Wednesday, January 5, 2011

George Catlin and Our First Nations, Perspectives on Washington State

George Catlin, Hee-oh kste-kin, Nez Perce, 1832 and other First Nations Portraits
Smithsonian American Art Museum

While visiting that that far eastern Washington in December, we took advantage of the great art museums in our nation's capitol. Besides appreciating magnificent paintings, I always look for insights on Washington State. This portrait of a Nez Perce caught my attention at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. The Nez Perce Tribe lived in what is now southeast Washington, Idaho and northeast Oregon. They played a vital role in shaping the Washington State we know today from assisting Lewis and Clark to the epic trek and running battles led by Chief Joseph.

The portraits were done by George Catlin in the 1830s. Catlin became obsessed with documenting the First Nations peoples of the west and traveled extensively painting and documenting their way of life. He was well aware that the heritage they represented was disappearing rapidly and made that documentation his life's work. He made numerous trips west to build a large body of work that he intended to sell to the U.S. Government as a complete body of work. In that he failed and sold the portraits to Joesph Harrison who kept the collection mostly intact before the Smithsonian gained the collection.

Although I initially wrongly assigned a set of portraits at the White House to Catlin, I saw numerous paintings by Catlin while in Washington DC.

Charles Bird King First Nations Portraits
 White House

Unfortunately George Catlin never traveled as far as what is now Washington State. But, in addition to the portraits, Catlin attempted to capture First Nations customs, games, living and hunting and some of that information is applicable to understanding our own landscape. I found the buffalo hunting paintings of great interest. Buffalo lived in what is now Washington State up to approximately 1700 and documented buffalo hunt sites have been found in eastern Washington. Furthermore Washington First Nation people traveled over the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo well into the 1800s.  

The first painting shows a buffalo hunt using bow and arrows and spears. The painting also captures how the buffalo would attempt to protect their young. But even this painting shows a new technology that had not been available to First Nations peoples for all that long prior to Catlin's painting and that is the horse. The introduction of the horse likely radically changed the hunting dynamic and may have played a significant role in the demise of buffalo in Washington State.
George Catlin, Buffalo Hunt, 1861
National Gallery of Art

But even more interesting is Catlin understood and was able to portray how buffalo were hunted in the wide open plains without the horse. Utilizing deep snow, the buffalo would be herded into snow drifts giving the hunters a big advantage. A bad snowy winter in eastern Washington could thus be taken advantage of if buffalo could be directed into drifts on say the lee of a hillside in the Horse Heaven Hills or the Palouse.

George Catlin, Buffalo Lancing in Snow Drifts, Sioux, 1861
Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin, Stalking Buffalo

A final note on George Catlin is on a more personal level. I saw this portrait in the Smithsonian American Art Museum with the caption "Ha-tchoo-tuc-knee, Snapping Turtle, a half-breed, 1834". Snapping Turtle was also known as Peter Perkins Pitchlynn. He was a great leader of the Choctaw Nation in Mississippi. The connection is a friend of mine that also now happens to live in DC is a descendant of Pitchlynn. He and I had many long distant running ventures in the Horse Heaven Hills including a winter run to the summit of Jump-Off-Joe and back from Kennewick and runs across frozen wheat fields with snow covering the furrows. We saw no buffalo on those runs, but we did sea packs of coyotes, deer and cattle. I had no idea I was running with royalty.

Ha-tchoo-tuc-knee, Snapping Turtle, a half-breed, 1834


Michael said...

Hi Dan, there is a photo captioned as George Catlin paintings in the White House. Those are actually Charles Bird King paintings. Painted in 1822. Further, "First Nations" is a term usually used for Indigenous people's from Canada, while "American Indian, Indian Tribes, Native American Tribes, Tribal Nations" are terms more used in the United States.

Dan McShane said...

Thanks for the correction.