by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER. No. 29.


ANOTHER curious and disgusting scene I witnessed in the after part of the day on which we were honoured with the dog feast. In this I took no part, but was sufficiently near to it, when standing some rods off, and witnessing the cruel operation. I was called upon by one of the clerks in the Establishment to ride up a mile or so, near the banks of the Teton River, in a little plain at the base of the bluffs, where were grouped some fifteen or twenty lodges of the Ting-ta-to-ah band, to see a man (as they said) "looking at the sun"! We found him naked, except 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 a 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 upon the ground, supporting a small part of his weight; and he held in his left hand his favorite bow, and in his right, with a desperate grip, his medicine-bag. In this condition, with the blood trickling down over his body, which was covered with white and yellow clay, and amidst a great crowd who were looking on, sympathizing with and encouraging him, he was hanging and "looking at the sun", without paying the least attention to any one about him. In the group that was reclining around him, were several mystery-men beating their drums and shaking their rattles, and singing as loud as they could yell, to encourage him and strengthen his heart to stand and look at the sun, from its rising in the morning 'till its setting at night; at which time, if his heart and his strength have not failed him, he is "cut down", receives the liberal donation of presents (which have been thrown into a pile before him during the day), and also the name and the style of a doctor, or medicine-man, which lasts him, and ensures him respect, through life.

This most extraordinary and cruel custom I never heard of amongst any other tribe, and never saw an instance of it before or after the one I have just named. It is a sort of worship, or penance, of great cruelty; disgusting and painful to behold, with only one palliating circumstance about it, which is, that it is a voluntary torture and of very rare occurrence. The poor and ignorant, misguided and superstitious man who undertakes it, puts his everlasting reputation at stake upon the issue; for when he takes his stand, he expects to face the sun and gradually turn his body in listless silence, till he sees it go down at night; and if he faints and falls, of which there is imminent danger, he loses his reputation as a brave or mystery-man, and suffers a signal disgrace in the estimation of the tribe, like all men who have the presumption to set themselves up for braves or mystery-men, and fail justly to sustain the character.

The Sioux seem to have many modes of worshiping the Great or Good Spirit, and also of conciliating the Evil Spirit: they have numerous fasts and feasts, and many modes of sacrificing, but yet they seem to pay less strict attention to them than the Mandans do, which may perhaps be owing in a great measure to the wandering and predatory modes of life which they pursue, rendering it difficult to adhere so rigidly to the strict form and letter of their customs.

There had been, a few days before I arrived at this place, a great medicine operation held on the prairie, a mile or so back of the Fort, and which, of course, I was not lucky enough to see. The poles were still standing, and the whole transaction was described to me by my friend Mr. Halsey, one of the clerks in the Establishment. From the account given of it, it seems to bear some slight resemblance to that of the Mandan religious ceremony, but no nearer to it than a feeble effort by so ignorant and superstitious a people, to copy a custom which they most probably have had no opportunity to see themselves, but have endeavored to imitate from hearsay. They had an awning of immense size erected on the prairie which is yet standing, made of willow bushes supported by posts, with Poles and willow boughs laid over; under the center of which there was a pole set firmly in the ground, from which many of the young men had suspended their bodies by splints run through the flesh in different parts, the numerous scars of which were yet seen bleeding afresh from day to day, amongst the crowds that were about me.

During my stay amongst the Sioux, as I was considered by them to be great medicine, Received many pipes and other little things from them as presents, given to me in token of respect for me, and as assurances of their friendship; aud I, being desirous to collect and bring from their country every variety of their manufactures, of their costumes, their weapons, their pipes, and their mystery-things, purchased a great many others, for which, as I was "medicine" and a "great white chief"! I was necessarily obliged to pay very liberal prices.

Of the various costumes (of this, as well as of other tribes), that I have collected, there will be seen fair and faithful representations in the numerous portraits; and of their war-clubs, pipes, &c. I have set forth in the following illustrations, a few of the most interesting of the very great numbers of those things which I have collected in this and other tribes which I have visited.

