Scalpdance by George Catlin
“On the morning of the next day, not long after we had stopped and taken our breakfast, our canoe was gliding along under the shore of a beautiful prairie. I saw in the grass, on the bank above me, what I supposed to be the back of a fine elk, busy at his grazing. I let our craft float silently by for a little way and I signaled what I had seen to the others. (Batiste and Bogard, his guides) I slyly ran in to the shore. I primed my flintlock rifle, took a couple of bullets in my mouth and stepped ashore. Trailing my rifle in my hand I ducked back under the bank and carefully crawled up under a little ravine. To my utter surprise and violent alarm I found the elk to be an Indian pony getting its breakfast. Beyond him were a few more ponies, and nearer to me, to the left, lay a war party of Indians round a little fire. Within twenty paces sat a large Indian with his back to me, busily cleaning the muzzle of his gun.”
North American Indians, George Catlin, Letter Number 10


Scalpdance, Mouth of the Teton River, George Catlin 1835-7

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Scalpdance by George Catlin

The above painting of a scalp dance is one of those in which Catlin reveals his initial distaste for some of the customs of the native Americans. The scalp dance was a celebration of victory. Here Catlin depicts the participants in a dehumanized way, something which he repeated in his painting of the o kee pa ( Sun Dance) ceremony, and which contrasts sharply with his normal style which might be criticized as a rather romanticized view of the ‘noble savage’. There is nothing noble about this picture, the dancers are almost demonic as they sway in amoebic unison threateningly waving their trophies aloft and crouching, facing outwards to confront onlookers and giving a fearless impression. Catlin was clearly repulsed by such customs and the overall effect of the picture is threatening and frightening, and that the performers were beyond his empathy, reflecting the emotion of disgust he must have felt.

’Medicine Paint’ Catlin clearly had their trust. An interloper would not normally have been invited to witness such events, because they had a deep spiritual significance for the people who took part in them. They were religious ceremonies, something which Catlin came to understand. As his bond with these peoples grew he became much less judgmental, and even tried to justify some of their less readily understood activities. This comes across very clearly in his letters. In Letter 29 from Upper Missouri he wrote this of scalping:
“I think there is some excuse for them , inasmuch as it is a general custom of the country….To say the most of it, it is a disgusting custom. I wish I could be quite sure that the civilized and Christian world ( who kills hundreds, to where the poor Indians kill one) do not often treat their enemies dead, in equally as indecent and disgusting a manner , as the Indian does by taking the scalp”

George Catlin was the first artist to live among the native Americans of the Plains. His objective was to record their appearance and culture in order that others may appreciate it. Bored by his life painting portraits in New York, and searching for something more meaningful, Catlin took his family to St Louis in 1831, where he met William Clark. It was Clark who had first made the journey of discovery across the continent with Meriwether Lewis after the United States had bought the Great Plains from France in 1803. In the summer of 1831 Clark took Catlin up the Mississippi to Prairie du Chien, where a great meeting took place between the Lakota, Iowa, Missouri and Sauk and Fox peoples. Upon his return he painted Black Hawk in St Louis, the chief who had fought unsuccessfully to stop the removal of his people. See Resettlement in the History section

George Catlin journeyed west five times in the 1830s to paint the Plains Indians and their way of life. Witnessing the ‘removal’ of native Americans from the east, he was convinced that westward expansion would bring their natural way of life to an end. He admired their harmony with nature and wanted to record it. Catlin was the first artist to record the Plains Indians in their own territories. In March 1832, beginning on a Yellowstone River steamboat he travelled two thousand miles up the Missouri, painting Lakota, Blackfoot, Assinniboin, Ojibwa and Crow(Apsaroke). He began painting scenes of daily life as well as portraits. On the return journey he recorded the Pawnee and a people who would soon be wiped out by smallpox: the Mandan, thus leaving us with a unique and vivid insight into this cultured and settled people. Further south at Fort Leavenworth Catlin painted the Shawnee, together with the Delaware , Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia who had been displaced from their homelands in the east. On further trips he painted Osage, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw and the fearsome Comanche in 1834, the Sauk and Fox, Winnebago and Menominee in 1835, and Yuchi and Seminole in 1837.

In 1837 George Catlin gathered together what he called his “Indian Gallery”, all his paintings and drawings as well as artifacts he had collected.


Opens for exhibition on Monday evening, the
25th instant and will be continued each
evening… in the lecture room of Clinton Hall.
There will be several hundred portraits
exhibited as well as Splendid Costumes
– Paintings of their villages –
Dances– Buffalo Costumes –
Religious Ceremonies etc.

Collected by himself, among the wildest
tribes of America during an absence from this
city of seven years. Mr Catlin will be present
at all of these exhibitions…
each admission 50 cents.
New York Commercial Advertiser
23 September 1837

The collection brought together 310 oil portraits, 200 other oil paintings, drawings, and all kinds of paraphernalia including headdresses , drums, robes, moccasins and even a full Crow tepee made of tanned buffalo hide. While initially successful in the United States this travelling exhibition became an expensive millstone for Catlin. His wife and son died while touring in Europe. Catlin was bankrupted and most of his work was stored in poor conditions. It was only in the following century in the 1950s and 60s that the importance of his work was recognized.

George Catlin left behind 500 paintings, beautiful works of art with which he achieved his goal of recording the native Americans for posterity. They are remarkable in that they offer us unique pictorial evidence of them which helps our historical imagination. Not only this, but George Catlin left us his letters which provide a fantastic insight into their customs and the reactions of a generally sympathetic white American to them. When he died, aged seventy four, in 1870, his forecast of the demise of the native Americans was already well under way.

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© Chris Smallbone March2006