George Catlin & the Menominee

April 21, 2007
By: David R. Wrone


Lillian Stone Weisberg directed me in her will to develop and manage a fund in her name for the Native Americans.  We have her to thank for the Catlin prints.  In my thirty year relationship with this Maryland woman, who acted as a surrogate grandmother to my children, she demonstrated an extensive knowledge of history and an abiding interest in the Menominee.  She would be pleased to know that she contributed to such a unique and culturally significant Menominee exhibit at the UWSP.


In January, 1831, the thirty-five year old painter George Catlin had hurried back from the west to the eastern cities.  He had ended his first year capturing with oil and canvas, portraits and scenes of traditional Indians before, as he often said, America would overcome them and crush their ancient and noble ways forever.  He stopped briefly in Washington and there bumped into a large group of Menominee busy talking with federal men about a treaty.  As was his style Catlin quickly set up his easel and painted several of their portraits.  This was not the first time, though, that he had met the Menominee but was the first when he had painted them.

In the summer of 1830, Catlin, while staying in St. Louis, had come up the Mississippi River with William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Missouri Territory, to Prairie du Chien, a small frontier village at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, to observe the famous path finder conduct a treaty session with several tribes, including the Menominee.  In 1835 and 1836 Catlin would return to this Meadow of the Dog where each time he would paint one or two more Menominee portraits. 

To pledge his paintings were faithful Catlin not only kept records of each portrait but also had them certified by a reliable American witness.  A typical certificate is:

No. 234. Menominie.
Che(s)h ko zlong
He who sings the war song.
I hereby certify that this portrait was painted
by Geo Catlin in 1835 at Prairie Du Chien
& that the Indian sat in the costume in which
he is painted.
E. A. Hitchcock
Capt. U. S. Army

All told Catlin painted about twenty Menominee portraits and scenes; we cannot now be certain of the number. Over the years we know two were lost, including the one just cited above, No. 234.  Eleven of his paintings in museum quality reproductions made from those in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection have been assembled here in the lobby of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Library as part of the Menominee Clans Story.  With most of them, but not all, Menominee speakers have put the names into modern Menominee and improved the translation of several.

The eleven are:

Omae:qnomene:w Asa:qswanan.
(Menominee Portraits)

  • Ni:s Wae:skenaeni:wak.  Two Young Men.
  • Ko:maeqnekaen.  Big Man.
  • Ko:maeqnekaenosaeh.  Little Big Man.
  • A:nahkwato-ape:w.  One Sitting in the Clouds.
  • Mah-kee-mee-teuv.  Bear’s Oil. Sometimes known as Kaush-kaw-noniew.  Grizzly Bear.
  • O:ho:pewsaeh.  Little Whooper.
  • Pae:henaewsaeh. Little Touch.
  • Kae:qc-oke:ma:w. Great Chief.
  • Mee-cheet-e-neuh.  Wounded Bear’s Shoulder.
  • Sa:wanoh.  South.
  • Mash-kee-wet.  Strong Medicine.

Catlin caught the Menominee when they were in a time of great peril.  Land speculators and exploiters lusting after their extensive homeland in east central Wisconsin sought to crack their hold upon it and “open” the region to their plundering of its resources.  In the process they utilized a number of devices whose variety and ingenuity constantly strike the modern historian with marvel that such negative ways could even be invented let alone be so callously employed.

The 1831 crisis rooted in issues linked to unfulfilled clauses of the treaty of Butte des Morts, 1827.  By the terms of that treaty the tribe had ceded some parts of the Fox River Valley.  In the aftermath U. S. officials had attempted to insert three New York tribes into the Menominee land as part of the federal relocation policy of eastern tribes to the west.  On three occasions, 1828-1830, the Menominee had met with federal commissions to try to settle the outstanding issues but had failed.  During the process local influences grew to pressure the government to have the tribe cede their homeland and move west.  After the last commission collapsed in failure in November, 1830, in desperation they resolved to appeal in person to President Andrew Jackson in order to find a neutral man with authority to examine the affair.  Their local Indian agent, Sam Stambaugh, and the regional Indian officer, Lewis Cass, forbade them to go to Washington but they ignored them and set off anyway.  Stambaugh tagged along.  He had no choice. 

