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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October 1, 2014: American Collectors: George Catlin

[There are few practices more AmericanStudies, but also more complex, than that of collecting historical, cultural, and artistic treasures and memorabilia. This week I’ll highlight and analyze five such collections and the collectors who assembled them. Please share collections and museums of interest to you for a collected weekend post!]
On what the artist and collector got right, what he got wrong, and what we owe him in any case.
19th century white reformers and activists for Native American rights often called themselves “Friends of the Indian,” and while the phrase comes across as na├»ve and perhaps even paternalistic, I think it also has a genuine and significant meaning. This was an era, after all, when even many sympathetic perspectives on Native Americans portrayed them as a disappearing community; but to my mind friends exist in the present and future, and so the phrase represented at least partly a pushback against that common narrative. One of the most prominent such friends was George Catlin, the painter and author who produced hundreds of paintings and multiple books and volumes of engravings depicting Native American life and communities; Gatlin subsequently collected both his own works and numerous artifacts into a traveling Indian Gallery that he took (accompanied by his own lectures about Native Americans) around the country and across the Atlantic.
While Catlin didn’t work for social or political reforms like many of the century’s activists, that doesn’t mean that his art and collecting didn’t have their own effect and value. But it’s the artifacts that he included—and that apparently often drew the most attention and response—in his collections and Indian Gallery that represent a significant problem. It’s often impossible to be sure, but it seems clear that many such Native American artifacts were stolen or otherwise taken illegitimately from the individuals and tribes in question, a practice that unfortunately continues to this day. The fact that Catlin assembled his Gallery in order to “rescue from oblivion” the tribes and cultures does not excuse such actions (for which, to be clear, I don’t have definite evidence in Catlin’s case, just strong suspicions and educated guesses), but rather makes them that much more ironic and frustrating, particularly given the basic but crucial fact that the cultures were not vanishing.
They weren’t vanishing, but they also often were not documented. Given that most—although not all by any means—19th Native American cultures continued to practice oral forms of storytelling, historiography, and collective memory, it’s fair to say that it would be far more difficult for contemporary Americans to learn and understand about these cultures as they then existed without the kinds of documentation produced by Catlin and his peers (like Lewis Henry Morgan). We can and should look critically at all such figures and their engagements with and relationships to (and even, perhaps, exploitations of) 19th century Native cultures, but we also must acknowledge the resources and opportunities that their works provide us, resources without which our own ability to study and engage with those cultures in the 21st century would be significantly diminished.
Next collector tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Collections you'd highlight?

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