The American Nation
George Catlin: The Story of Wee-jin-jon


George Catlin   George Catlin (1796-1872) was the first and perhaps the most famous painter of North American Native-Americans; while the rest of the country thrilled to popular novels and colonial captivity narratives (in which Native Americans kidnap settlers; these were more or less true stories) which depicted Native Americans as cruel, rapacious, and surprisingly noble in their villainy, Catlin was one of the few (and probably the only) Americans to accept Native American culture on its own terms rather than on European terms. Catlin knew second-hand the reality of the captivity narratives: both his mother and grandmother had been kidnapped by Native Americans. His response, however, was considerably different than his fellow countrymen. Catlin began as a lawyer, but turned to portrait painting as his first love. However, when he encountered a group of Far West Native American braves, he resolved to paint and study Native American culture to rescue it from "oblivion." He, like most of his contemporaries (and Andrew Jackson above), believed that the Native Americans were doomed to extinction; he wished to record the culture before it vanished. So began an epic journey through the midwest and the west from 1829 to 1838, travelling across the frontier and living among some 48 separate tribes while he painted their portraits, over six hundred, in fact. He published plates of these paintings along with a fairly thorough documentation of what he encountered in 1842 in Notes and Letters on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.

   The selection you've been asked to read is a campfire story he relates in one of his letters; Catlin is narrating the story to his French trapper friend, Ba'tiste. I've chosen this story from his vast collection of writing for it represents best what Catlin felt about the Native Americans and why they were doomed to extinction. Remember: you are reading the European-American voice most sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans and the consequences of the conquest of America by Europeans. What is the moral tenor of the piece? Why does Catlin portray Wijunjon as a fool? What is Catlin trying to say about the ultimate fate of the clash between Native American and European-American cultures? Who's to blame in this narrative?

   Your text and graphic is taken from George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, volume II (London: Tilt and Bogue, 1842), pages 194-200



The Story of Wi-jin-jon   Now you shall hear the 'Story of the Pigeon's Egg Head.'

   The Indian name of this man (being its literal translation into the Assinneboin language) was Wijunjon. . . .

   Wi-jun-jon (the Pigeon's Egg Head) was a brave and a warrior of the Assinneboins: young, proud, handsome, valiant, and graceful. He had fought many a battle, and won many a laurel. The numerous scalps from his enemies' heads adorned his dress, and his claims were fair and just for the highest honours that his country could bestow upon him; for his father was chief of the nation. . . .

   Well, this young Assinneboin, the ' Pigeon's Egg Head,' was selected by Major Sanford, the Indian Agent, to represent his tribe in a delegation which visited Washington city under his charge in the winter of 1832.   With this gentleman, the Assinneboin, together with representatives from several others of those North Western tribes, descended the Missouri river, several thousand miles, on their way to Washington.

   While descending the river in a Mackinaw boat, from the mouth of Yellow Stone [the Yellow Stone River], Wi-jun-jon and another of his tribe who was with him, at the first approach to the civilized settlements, commenced a register of the white men's houses (or cabins), by cutting a notch for each on the side of a pipe stem, in order to be able to show when they got home, how many white men's houses they saw on their journey. At first the cabins were scarce; but continually as they advanced down the river, more and more rapidly increased in numbers; and they soon found their pipe-stem filled with marks, and they determined to put the rest of them on the handle of a war-club, which they soon got marked all over likewise, and at length, while the boat was moored at the shore for the purpose of cooking the dinner of the party, Wi-jun-jon and his companion stepped into the bushes, and cut a long stick, from which they peeled the bark; and when the boat was again underweigh, they sat down, and with much labour, copied the notches on to it from the pipe-stem and club; and also kept adding a notch for every house they passed. This stick was soon filled; and in a day or two several others; when, at last, they seemed much at a loss to know what to do with their troublesome records, until they came in sight of St. Louis, which is a town of 10,000 inhabitants; upon which, after consulting a little, they pitched their sticks overboard into the river!

   I was in St. Louis at the time of their arrival, and painted their portraits while they rested in that place. Wi-jun-jon was the first, who reluctantly yielded to the solicitations of the Indian agent and myself, and appeared as sullen as death in my painting-room, with eyes fixed like those of a statue upon me, though his pride had plumed and tinted him in all the freshness and brilliancy of an Indian's toilet [make-up]. In his nature's uncowering pride he stood a perfect model; but superstition had hung a lingering curve upon his lip, and pride had stiffened it into contempt. He had been urged into a measure, against which his fears had pleaded; yet he stood unmoved and unflinching amid the struggles of mysteries that were hovering about him, foreboding ills of every kind, and misfortunes that were to happen to him in consequence of this operation.

   He was dressed in his native costume, which was classic and exceedingly beautiful; his leggings and shirt were of the mountaingoat skin, richly garnished with quills of the porcupine, and fringed with locks of scalps, taken from his enemies' heads. Over these floated his long hair in plaits, that fell nearly to the ground; his head was decked with the war-eagle's plumes—his robe was of the skin of the young buffalo bull, richly garnished and emblazoned with the battles of his life; his quiver and bow were slung, and his shield, of the skin of the bull's neck.

