A Feel of Yesterday

It’s long been an opinion of mine that unless we as a people know our history, we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.  Now, aside from the fact that history is often told by the victor — and the fact that there are elements amongst us that would like our history to be hidden — it has been one of my goals in writing historical romances to try to bring a sense of the time and place alive again.  Whether I accomplish this or not is probably in the eye of the beholder.

But, regardless, with this in mind, I thought I’d bring you some of the thrills of research — things that we aren’t really taught in history classes (which is really the fun of research, I think).  Probably the most cherished historical reference I use to the long ago time (the 1830’s) is George Catlin.  He went amongst the Indians round and about 1834 and he not only painted their pictures, he left a memorable record that for me brings the past alive. 

Here’s a passage that really brings the past alive, I think:  “I have just been painting a number of the Crows, fine looking and noble gentlemen.  They are really a handsome and well-formed set of men as can be seen in any part of the wrold.  There is a sort of ease and grace added to their dignity of manners, which gives them the air of gentlemen at once.  I observed teh other day that most of them were over six feet high, and very many of these have cultivated their natural hair to such an almost incredible length, that it sweeps teh ground as they walk; there are frequent instances of this kind amongst them, and in some cases, a foot or more of it will drag on the grass as they walk, giving exceeding grace and beauty to their movements.”

Here’s another passage:  “The fashion of long hair amongst the men, prevails throughout all the Western and North Western tribes, after passing the Sacs and Foxes; and the Pawnees of teh Platte, who, with two or three other tribes only, are in the habit of shaving nearly the whole head.”

And how about a buffalo hunt?  Here’s a passage that makes me feel as if I am there:  “The horses are all trained for this business, and seem to enter into it with as much enthusiasm, and with as restlaess a spirit as the riders themselves.  While “stripping” and mounting, they exhibit the most restless impatience; and when “approaching” — (which is, all of us abreast, upon a slow walk, and in a straight line towards the herd, — until they discover us and run), they all seem to have caught entirely the spirit of the chase, for the laziest nag amongst prances with an elasticity in his step — champing his bit — his ears erect — his eyes strained out of his head, and fixed upon the game before him, whilst he trembles uner the saddle of his rider… …we started! (and all must start, for no one could check the fury of those steeds at that moment of excitement), and away all sailed, and over the prairie flew, in a cloud of dust which was raised by their trampling hoofs.”

Once more on the beauty of the people:  “They live in a country well-stocked with buffaloes and wild horses, which furnish them an exellent and easy living; their atmosphere is poure, which produces good health and long life; and they are the most independent and the happiest races of Indians I have met with: they are all entirely in a state of primitive wildness, and consequently are picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description.  Nothing in the world, of its kind, can possibly surpass in beauty and grace, some of their games and amusements — their gambols and parades, of which I shall speak and paint hereafter.”  Bet they never told you that in history class, huh?

Nowadays, I can’t begin to tell you how many people write to me about obesity seen amongst the American Indians on the reservations.  Of course this is a generality and hardly true of all people, but I want to emphasis that the foods that were sent to the Indians during the beginning of reservation days did not provide a diet that was healthful.  Listen to this passage from George Catlin, written in 1834:  “I have for a long time been of opinion, that the wilderness of our country afforded models equal to those from which the Grecian sculptors transferred to the marble such inimitable grace and beauty; and I am now more confirmed in this opinion, since I have immersed myself in the midst of thousands and tens of thousands of these knights of the forest; whose whole lives are lives of chivalry, and whose daily feats, with their naked limbs, might vie with those of the Grecian youths in the beautiful rivalry of the Olympian games.”  But if that’s not enough, Catlin goes on:

“No man’s imagination, with all the aids of description that can be given to it, can ever picture the beauty and wildness of scenes that may be daily witnessed in this romantic country; of hundreds of these graceful youths, without a care to wrinkle, or a fear to disturb the full expression of pleasure and enjoyment that beams upon their faces — their long black hair mingling with their horses’ tails, floating in the wind, while they are flying over the carpeted prairie, and dealing death with their spears and arrows, to a band of infuriated buffaloes; or their splendid procession in a war-parade, arrayed in all their gorgeous colours and trappings, moving with most exquisite grace and manly beauty, added to that bold defiance which man carries on his front, who acknowledges no superior on earth, and who is amenable to no laws except the laws of God and honour.”

And while I’m on the subject, let me make one more quote:  This Catlin writes about the Blackfeet:  “There is an appearance purely classic in the plight and equipment of these warriors and ‘knights of the lance.’  They are almost literally always on their horses’ backs, and they wield these weapons with desperate effect upon the open plains; where they kill their game while at full speed, and contend in the manner in battles with their enemy.  There is one prevailing custom in these respects, amonst all the tribes who inhabit the great plains or prairies, in these respects, amongst all the tribes who inhabit the great plains or prairies, of these western regions.  These plains afford them an abundance of wild and fleet horses, which are easily7 procured; and on their backs at full speed, they can come alongside of any animal, which they easily destroy.”

Well, I hope that this post has conveyed a sense of the time and place for you.  I hope that perhaps — for a short time only — you could picture how it might have been at that time.  Oh, how I wish that politics and greed hadn’t combined in some people to cause them to try to destroy another people who might have enriched the incoming culture with the wealth of knowledge that they had accumulated.  Imagine what could have been — for them — for the incoming culture.

I’ll sign off here today with  the covers of my most recent books, which if you don’t already own a copy, please pick one up today — at any online bookstore or at your local bookstore.  You’ll have to tell me if my stores bring the era alive or not.

