Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book review: "Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians"

There are two ways of looking at George Catlin's 1842 book, "Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians."

For any serious student, anthropologist or researcher interested in the history of the Plains Indians, this is clearly an important book. Catlin offers detailed, first-hand descriptions of Indian culture and customs of the 1830s, preserving in text and pictures a way of life that would soon disappear.

For the more casual reader, "Letters and Notes" still offers much, but you will need to be more selective. Catlin, for example, provides meticulous descriptions of the Indians' clothing, jewelry, weapons, cooking instruments and other artifacts. The reader can get bogged down in these sections, so unless you have a particular interest in any of these things, it's best to skim past them.

Skip ahead to the action. Find the sections where Catlin recounts events that he witnessed or directly participated in. Catlin's account of buffalo hunting, for example, is vivid and exciting. Some other parts are funny, such as the dog feast.

Above all, be sure to read the description of the Mandan religious ceremony. It's grotesque, to be sure, but you'll never forget it.


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