   I painted him in this beautiful dress, and so also the others who were with him; and after I had done, Major Sanford went on to Washington with them, where they spent the winter.

   Wi-jun-jon was the foremost on all occasions—-the first to enter the levee—-the first to shake the President's hand, and make his speech to him—-the last to extend the hand to them, but the first to catch the smiles and admiration of the gentler sex. He travelled the giddy maze, and beheld amid the buzzing din of civil life, their tricks of art, their handiworks, and their finery; he visited their principal cities—-he saw their forts, their ships, their great guns, steamboats, balloons, &c. &c; and in the spring returned to St. Louis, where I joined him and his companions on their way back to their own country.

   Through the politeness of Mr. Chouteau, of the American Fur Company, I was admitted (the only passenger except Major Sanford and his Indians) to a passage in their steamboat, on her first trip to the Yellow Stone; and when I had embarked, and the boat was about to depart, Wi-jun-jon made his appearance on deck, in a full suit of regimentals! He had in Washington exchanged his beautifully garnished and classic costume, for a full dress 'en militaire'. It was, perhaps, presented to him by the President. It was broadcloth, of the finest blue, trimmed with lace of gold; on his shoulders were mounted two immense epaulettes; his neck was strangled with a shining black stock, and his feet were pinioned in a pair of waterproof boots, with high heels, which made him 'step like a yoked hog.'

   On his head was a high-crowned beaver hat, with a broad silver lace band, surmounted by a huge red feather, some two feet high; his coat collar stiff with lace, came higher up than his ears, and over it flowed, down towards his haunches—his long Indian locks, stuck up in rolls and plaits, with red paint.

   A large silver medal was suspended from his neck by a blue ribbon— and across his right shoulder passed a wide belt, supporting by his side a broad sword.

   On his hands he had drawn a pair of white kid gloves, and in them held, a blue umbrella in one, and a large fan in the other. In this fashion was poor Wijunjon metamorphosed, on his return from Washington; and, in this plight was he strutting and whistling Yankee Doodle, about the deck of the steamer that was wending its way up the mighty Missouri, and taking him to his native-land again; where he was soon to light his pipe, and cheer the wigwam fire-side with tales of novelty and wonder.

   Well, Ba'tiste, I travelled with this new-fangled gentleman until he reached his home, two thousand miles above St. Louis, and I could never look upon him for a moment without excessive laughter, at the ridiculous figure he cut—-the strides, the angles, the stiffness of this travelling beau! Oh Ba'tiste, if you could have seen him, you would have split your sides with laughter; he was—'puss in boots,' precisely!

   After Wijunjon had got home, and passed the usual salutations among his friends, he commenced the simple narration of scenes he had passed through, and of things he had beheld among the whites; which appeared to them so much like fiction, that it was impossible to believe them, and they set him down as an impostor. 'He has been, (they said,) among the whites, who are great liars, and all he has learned is to come home and tell lies.' He sank rapidly into disgrace in his tribe; his high claims to political eminence all vanished; he was reputed worthless—-the greatest liar of his nation; the chiefs shunned him and passed him by as one of the tribe who was lost; yet the ears of the gossiping portion of the tribe were open, and the campfire circle and the wigwam fireside, gave silent audience to the whispered narratives of the 'Travelled Indian.'

   The next day after he had arrived among his friends, the superfluous part of his coat, (which was a laced frock), was converted into a pair of leggings for his wife; and his hat-band of silver lace furnished her a magnificent pair of garters. The remainder of the coat, curtailed of its original length was seen buttoned upon the shoulders of his brother, over and above a pair of leggings of buckskin; and Wi-jun-jon was parading about among his gaping friends, with a bow and quiver slung over his shoulders, which, sans coat, exhibited a fine linen shirt with studs and sleeve buttons. His broad-sword kept its place, but about noon, his boots gave way to a pair of garnished moccasins; and in such plight he gossipped away the day among his; friends, while his heart spoke so freely and so effectually from the bung-hole of a little keg of whiskey, which he had brought the whole way, (as one of the choicest presents made him at Washington), that his tongue became silent.

   One of his little fair enamoratas, 1 or 'catch crumbs,' such as live in the halo of all great men, fixed her eyes and her affections upon his beautiful silk braces, and the next day, while the keg was yet dealing out its kindnesses, he was seen paying visits to the lodges of his old acquaintance, swaggering about, with his keg under his arm, whistling Yankee Doodle, and Washington's Grand March; his white shirt, or that part of it that had been flapping in the wind, had been shockingly tithed—his pantaloons of blue, laced with gold, were razed into a pair of comfortable leggings —his bow and quiver were slung, and his broad-sword which trailed on the ground, had sought the centre of gravity, and taken a position between his legs and dragging behind him, served as a rudder to steer him over the ‘earth's troubled surface.' . . .