The luxury of smoking is known to all the North American Indians, in their primitive state, and that before they have any knowledge of tobacco; which is only introduced amongst them by civilized adventurers, who teach them the use and luxury of whiskey at the same time.

In their native state they are excessive smokers, and many of them (I would almost venture the assertion), would seem to be smoking one-half of their lives. There may be two good reasons for this, the first of which is, that the idle and leisure life that the Indian leads, (who has no trade or business to follow -- no office hours to attend to, or profession to learn), induces him to look for occupation and amusement in so innocent a luxury, which again further tempts him to its excessive use, from its feeble and harmless effects on the system. There are many weeds and leaves, and barks of trees, which are narcotics, and of spontaneous growth in their countries, which the Indians dry and pulverize, and carry In pouches and smoke to great excess -- and which in several of the languages, when thus prepared, is called k'nick K'neck.

As smoking is a luxury so highly valued by the Indians, they have bestowed much pains, and not a little ingenuity, to the construction of their pipes. Of these I have procured a collection of several hundreds, and have given facsimile outlines of a number of the most curious. The bowls of these are generally made of the red steatite, or "pipe-stone" (as it is more familiarly called in this country), and many of them designed and carved with much taste and skill, with figures and groups in alto relieao, standing or reclining upon them.

The red stone of which these pipe bowls are made, is, in my estimation, a great curiosity; inasmuch as I am sore it is a variety of steatite (if it be steatite), differing from that of any known European locality, and also from any locality known in America, other than the one from which all these pipes come; and which are all traceable I have found to one source; and that source as yet unvisited except by the red man who describes it, everywhere, as a place of vast importance to the Indians -- as given to them by the Great Spirit, for their pipes, and strictly forbidden to be used for anything else.

The source from whence all these pipes come, is, undoubtedly, somewhere between this place and the Mississippi River; and as the Indians all speak of it as a great medicine-place, I shall certainly lay my course to it, era long, and be able to give the world some account of it and its mysteries.

The Indians shape out the bowls of these pipes from the solid stone, which is not quite as hard as marble, with nothing but a knife. The stone which is of a cherry red, admits of a beautiful polish, and the Indian makes the hole in the bowl of the pipe, by drilling into it a hard stick, shaped to the desired size, with a quantity of sharp sand and water kept constantly in the hole, subjecting him therefore to a very great labour and the necessity of much patience.

The shafts or stems of these pipes, are from two to four feet long, sometimes round, but most generally fat; of an inch or two in breadth, and wound half their length or more with braids of porcupines' quills; and often ornamented with the beaks and tufts from the wood-pecker's head, with ermine skins and long red hair, dyed from white horse hair or the white buffalo's tail.

The stems of these pipes will be found to be carved in many ingenious forms, and in all cases they are perforated through the center, quite staggering the wits, of the enlightened world to guess how the holes have been bored through them; until it is simply and briefly explained, that the stems are uniformly made of the stalk of the young ash, which generally grows straight, and has a small pith through the center, which is easily burned out with a hot wire or a piece of hard wood, by a much slower process.

In another drawing of articles, the pipes marked b are ordinary pipes, made and used for the luxury only of smoking; and for this purpose, every Indian designs and constructs his own pipe. The calumet, or Pipe of peace, ornamented with the war-eagle's quills, is a sacred pipe, and never allowed to be used on any other occasion than that of peace-making; when the chief brings it into treaty, and unfolding the many bandages which are carefully kept around it -- has it ready to be mutually smoked by the chiefs, after the terms of the treaty are agreed upon, as the means of solemnizing or signing, by an illiterate people, who cannot draw up an instrument, and sign their names to it, as it is done in the civilized world.

