The Sioux Through Varied Eyes
This item is a hand painted lithograph print created by George Catlin titled “Buffalo Hunt Chase.” The lithograph was made in 1844, for his North American Indian Portfolio. This was a series of naturalistic scenes Catlin created of various Native American tribes and activities, much in the style of Audubon’s birds. Like the birds, the pictures were bound in volumes and copies were available to purchase. Catlin went to law school and had a practice, but decided later in life to pursue his passion for painting. He was effective at creating complex scenes like this one, although his depictions of human and animal anatomy are quite stylized. The Native Americans pictured are not identified as any particular tribe or group, although these people could be identified as inspired by the Sioux, given some features of their dress and the fact that they are hunting bison.
Catlin created this painting, as well as the others in his series, based on observations of Native Americans. However, when compared with Luther Standing Bear’s account of a bison hunt (which he refers to as a buffalo hunt), it is clear that Catlin’s representation was altered to satisfy the white view of savage, predatory Native Americans. Catlin was a white man in the mid-19th century United States, so it is unsurprising that he had some inclination towards this worldview. Many of his works are regarded as remarkably accurate and kind to the Native Americans they depict, but this is an exception. The wide, frightened eyes of the men and their half-dressed state very much correlates with the image of the ‘savage Indian’ that was a fixture in the pulp fiction genre of the day. The men, the horses, and the bison in the picture all seem to be on the same level of intelligence and fear as each other. This, as well as their unlikely acrobatics and the bloody aspect, would easily satisfy the preconceived notion many white people hold of Native Americans, especially at the time. This is a much easier route, not to mention better for business, that Catlin took, rather than challenge the notions of uncivilized, wild hunters.
It is not necessary to assume Catlin was malicious in his false portrayal (although when compared with a real account it quite obviously is) and there could be a reason for it. In contrast to his work, the chapter of My People the Sioux titled “A Buffalo Hunt and a Battle” contains detailed description of a bison hunt by someone who actually partook in one. Some parts line up; “the men rode without saddles” and it “was a very dangerous proposition.” Both of these things are evident in the painting. However, other notes in Standing Bear’s description stand in direct contrast. “The men killed only what they thought was enough for the camp.” The Sioux people respected the bison, and knew the benefits of sustainability; this was their food for generations to come. They killed responsibly, and with reason. Finally, the bison in the book are described as causing a stampede which completely obscured the hunters’ view. That would make it quite difficult to see any of the activity represented here. I think that there is a good reason why this particular painting of Catlin’s contains so many discrepancies. It seems unlikely that Catlin would have been able to accompany the men on the hunt; he was inexperienced and could get hurt or cause a problem. An anecdote of this event being relayed to him by a member of the tribe seems infinitely more probable, and would explain the oddness of this piece among hundreds of still portraits and camp activities accurately depicted. If that anecdote was exaggerated or Catlin misinterpreted it, “Buffalo Hunt Chase” would be much easier to understand. Catlin was unable to create this piece with the absolute accuracy he desired, so he fell back on his perceived knowledge of Native Americans.
By Isabel Mandelbaum
Rebecca Romney. “An Artist Finds His Calling: The Story of George Catlin, the ‘First Artist of the West.’” Bauman Rare Books Blog. Bauman Rare Books, Sept. 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
Standing Bear, Luther. My People The Sioux. Lincoln: Bison Books, 2006. Print.
"George Catlin." American National Biography. 1st ed. 1999. Print.