CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 22 Ball-Play Dance

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

Plate No. 22.
BALL-PLAY DANCE.

 As I have mentioned in former pages that for nearly all their hunts, wars, or games, the events of which the Indians superstitously believe to be controuled by the agency of some supernatural influence, they must needs give a dance and a song; so for a guarantee of success in this important and desperate game, each party must invoke the countenance and aid of the spirit or genius supposed to preside over it, by preluding the play with the singular and picturesque mode represented in this plate, called by them the ""Ball-play Dance""

This curious scene was one which I witnessed in the tribe of Choctaws, seven hundred miles west of the Mississippi, in 1836, and I introduce it here as absolutely necessary in enabling the reader to form a just notion of the Ball-play to be described in the succeeding plate. This famous play took place within a few miles of the Choctaw Agency's Establishment, and on a beautiful prairie where were engaged some five or six hundred youths selected for the play, and surrounded by a multitude of five or six thousand spectators, of all colours, amongst whom several officers of the garrison and myself had mingled to witness the day's sport. For this purpose we rode out to the ball-play ground in the afternoon previous to the day of the play, in order to witness this important preliminary ceremony, and took up our position in the midst of their numerous encampment. There were two points of timber about half a mile apart, in which the two parties for the play, with their respective families and friends, were encamped, and lying between them was the beautiful and level prairie on which the game was to be played.

My companions and myself, although we had apprized that to see the whole of a ball-play we must remain on the ground all the night previous, had brought nothing to sleep upon, resolving to keep our eyes open and see what transpired through the night. During the afternoon we loitered about amongst the different tents and wigwams of the two encampments; and afterwards, at sundown, witnessed the ceremony of measuring off the ground and erecting the byes or goals which were to guide the play. Each party had its goal made with two upright posts about twenty-five feet high, and six feet apart, set firm in the ground, with a pole across at the top. These goals were about forty or fifty rods apart; and at a point just half-way between was another small stake driven down where the ball was to be started by throwing it straight up at the firing gun, for the contention of the players. All this preparation was made by some old men who were, it seems, selected to be the judges of the play; who drew a line also from one bye to the others--to which line came directly from the woods, on both sides, a great concourse of women and old men, boys and girls, and dogs and horses--where bets were to be made on the play. The betting was all done across this line, and was chiefly left to the women, who seemed to have marshalled out a little of everything that their wigwams and fields contained. Of these goods and chattels were knives, dresses, blankets, pots and kettles, drums, guns, bows and quivers, kegs of whiskey, war-clubs, tomahawks, shields and spears, horses, dogs, and saddles and yet catalogue of lesser Indian ""valuables;"" and all were placed in the posession of stakeholders who sat by them on the ground, and watched them during the night preparatory to the play.

The ground having been thus prepared, and the preliminaries of the game all settled, the bettings made, and the goods all ""staked,"" night came on without the appearance of any players on the ground; but soon after dark a procession of lighted falmbeaux was seen emerging from each encampment, escorting the players to the ground, where they were in a few moments assembled around their respective byes, in their ball-play dress. When, at the beat of their drums, and chaunts of the women, the two parties simultaneously commenced upon the "Ball-pay Dance," as seen in the illustration.

For this dance the entire number of players on each side, in full dress and ornaments for the play, with their waving tails of white horse-hair attached to their girdles, and their ball-sticks in their hands, assembled and danced for a quarter of an hour in several concentric circles around their respective byes, their faces all looking to the centre, and both hands raised as high as they could reach them, brandishing and rattling their ball-sticks together, whilst they all united their voices in the most deafening chorus as the encircling mass moved rapidly around its centre. At the same time the women of each party, who had put their goods at stake, formed into two rows on the line between the two partied of players; and facing each other, danced with an uniform step, and in exact time to the music, uniting their voices to the Great Spirit--soliciting his favour in deciding the game to their respective advantage; and also encouraging the players to exert every power they possessed, in the struggle that was to ensue, for the protection of their property. In the mean time four old Medicine Men (who were to have the starting of the ball on the next morning, and who were to be the judges of the play, two of them with their bodies painted red and the other two white, and were seated at the half-way point where the ball was to be started) faithfully and respectively claimed, for their own sides, the favour of the Great Spirit; and his assistance in enabling them to judge rightly between the contending parties: all of which they were humbly imploring for in fumes which they were passing through the sacred stem of the calumet, during the whole night, whilst they sat or reclined around a little fire which they kept burning precisely upon the dividing line or point between the two byes, and from which the ball was to be raised to commence the struggle.

This dance, as the reader can easily imagine, was one not only grotesque and wild in its appearance. but of exceedingly picturesque and pleasing effect; and not only repeated at intervals of every half hour during the whole night, but continued in the morning until about nine o'clock, at which time the players consider themselves (after a sleepless night and one of extreme excitement and fatigue, with stomachs empty under the strictest denial of sustenance of any sort,) prepared to enter upon this exciting game, which generally exercises the highest keys of their lungs, and the almost constant and desperate exertion of all their limbs, through the greater part or whole of the day.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins “Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the “Indian Gallery”, Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com