The mode of solemnizing is by passing the sacred stem to each chief, who draws one breath of smoke only through it, thereby passing the most inviolable pledge that they can possibly give, for the keeping of the peace. This sacred pipe is then carefully folded up, and stowed away in the chief's lodge, until a similar occasion calls it out to be used in a similar manner. There is no custom more uniformly in constant use amongst the poor Indians than that of smoking, nor any other more highly valued. His pipe is his constant companion through life -- his messenger of peace; he pledges his friends through its stem and its bowl -- end when its care-drowning fumes cease to flow, it takes a place with him in his solitary grave, with his tomahawk and war-club, companions to his long fancied, "mild and beautiful hunting-grounds."

The weapons of these people, like their pipes, are numerous, and mostly manufactured by themselves. In a former place. I have described a part of these, such as the bows and arrows, lances, &c., and they have yet many others, specimens of which I have collected from every tribe; and a number of which I have grouped together; consisting of knives, war-clubs, and tomahawks. I have here introduced the most general and established forms that are in use amongst the different tribes, which are all strictly copied from amongst the great variety of these articles to be found in my Collection.

The scalping-knives and tomahawks epee are of civilized manufacture, made expressly for Indian use, and carried into the Indian country by thousands and tens of thousands, and sold at an enormous price. The scabbards of the knives and handles for the tomahawks, the Indians construct themselves, according to their own taste, and oftentimes ornament them very handsomely. In his rude and unapproached condition, the Indian is a stranger to such weapons as these--he works not in the metals; and his untutored mind has not been ingenious enough to design or execute anything so savage or destructive as these civilized refinements on Indian barbarity. In his native simplicity he shapes out his rude hatchet from a piece of stone, as in letter f, heads his arrows and spears with flints; and his knife is a sharpened bone, or the edge of a broken silex. The war-club c is also another civilized refinement, with a blade of steel, of eight or ten inches in length, and set in a club, studded around and ornamented with some hundreds of brass nails.

Their primitive clubs d are curiously carved in wood, and fashioned out with some considerable picturesque form and grace; are admirably fitted to the hand, and calculated to deal a deadly blow with the spike of iron or bone which is imbedded in the ball or bulb at the end.

Two of the tomahawks that I have named, marked e, are what are denominated "pipe-tomahawks," as the heads of them are formed into bowls like a pipe, in which their tobacco is put, and they smoke through the handle. These are the most valued of an Indian's weapons, inasmuch as they are a matter of luxury, and useful for cutting his fire-wood, &c. in time of peace; and deadly weapons in time of war, which they use in the hand, or throw with unerring and deadly aim.

The scalping-knife b in a beautiful scabbard, which is carried under the belt, is the form of knife most generally used in all parts of the Indian country, where knives have been introduced. It is a common and cheap butcher knife with one edge, manufactured at Sheffield, in England, perhaps, for sixpence; and sold to the poor Indian in these wild regions for a horse. If I should live to get home, and should ever cross the Atlantic with my Collection, a curious enigma would be solved for the English people, who may enquire for a scalping-knife, when they find that every one in my Collection (and hear also, that nearly every one that is to be seen in the Indian country, to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean) bears on its blade the impress of G.R., which they will doubtless understand.

The huge two-edged knife, with its scabbard of a part of the skin of a grizzly bear's head, letter a, is one belonging to the famous chief of the Mandans, of whom I have before said much. The manufacture of this knife is undoubtedly American; and its shape differs altogether from those which are in general use.

The above weapons, as well as the bow and lance, of which I have before spoken, are all carried and used on horseback with great effect. The Indians in this country of green fields, all ride for their enemies, and also for their game, which is almost invariably killed whilst their horses are at full speed. They are all cruel masters for their horses; and in war or the chase goad them on with a heavy and cruel whip, the handle of which is generally made of a large prong of the elk's horn or of wood, mid the lashes of rawhide are very heavy; being braided, or twisted, or cut into wide straps. These are invariably attached to the wrist of the right arm by a tough thong, that they can be taken up and used at any moment, and dropped the next, without being lost.