   Two days' revel of this kind had drawn from his keg all its charms; and in the mellowness of his heart, all his finery had vanished, and all of its appendages except his umbrella, to which his heart's strongest affections still clung, and with it, and under it, in rude dress of buckskin, he was afterwards to be seen, in all sorts of weather, acting the fop and the beau as well as he could, with his limited means. In this plight, and in this dress, with his umbrella always in his hand, (as the only remaining evidence of his quondam greatness,) he began in his sober moments, to entertain and instruct his people by honest and simple narratives of things and scenes he had beheld during his tour to the East; but which (unfortunately for him), were to them too marvellous and improbable to be believed. He told the gaping multitude that were constantly gathering about him, of the distance he had travelled, of the astonishing number of houses he had seen—of the towns and cities, with all their wealth and splendour—of travelling on steamboats, in stages and on railroads. He described our forts, and seventy-four gun ships, which he had visited—their big guns—our great bridges—our great council-house at Washington, and its doings—the curious and wonderful machines in the patent office, (which he pronounced the greatest medicine place he had seen); he described the great war parade, which he saw in the city of New York—the ascent of the balloon from Castle Garden—the numbers of the white people, the beauty of the white squaws; their red cheeks, and many thousands of other things, all of which were so much beyond their comprehension, that they 'could not be true,' and 'he must be the very greatest liar in the whole world.'

   But he was beginning to acquire a reputation of a different kind. He was denominated a medicine-man, and one too of the most extraordinary character; for they deemed him far above the ordinary sort of human beings, whose mind could invent and conjure up for their amusement, such an ingenious fabrication of novelty and wonder. He steadily and unostentatiously persisted, however, in this way of entertaining his friends and his people, though he knew his standing was affected by it. He had an exhaustless theme to descant upon through the remainder of his life; and he seemed satisfied to lecture all his life, for the pleasure which it gave him.

   " So great was his medicine, however, that they began, chiefs and all, to look upon him as a most extraordinary being, and the customary honours and forms began to be applied to him, and the respect shewn him, that belongs to all men in the Indian country, who are distinguished for their medicine or mysteries. In short, when all became familiar with the astonishing representations that he made, and with the wonderful alacrity with which ' he created them,' he was denominated the very greatest of medicine; and not only that, but the ' lying medicine.' That he should be the greatest of medicine, and that for lying, merely, rendered him a prodigy in mysteries that commanded not only respect, but at length, (when he was more maturely heard and listened to) admiration, awe, and at last dread and terror; which altogether must needs conspire to rid the world of a monster, whose more than human talents must be cut down, to less than human measurement.

   "'Wat ! Monsieur Cataline, dey av not try to kill him?'

   "Yes, Ba'tiste, in this way the poor fellow had lived, and been for three years past continually relating the scenes he had beheld, in his tour to the 'Far East;' until his medicine became so alarmingly great, that they were unwilling he should live; they were disposed to kill him for a wizard. One of the young men of the tribe took the duty upon himself, and after much perplexity, hit upon the following plan, to-wit:—he had fully resolved, in conjunction with others who were in the conspiracy, that the medicine of Wijunion was too great for the ordinary mode, and that he was so great a liar that a rifle bullet would not kill him; while the young man was in this distressing dilemma, which lasted for some weeks, he had a dream one night, which solved all difficulties; and in consequence of which, he loitered about the store in the Fort, at the mouth of the Yellow Stone, until he could procure, by stealth, (according to the injunction of his dream,) the handle of an iron pot, which he supposed to possess the requisite virtue, and taking it into the woods, he there spent a whole day in straightening and filing it, to fit it into the barrel of his gun; after which, he made his appearance again in the Fort, with his gun under his robe, charged with the pot handle, and getting behind poor Wi-jun-jon, whilst he was talking with the Trader, placed the muzzle behind his head and blew out his brains! . . .

   Yes, Ba'tiste, it is a fact: thus ended the days and the greatness and all the pride and hopes of Wl JUN JON, the 'Pigeon's Egg Head,'—a warrior and a brave of the valiant Assinneboins, who travelled eight thousand miles to see the President, and all the great cities of the civilized world; and who, fortelling the truth, and nothing but the truth, was, after he got home, disgraced and killed for a wizard. . . .

   Yes, Ba'tiste, we may profit by his misfortune, if we choose. We may call it a 'caution;' for instance, when I come to write your book, as you have proposed, the fate of this poor fellow, who was relating no more than what he actually saw, will caution you against the imprudence of telling all that you actually know, and narrating all that you have seen, lest like him you sink into disgrace for telling the truth. You know, Ba'tiste, that there are many things to be seen in the kind of life that you and I have been living for some years past, which it would be more prudent for us to suppress than to tell.


ENDNOTES

1 Beloved ones, sweethearts.


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