design for Cheyenne. All of our beadwork designs were actually abstract as compared to some of the organic floral designs that you find in the woodlands area, the Ojibwa and a little bit to the east of that, but almost all of our designs were, and remain, geometric, and and they're very beautifully done. The jewelry that she has on is not ours as far as I'm concerned. That comes from elsewhere. I think that that was something that either Catlin put on her or somebody gave her because that is certainly not necessarily the kind of shell or glass beadwork or bead necklace that we would have on. So this is a very interesting painting to me and as I say, I am not in a position to say definitively, but even though it is obviously a Plains Indian in very beautiful Plains dress, I would not be willing to bet my daughter's dowry on the fact that it is actually a Cheyenne.

Indian History: Primary Sources

Well, I think in the case of Indian history, since much of it is legal and constitutional in nature, there are a number of primary sources on paper one can go to as well as primary sources that have flesh and blood, too. There is an abundance of primary sources that sit right in the National Archive. There are, for example, probably upwards of three hundred treaties that were entered into between Indian tribes and the United States government. All of those are still right here in the National Archives. Maybe not here in Washington—some of them are in regional parts of the Archives. But those are incredibly important instruments, not just from the standpoint of raising legal claims at this time.

And they are important for that reason, I want to point out. An example I will give are the treaties that served the basis for the fishing rights of the tribes in the Northwest part of the United States. Had it not been for those primary sources and the information in the provisions in those primary sources, I know that the tribes who were litigating their fishing claims against the State of Washington and the State of Oregon would not have won their case in the Supreme Court of the United States.

But in addition to that, these documents are also historical documents because they show the course of how that history unfolded. What was at issue? What was happening with land? What tribes were supposed to be given in return, how those treaties actually in some ways set up the structure, the almost embedded poverty, if you will, that exists on Indian reservations even today. It's all kind of sitting there, if you will, as pieces of information sitting in some of these primary documents. Again, because our relationship has been primarily with the Congress of the United States, there are hundreds of federal statutes on the books, many of them still fully operative, that again are a reflection of the state of Indian Affairs then and now, and sort of everything that happened in between. So this is an area that's really rich with primary sources.

Indian Witnesses

But there are other primary sources of information that I think have probably been given lesser shrift than they should have been given in the past. And that is people themselves in Indian country. Sometimes what they know is expressed in writing. Sometimes it is not. But they are primary sources of cultural information that I think are becoming increasingly relied upon as valuable sources for anybody wishing to know the information.

Land Claims and Compensation

With respect to land claims, what happened is the following. In the nineteenth century, the amount of land held by tribes diminished dramatically. Two thirds of it was lost. It went from 150 million acres to 50 million acres. Come the 1940s, the Congress of the United States, after considerable lobbying, following a situation in which land claims legislation had been done on a purely ad hoc basis, tribe by tribe. It was very complicated, very difficult. So the Indian Claims Commission Act was passed in the 1940s. And from the 1940s through the 1970s, the better part of the 1970s, claims for lands lost, were brought before the Indian Claims Commission, reviewed by what was then the United States Court of Claims. This was a situation in which money, or compensation, monetary compensation was given for the loss of these lands.

It was an elaborate process, much of it historical in nature, where a tribe had to establish what its historic territory had been, its ancestral land base had been, and against that base line, the Indian Claims Commission then heard evidence about what had been lost under what circumstances, had compensation been paid, was compensation adequate? And a judgment was computed from that.

My Personal Experience with Compensation

My own tribe, for example, the Southern Cheyenne, received its claims judgment in 1967. And at the time, it was one of the largest claims judgments that had ever been handed down. It was some $30 million or so. Quite frankly, it was my share of that claims judgment that put me through graduate school and much of law school. And so that's, you know, that much of it was handed out on a per capita basis. And there was a great deal of debate as to whether that was the best way to do it; whether it shouldn't have been sort of communitized, if you will, and invested in community social infrastructure or something like that. But that was the system. That was how it was done.

