Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catlin Secured the Trust of the Mandan

"Catlin Painting the Portrait of Mah-To-Toh-Pa," George Catlin.
George Catlin, Lawyer Turned Artist
Secures Trust Of The Mandan Indians
By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - In the summer of 1833, George Catlin, after visiting tribes like the Blackfoot, Crow, and Assiniboine among others, descended the Missouri River to Fort Clark from Yellowstone country. His aim, to finally meet for himself the Mandan Indians of whom he had heard so much about from General William Clark.

Catlin noted that the Mandan were very secure with little to fear with their fortifications at the edges of their two villages. When he got off the steamboat, he mentioned that hundreds of Mandan were standing about to greet the occupants as they disembarked.

Catlin may have received a warm welcome to Fort Clark from the natives living in the fort’s proximity, but he had to do more to gain their trust and respect. He made his acquaintances with the two of the Mandans’ chiefs in one village and he did so by taking long the tools of his trade, his paints.

Catlin painted the civil chief, or first chief, Ha-na-ta-nu-mauk, Wolf Chief, and didn’t necessarily walk away from this meeting with the trust he thought he could earn. When Catlin painted Mah-to-toh-pay, the popular Four Bears, the artist left the session greatly impressed by the grace and dignity of that mighty warrior.

Catlin painted both men in the privacy of an improvised studio within the walls of Fort Clark. Catlin learned from his earlier experiences painting his Indian subjects that he would either be met with adulation for his craft or intense superstitious wariness.

After the paintings were showcased to the Mandan, reactions were as Catlin expected, from wonder and praise to horror and disbelief.

A tribal council was called and, as tribal councils go, they argued with all the seriousness as though they had convened to go to war. Eventually, they decided that Catlin was doing good work. With all due haste, the Mandan council smoked a pipe and slew a dog – whose remains they hung over Catlin’s door at the fort - in ceremony to Catlin’s continued good health.

One tribal council dissenter, a medicine man named Mah-to-he-hah, Old Bear, went on strike outside Catlin’s makeshift studio and berated all who would have their portrait painted by the Anglo artist.

Catlin approached art as a matter of the heart, as any artist might well tell you, but to American Indians, art is a matter of the spirit, and as such, art, ceremony, and religious study go hand in hand. For Catlin, art was a way to hold onto a moment. For the Mandan and the American Indian in general, art - and later photography - captured the living essence of a person forever - and, one could argue, that’s what art/photography is supposed to do. Regardless how one interprets art, Catlin casually disregards the native interpretation of his craft.

In any event, Catlin held the steadfast support of two Mandan chiefs and the approval of the rest of the tribal council, but neglected to garner the support of the religious leader, until the day after the tribal council. He then stroked the ego of Old Bear, saying that he much admired the medicine man, and that the portraits of the two chiefs were merely practice so that he could do right by Old Bear’s portrait. Catlin’s strategy worked.

Old Bear spent the better part of a morning preparing to pose for Catlin. He took himself to a steam bath, or sweat lodge. He painted himself in his medicine colors, and dressed in his finest. He wore his finest moccasins with fox tails attached the heels. Catlin observed that Old Bear brought with him two medicine pipes. However, on close inspection of the color plate of the image, it would seem Old Bear brought only the pipe stems. Old Bear also wears no headdress, but instead feathers indicating his valor as a warrior, counting coup, and protecting his people. It could be speculated that Old Bear wanted his image captured as he wanted to be remembered, a warrior, as a defender of his people.

Catlin writes, “He took his position in the middle of the room, waving his eagle calumets in each hand and singing his medicine song ...looking me full in the face until I completed his picture, which I painted full length. His vanity was completely gratified by the operation. He lay for hours together, day after day in front of the picture, gazing upon it; lit my pipe for me as I was painting; shook my hands a dozen times each day; and enlarged upon my virtues and talents...and became my strongest supporter in the community.” A conjecture might be that the Mandan holy man wanted some of Catlin’s skill or craft to rub off onto him.

Equal to securing the interest and any assistance from the Mandan was garnering favor with the second-chief, or war chief, Mah-to-toh-pay, Four Bears, the Mandan’s most beloved chief.

Four Bears took a liking to Catlin, perhaps a brotherly connection that grew out of mutual fascination for the other’s foreign ways. Four Bears escorted Catlin arm-in-arm from his studio, through the village, to Four Bears’ family lodge, where a small feast was held in Catlin’s honor.

Four Bears seated Catlin on a painted robe, a very high honor, and briefly smoked from Four Bears’ own pipe. Catlin enjoyed a three-course meal of bison ribs, ground prairie turnips, and pemmican. He ate alone, while Four Bears and his wives (perhaps wife and daughters) waited on him. Afterward, they enjoyed a smoke together again, “for a quarter of an hour,” Catlin estimates.

After the feast and smoke were completed, Catlin was presented with Four Bears’ own exploit robe - the very robe on which he had Catlin sit on! The pipe from which they smoked together was also presented to Catlin.

Then, the Mandan regarded Catlin as a great medicine painter. They still recall him so to this day.