George Catlin was among the earliest artists of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi River to record what he called the “manners and customs” of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life. His intention was to document these native cultures before, as he feared, they were irrevocably altered by settlement of the frontier and the mass migrations forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. On his trips, Catlin recorded the massive herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains of the American West. In his paintings, Catlin portrayed the central importance of the buffalo in the daily lives of American Indian tribes.
Contemporary Native artists have continued to picture the buffalo as an essential aspect of indigenous cultural identity in North America. This exhibition offers an opportunity to present works by modern Native artists Woodrow Crumbo, Paul Flying Eagle Goodbear, Allan Houser, Julian Martinez, Fritz Scholder, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Awa Tsireh, Thomas Vigil, and Beatien Yazz, each of which addresses the deep and sustained significance of the buffalo to them as individuals and to their tribes.
Catlin was a complicated figure in his own century and remains so today. This exhibition features 36 paintings from Catlin’s original “Indian Gallery” and 10 modern and contemporary works. Together these works, drawn entirely from SAAM’s permanent collection, provide two perspectives on the literal and metaphorical resonance of the buffalo in American art. Catlin’s dual fears for the future of the American Indian tribes and the buffalo fueled his desire to document what he saw as an endangered American way of life. Contemporary perspectives from within Native communities affirm the continuing relevance of the buffalo as a literal, symbolic, and metaphorical aspect of American Indian cultures.