Sioux (Lakota) Claims Case

One thing that I would like to note is that it was by no means seen as a necessarily universally accepted solution. Let me give you an example. During much of the time I was a lawyer, in fact when I was a young lawyer at the law firm here in Washington that handled the largest claims case ever brought before the Indian Claims Commission, which was the Sioux claims case, the Lakota case for the taking of the Black Hills, which occurred in the 1870s—when gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the Homestake Mine was established by the Hearst family in the Black Hills. And because the gold rush occurred, the Black Hills was involuntarily removed from the Great Sioux Reservation, which had been established in 1868. And in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that was handled by the firm where I was working at the time, handed down a claims judgment in the amount of $117 million, if I'm not mistaken, which was, still is the largest claims judgment ever handed down by a court in the United States with respect to land lost by an Indian tribe.

And the reason that it was so large is because it was an unconstitutional taking. In other words, it wasn't just inadequate compensation paid, the fact was that by treaty, this land had been given to the Western Sioux, the Lakota, and in constitutional violation, it had been taken from them and that was a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the United States, and so interest attached to the claims judgment. And that's why it was so large.

But when it was handed down, notwithstanding what is a situation which most of the Western Sioux live in, abject poverty at the present time, it's the South Dakota Reservation, it's at Pine Ridge, Rose Bud, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, all of those reservations that are various bands of the former Sioux nation, even though the poverty there is grinding, because the Lakota, or significant numbers of them, actually wanted to have the Black Hills back, or at least a portion of it, they declined to take the claims judgment.

It now sits on account in the United States Treasury and is now worth between six and seven hundred million dollars and still is not being taken by the Lakota because they fear that it will compromise their claim for a return of the land. So claims are a very complicated thing in Indian history. Most of the large monetary claims have been decided at this point. There are still some monetary claims around. There are certainly a claim which you may be aware of, that has to do with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the government's mismanagement of money accounts for Native peoples, that is now a matter of federal litigation. That is a claim which is actually based not on a claim for land, but on a claim that Indian individuals and tribes lost literally hundreds of millions of dollars over time because of the mismanagement of those funds by the United States government. And not accounting for them properly. So I think there will be continue to be claims in the future. They will be sometimes monetary. They will be sometimes for land itself, as is posed by this example which I just mentioned about the Black Hills.

Growing Indian Population

From a demographic standpoint, as I have indicated before, the nadir of our population numbers occurred in 1900, and that's when it was really right around a quarter of a million. It was depopulation of more than 95% from some of the demographic figures that we now have for the time of contact. And so it was devastating demography. But what has happened since then is that the Native population has steadily increased. Indeed, at the present time, the American Indian population has the highest birthrate in the country. And our population, as of the 2000 Census was right around two million and that of course is a significant rebounding, if you will, from where we were a century before. At the rate that our population is increasing now—I think I saw figures one time, that indicated that within the first generation of this new century we will be somewhere around six million. I think that there is in that population increase a certain metaphor about contemporary Native peoples. And that is to say that we are still here in increasingly significant numbers. But it is not just a matter of numbers, we are still here as a distinctive cultural thread of the great fabric of cultural heritage of the United States, and it's not just that we're here, but we're even happier to be here in this state than we were even when I was growing up in Oklahoma. I reflect on that sometimes—the sea change in cultural psychology, if you will.

Growing Indian Self-Esteem

Indian perceptions of themselves and the worth of their culture, their way of life and who they are now as compared to then and even though in my case, my father, who went to college simply because of his artistic talents, a generation if not two generations ahead of when most Indians went to college in any material numbers, protected my brother and me fiercely from all of that which he thought would interfere with our sense of satisfaction with our cultural selves, if you will, notwithstanding that I'm aware of growing up in Oklahoma of tremendous doubt and lack of self-esteem about being Indian, amongst Native populations in Oklahoma. That has changed: now, significantly. And I think you can read it in a variety of ways. Much of it is simply self-declaration, which you can see. It's anecdotal, but you sense it's everywhere, of the pride that people take in being Indian. You also see it in more measurable forms in some ways; Native cultural centers, Native museums based right in the communities, now throughout the United States in Indian country are springing up like wildflowers in the desert. They're all over the place at this point. And that I think represents a very important circling back in a public way to this cultural past that has such present value to us. It's not that we're making it up or recreating it totally. It was there, but it was often underground, but now it is affirmed publicly.

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