Written by Shahmima Akhtar
Second Year History undergraduate
George Catlin (1796-1872), was a Pennsylvanian born artistic-historian. In the 1820s, he assigned himself the messianic mission of, in his own words, ‘flying to the rescue [of Indians] not of their lives or their race (for they are doomed and must perish), but to the rescue of their looks and their modes [so] phoenix-like they may rise from the painters palette, and live again upon the canvas, the living monuments of a noble race’.
Catlin’s life-long ambition was underpinned by the prevalent macabre ideology of the time, which professed that the Native Americans were a ‘dying race’. A race dying in the face of American civilization and expansion. Such an ideology can be traced to the eighteenth century; embodied in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). Jefferson cites alcohol, disease and white expansion as the inevitable precursors of an American Indian extinction.
Catlin’s life-long ambition was underpinned by the prevalent macabre ideology of the time, which professed that the Native Americans were a ‘dying race’. A race dying in the face of American civilization and expansion.
During the nineteenth century, an era commonly regarded as the high-point of American expansion, with Americans following their ‘Manifest Destiny’ with almost-biblical zeal, the Native American population was permanently consigned to oblivion. They faced the choice between assimilating to white civilization, or else dying out. Catlin’s most famous work was produced during this period, where he fervently documented a ‘dying race’ to benefit posterity. In the 1830s, Catlin spent six years in the Plains and Rocky Mountains of North America, painting, recording and collecting for an ‘Indian Gallery’. In the 1840s, Catlin exhibited his ‘Indian Gallery’ in our very own Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. After two years of showcasing Catlin’s ‘Indian Gallery’, which included performances by Catlin and his family ‘dressing/redding up’ as American Indians, as well as live performances by American Indians, notably the Ojibwa and Iowa Indians. Catlin packed up his ‘Indian Gallery’ and toured the British Isles; his travels saw him exhibiting in smoky Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland and many more British cities.
So why am I telling you this? Well, March 2013, marked the date that Catlin’s ‘Indian Gallery’ once again crossed the Atlantic. This time being exhibited in London’s National Portrait Gallery. 173 years after Catlin himself travelled on the Yellowstone steamer, bringing to Britain his portraits of hundreds of Indians (totalling over 600), the Smithsonian has agreed to the re-exhibition of Catlin’s ‘Indian Gallery’. This not only marks a seminal moment in representations of American Indians, but ushers in a new dawn in history. One which seeks to acknowledge decades of neglect, which seeks to revise its treatment of those previously regarded as the ‘Other’. American Indians have once again been brought to the public sphere, but this time not as Indians performing war scenes, sacred ceremonies and tribal dances, but as individuals in and of themselves.
173 years after Catlin himself travelled on the Yellowstone steamer, bringing to Britain his portraits of hundreds of Indians (totalling over 600), the Smithsonian has agreed to the re-exhibition of Catlin’s ‘Indian Gallery’.
Catlin’s ‘Indian Gallery’ has today served as a catalyst in creating an international discourse on the condition of Native Americans. This raises monumental questions; one of the most important being: how will the present-day United States account for the their past and how will the U.S. resolve the dire situations that many American Indians living on reservations find themselves in today?