The forces arrayed against them were powerful.  In the treaty of 1831 soon to be signed, the Menominee would lose much land along the eastern portion of present day Wisconsin, but bruised and battered they still counted it a success as they kept their home in the state.  Catlin pictures them in January, 1831, while they waited in the Indian offices at Washington, D. C., in the throes of confronting critical and dynamic, life-altering, issues and decisions, not passive spectators of a green and pleasant land.

While we could discuss in some detail several of the eleven portraits dedicated here today, we shall confine our remarks to that of Mah-kee-mee-teuv, or Bear’s Oil, the Speaker of the Menominee Council.  Our comments will suggest the qualities and aspects of the old Menominee life that could be found in lesser or greater degree in the other paintings while at the same time suggesting Catlin’s fidelity to the Menominee in setting down for us glimpses into that now distant traditional life and labors.

The Bear’s Oil portrait.

Bear's Oil portraitTo understand Bear’s Oil’s portrait one must come to grips with the Menominee’s traditional political system for it is in that distinct world where his life found its meaning.  Menominee politics centered in a clan system organized with respect to the duties and obligations each clan assumed within the whole.  They had five principal clans.  Each had responsibilities for the whole: Wolf for hunting, Moose for wild ricing, Crane for construction, Eagle for defense, and Bear for civil administration.  Each clan in turn was made up of sub clans, many but not all assumed additional specific duties, such as the Sturgeon of the Bear Clan as tribal historian and the Elk of the Moose Clan as water carrier. 

Most importantly to note, the Menominee had no leader, no ruler, no one supreme over them, no tribal chief (as the Americans often believed) for the clans ruled through a unanimous decision process reached by the members.  First they came to an agreement in the sub clans by unanimity of voice, and then in their major clans each achieved agreement, again by unanimity.  Finally, in council the five clans reached a tribal decision by consensus.  Their Speaker served the voice of the council; he represented the tribe as spokesman in formal functions, offered advice, and communicated decisions.  But contrary to western European and American systems of government he had no power whatsoever.

Our biographical information on Speaker Bear’s Oil is scant for the tribe did not read or write or preserve written accounts, send letters, and the like.  In 1827, we know, the council dispatched him to the Mississippi River to settle problems arising with the Menominee bands that lived there.  He was involved in discussions with the federal commission of 1830.  He signed the treaties of 1831 and 1832 and spoke at councils during the Black Hawk War of 1832.  At one meeting a Menominee warrior told the federal commissioner that Bear’s Oil was like their father, respected, wise, and beloved, without him they would be orphans.  By 1834 he was dead at the age of apparently 55 or so probably from small pox, a micro-parasitic disease that slew about 25% of the tribe that terrible year.

Bear’s Oil is a Bear Clan name.  He signed the treaties of 1831 and 1832 and was referred to in councils with the American officials of 1832 as Kaush-kau-nah-niew with a bogus translated name of Grizzly Bear invented by their Indian agent for political purposes.  The tribe had no word for Grizzly Bear, the animal lived 1,000 miles west in the Rocky Mountains.  Kaush kau nah niew is a specialized word of the era now too hard to translate.  We know too that Stambaugh gave him the English translation name Grizzly Bear in November of 1830 when the delegation boarded the steamboat at Green Bay on its way to Washington in order, he claimed, to impress President Andrew Jackson.  He thought Bear’s Oil would not do it.  He wrote to his superiors so, and one of the whites accompanying the delegation left a memoir recounting the event.

When one looks at the portrait of Bear’s Oil the first thing to strike the eye is a dignified man in classic Menominee ceremonial dress, with turban and feathers, wrapped in a blanket, with beads, ear bobs, a medal and beads hung round his neck and an eight pointed star across his chest.  With his left hand he holds a heavily decorated pipe out to the viewer.

Now let us note major features.

OtterFirst.  You will observe first of all that Bear’s Oil wears an Otter fur turban.  This animal holds special significance for the traditional Menominee and a turban of its fur holds great meaning.  In the great forming period of the world when the Menominee were coming into being it was the Otter who organized the Metae:wen Lodge or The Order of the Mystic Rite made up of all earthly creatures where they came together to instruct the Menominee on how to conduct their lives.  It was also the Otter who first convinced the great cultural hero of the Menominee, Maeqnapos, to join the lodge and introduced him to the members.  From their great experience in the world and with their various skills the creatures taught him earthly wisdom, right conduct, and other important qualities of what life ought to be.  The Otter took upon himself the obligation to continue this teaching.

