Nine Ojibbeway Indians in London by George Catlin

Name: Nine Ojibbeway Indians in London | Artist: George Catlin Media: Oil on card mounted on paperboard | Year(s): 1861 - 1869
George Catlin | Nine Ojibbeway Indians in London | 1861 - 1869 | Oil on card mounted on paperboard | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Collection

About the Work

Beginning in 1843, Catlin toured Britain and the Continent with three troupes of Indians. His first delegation consisted of nine Ojibwas from Canada, brought over by Arthur Rankin, a Canadian, who hoped to turn a profit on this endeavor. Doubtless they added novelty to Catlin's Indian Gallery once the initial flurry of interest in his work died down, but his involvement in exhibiting the Indians remains controversial. Catlin had hoped to acquaint the world with the features and customs of a noble but dying race through paintings, prose, and lectures that would serve as their monument after civilization had eradicated every other trace of their existence. His was a lofty goal, compromised by the decision to exhibit live Indians for the entertainment of spectators. With this, Catlin crossed the line between artist and showman. There always were elements of both in his exhibitions, but the display of troupes of Ojibwas and Iowas, with Ojibwas dancing, chanting, orating, and demonstrating scalping techniques, tarnished his reputation as a serious advocate for Indian causes. Catlin, historian Paul Reddin writes, "had moved from being an educator of the lyceum mold to an entertainer whose shows became sensational enough to invite ridicule."

That said, Catlin portrayed the members of each Indian delegation with respect and always professed concern for their well-being. This group portrait of his first Ojibwa troupe identified the individuals by name, left to right: Ah-quee-we-zaínts, the Boy Chief, a venerable man at seventy-two; Pat-ó-a-quat-o-wée-be, the Driving Cloud, a war chief; Wee-nish-ka-wée-be, the Flying Gull, a medicine man; Sá-mah, Tobacco; Gish-e-gósh-e-gee, the Moonlight Night; Not-éen-a-akm, the Strong Wind, interpreter; Wós-se-ab-e-neu-ka, Nish-nab-e-qua, and Ne-bét-ne-qua, two Ojibwa women and a girl, their names untranslated. Catlin ended the entry for this painting with the terse comment, "This troup was brought to London for Exhibition." They represented his reality after 1839: instead of being the artist-visitor to Indian country, he was now the host, with Indians the visitors. However, the renewed contact with Indians may have rekindled Catlin's desire to meet new tribes in their own territory. In the 1850s, if he is to be believed, he picked up where he left off and sailed west to visit Indian country once more.