by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER No. 28.


WHILST Painting the portraits of the chiefs and braves of the Sioux, as described in my last epistle, my painting-room was the continual rendezvous of the worthies of the tribe; and I, the "lion of the day", and my art, the summum and ne plus ultra of mysteries, which engaged the whole conversation of chiefs and sachems, as well as of women and children. I mentioned that I have been obliged to paint them according to rank, as they looked upon the operation as a very great honour, which I, as "a great chief and medicine-man", was conferring on all who sat to me. Fortunate it was for me, however, that the honour was not a sufficient inducement for all to overcome their fears, which often stood in the way of their consenting to be painted; for if all had been willing to undergo the operation, I should have progressed but a very little way in the "rank and file" of their worthies; and should have had to leave many discontented, and (as they would think) neglected. About one in five or eight was willing to be painted, and the rest thought they would be much more sure of "sleeping quiet in their graves" after they were dead, if their pictures were not made. By this lucky difficulty I got great relief, and easily got through with those who were willing, and at the same time decided by the chiefs to be worthy, of so signal an honour.

After I had done with the chiefs and braves, and proposed to paint a few of the women, I at once got myself into a serious perplexity, being heartily laughed at by the whole tribe, both by men and by women, for my exceeding and (to them) unaccountable condescension in seriously proposing to paint a woman; conferring on her the same honour that I had done the chiefs and braves. Those whom I had honoured, were laughed at by hundreds of the jealous, who had been decided unworthy the distinction, and were now amusing themselves with the very enviable honour which the great white medicine-man had conferred, especially on term, and was now to confer equally upon the squaws!

The first reply that I received from those whom I had! painted, was, that if I was to paint women and children, the sooner I destroyed their pictures, the better; for I had represented to them that I wanted their pictures to exhibit to white chiefs, to shew who were the most distinguished and worthy of the Sioux; and their women had never taken scalps, nor did anything better than make fires and dress skins. I was quite awkward in this dilemma, in explaining to them that I wanted the portraits of the women to hang tinder those of their husbands, merely to shew how their women looked, and how they dressed, without saying any more of them. After some considerable delay of my operations, and much deliberation on the subject, through the village, I succeeded in getting a number of women's portraits, of which the two above introduced are a couple.

The vanity of these men, after they had agreed to be painted was beyond all description, and far surpassing that which is oftentimes immodest enough in civilized society, where the sitter generally leaves the picture when it is done to speak for, and to take care of, itself; while an Indian often lays down, from morning till night, in front of his portrait, admiring his own beautiful face, and faithfully guarding it from day to day, to save it from accident or harm.

This watching or guarding their portraits, I have observed during all of my travels amongst them as a very curious thing; and in many instances, where my colours were not dry, and subjected to so many accidents, from the crowds who were gathering about them, I have found this Peculiar guardianship of essential service to me -- relieving my mind oftentimes from a great deal of anxiety.

I was for a long time at a loss for the true cause of this singular a peculiarity, but at last learned that it was owing to their superstitious notion, that there may be life to a certain extent in the picture; and that if harm or violence be done to it, it may in some mysterious way, affect their health or do them other injury.

After I had been several weeks busily at work with my brush in this village, and pretty well used to the modes of life in these regions -- and also familiarly acquainted with all the officers and clerks of the Establishment, it was announced one day, that the steamer which we had left, was coming in the river below, where all eyes were anxiously turned, and all ears were listening; when, at length, we discovered the puffing of her steam; and, at last, heard the thundering of her cannon, which were firing from her deck.

The excitement and dismay caused amongst 6000 of these wild people, when the steamer came up in front of their village, was amusing in the extreme. The steamer was moored at the shore, however; and when Mr. Chouteau and Major Sanford, their old friend and agent, walked ashore, it seemed to restore their confidence and courage; and the whole village gathered in front of the boat, without showing much further amazement, or even curiosity about it.

The steamer rested a week or two at this Place before she started on her voyage for the head-waters of the Missouri; during which time, there was much hilarity and mirth indulged in amongst the Indians, as well as with the hands employed in the service of the Fur Company. The appearance of a steamer in this wild country was deemed a wonderful occurrence, and the time of her presence here, looked upon, and used as a holiday. Some sharp encounters amongst the trappers, who come in here from the mountains, loaded with Packs of furs, with sinews hardened by long exposure, and seemingly impatient for a bight, which is soon given them by some bullying fisticuff-fellow, who steps forward and settles the matter in a ring, which is made and strictly preserved for fair play, until hard raps, and bloody noses, and blind eyes "settle the hash", and satisfy his trapper ship to lay in bed a week or two, and then graduate a sober and a civil man.