From their respect for this great deed the Otter came to stand in Menominee culture as the symbol of the teacher.  By Bear’s Oil wearing the turban he signals to tribesmen and indeed the world that he faithfully follows the Mystic Rite teachings and is acting in terms of the traditional wisdom embodied there as he meets his duties as Menominee Speaker.

Embracing this tradition Jim Frechette carved an Otter figure in the act of telling the ancient stories or teaching the Menominee. It sits in the collection of the Menominee Clan Story exhibit.  The principle informing this art work is the same one defined in Catlin’s painted fur turban.

Ear BobsSecond.  Small items appear in the portrait.  On Bear’s Oil right ear are metal ear bobs of either German-silver or silver; the same metal is also used to decorate the tips of the chest star.  Over his left shoulder falls a wool blanket covering his left side.  Around his neck are beaded necklaces and a medal.  A ribbon decorates the pipe as does bead work.  A peacock feather is seen on the turban’s back. 

All of these items had entered into the wilderness of Wisconsin from the sheep flocks, woolen mills, metal mines, craft shops, farms, and factories of Europe through the fur trade.  Several years before this painting the Menominee had started to leave their classic economic system to embrace material parts of western civilization in order to enhance their lives.  They had acquired these items and many useful objects through the only window open to them, trading with the wandering white merchants the furs of beaver, martin, deer, lynx, and many other creatures that the creator had put on the land.

Peacock feather & wool blanketBut by 1831 a crisis of monumental proportions had erupted.  The fur trade had collapsed, never to recover.  The rise of woven cloth and the change in styles knocked the bottom out of prices and cast the Menominee into deep and bitter poverty.  These mute objects tell us that Bear’s Oil and the tribe confronted dire economic decisions and a bleak future if they did not resolve their treaty problems.  This impelling condition moved in the background of treaty negotiations.

You can grasp part of the classic economic system of the Menominee in the Clan Story figures carved by Jim Frechette.  He depicts the clans making wild rice, harvesting maple sugar, hunting game, and other activities characteristic of the old healthy and vibrant life.

Morning StarThird. Our third element to be noted after the turban and the objects is the star that stands forth on his chest.  It is a symbol of the Morning Star philosophy of the old Menominee, a system of thought about the cosmos.  Here we are told by the painting is a man steeped in the majestic principles of the cosmic system, ennobled in his actions by The Light that defines much of the Morning Star teachings.  The Menominee showed great respect for the sun and the creator’s kind act of providing it and its blessing to them.

For example, each and every morning at break of dawn the tribal members greeted the sun with a song.  This morning song, their choral prayer, thanked the creation for yester day and for the day coming into being, created by the sun’s blessings, and hoped that in the future days ahead they would act in noble ways and do what was right.  We find references to this in the historical record.  Once, a federal official on a treaty ground Morning Songengaged in the many days of negotiation with the tribe recorded the fact many scores of Menominee in attendance awakened from their sleep each morning and sang a beautiful song that resembled a choir of angels singing in harmony.

Once when discussing the Morning Song with Jim Frechette he told me in serious reflection that he was a lucky man indeed.  For one day he found this idea trapped in some walnut wood.  And, even more fortunately, the Menominee culture and insight and teachings, the Morning Star religion, the tree’s great gift of its wood, the wood working skills of his ancestors passed on to him, and the sharp iron knives provided to him by a kind mother earth, worked as a whole to free it.  In a small way he joined to release it as the culture created a statue to maintain itself, one locked in the wood.  Insignificant Jim Frechette had little to do with it. Soon the idea he had spied stepped out of the hardwood as The Morning Song.  You can view it at the west end of the exhibit cases where it continually tells the university, faculty and students, to think of the past, respect the present, work for the future, and above all count their blessings. The three drums represent the past, present, and future. 

Highly decorated traditional pipeFourth.  Joining the turban, fur trade items, and star to be commented upon is the highly decorated traditional pipe.  It looms large in the portrait.  The traditional Menominee believed that the Great Spirit in the fourth tier of the heavens through the Thunderers his assistants sent down tobacco to the Menominee that they might communicate with him.  Moreover, this particular pipe is not what one would normally assume it to be, the Speaker’s or the council’s, but rather is the pipe the Eagle Clan provided for the treaty occasion. 

