Ghost Images of the Human Beings: George Catlin’s American Buffalo

By Chad Nance

“1492: The teachers told their children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year that the sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

“I think I have told you, but if I have not, you must have understood, that a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.”
– Black Elk


war chief, a republican pawnee
war chief, a republican pawnee

The faces still tell tales across two centuries. Tales of the Human Beings. This is what they called themselves. They didn’t call themselves “Indians”, “Natives”, “Savages”, “Americans”, “Christians”, or “Pagans”. The people simply called themselves “Human Beings”. George Catlin’s art drew inspiration and power from these Human Beings and the kingly beasts that sustained them. Reynolda House Museum of American Art has now brought these extraordinary works here to Winston-Salem so that we all have the opportunity to look the Human Beings in the eye from across the blood stained gulf of time.

50 to 75 million years ago, surging and roiling molten rock formed the mountain ranges of the American and Canadian West. 10 million years ago powerful geological forces shaped the rest of the Great Bison Belt, the largest terrestrial biome in North America. By the time the Pleistocene epoch ended about 10,000 years ago, warmer and drier weather came the region making this biome ideal for grasslands and vegetation. The grassland steppes of North America rolled to all horizons- hard country wrapped in beauty and bathed in light from a younger sun.

In the millennia that followed would come the bison. These noble beasts with massive, powerful bodies and manes made of curly, thick, black hair had developed the ability to regulate their body heat in a broad spectrum and, immune from the harshest effects of ice ages, would be fruitful and rule the continent from the shores of the Potomac to the Pacific ocean. The near decimation of the bison by European invaders would be the first step in an environmental disaster of previously unknown proportions that would continue into the 20th Century and reach its zenith with the apocalyptic destruction of the Dust Bowl.  the bison were slaughtered, in part, to break the will and destroy the lives of the Human Beings.

Following the Bison came the Human Beings. Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota, Lipan, Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache), Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Sarsi, Nakoda, Tonkawa, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, and Assiniboine lived for centuries in concert with the earth and the bison (colloquially referred to as American Buffalo although they are only far distant cousins of Asian and African buffalo) until the arrival of the invaders signaled their destruction as well.

While Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson carried out policies of assimilation and co-existence with the Human Beings, President Andrew Jackson had a belligerent, imperial posture, and in May of 1830, The Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress. The law authorized the President to negotiate with Indian tribes in the Southern United States for their removal to reservations west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their ancestral homelands. President Jackson would begin a process of ethnic cleansing in the American West that would eventually lead to genocide and the near extinction of both the Human Beings and the bison.

bison skulls
bison skulls

Also in 1830, encouraged partly because he was convinced that the Human Beings and their way of life would be destroyed, former lawyer George Catlin took the first of several arduous journeys to the land of the Human Beings where he would document their lives through his painting and his writings. Catlin first accompanied General William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River to meet with and experience the life of the Human Beings. St. Louis became Catlin’s base camp for five trips he took from 1830 to 1836. The artist would visit fifty tribes during his time in the West. Two years later he ascended the Missouri River over 1,800 miles to Ft Union, where he spent several weeks among the Human Beings. He visited at least eighteen tribes- the Pawnee, Omaha, and Ponca in the south and the Mandan, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet to the north. Additional expeditions along the Arkansas, Red and Mississippi rivers as well as visits to Florida and the Great Lakes resulted in over 500 completed paintings, sketches, and a serious collection of artifacts that Catlin had begun to collect as a kid in Pennsylvania. At Catlin’s back was a mewling, snarling horde of invaders. He, and others, knew that the collision of the native peoples with this mass hungry for resources, riches, and territory would end in tears… so he brought us back a record.

The opportunity provided by Reynolda House’s Spring exhibition is unique and breathtaking. Catlin’s work is at times primitive but always interesting- a first person account of a world that no longer exists in any way. The first painting in the show is of a “Buffalo Bull” who looks directly at the viewer. The painting is bold yet simple like many of Catlin’s works. There is little editorialising. Catlin’s viewpoint becomes our own and the subtlety of his brushwork in the eyes and face of the bison are haunting.

There are many paintings in George Catlin’s American Buffalo that simply record life on the Plains. These paintings include journalistic depictions of settlements and nomadic camps of the Human Beings. There are lush paintings of bison wallowing and living on the vast plains without the interference of man. In “Buffalo Herds Crossing the Upper Missouri” Catlin has painted bison moving in herds across the verdant plain as far as the eye can see. The effect is awe inspiring, while at the same time heart-breaking.

Two paintings show white wolves attacking a bison. Here Catlin has used a draftsman’s skill to create the pack of wolves who look less like a direct representation of wolves than they do a swarm of angry demons. Some of the animals are translucent, giving the painting a haunting, ghostlike quality.

Catlin’s most dynamic work involving bison are the paintings of Human Beings and white men hunting the animals. These paintings are filled with movement and action, and the technique itself feels loose and passionate. Almost as a counterpoint to the joy taken in the killing is the most haunting bison painting in the exhibition. “Dying Buffalo Shot with an Arrow” is a poignant and hypnotic painting that captures the moment of death and defiance in spectacular detail.

mandan village
mandan village

It is in portraiture and moments like the passing of the bison that Catlin truly excels. The second half of the show features direct portraits of Human Beings as they were in Catlin’s time and through Catlin’s personal lens. The portraits capture the details of native regalia and the pageantry of their culture, but it is once more the painting of the faces that brings out the best in Catlin as an artist and a man. The use of color, the shading, and the ingenious use of specific detail create an almost photo realistic window into a time and place that no longer existed by the time photography was first used to document what was left of the Human Beings. These works alone demand our attention. The least we can do is look into the faces of these men and women who were not political symbols, cultural fantasies, or sports team mascots. They were Human Beings who lived extraordinary and ordinary lives. Human Beings who loved, lost, hurt, and rejoiced just like we do.

“George Catlin’s American Buffalo” is a remarkable window into a world we could never see otherwise. Catlin’s craft is strong and his use of pallette, line, and brush is phenomenal. The greatest blessing of this show, however, is not simply in the artistry… it is in the Human Beings whose very souls echo down through the ages and touch us here in the 21st Century.




You can find more information, schedules and tickets HERE.

CCD would like to recommend some reading and viewing as a companion to this show.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen

North American Indians by George Catlin with a Foreward by Peter Matthiessen

Documentary films available on Netflix:

“The West” by Ken Burns

“A Good Day to Die” directed by David Mueller & Lynn Salt

“Incident at Oglala” directed by Michael Apted

“Reel Injun:On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian” directed by Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge