The Tragic Prescience Of George Catlin

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“Oh! how I love a people who don’t live for the love of money,” George Catlin once exclaimed. The artist never ceased to marvel at the guileless, trusting simplicity and unselfish generosity of his Indian hosts, who welcomed him without reservation into their homes, entertained him as best they could, and who, he explained, “are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poor-house.”

This was hardly a popular point of view in the expansionist days of Catlin’s America, and he was often accused, not without some validity, of romanticizing the Indian, both in his paintings and in his lucid writings. But at least part of Catlin’s nostalgia sprang from his prophetic knowledge that the American Indian as he knew him could not survive in the white man’s culture. Catlin wrote in 1835:

I have viewed man in the artless and innocent simplicity of nature, in the full enjoyment of the luxuries which God had bestowed upon him. I have seen him happier than kings or princes can be, with his pipe and little ones about him. I have seen him shrinking from civilized approach, which came with all its vices, like the dead of night upon him … I have seen him shrinking from the soil and haunts of his boyhood, bursting the strongest ties which bound him to the earth and its pleasures; I have seen him set fire to his wigwam and smooth over the graves of his fathers … [and] with tears of grief sliding over his cheeks, clap his hand in silence over his mouth, and take the last look over his fair hunting-grounds, and turn his face in sadness to the setting sun. All this I have seen performed in nature’s silent dignity and grace … and I have seen as often the approach of the bustling, busy, talking, whistling, hopping, elated, and exulting white man, with the first dip of the ploughshare, making sacrilegious trespass on the bones of the valiant dead. I have seen the skull, the pipe, and the tomahawk rise from the ground together in interrogations which the sophistry of the world can never answer. I have seen thus, in all its forms and features, the grand and irresistible march of civilization. I have seen this splendid juggernaut rolling on and beheld its sweeping desolation, and held converse with the happy thousands, living as yet beyond its influence, who have not been crushed, nor yet have dreamed of its approach.

I have stood amidst these unsophisticated people, and contemplated with feelings of deepest regret the certain approach of this overwhelming system, which will inevitably march on and prosper, until reluctant tears shall have watered every rod of this fair land; and from the towering cliffs of the Rocky Mountains, the luckless savage will turn back his swollen eye over the blue and illimitable hunting-grounds from whence he has fled, and there contemplate … their splendid desolation. …

All this is certain. Man’s increase and the march of human improvements in this New World are as true and irresistible as the laws of nature, and he who could rise from his grave and speak, or would speak from the life some half century from this, would proclaim my prophecy true and fulfilled.

Catlin was off by only five years. On December 29, 1890, a unit of George Custer’s old outfit, the 7th Cavalry, slaughtered with Hotchkiss guns some two hundred Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. It was the last “battle” of the Indian wars.