January 06, 2010

Lamenting Indians = letting Indians die

To Save or Lament?

John Hausdoerffer. Catlin's Lament: Indians, Manifest Destiny, and the Ethics of Nature. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009. xvi + 184 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1631-2.

By James Buss
Chapter 2, “Catlin’s Gaze,” provides the framework for understanding Catlin’s eventual lament. Using the work of cultural historian Mary Louise Pratt, Hausdoerffer briefly explores Catlin’s role as a colonial explorer who acted passively as an agent of American imperialism, lamenting his and his nation’s role in dispossessing the residents of America’s western landscape. These “imperial eyes” (as Pratt has deemed them), or “Catlin’s gaze” (as Hausdoerffer has dubbed it), allowed Catlin to “dearly wish he could halt the violent treatment of Indians,” while simultaneously participating in the very process of American expansion that threatened the subjects of his paintings (p. 66).

In chapter 3, “Catlin’s Lament,” Hausdoerffer addresses larger American attitudes toward Indian Removal. In subsections on Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-41), Washington Irving’s Sketchbook (1819), and the depiction of Native Americans on nineteenth-century stages, Hausdoerffer attempts to demonstrate how American literature and theater both lamented the “Vanishing Indian,” as Catlin had done, while simultaneously perpetuating a narrative that ultimately concluded that removal or extinction was inevitable.
Hausdoerffer's conclusion, according to Buss:Catlin’s Lament asks important questions about George Catlin’s sincerity about “saving” native people and about America’s lament of removing or assimilating native peoples. Moreover, it questions the sincerity of any nineteenth-century American who defended American Indian rights while simultaneously speaking about American progress. Ultimately, Hausdoerffer’s examination of nineteenth-century America speaks faintly about a present-day America and its commitment to a modern environmental movement that, on one hand, fights to defend the environment as a pristine and untouched landscape, while on the other hand, refuses to cede a way of life that is directly responsible for destroying it. Hausdoerffer opens the third chapter with perhaps the most powerful and apt statement of the entire book: “There is a thin line between saving and lamenting the dying” (p. 90). This paradox is at the heart of Catlin’s Lament and perhaps, as Hausdoerffer suggests, our current understanding of nature and the environment.Comment:  Catlin’s Lament may speak "faintly" about lamenting the loss of our environment while not doing enough to save it. I suspect it speaks more directly to the first issue in the subtitle--namely, Indians.

All the things we talk about--mascots, Halloween costumes, product packages, Mardi Gras parades, German hobbyists, and anything else based on Plains Indian stereotypes--are essentially lamenting the past. They're saying, "How sad it is that Indians died and vanished. How brave and noble they were. Let's remember them as they were and not think about what happened to them. Or what's happening to them now."

That's why all these people who supposedly "honor" and "respect" Indians don't know or care about today's Indians. Lamenting Indians is their substitute for taking action--for saving or helping or learning about Indians. If you fill yourself with enough righteous sorrow, you can convince yourself you're not part of the problem. It's like paying for a carbon offset--a cheap way of pretending you care without having to actually do anything.

The message in Catlin's Lament should inform our thinking about history and historical fiction, too. How many times have we seen "sympathetic" portrayals in Western fiction: in Karl May's Winnetou books, in John Wayne movies, in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? Just like Catlin, the protagonists lamented the plight of the Indian while furthering the colonization and destruction of the Old West. They "cared" about Indians, but not enough to lift a finger to stem the tide of "progress."

For more on the subject, see Manifest Destiny = America's Pathology.

Below:  Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe by George Catlin.

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