Amongst the Indians we have had numerous sights and amusements to entertain and some to shock us. Shows of dances-ball-plays-horse racing -- foot racing, and wrestling in abundance. Feasting -- fasting, and prayers we have also had; and penance and tortures, and almost every thing short of self-immolation.

Some few days after the steamer had arrived, it was announced that a grand feast was to be given to the great white chiefs, who were visitors amongst them; and preparations were made accordingly for it. The two chiefs, Ha-wan-je-tah and Te-han-dee, of whom I have before spoken, brought their two tents together, forming the two into a semi-circle, enclosing a space sufficiently large to accommodate I50 men; and sat down with that number of the principal chiefs and warriors of the Sioux nation; with Mr. Chouteau, Major Sanford, the Indian agent, Mr. MCKENZIE, and myself, whom they had invited in due time, and placed on elevated seats in the center of the crescent; while the rest of the company all sat upon the ground, and mostly cross-legged, preparatory to the feast being dealt out.

In the center of the semi-circle was erected a flag-staff, on which was waving a white flag, and to which also was tied the calumet, both expressive of their friendly feelings towards us. Near the foot of the flag-staff were placed in a row on the ground, six or eight kettles, with iron covers on them, shutting them tight, in which were prepared the viands for our voluptuous feast. Near the kettles, and on the ground also, bottom side upwards, were a number of wooden bowls, in which the meat was to be served out. And in front, two or three men, wile were there placed as waiters, to light the pipes for smoking, and also to deal out the food.

In these positions things stood, and all sat, with thousands climbing and crowding around, for a peep at the grand pageant; when at length, Ha-wan-je-tah (The One Horn), head chief of the nation, rose in front of the Indian agent, in a very handsome costume, and addressed him thus:

"My father, I am glad to see you here to-day -- my heart is always glad to see my father when he comes -- our Great Father, who sends him here is very rich, and we are poor. Our friend Mr. McKinzie, who is here, we are also glad to see; we know him well, and we shall be sorry when he is gone our friend who is on your right-hand we all know is very rich; and we have heard that he owns the great medicine-canoe; he is a good man, and a friend to the red men. Our friend the White Medicine, who sits with you, we did not know -- he came amongst us a stranger, and he has made me very well -- all the women know it, and think it very good; he has done many curious things, and we have all been pleased with him -- he has made us much amusement -- and we know he is great medicine.

"My father, I hope you will have pity on us, we are very pool-we offer you to-day, not the best that we have got; for we have a plenty of good buffalo hump and marrow -- but we give you our hearts in this feast -- we have killed our faithful dogs to feed you -- and the Great Spirit will seal our friendship. I have no more to say."

After these words he took off his beautiful war-eagle head-dress -- his shirt and leggings -- his necklace of grizzly bears claws and his moccasins; and tying them together, laid them gracefully down at the feet of the agent as a present; and laying a handsome pipe on top of them, he walked around into an adjoining lodge, where he got a buffalo robe to cover his shoulders, and returned to the feast, taking his seat which he had before occupied.

Major Sanford then rose and made a short speech in reply, thanking him for the valuable present which he had made him, and for the very polite and impressive manner in which it had been done; and sent to the steamer for a quantity of tobacco and other presents, which were given to him in return. After this, and after several others of the chiefs had addressed him in a similar manner; and, like the first, disrobed themselves, and thrown their beautiful costumes at his feet, one of the three men in front deliberately lit a handsome pipe, and brought it to Ha-wan-je-tah to smoke. He took it, and after presenting the stem to the North-to the South -- to the East, and the West -- and then to the Sun that was over his head, and pronounced the words "How--how--how!" drew a whiff or two of smoke through it, and holding the bowl of it in one hand, and its stem in the other, he then held it to each of our mouths, as we successively smoked it; after which it was passed around through the whole group, who ail smoked through it, or as far as its contents lasted, when another of the three waiters was ready with a second, and at length a third one, in the same way, which lasted through the hands of the whole number of guests. This smoking was conducted with the strictest adherence to exact and established form, and the feast the whole way, to the most positive silence. After the pipe is charged, and is being lit, until the time that the chief has drawn the smoke through it, it is considered an evil omen for any one to speak; and if any one break silence in that time, even in a whisper, the pipe is instantly dropped by the chief, and their superstition is such, that they would not dare to use it on this occasion; but another one is called for and used in its stead. If there is no accident of the kind during the smoking, the waiters then proceed to distribute the meat, which is soon devoured in the feast.

