Reading

From "Noble Savage" to "Wretched Indian"

Examine the differing ideas about Indigenous Peoples conveyed in a painting by George Catlin and an excerpt from Charles Dickens.  
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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA

Subject

  • History
  • Culture & Identity
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights

Some Europeans, like the American painter George Catlin, looked at the Indigenous Peoples of North America as a representation of Indigenous people before Western civilization developed: pure, bold, and noble beings. Such Europeans called the Indigenous people they encountered “noble savages.” Catlin was, according to one scholar, “a steadfast champion of the Noble Savage myth, which described American Indians as independent beings of stately bearing, brave but honorable warriors and beautiful princesses, gifted orators, and creatures of innocence and simplicity living from the bounty of nature.” 1 In the nineteenth century, during the Romantic period, many European authors embraced the idea of the noble savage and used it to express their longing for simplicity, beauty, and deep connection to nature.

During expeditions throughout North America in 1830, George Catlin visited First Nations and recorded their customs and appearances in painting and writing. The French poet, essayist, and critic Charles Baudelaire commented that Catlin’s paintings “captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way.” Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe is Catlin’s 1832 portrait of the chief of the Blackfoot tribe, whose territory straddled the present-day border between the United States and Canada.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, European policy makers became impatient with the slow progress of their plans to civilize Indigenous groups who insisted on maintaining their traditions. This frustration was shown in yet another stereotype. Now, not only were the Indians savage: they were also known as wretched Indians. 2

Charles Dickens, the most popular British writer of the mid-1800s, captured the change in attitude in his 1853 essay “The Noble Savage.” Before this essay was written, Dickens attended an exhibition of the works of George Catlin. In the essay, Dickens reacts to the main theme of Catlin’s work—the nobility of the Indigenous people the artist encountered in North America.

To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. . . . [H]e is a savage—cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, blood- thirsty, monotonous humbug.

Yet it is extraordinary to observe how some people will talk about him, as they talk about the good old times. . . . There was Mr. [George] Catlin, some few years ago, with his Ojibbeway Indians. 3 Mr. Catlin was an energetic, earnest man, who had lived among more tribes of Indians than I need reckon up here, and who had written a picturesque and glowing book about them. 4 With his party of Indians squatting and spitting on the table before him, or dancing their miserable jigs after their own dreary manner, he called, in all good faith, upon his civilised audience to take notice of their symmetry and grace, their perfect limbs, and the exquisite expression of their pantomime; and his civilised audience, in all good faith, complied and admired. Whereas, as mere animals, they were wretched creatures, very low in the scale and very poorly formed. . . . It is not the miserable nature of the noble savage that is the new thing; it is the whimpering over him with maudlin admiration, and the affecting to regret him, and the drawing of any comparison of advantage between the blemishes of civilisation and the tenor of his swinish life. . . . To conclude as I began. My position is, that if we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid. His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense. . . . [T]he world will be all the better when his place knows him no more. 5

  • 1 Joseph B. Herring, “Selling the ‘Noble Savage’ Myth: George Catlin and the Iowa Indians in Europe,” Kansas History 29, no. 4 (2006/2007), 228.
  • 2Carol L. Higham, Noble, Wretched, and Redeemable.
  • 3For an image created by Catlin of a young chief, see Boy Chief Ojibbeway, Fine Art America, accessed September 17, 2014.
  • 4Dickens mentions George Catlin’s work, which he had seen in person when Catlin exhibited his paintings in London shortly before this essay was written. He may have also read Catlin’s Souvenir of the North American Indians, as they were in the nineteenth century; A Numerous and Noble Race of Human Beings, Fast passing into Extinction Leaving no Monuments or Records of Their Own in Existence (1850). A facsimile of the book and the illustrations can be found in the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections.
  • 5Charles Dickens, “The Noble Savage,” Litttell’s Living Age 481 (1852), 325–327.

George Catlin Painting, 1832

George Catlin Painting, 1832

Painted portrait of a First Nation man in traditional attire.  

 

Credit:
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., via Wikimedia Commons

Connection Questions

  1. Look at the image created by Catlin. What do you think he is trying to convey about his subjects?
  2. Read Dickens’s words carefully. How does he describe the people he calls Indians, and what does he suggest should be done with them? According to Dickens, what was wrong with Catlin’s paintings of Indigenous people?
  3. Dickens, who was famous for his support of the working class, did not see the Indigenous Peoples of North America as worthy of his sympathy. In the excerpt, he states, “I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth.” He ends his essay by saying that “the world will be all the better when his place knows him no more.” What do you think he means? How would you interpret this attitude? What could be some implications of this attitude if it were made into policy?
  4. Identify some ways that Dickens’s essay divides “we” from “they.” Who are the “we” that Dickens speaks of? Who are the “they”? What sets them apart?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "From "Noble Savage" to "Wretched Indian"," last updated September 20, 2019.

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