It is my intention to do so, and to that end, I continue to write.

Know that I may be on the road when this is published on the blog — my daughter is pregnant and was due early in November and so we expect a call any day now, at which time, my husband and I will jump in our car ( we rarely fly anymore ) and make the drive to the East Coast.  I also will — as usual — be giving away a free copy of one of my books to some lucky blogger.  So come on in and leave a comment.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
Please refer to https://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules for all contest rules.

22 thoughts on “A Feel of Yesterday”

  1. I love finding the writing of eye witnesses. It’s just so DIFFERENT than the writing that comes from second hand accounts. Often years after the event happened.

    I loved Catlin’s words and his pictures. Thanks Karen.

  2. Catlin’t contribution to the understanding of Native Americans, and how they once lived, can’t be measured in words. His beautiful paintings say it all. Wishing you and the little one a safe and happy arrival.

  3. Beautiful blog, Kay…gorgeous pictures and prose. Caitlin got it just right. Truly makes the people come alive. Congratulations on the new grandbaby, and have safe travels. oxox

  4. Hi Mary!

    Thanks. Just a quick response. My daughter is in labor and so Paul and I are going to be heading out to NY soon. Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

  5. Hi Tanya!

    I knew you would understand. My daughter hasn’t delivered yet, but they expect her to within the hour and so again, we’re off.

    Have a super day, everyone!

  6. Hi Kay,
    What a beautiful post. George Catlin’s words bring the American Indians to life is such a beautifully descriptive way. It does make you feel sad for what could have been.
    Congradulations on your coming grandchild and that your trip to the East Coast is a safe one.

  7. Another informative and enjoyable post. I knew Catlin did wonderfully detailed and accurate paintings. I did not realize he also left a written account of his experiences. It would make sense that he would. The extra insight is most helpful and interesting. It may be a bit colored by his fascination with the native culture and peoples, I get the “noble savage” feel from his prose, but the information he preserves for the future has the feel of being there and is important.
    I hope all goes well with your daughter and grandchild. Babies seem to arrive when they are ready and you just have to be ready. Have a great Thanksgiving.

  8. As always, I enjoy your posts so much. I think it was an extreme loss for the human race when we destroyed such a nobel race. I always learn so much – that’s the first that I heard some grew their hair to such lengths. I would think it would be quite cumbersome but it must have looked fantastic! Wonderful pics too!

  9. Oh, I meant to give my best wishes for the birth of your new grandchild – November is our birthday month for my husband, me, my nephew and best friend.

  10. Thanks Sharon!

    We have a few things to finish up here and then we’re on the road. Luckily, my ex lives close by and he and his wife will be there when she delivers.

    And then we’re off.

  11. Hi Grandma,
    Best wishes for the new one. Have a safe trip.
    I was unaware that the men wore their hair soooo long. Maybe to their waist, but not longer. That makes sense that when, in recent years, that the tribes were made to send their chlidren to Boarding Schools the hair was CUT! (Or kidnapped). My husband was one of these. Too bad,too, because they all have Great hair. Thick and coal black.
    Catlins paintings are terrific. Shows the great regalia they wore.

  12. Hi Patricia!

    You know, I know that American Indians of today hate that image of the “noble savage,” unfortunately, however, it comes with a bit of truth. At least considering the differences between their cultures at the time.

    Deceit, fraud, slavery was the order of the day for the Europeans who came here and they met a people who were not only beautiful of physical form, but who were devoted to each other, to the Creator and who valued freedom, honesty and integrity. Must’ve made them truly seem like “noble.” I hate that word “savage.” In my consideration the “nobles” and “one’s betters” were the savages.

    Catlin makes a note when he was in Europe and had met up with some Osewagos I believe the tribe was, and he made a notation (mind you I had to research this in microfilm at the time) — but he made a note that the Indians couldn’t understand European culture. There they saw starving children on the street and men and women paying more attention to their dogs than to the children in the street. To these people it was the European who was the savage. And I would have to agree.

    Gotta get the car packed.

    I’ll check in as I have time.

  13. Thanks Catslady!

    I must admit to being very, very excited. I wish she didn’t live the entire distance of a continent away.

    And thanks for your thoughts. Astute as always.

  14. Hi Mary J!

    Doesn’t it come alive with Catlin? And thanks for calling me Grandma. I am excited.

    Boarding school days. In some ways we even have a bit of that today. The school system is federal and certainly teaches its own brand of propaganda. Didn’t used to be like that so much.

    When this country was founded kids were home schooled and could read and write way above the average adult of today. Interesting. With all our “money” and time and effort, it was the individual mother investing time with her children who educated her children way over and above what we considered “educated” today.


  15. I always enjoy learning about native american history and culture. My paternal grandmother was Cherokee, not full blooded but enough she could have got Indian money if she had not been to sick to sign up and trusted someone else to do it for her and it didn’t get done. She died before I was born so I only know what I’ve been told about her. We have a copy of her birth and all it says is she was born in Indian Territory, doesn’t even have a state on it but I believe she was born in Oklahoma. Good luck with your new grandchild. My youngest grandson is 5 months old now and it just doesn’t seem possible that he’s that old. Enjoy them, they grow up way to fast.

  16. Your last paragraph “but he made a note that the Indians couldn’t understand European culture. There they saw starving children on the street and men and women paying more attention to their dogs than to the children in the street. To these people it was the European who was the savage” My, things haven’t changed all that much in over 100 years.

    Have a safe trip.

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