During the time that I was engaged in painting my portraits, I was occasionally inducing the young men to give me their dances, a great variety of which they gave me by being slightly paid; which I was glad to do, in order to enable me to study their character and expression thoroughly, which I am sure I have done; and I shall take pleasure in shewing them to the world when I get back. The dancing is generally done by the young men, and considered undignified for the chiefs or doctors to join in. Yet so great was my medicine, that chiefs and medicine-men turned out and agreed to compliment me with a dance. I looked on with great satisfaction; having been assured by the Interpreters and Traders, that this was the highest honour they had ever known them to pay to any stranger amongst them.

In this dance, which I have called "the dance of the chiefs," for want of a more significant title, was given by fifteen or twenty chiefs and doctors; many of whom were very old and venerable men. All of them came out in their head-dresses of war-eagle quills, with a spear or staff in the left hand, and a rattle in the right. It was given in the midst of the Sioux village, in front of the head chiefs lodge; and beside the medicine-man who beat on the drum, and sang for the dance, there were four young women standing in a row, and chanting a sort of chorus for the dancers; forming one of the very few instances that I ever have met, where the women are allowed to take any part in the dancing, or other game or amusement, with the men.

This dance was a very spirited thing, and pleased me much, as well as all the village, who were assembled around to witness what most of them never before had seen, their aged and venerable chiefs united in giving a dance.

As I have introduced the scalping-knife above, it may be well for me to give some further account in this place of the custom and the mode of taking the scalp; a custom practiced by all the North American Indians, which is done when an enemy is killed in battle, by grasping the left hand Into the hair on the crown of the head, and passing the knife around it through the skin, tearing off a piece of the skin with the hair, as large as the palm of the hand, or larger, which is dried, and often curiously ornamented and preserved, and highly valued as a trophy. The scalping is an operation not calculated of itself to take life, as it only removes the skin, without injuring the bone of the head; and necessarily, to be a genuine scalp, must contain and show the crown or center of the head; that part of the skin which lies directly over what the phrenologists call "self-esteem," where the hair divides and radiates from the center; of which they all profess to be strict judges, and able to decide whether an effort has- been made to produce two or more scalps from one head. Besides taking the scalp, the victor generally, if he has time to do it without endangering his own scalp, cuts off and brings home the rest of the hair, which his wife will divide into a great many small locks, and with them fringe off the seams of his shirt and his leggings, as will have been seen in many of the illustrations; which also are worn as trophies and ornaments to the dress, and then are familiarly called "scalp-locks." Of these there are many dresses in my Collection, which exhibit a continuous row from the top of each shoulder, down the arms to the wrists, and down the seams of the leggings, from the hips to the feet, rendering them a very costly article to buy from the Indian, wile is not sure that his success in his military exploits will ever enable him to replace them.

The scalp, then, is a patch of the skin taken from the head of an enemy killed in battle, and preserved and highly appreciated as the record of a death produced by the hand of the individual who possesses it; and may oftentimes during his life, be of great service to a man living in a community where there is no historian to enrol the names of the fellows to record the heroic deeds of the brave, who have gained their laurels in mortal combat with their enemies; where it is as lawful and as glorious to slay an enemy in battle, as it is in Christian communities; and where the. poor Indian is bound to keep the record himself, or be liable to lose it and the honour, for no one in the tribe will keep it for him. As the scalp is taken then as the evidence of a death, it will easily be seen, that the Indian has no business or inclination to take it from the head of the living; which I venture to say is never done in North America, unless it be, as it sometimes has happened, where a man falls in the heat of battle, stunned with the blow of a weapon or a gunshot, and the Indians, rushing over his body, snatches off his scalp, supposing him dead, who afterwards rises from the field of battle, and easily recovers from this superficial wound of the knife, wearing a bald spot on his head during the remainder of his life, of which we have frequent occurrences on our Western frontiers. The scalp must be from the head of an enemy also, or it subjects its Possessor to disgrace and infamy who carries it. There may be many instances where an Indian is justified in the estimation of his tribe in taking the life of one of his own people ; and their laws are such, as oftentimes make it his imperative duty; and yet no circumstances, however aggravating, will justify him or release him from the disgrace of taking the scalp.