The Eagle Clan had as its primary obligation in the clan system the defense of the tribe.  Not aggressive war but military action to Winter Hawkdefend the society and homes from enemies.  You can see this in the Eagle Clan figures Jim carved, especially the Winter Hawk, who sings his songs explaining the reasons for war, reminding him of war’s purpose and his obligations as a warrior.  He follows his medicines that teach him war is for the defense of the homeland not for aggression. 

This pipe symbolizes the Menominee decision to take their stand in Wisconsin.  They will defend their homes and sacred sites, their place of origin, the land where the creator first gave them The Light.  In addition, if you look at the pipe carefully you will see a curl of smoke as a wisp floating out of the stem.  This signifies an appeal is being made to the creator, the Great Spirit, to hear their cry for help and have pity upon them.

But more than that.  In a formal ceremony, properly important, when the pipe is correctly handled and rightly smoked an unusual phenomenon occurs.  Another person enters into the negotiations and palavers.  You have three people in the conversation over a treaty, the Menominee, the Americans, and the Great Spirit.  So this painting actually depicts two persons, Bear’s Oil and the Great Spirit. 

Since in Menominee philosophy and religion the creator is the embodiment of the true, the good, and the beautiful, and cannot lie, do bad, and embrace the ugly, no Menominee leader in a treaty conclave with the Americans would ever lie, be deceitful, or mislead, for the creator would not.  Indeed in their forty years of treaty making I never found in the great mass of documents, records, councils, and discussions—tens of thousands of pages-- a single instance where they did.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for their Visitors from the east.  Thus, instead of having eleven paintings of Catlin depicting twelve Menominee, for one painting portrays two young men, one might say there actually hangs eleven paintings that depict thirteen persons.

This principle is carried over in so many of Jim Frechette’s carvings where he consistently depicts the ceremonial pipe in revered terms.  One such illustration of this is found where it rests in the arm of the Great Light Colored Bear in the origin story as portrayed in the display cases thither, by the grace of the creator the Menominee emerged onto the earth.  Another is seen in the crook of the arm of his stunning eleven foot tall great Ancestral Bear carving that stands in the College of Menominee Nation hall.

Vermilion PaintFifth.  As our last comment on Bear’s Oil portrait the viewer must note the vermilion paint the Speaker applied to his face.  This same color also appears on the faces of several of the other portraits.  Here we speak of the faces and no other areas where red appears. 

When one looks to the east just before dawn, just before the sun steps out of the night the initial color that appears is vermilion.  This red hue is the symbol, the sign of the power and the blessing of the sun cast freely upon human affairs and had great meaning for Menominee.  By wearing the color they signaled this respect and appeal to the creation.

As a summary statement, Bear’s Oil’s portrait presents to the present generation the idea of courage running like the waters of a deep and wide river through the Menominee as they stood to confront a great and potentially fatal peril.

As we close these few remarks on Bear’s Oil portrait we can now turn to a few words about Catlin. 


Throughout his long life Catlin defended the Indian.  He spent years among them, in their encampments and villages, in mountains and plains, by rivers and woods, scattered over much of the nation.  He usually traveled alone.  He knew them better than most anyone in America.  In his lectures, in his writings, and in his 600 paintings he showed them great respect.  Twice he was tossed out of the White House for protesting their inhumane treatment.  As might be expected he sometimes suffered a penalty of obloquy and calumny.  But perhaps the most telling epithet used by his detractors, perturbed over his great concern for the Indian, was meanly to call him: “Indian lover.”

To this caustic charge he once replied with the ringing words that we shall use to close these brief remarks.  For not only do they convey some of the great heart and genuine decency that marked this man’s journey through life but also at the same time they accurately depict the character of these old Menominee as they peer down upon us and their relatives from these 175 year old paintings, just before civilization closed in upon them.  Catlin took the term ‘Indian lover’ as a bejeweled crown that he proudly wore.

He wrote:

I am called an Indian lover but:
The Indians have always loved me, and why should I not love the Indians?
I love the people who have always made me welcome to the best they had.
I love the people who are honest without laws.
I love the people who have no jails and no poor-houses.
I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read them or heard them preached from the pulpit.
I love a people who never swear, who never take the name of God in vain.
I love a people who love their neighbors as they love themselves.
I love a people who have never raised a hand against me, or stolen my property, where there was no law to punish for either.
I love the people who never have fought a battle with the white man except on their own ground [in defense].
I love a people who live and keep what is their own without locks and keys.
I love a people who do the best they can.
And, oh, I love a people who do not live for the love of money.

Eneq new.
© 2007 David R. Wrone