CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 24 Archery of the Mandans

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

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Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

 PLATE NO. 24.

 This game, though not one of any great excitement or action, was one of curious interest, attended with rules and regulations which were pleasing, rendering the scene very agreeable in effect. The Mandas, whom I found a polite and friendly tribe of Indians, on the head waters of the Missouri, seemed to vie more spiritedly and more constantly in their athletic games, (and from their almost constant practice, seem to have advanced farther into the science of them,) than any of the other tribes; and for their advancement, had formed into something like amateur clubs, which gave a value to their amusements, and lent an additional stimulus to their efforts, as well as a gentlemanly and studied grace to all of their groups, peculiarly pleasing to the eye of an artist or an amateur.

A voluminous book might be devoted to the games and various amusements of this peculiar tribe, the principal of which are the games of Tchung-kee, game of the Mocasin, game of the Platter, Ball-plays, game of the Arrow, Horse-racing, Foot-racing, &c. in all of which, from constant practice, they became exceedingly skilled. Gambling is looked upon by all of these wild people as a rational and innocent amusement, there being no laws of their country denominating it a vice; and in these numerous games of skill and of chance, their few personal goods are most of the time liberally and boldly staked.
The principal weapon of war and also for the chase, by which they supply their families with food, is the bow; and the strife illustrated in this plate, is one which, while it is affording them an exciting and pleasing emulation, is educating them in the effectual use of that weapon to which they are chiefly indebted for their protection and subsistence.

The meeting represented here is something like that of an Archery Club in the civilized world, but for a different mode of shooting. Having but little necessity for correct shooting at a long distance, as I have mentioned in an early part of this work, their hunting and warring being chiefly done from the backs of their running horses, the great merit in archery with them consists in the rapidity and force with which they can discharge their arrows from their bows: and the strife in this game (in which I have given striking portraits from the life, of several of the leading young men of the tribe) was to decide who cold discharge from his bow the greatest number of arrows before his first one should fall to the ground; each arrow to pass over a certain line sufficiently distant to characterize it as a clean and efficient shot. For this purpose a bow, a shield, a quiver or other valuable is staked as an entrance fee, and each one, grasping in his hand with the bow, a handful of arrows drawn from his quiver, as he does when rushing into battle, gives a judicious elevation to his first, and follows it with others in the most rapid succession that he can: a red flag is raised at the end of the ground at the instant the first arrow falls, and he who can count the greatest number of arrows in the air at one time, is victor, and claims the highest prize. I never beheld a more classic and beautiful group, nor a more graceful and gentlemanly rivalry than in the instance when I made the subjoined sketch; and on this occasion the young man represented in the attitude of shooting, succeeded in getting eight of his arrows on the wing at once, which I distinctly counted. Nor did it appear to be owing to any extraordinary distance to which the first was thrown, but to the exact elevation given to it, and the incredibly quickness of fixing the rest of them upon the string and getting them off.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins "Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the "Indian Gallery", Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.