The Cheyenne Brothers Returning From Their Fall Hunt by George Catlin
About the Work
On one level, these companion pieces represent a simple observation about Cheyenne life made by the historian Donald J. Berthrong: "Hunting was the chief labor of Cheyenne men. A successful hunt meant food for the band; failure meant privation and hardship." But the story of decline told by the two paintings cuts deeper. Catlin passionately believed that the native tribes of the Western Hemisphere were doomed by the wasting diseases and corrupting influences introduced by Europeans. Their dependence on white trade goods had rendered them vulnerable by destroying their self-reliance and exposing them to the baleful effects of alcohol. The two paintings of the Cheyenne brothers operate as a before-and-after sequence expressing visually Catlin's chart of "original" and "secondary" Indian characteristics before and after extended exposure to white civilization: Handsome/Ugly, Virtuous/Libidinous, Temperate/Dissipated, Free/Enslaved, Active/Crippled, Bold/Timid, Straight/Crooked, and so forth.
Following on the familiar symbolism of the stages of life corresponding to the seasons of the year, Catlin shows the Cheyenne brothers departing in what is, presumably, the summer of their manhood, though it has all the greenery of youth. They return to a scene of ravaged, blasted hopes, with late autumn shading into the winter's end to life. The details tell the story. In the first painting a thriving family band-wives, children, and a grandfather on crutches-bid the two hunters goodbye. Meat hangs in abundance on drying racks and prosperity prevails. The brothers return in the second to a scene of desolation-a blasted landscape and a deserted camp, with only bare poles marking the spot where a handsome buffalo-hide tipi stood. Wolves worry scattered bones. An abandoned crutch lies on the ground. Most tellingly, a staved whiskey keg in the foreground is stamped "Fur Company . . . 1st Proof."
Catlin felt the two paintings were self-explanatory, describing them only as depicting "an historical event of 1832." But he hung them in close proximity to other didactic works in his Cartoon Collection: Rum and Whiskey Exchanged for Beaver Skins. River Blue. 1831; "Halcyon Days"; The Last Buffalo, but One; and, The Last Buffalo. "Halcyon Days," he explained, showed "Sioux Indians surrounded with plenty. In the midst of happy days," while The Last Buffalo, but One showed "a party of whisky sellers coming up at the death." Collectively, this group of paintings made his point.