We think it was a very long time ago when the first railroads crossed the whole of the United States and Indians hunted buffalo across the great northern plains. But I have a friend whose mother was on one of those early train trips before there were any towns along the way. She had recently been married to a railroad engineer, and they were on their way to San Francisco. Somewhere out on the prairies, a band of Indians came riding and whooping out of the hills to halt the train. The young bride was seated in the last row of a parlor car. In those days, these were very handsomely decorated with red velvet on the seats and walls. At each end of the car were full-length mirrors framed in gilt carved with roses. The Indians boarded the train, and the one who climbed into that particular car was a young woman riding with her brothers and other braves. Right alongside my friend's mother she came face to face with her own beautiful reflection.
She had never seen a long mirror before and probably had seen her face only in a pool of water. She stopped short with a gasp of surprise, her eyes opening wide. The young wife couldn't feel frightened of this strange girl anymore. She smiled and got up to stand beside her. The two of them enjoyed the moment together and ``talked'' about it with gestures and smiles.
The young Indian woman was summoned away by a shout from her brothers, who, not finding the guns or alcohol they were looking for, were leaving without any thought of disturbing the passengers. But before leaping onto her waiting pony, the Indian woman snatched a crude silver bracelet from her wrist and thrust it into her new friend's hands.
I was told this story by my friend, who always wore her mother's silver Indian bracelet even if she had on an elegant evening dress when she conducted her group of singers of Elizabethan music.
George Catlin (1796-1872) painted this portrait of Ah-kay-ee-pix-en (Woman Who Strikes Many). He was one of the first artists to paint the way the Indian tribes lived before Western civilization spread over this continent. There were no railroads or even stagecoaches to take him into the wilderness, so he traveled by boat or horseback. Indians had interested him from his boyhood in Pennsylvania, where his mother had once been held captive by them. But he wanted only to be their friend and historian.
He could tell that their way of life would disappear as more people came to build farms and towns where the Indians had hunted and had their teepees or earth houses. Catlin had started out to be a lawyer but gave that up to become an artist. He left a very promising career as a portrait painter of wealthy and famous people in the Eastern cities to set out ``alone, unaided, and unadvised,'' as he put it, in order to record the Indians' tribal way of living, dress, and ceremonies, to create ``the living monument of a noble race.''
The Indians mostly responded to Catlin's brotherly love and appreciation by welcoming him to their villages and posing for him in their finest clothing. This young Blackfoot woman wears a beautiful dress of fine skins fringed and embroidered with porcupine quills. A warm buffalo hide robe, painted with white, red, and yellow ocher, and moccasins, equally decorated, complete her costume. (Of course, the girl riding with her brothers would have been wearing simpler, everyday clothes.) The characteristic teepee of the Blackfoot tribe stands to the right. The painting is mostly in sandy earth tones against a subdued blue sky.
The Indians were just as startled to see a full-length portrait of one of their members emerge on a blank canvas as the girl on the train was to see herself in the mirror. They regarded Catlin with awe and admiration.
Catlin endured many hardships on his various painting trips and had many adventures and dangerous moments. We should be grateful to him for his vision and dedication. With his many paintings, drawings, and long letters about their way of life, he left for us a trustworthy and complete record of many of the tribes of our native Americans.