Were the Native Americans of the Plains Savages?: Using Sources Using Sources

Source 3 George Armstrong Custer, My Life on the Plains, 1874

George Armstrong Custer was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Untied States Army.
• led an attack on a peaceful village at the River Washita in 1868
• took four Southern Cheyenne warriors prisoner when they came in under a flag of truce in 1869

“The Indian is a savage in every sense of the word; not worse, perhaps than his white brother would be similarly born and bred, but one whose cruel and ferocious nature far exceeds that of any beast of the desert.”

Talking Points

• Does Custer think that the native Americans were savages?
• What words does he use which supports your answer?
• What comparison does he make to support his statement?
• Is Custer’s statement a fact or an opinion?
• How can you tell if it is a fact or an opinion?
• How does Custer show some understanding for the native Americans?
• Are there reasons why you think you may trust Custer’s statement ( you think it is reliable)? If so, explain.
• Are there reasons why you think you may not trust Custer’s statement ( you think it is unreliable)? If so, explain.

Source 4 George Catlin, Self-torture in a Sioux Religious Ceremony, 1835-1837,Smithsonian Institution

George Catlin was a painter who gave up painting portraits in New York to travel among the Native Americans of the Plains. Between 1830 and 1837 he journeyed all over the plains, sketching many peoples, including the Lakota (Sioux) and the Comanche. In 1837 Catlin gathered together what he called his “Indian Gallery”, all his paintings and drawings as well as artifacts he had collected. The collection brought together 310 oil portraits, and 200 other oil paintings. The ‘Indian Gallery’, as Catlin called it, also included his drawings, and items he had collected on his travels: headdresses , drums, robes, moccasins and even a full Crow tepee made of tanned buffalo hide.

George Catlin

Talking Points

• Do you think George Catlin thought these people were savages when he painted this?
• Can you trust this picture as evidence of native American culture?

Source 5 George Catlin, Letter Number 29 Mouth of the Teton River, Upper Missouri

George Catlin also left us his letters which provide us with a rich source of evidence into native American customs.

Near the banks of the Teton River, in a little plain at the base of the bluffs, were grouped some fifteen or twenty lodges ……..to see a man “looking at the sun”. We found him naked, except for his breech cloth, with splints or skewers run through the flesh on both breasts, leaning back and hanging with the weight of his body to the top of the pole which was fastened to the ground, and to the upper end of which he was fastened by a cord which was tied to the splints. In this position he was leaning back, with nearly the whole weight of his body hanging to the pole, the top of which was bent forward, allowing his body to sink about half way to the ground. His feet were still on the ground supporting a small amount of his weight, and he held in his left hand his favourite bow, and in his right, with a desperate grip, his medicine bag. Blood trickled down his body, which was covered with white and yellow clay. A great crowd looked on, sympathizing with and encouraging him………….to stand and look at the sun from its rising in the morning till its setting at night. At this time, if his heart and his strength have not failed him he is cut down, receives many presents and also…ensures him respect through life. This most extraordinary and cruel custom……is a sort of worship, or penance, of great cruelty…….Disgusting and painful to behold, with only one excuse for it, it is a voluntary torture and of very rare occurrence.

Talking Points

• Identify any parts of George Catlin’s letter which match with the above painting.
• In your own words explain what George Catlin felt about this ritual.
• How does Catlin show that he wants to understand the native Americans?
• In your own words explain the two reasons which he gives to excuse this ceremony.

Source 6 New York Times October 14 1851
From the St Louis Republican, Fort Laramie September 1

The Cheyennes, who were formerly looked upon as the best Indians of the Plains are now universally regarded as the worst. They are a stout, bold, athletic sort of people- more cleanly and better supplied with horses and implements of war than other tribes; and their impudent bearing, and consideration which they have been treated at the military posts and by the whites have made them saucy and unscrupulous. They have a great contempt for the white men……..There are numerous reports of their insolence ……(cheek) and outrages on emigrants and I have no doubt that until they are severely flogged by the US troops they will not behave themselves……..They are as wayward as children and as easily spoiled if not as easily controlled.

Talking Points

• Did the person who wrote this respect the Native Americans? Explain your answer
• New York is on the east coast of America while Fort Laramie was on the Oregon Trail in the Great Plains. What would someone reading this in New York think of the native Americans?
• How might a Cheyenne have seen this differently?