In this case the lids were raised From the kettles, which were all filled with dogs' meat alone. It being well-cooked, and made into a sort of a stew, sent forth a very savory and pleasing smell, promising to be an acceptable and palatable food. Each of us civilized guests had a large wooden bud placed before us, with a huge quantity of dogs' flesh floating in a profusion of soup, or rich gravy, with a large spoon resting in the dish, made of the buffalo's horn. In this most difficult and painful dilemma we sat; all of us knowing the solemnity and good feeling in which it was given, and the absolute necessity of falling to, and devouring a little of it. We all tasted it a few times, and resigned our dishes, which were quite willingly taken, and passed around with others, to every part of the group, who all ate heartily of the delicious viands, which were soon dipped out of the kettles, and entirely devoured; after which each one arose as he felt disposed, and. walked off without uttering a word. In this way the feast ended, and all retired silently, and gradually, until the ground was left vacant to the charge of the waiters or officers, who seemed to have charge of it during the whole occasion.

This feast was unquestionably given to us, as the most undoubted evidence they could give us of their friendship; and we, who knew the spirit and feeling in which it was given, could not but treat it respectfully, and receive it as a very high and marked compliment.

Since I witnessed it on this occasion, I have been honoured with numerous entertainments of the kind amongst the other tribes, which I have visited towards the sources of the Missouri, and all conducted in the same solemn and impressive manner; from which I feel authorized to pronounce the cornfeast a truly religious ceremony, wherein the poor Indian sees fit to sacrifice his faithful companion to bear testimony to the sacredness of his vows of friendship, and invite his friend to partake of its flesh, to remind him forcibly of the reality of the sacrifice, and the solemnity of his professions.

The dog, amongst all Indian tribes, is more esteemed and more valued than amongst any part of the civilized world; the Indian who has more time to devote to his company, and whose untutored mind more nearly assimilates to that of his faithful servant, keeps him closer company, and draws him nearer to his heart; they hunt together, and are equal sharers in the chase-their bed is one; and on the rocks, and on their coats of arms they carve his image as the symbol of fidelity. Yet, with all of these he will end his affection with this faithful follower, and with tears in his eyes, offer him as a sacrifice to seal the pledge he has made to man; because a feast of venison, or of buffalo meat, is what is due to every one who enters an Indian's wigwam I and of course, conveys but a passive or neutral evidence, that generally goes for nothing.

I have sat at many of these feasts, and never could hut appreciate the moral and solemnity of them. I have seen the master take from the bowl the head of his victim, and descant on its former affection and fidelity with tears in his eyes. And I have seen guests at the same time by the aide of me, jesting and sneering at the poor Indian's folly and stupidity; and I have said in my heart, that they never deserved a name so good or so honourable as that of the poor animal whose bones they were picking.

At the feast which I have been above describing, each of us tasted a little of the meat, and passed the dishes on to the Indians, who soon demolished everything they contained. We all agreed that the meat was well cooked, and seemed to be a well-flavored and palatable food; and no doubt, could have been eaten with a good relish, if we had been hungry, and ignorant of the nature of the food we were eating.

The flesh of these dogs, though apparently relished by the Indians, is, undoubtedly, inferior to the venison and buffalo's meat, of which feasts are constantly made where friends are invited, as they are in civilized society, to a pleasant and convivial party; from which fact alone, it would seem clear, that they have some extraordinary motive, at all events, for feasting on the flesh of that useful and faithful animal; even when, as in the instance I have been describing, their village is well supplied with fresh and dried meat of the buffalo. The dog-feast is given, I believe, by all tribes in North America; and by them all, I think, this faithful animal, as well as the horse, is sacrificed in several different ways, to appease offended Spirits or Deities, whom it is considered necessary that they should conciliate in this way; and when done, is invariably done by giving the best in the herd or the kennel.

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