AFTER the close of the Secession War in 1865, I workd several months (until Mr. Harlan turnd me out for having written Leaves of Grass) in the Interior Department at Washington, in the Indian Bureau. Along this time there came to see their Great Father an unusual number of aboriginal visitors, delegations for treaties, settlement of lands, &c.some young or middle-aged, but mainly old men, from the West, North, and occasionally from the Southparties of from five to twenty eachthe most wonderful proofs of what Nature can produce, (the survival of the fittest, no doubtall the frailer samples dropt, sorted out by death)as if to show how the earth and woods, the attrition of storms and elements, and the exigencies of life at first hand, can train and fashion men, indeed chiefs, in heroic massiveness, imperturbability, muscle, and that last and highest beauty consisting of strengththe full exploitation and fruitage of a human identity, not from the culmination-points of culture and artificial civilization, but tallying our race, as it were, with giant, vital, gnarld, enduring trees, or monoliths of separate hardiest rocks, and humanity holding its own with the best of the said trees or rocks, and outdoing them.
There were Omahas, Poncas, Winnebagoes, Cheyennes, Navahos, Apaches, and many others. Let me give a running account of what I see and hear through one of these conference collections at the Indian Bureau, going back to the present tense. Every head and face is impressive, even artistic; Nature redeems herself out of her crudest recesses. Most have red paint on their cheeks, however, or some other paint. (Little Hill makes the opening speech, which the interpreter translates by scraps.) Many wear head tires of gaudy-colord braid, wound around thicklysome with circlets of eagles feathers. Necklaces of bears claws are plenty around their necks. Most of the chiefs are wrapt in large blankets of the brightest scarlet. Two or three have blue, and I see one black. (A wise man calld the Flesh now makes a short speech, apparently asking something. Indian Commissioner Dole answers him, and the interpreter translates in scraps again.) All the principal chiefs have tomahawks or hatchets, some of them very richly ornamented and costly. Plaid shirts are to be observdnone too clean. Now a tall fellow, Hole-in-the-Day, is speaking. He has a copious head-dress composed of feathers and narrow ribbon, under which appears a countenance painted all over a bilious yellow. Let us note this young chief. For all his paint, Hole-in-the-Day is a handsome Indian, mild and calm, dressd in drab buckskin leggings, dark gray surtout, and a soft black hat. His costume will bear full observation, and even fashion would accept him. His apparel is worn loose and scant enough to show his superb physique, especially in neck, chest, and legs. (The Apollo Belvidere! was the involuntary exclamation of a famous European artist when he first saw a full-grown young Choctaw.)
One of the red visitorsa wild, lean-looking Indian, the one in the black woolen wrapperhas an empty buffalo head, with the horns on, for his personal surmounting. I see a markedly Bourbonish countenance among the chiefs(it is not very uncommon among them, I am told.) Most of them avoided resting on chairs during the hour of their talk in the Commissioners office; they would sit around on the floor, leaning against something, or stand up by the walls, partially wrapt in their blankets. Though some of the young fellows were, as I have said, magnificent and beautiful animals, I think the palm of unique picturesqueness, in body, limb, physiognomy, etc., was borne by the old or elderly chiefs, and the wise men.
My here-alluded-to experience in the Indian Bureau produced one very definite conviction, as follows: There is something about these aboriginal Americans, in their highest characteristic representations, essential traits, and the ensemble of their physique and physiognomysomething very remote, very lofty, arousing comparisons with our own civilized idealssomething that our literature, portrait painting, etc., have never caught, and that will almost certainly never be transmitted to the future, even as a reminiscence. No biographer, no historian, no artist, has graspd itperhaps could not grasp it. It is so different, so far outside our standards of eminent humanity. Their feathers, painteven the empty buffalo skulldid not, to say the least, seem any more ludicrous to me than many of the fashions I have seen in civilized society. I should not apply the word savage (at any rate, in the usual sense) as a leading word in the description of those great aboriginal specimens, of whom I certainly saw many of the best. There were moments, as I lookd at them or studied them, when our own exemplification of personality, dignity, heroic presentation anyhow (as in the conventions of society, or even in the accepted poems and plays,) seemd sickly, puny, inferior.
The interpreters, agents of the Indian Department, or other whites accompanying the bands, in positions of responsibility, were always interesting to me; I had many talks with them. Occasionally I would go to the hotels where the bands were quarterd, and spend an hour or two informally. Of course we could not have much conversationthough (through the interpreters) more of this than might be supposedsometimes quite animated and significant. I had the good luck to be invariably receivd and treated by all of them in their most cordial manner.
I have just receivd your little paper on the Indian delegations. In the fourth paragraph you say that there is something about the essential traits of our aborigines which will almost certainly never be transmitted to the future. If I am so fortunate as to regain my health I hope to weaken the force of that statement, at least in so far as my talent and training will permit. I intend to spend some years among them, and shall endeavor to perpetuate on canvas some of the finer types, both men and women, and some of the characteristic features of their life. It will certainly be well worth the while. My artistic enthusiasm was never so thoroughly stirrd up as by the Indians. They certainly have more of beauty, dignity and nobility mingled with their own wild individuality, than any of the other indigenous types of man. Neither black nor Afghan, Arab nor Malay (and I know them all pretty well) can hold a candle to the Indian. All of the other aboriginal types seem to be more or less distorted form the model of perfect human formas we know itthe blacks, thin-hipped, with bulbous limbs, not well markd; the Arabs large-jointed, &c. But I have seen many a young Indian as perfect in form and feature as a Greek statuevery different from a Greek statue, of course, but as satisfying to the artistic perceptions and demand.
And the worst, or perhaps the best of it all is that it will require an artistand a good oneto record the real facts and impressions. Ten thousand photographs would not have the value of one really finely felt painting. Color is all-important. No one but an artist knows how much. An Indian is only half an Indian without the blue-black hair and the brilliant eyes shining out of the wonderful dusky ochre and rose complexion.