There is no custom practiced by the Indians, for which; they are more universally condemned, than that of taking the scalp; and, at the same time, I think there is some excuse for them, inasmuch as it is a general custom of the country, and founded, like many other apparently absurd and ridiculous customs of these people, in one of the necessities of Indian life, which necessities we are free from in the civilized world, and which customs, of course, we need not and do not practice. From an ancient custom, "time out of mind," the warriors of these tribes have been in the habit of going to war, expecting to take the scalps of their enemies whom they may slay in battle, and all eyes of the tribe are upon them, making it their duty to do it; so from custom it is every man's right, and his duty also, to continue and keep up a regulation of his society,.which it is not in his power as an individual, to abolish or correct, if he saw fit to do it.

One of the principal denunciations against the custom of taking the scalp, is on account of its alleged cruelly, which it certainly has not; as the cruelty would be in the Killing, and not in the act of cutting the skin from a man's head after he is dead. To say the most of it, it is a disgusting custom, and I wish I could be quite sure that the civilized and Christian world (who kill 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.

If the reader thinks that I am taking too much pains to defend the Indians for this, and others of their seemingly abominable customs, he will bear it in mind, that I have lived with these people, until I have learned the necessities of Indian life in which these customs are founded; and also, that I have met with so many acts of kindness and hospitality at the hands of the poor Indian, that I feel bound, when I can do it, to render what excuse I can for a people, who are dying with broken hearts, and never can speak in the civilized world in their own defense.

And even yet, reader, if your education, and your reading of Indian cruelties and Indian barbarities -- of scalps, and scalping-knives, and scalping, should have ossified a corner of your heart against these unfortunate people, and would shut out their advocate, I will annoy you no longer on this subject, but withdraw, and leave you to cherish the very beautiful, humane and parental moral that was carried out by the United States and British Governments during the last, and the revolutionary wars, when they mutually employed thousands of their "Red children," to aid and to bleed, in fighting their battles, and paid them, according to contract, so many pounds, shillings and pence or so many dollars and cents for every "scalp" of a "red" or a blue coat" they could bring in!

In a drawing, there will be seen the principal modes in which the scalps are prepared, and several of the uses to which they are put. The most usual way of preparing and dressing the scalp is that of stretching it on a little hoop at the end of a stick two or three feet long, for the purpose of "dancing it," as they term it; which will be described in the scalp-dance, in a few moments. There are many again, which are small, and not "dressed;" sometimes not larger than a crown piece, and hung to different parts of the dress. In public shows and parades, they are often suspended from the bridle bits or halter when they are paraded and carried as trophies. Sometimes they are cut out, as it were into a string, the hair forming a beautiful fringe to line the handle of a war-club. Sometimes they are hung at the end of a club, and at other times, by the order of the chief, are hung out, over the wigwams, suspended from a pole, which is called the "scalp-pole". This is often done by the chief of a village, in a pleasant day, by his erecting over his wig-warn a pole with all the scalps that he had taken, arranged upon it; at the sight of which all the chiefs and warriors of the tribe, who had taken scalps, "follow suit"; enabling every member of the community to stroll about the village on that day and "count scalps", learning thereby the standing of every warrior, which is decided in a great degree by the number of scalps they have taken in battles with their enemies. In yet another sketch shows the usual manner of taking the scalp, and (letter h), exhibits the head of a man who had been scalped and recovered from the wound.

So much for scalps and scalping, of which I shall yet say more, unless I should unluckily lose one before I get out of the country.

[Return to Table of Contents]