Source 7 George Catlin, Letter Number 27 Mouth of the Teton River, Upper Missouri

…the Puncahs…. were packing up all their goods and preparing to start for the prairies…to find buffalos. They took down their tepees of skins to carry with them. And all were flat to the ground……a chief, and a man of distinction in his tribe,….was now too old to travel. Being reduced to skin and bones, he was to be left to starve, or meet with such death as might befall his lot, and his bones to be picked by the wolves!

I stayed with the poor old man, crying tears of sympathy. He was so decrepit his worn out limbs would not support him. He sat, almost naked, trembling, next to a small fire, his eyes dimmed and his hair whitened by a hundred years. His friends had built a fire and left a few sticks in his reach and a buffalo skin stretched out over his head. He also had a few half picked bones within reach, and a dish of water. But he had no weapons and no strength to move to replace the food or water.

His friends and children prepared to leave, as he had told them to. “I am old,” he said, “and too feeble to march. Our nation is poor. You must travel to get meat. My eyes are dimmed and my strength is gone. I am a burden to you all. I cannot go. I wish to die. Keep your hearts strong and think not of me. I am good for nothing.”

I was the last man to speak with the old man. I approached him and sat next to him. He smiled, aware that I was a white man and sympathized with his condition.

When the letter appeared in his book Catlin added a footnote:

When passing by the site of the Puncah village a few months after this…..I found the poles and the buffalo skin standing as I had left them…….The firebrands were lying nearby as I had left them, and I found at a few yards distant the skull, and other of his bones, which had been picked clean by the wolves.

Talking Points

• How did George Catlin feel about what happened to the old man?
• Why did he feel like this?
• What did the old man think about being left behind?
• Why did the old man smile when Catlin spoke to him?

Source 8 George Catlin, Letter Number 29 Mouth of the Teton River, Upper Missouri

“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”

Talking Points

• How did George Catlin feel about this custom?
• How does he excuse it?

Source 9 Tatangi Mani or Walking Buffalo, Stoney People 1871-1967, Mcluhan, Touch the Earth, 1971, page 23

We were a lawless people, but we were on pretty good terms with the Great Spirit, creator and ruler of all. You whites assumed we were savages. You didn’t understand our prayers. You didn’t try to understand. When we sang our praises to the sun or moon or wind you said we were worshipping idols. Without understanding, you condemned us as lost souls just because our form of worship was different from yours.

We saw the Great Spirit’s work in almost everything: sun, moon, trees, wind and mountains……..Indians living close to nature and nature’s ruler are not living in darkness.

Talking Points

• According to Tatangi Mani, what mistake did the whites make about the Indians?
• Does this source show the native Americans were savages? Explain your answer.

Source 10 Black Elk, Oglala Lakota (Sioux)McCluhan, Touch the Earth, 1971, page 42

….everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles……….In the old days when we were a strong and happy people…..the east gave us peace and light, the south gave us warmth the west gave rain and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round….The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in a circle for theirs is the same religion as ours. ……

Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tipis were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle……..where the Great spirit meant for us to hatch our children.

Talking Point

• How might this source be useful in trying to find evidence of whether or not the native Americans were savages?

Source 11 Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota (Sioux)McCluhan, Touch the Earth, 1971, page 45

Only to the White Man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested' with 'wild' animals and 'savage' people. To us it was tame…….When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the 'Wild West' began.

Talking Point

• What does this show about the native Americans?
• Does this show them to be savages or not? Explain your answer.

Source 12 Chief Joseph, Nez Percé, McCluhan, Touch the Earth, 1971, page 119

The white men were many and we could not hold our own with them. We were like deer. They were like Grizzly Bears. We had a small country. Their country was large. We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit made them. They were not, and would change the rivers if they did not suit them.

Talking Point

• According to Chief Joseph what was the main difference between the two cultures. There are three parts to identifying a difference:
o In what way are they different: what is the difference about?
o How does this apply to the first case ( the ‘whites’)?
o How does this apply to the second case ( the native Americans) ?

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Were they Savages? Lesson

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© Chris Smallbone March 2006